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Of IIT’s Fear Of Indian ‘Bu’, Dalit Rights Seen As ‘Politics’: Chat With Prof. Alok Rai

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L-R, Sohail Hashmi, Syeda Hameed, Alok Rai during the curtain raiser of ...
(Left to right) Sohail Hashmi, Syeda Hamid, Alok Rai.

Professor Alok Rai taught English literature at Allahabad University and Delhi University and was also the Head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Delhi. But his work, as much as the man himself, often involves indulging in Hindi. So, while his doctoral dissertation was on George Orwell, he has since translated Premchand’s “Nirmala” and authored a book on the politics of Hindi titled “Hindi Nationalism”. His students at Delhi University also recall him having taught “Godaan”, another novel by Premchand, his grandfather, and are more than complimentary about his stimulating discussions in the classroom.

On July 13, 2016, Rai spoke on how language is born out of the desire to reach out to differences and thus carries our cultural heterogeneities. He was speaking at the second curtain raiser event of the Indian Languages Festival – Samanvay – that is held every year at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. There were also readings by Syeda Hamid, a writer and activist who has also held several administrative positions, and Fouzia, who is known as the first female Dastango of modern times. The event was moderated by Sohail Hashmi, a heritage activist also known for the Delhi Heritage Walks that he conducts in the city. Hashmi took one down the history of the various colonies of Delhi, pointing out old sari stores, food joints, etc.

Sohail Hashmi, Heritage Activist during the curtain raiser of 6th ILF S...
Sohail Hashmi.

Youth Ki Awaaz met Prof. Rai on the sidelines of the event. Although he was in a hurry, as he shared he was in Delhi after a long time, he did oblige us with a brief chat. And his quick quips on society and language meant that we weren’t disappointed even though we got very little time with him:

Abhishek Jha (AJ): You recently wrote about Gurgaon being renamed to Gurugram. A lot of such renaming has happened with the current government. Do you think it has some real impact on society in terms of how its consciousness is shaped or do you think the people are cynical enough today to disregard such moves?

Alok Rai (AR): I don’t know. Real is a very slippery word, no? I don’t know what real impact means. But does it effect any significant change? No. On the other hand, it sends some kind of cultural signal, hain na, which is what I had written in that article also, that in some sense we wish to reverse the action of time. Because, after all, Gurugram becomes Gurgaon and, you know, you want to take it back again. So it’s a kind of rejection of the necessary action of time.

AJ: Courts too have been renamed recently.

AR: Haan, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai. It seems to me frankly to be very foolish (laughs). There are very many real things that need to be changed. Any change that basically involves a few signboards and a few pots of paint cannot be a very important change, you know. Go and paint. Iska naam A hai. Usko badal ke B kar do. Kar do! (The name of this thing is ‘A’. You change it to ‘B’. Fine, do it.)

AJ: That is why I ask. They appear to be foolish but does it affect the people? Do they go culturally backwards?

AR: See, as I said, it has a cultural signal. In itself, it is a foolish change. There is nothing to it. But it is a signal that a certain kind of tendency… a certain kind of cultural tendency is dominant. Hum hain dominant aur hum thok ke bajaenge. Bata do bhai. Hum kya karein? Aap hain dominant. Maan liya dominant hain. Kitne signboard badalna chahte hain? Sab badal dijiye. Meri bala se. (We are dominant and we want to say it out loud. So say it out loud. What should we do? You are dominant. We accept that you are dominant. How many signboards do you want to change? Change all of them, for all I care) I mean at the end of the day, it makes no difference to me.

AJ: You have taught at Delhi University, which has a significant population of students of Arts and Humanities students, and also at IIT Delhi. What sort of differences do you see in their respective movements and cultures? We have recently begun to see, in IIT Madras for example, student movements in IITs.

AR: IITs have consciously sought to be cut off from their own society. For the longest time, it is also said that IITs basically create exportable products and IIT graduates go away. It’s only now that because of various social processes the IITs are not as isolated from the contemporary society as they used to be, that these processes have started entering IITs and so be it. After all, you know, the idea that institutions should exist, which are, so to speak, like the embassies, extra-territorial. Pata chala ki Amreeka ka ek bhag yahan pe hai, Cheen ka ek bhag yahan hai. IIT waisi kyun ho? It’s also a part of India. Jo cheezein Hindustan me chalti hain, wo agar wahan bhi pohanch jayen to koi khaas baat nahi hai. Halanki log bohat bechain ho jaate hain. IIT waale, hain na, bohat bechain ho jaate hain isse ki matlab aas paas agar Hindustan ki bu agar IIT me aa jaaye to unko lagta hai ki bas ab narak aa hi gya hai, hai na? (So you come to know that a part of America is here, a part of China is here. Why should IIT be like that? It’s also a part of India. What goes in India, if those things reach there too, then there is nothing special about it. However, people do get restless. The IIT people, right, they get very restless, I mean, if the odour of India reaches anywhere near IIT, they feel that it is a visitation from hell.)

