Nationalism, Universities And Cultures Of Protest

Posted by Samar in Campus Watch, Politics, Staff Picks
February 28, 2017

What in essence defines a state, in practical terms of enforcement, is a monopoly on violence. It grants its agents immunity and separates it from any other class of citizens exhibiting its will through physical force. It also legally equips the agents to prevent other groups from indulging in the same. When this structure breaks, and foot soldiers of one ideology are able to play thought police with impunity or even with official support, a shift occurs; the state is relieved of any democratic character and morphs into another category of the rule altogether. There must be some word for it.

The violent events at Delhi University’s Ramjas College are the latest instalment in a long-drawn pattern. The HCU, JNU, IIT-Chennai, FTII, Jadavpur University and now DU can all attest to being victims of state agenda. Non-state actors (to say nothing of the police) thrashing those who voice dissent is one of the several methods being plied to subvert the idea of higher education. It could be handing ripe positions in varsities to less-than-qualified but politically compatible individuals. It could be forcibly shutting down study circles. It may be restructuring the entrance and admissions process or all of the above.

‘Cultures of Protest’, the seminar organised at Ramjas, was disrupted just as the event ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ was one year ago at JNU. In both instances, what is common is an emboldened ABVP, the ruling BJP’s student wing. Why talks and arguments are being stifled by stones and punches, and why currently any campus may rightly fear its ethos being shredded in a whirlwind of ‘patriotism’, needs closer examination. That institutions of learning are the prime recipients of state intervention is no wonder. It is by design.

The Siege On Universities

Higher education institutions are foundational to vibrant discourse, in and on society. If it is in the interest of a government to curb independent thought, it makes sense for it to train its guns on campuses. Here is where the ABVP becomes vital; it provides the regime with a readymade army of enforcers in student spaces. It lends a physical presence and agency in colleges, the hotbeds for multilateral debate. Therefore, it enables the RSS to hack at the roots of dissent at its very inception.

This is important for them. Their agenda dictates a general overhauling of which education is a crucial aspect. There is a certain absolutism at play in their motivations, which necessitates the removal of other points of view. It is unfeasible for them to allow Ambedkarite, Leftist or secular political bodies to flourish if indeed they are to inch closer to their vision of India.

This vision is a suspect one. In it, education resembles a factory which manufactures a uniform, unquestioning outlook; student activism is finished, dissent is not celebrated but demonised. There is a pre-decided way of thinking allowed, and the marketplace of ideas sells only one thing. In this vision, institutes get rapidly privatised and students are encouraged to keep student life limited to coursework. Careers are framed in terms of placements and packages. The mechanisms to provide an equal footing to those from less fortunate socio-economic backgrounds (and more likely to agitate for rights) are undone.

The ideal the RSS and BJP want to achieve is a homogenous fidelity. They are slowly creating an atmosphere where dissent is crushed, where people will think twice before raising their voices; a mode of governance which undermines other institutions, protects its thugs and tolerates only obedience even as it carries out a divisive agenda. There must be a word for it.

The situation is further illustrated by the fact that freedom of speech is being rationed out selectively. Anupam Kher, Maj. Gen. (retd) Bakshi and members of Sanathan Sanstha (an extremist group allegedly behind the murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare) have all come and spoken at JNU. Pro-BJP filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri was allowed to make divisive statements at Jadavpur University. The prospect of Umar Khalid speaking at the Ramjas seminar, however, has led to injured students and teachers.

Nationalism, Violent But Vague

The Indian nationalism being peddled now is peculiar in that it only functions in an antagonistic sphere. It activates when it identifies the ‘other’; something to bash the daylights out of. Without rage, it is shapeless. There is no underlying nuance or logical political philosophy which dictates this particular nationalism.

It may be possible to deconstruct nationalism into empirical indicators to which a positive or negative value may be assigned. For example, it may be considered nationalistic to combat poverty in a country. The fight against unemployment or for some other kind of social justice may be deemed a patriotic fight. Some may feel a sense of national pride upon hearing Indian classical music or after India wins a cricket match, for its diverse cuisine or the dexterity of its charter.

There can be endless permutations. Conversely, one can feel a sense of shame over, for example, the fleecing of tourists, caste dynamics or rampant corruption in India, where the very fact of having enough concern to be bothered can itself be construed as patriotic. In that light, there may be a definition of nationalism tied to real, observable phenomena.

This current brand of nationalism does not feel the need to substantiate itself. Its violent enforcement is confident and vague in equal measure. It does not adhere to anything which can be measured or subjected to rational argument, and instead relies on mythology, rumour and hyperbole. The proclamation of love for the country is simply serving as a catch-all excuse to terrorise people. There is no greater depth to work with.

The ‘nationalists’ who have beaten journalists, teachers and students in the past two years – whether at Ramjas College or Patiala House Courts – are involved in ironic work. Their pursuit is the polar opposite of what it claims to represent. Somewhere in the midst of labeling all opposition as Rashtra Virodhi, the Hindutva variety of nationalism has positioned itself against any national good that can actually be measured. This is based on the sheer number of constitutional values it has offended. Thrashing scribes and academics, not letting universities and courts function, interfering in cinematic freedom, hounding foreign artists, gagging free discourse and trying to dismantle secularism, if anything, are activities which choke national progress rather than further it.

Is Resistance Possible With A Fragmented Opposition?

It is of grave and immediate concern that the Sangh Parivar is on an educational and cultural rampage. However, a larger problem arises out of the factionalism plaguing the groups which oppose it. At the student level, Left politics is sadly mirroring the tradition of debilitating factionalism which has diluted it at the national level, with shaky ties to groups operating on primarily anti-caste platforms. A year since it was liberally used to counter the BJP, the slogan of ‘Jai Bheem, Lal Salaam’ now comes with an asterisk.

The recent protests against the suspension of eight JNU students, in the wake of the university’s Academic and Executive Council meetings, showed the cracks. On December 23, the JNU administration hastily called a mid-vacation Academic Council meeting to clear some controversial recommendations. Many members of the council were away at this time, and a request for rescheduling was made. The administration went ahead with it despite a significant number of members missing. Some students broached the meeting venue (after or at the end of the meet, as per varying accounts) to protest this high-handedness and were subsequently suspended by the administration.

When the student body came out in protest against the suspensions and the unilateral passing of regulations by the V-C, a splintered resistance was to be seen. The AISA-helmed students’ union, with some other groups, was protesting separately while the newly-formed ‘committee of suspended students for social justice’ had set up camp at a distance. This committee was composed of the student groups Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA), United OBC Forum and quite a few others.

The reasons for the disunity were not differences of ideology or goals, but baser ones such as arguments over who was for or against the students entering the meeting hall, which faction did or did not show up at the other’s march and so forth.

It was a ludicrous sight. The committee protested atop the steps of the JNU administration block while the union did the same below, with the stairs quite literally representing the gap in cohesion; two factions were at loggerheads even as they essentially rallied against the same thing. A counter-productive situation, it plays into the hands of the ABVP and sets a bad example for the political fence-sitter, who may not want to join a resistance so clearly fractured in the first place. This is but one instance from New Delhi and a notable one considering JNU’s previously exceptional ability to unite against the Right.

More than ever, the larger picture needs to be considered. It is crucial that internal squabbles be shelved in the face of whatever form of governance it is that currently administers India. The struggle is for the retention of vital traits of higher education, freedom of speech or even, as seen in Ramjas, for physical safety; who is seen at the forefront of a cause or scepticism over the methodology of struggle is unimportant.

The writing’s on the wall. Mainstream opposition parties, along with Leftist and Ambedkarite schools of thought, need to show uncompromising unity as the rupturing of democratic processes is guaranteed to continue. Anything short of a wholly united front will certainly collapse. When facing uncharted and multi-headed state power, there is no place for myopia, at the student or national level.

Provincial political desires may wait. At this grim juncture, patriotism dictates that a collective opposition needs to get its act together. Failing this, we may have already witnessed the end of the cultures of protest.