AJ: During your time at IIT did you see any student movements or protests, even isolated protests?

AR: Over larger political issues…Reservation ko leke hota tha jisko ki hum log political tho nahi maante hain by the way (smirks). Jab savarn log apne adhikaar ke liye ladte hain tho wo political nahi hota hai. Wo to adhikar ke liye lad rahe hain. Jab Dalit log kehte hain ki humko adhikaar chahiye to wo politics ho jaati hai. Ye farak pehchanana chahiye, hain na? Kyuki reservation ko leke IIT me hua tha, hain na? (There used to be protests against reservation, which we do not consider political by the way. When Savarnas fight for their rights, then that is not political. They are fighting for their rights. When Dalits say that we want rights, then that becomes politics. One should understand this difference, no? Because there were protests against reservation in IITs.)

AJ: That’s why perhaps we see a lot of Brahminical Sanskritisation at IITs.

AR: Wo brahmanwadi jo hai wo ek agrah hai. Aur kyunki unke paas rajnitik satta hai brahmanwadi agrah jo hai wo bhai hamare seene pe chadh ke thok ke keh sakte hain. To bhai chadh jaao. Hum maante hain. Aur kya karein hum? Lekin hai wahi. Hum pehchaante tab bhi hain. Hum jaante hain kya ho raha hai. Hamaare paas dum nahi hai. Aapke paas dum hai, aap kar lijiye. Kitne signboard badlenge? Lekin hamare dimaag me kya chal raha hai, isko to nahi badal sakte na. (That is a Brahminical injunction. And because they have political power, that injunction they can stand on our chest and say it out loud. So mount. We accept it. What else should we do? But things are still the same. We know even then. We know what is going on. We don’t have power. You have power, you do it. How many signboards will you change? But you cannot change what is going on in our minds.)

AJ: So you don’t think we are entering into an Orwellian world where people’s minds are being controlled, or are they?

AR: Mujhe nahi lagta. Wo changes jo hain ho sakta hai reaction me ho raha ho. Is waqt pe jiske paas mic hai, uski baat suni ja rahi hai. Theek bhi baat hai. Sunaao apni awaaz. Hum sun lenge. Hain na? Lekin hum sochna nahi band kar denge. Aur hum apni baat nahi kar rahe. Chal raha hai. Log soch rahe hain. Aur jo bhi unki bhavnaein hain, jo bhi aakrosh hai, wo sanchit ho raha hai. Mauka milega. (I don’t think so. Those changes – they could be happening as a reaction. Right now, the person who has the mic, they are being heard. It is alright. Make yourself heard. We will listen to you, right? But we won’t stop thinking. And I am not talking about myself. This is going on. People are thinking. And whatever their emotions are, whatever anger there is, it is being saved. There will be an opportune moment.)

AJ: You were also speaking about it at the event today that today we should not look to dictionaries for language. We have conversations in 140 characters. Also, there is what people call a distortion of language in the way we type on our phones, for instance. Others call it a democratisation of language.

AR: Ho raha hai. Ye bhi apne aap me it’s an illustration that language is a growing thing. (This is happening. In itself, it’s an illustration that language is a growing thing.) It changes. And as a student of language, my interest would be ki ye jo bhasha ke, language ke jo naye roop aa rahe hain isme kya vyaqt ho raha hai, isme kya social tendencies dikh rahi hain, iska kya prabhav hoga. Isko na to hum rok sakte hain, na rokna chahte hain. Dono baatein hain. Agar hum rokna chahein to bhi hum nahi rok sakte hain. Hum chahte bhi nahi hain. (And as a student of language, my interest would be in what is getting expressed in these new forms of language, what social tendencies are being seen in it, what effects it will have. We can neither stop this, nor do we want to. Both aspects are there. If we even wish to stop it, we cannot. We don’t want (to stop) either.

But dekho. In so far as I am a teacher, jab hume answer doge to hum usme correction karenge. Ye ek split hum logon me sab me hai. Theory ke level pe hum ye maante hain ki bhasha jeevant cheez hai aur badalti rehti hai. Lekin galti galti tab bhi hoti hai. Magar galtiyaan karte karte wo ek tarah ka naya arth bhi ban jaata hai, ye bhi mai jaanta hun. (But, see, in so far as I am a teacher, when you’ll give me the answer-script, I will make corrections. This split is there in all of us. At the level of theory, we accept that language is a living thing and that it keeps changing. But even then a mistake is a mistake. However, these mistakes, being repeated over time, do take up a new meaning too – this too I know.)

The sixth edition of the Indian Languages Festival Samanvay is scheduled to be held from November 5 to 7. The theme for this year’s festival is ‘Language as Public Action’. You can learn more about the festival here.

Featured image shared on Facebook by ‘ILF Samanvay: The IHC Indian Languages Festival’.

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