Gabriel García Márquez had confessed in an interview to Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza that his editors were shocked to discover his grammar was faulty. That did not stop him from being one of the most imaginative writers in the Spanish language.
Imagination does not come from correct grammar. Indian academia, however, has a postcolonial impatience that still works insidiously against those who struggle to articulate themselves in the master’s language. The worth of a scholar lies surely in the novelty and complexity of her arguments rather than in mere linguistic proficiency. But given the dominant role of English as the lingua franca of the university system, a student’s reputation is often based on a standardised idea of fluency that places privilege over knowledge.
Muthukrishanan Jeevanathan, the Dalit research scholar studying history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, took his own life on the day Indians celebrate colour. He left no suicide note but his writings over the past few years capture the way he experienced this structural bias.
In a July 26, 2016, post on Facebook, Muthukrishanan, or Rajni Krish as he called himself, mentions how he took the JNU entrance exam thrice for the MA and twice for the MPhil/PhD. In the same post, he described the reason why he had to appear repeatedly: “First two times I did not learnt English properly. But I tried because I just don’t want to give up.” He adds, cryptically, how a professor in a previous interview before he got through in the MPhil/PhD course, mentioned his “simple language”. There is a telling sentence, where he describes sitting below the statue of Nehru in the JNU campus, “Why you don’t want to educate me?” Perhaps what he really meant to say was ‘Why does my English pose such a big hindrance to my education?’
The English language was Krish’s agony, which he could finally overcome at least at the interview level. Is this insensibility of the university system towards other ‘Englishes’ merely a linguistic one, or a masquerade when faced by challenging and uncomfortable ideas, particularly around the discourse of caste?
There is another post where he writes, “The teachers and students discussed the functions of the Linguistic Empowerment Cell as well as the difficulty of structuring remedial courses.” It is fine to have courses for improving English language skills (without the necessity to call it a “cell” and make it sound like a confinement). The problem lies in treating the process of linguistic empowerment as something distinct from intellectual abilities and giving it the ring of a special handicap.
Dreaming of studying in JNU, the student from a small village in Tamil Nadu felt anguished and trapped by the formal demands of language on his scholarship. Reading his illuminating notes on Facebook, you realise he was trying hard to find a place in society, battling prejudices in the street as much as within the academic arena. He wrote about how the security guards at the JNU check post allowed others but not him to get in without ID proof. In the backdrop of these experiences, Muthukrishanan narrated how he did menial jobs and had to “beg” others for money that he saved “like ant”, to simply come and study in JNU.
The relationship between intellectual ability and linguistic skills in a country of graded inequalities isn’t straightforward. It is mediated by experiences that differ between the privileged and the marginalised. The Indian higher education system – the University Grants Commission, university administrators, professors and students too – needs to be sensitive to this. Else it will simply become another form of elite gate-keeping.
Muthukrishanan was involved in the Rohith Vemula movement for justice. On June 30, last year, he wrote an evocative piece in his blog, ‘Daliterature’ – a politically innovative term, proving that the promise of language is imagination, not grammar – where he recounted his meetings with the Hyderabad University student whose suicide in January 2016 had rocked campuses across the country. He ended the piece with the dystopic fear that “intellectuals from the marginalised communities will get arrested just for mocking fictional characters.” He also feared, the country’s power elite will “kill many Rohiths, like us, just for eating beef, for being rational, for being intellectually productive for the country.”
A weaver of complex narratives
India is increasingly becoming a culturally hegemonic society. Religious sentiments are becoming law, overriding constitutional guarantees of secular principles. There is palpable fear of a violent backlash if you critically interpret religious icons, consume beef or challenge injustices taking place in the name of nationalism. There is heterogeneity of beliefs in Indian society, despite the rigidity of its caste structure. Even that diverse reality is being swallowed up by a threat-inflicted consensus: Any argument against exaggerated claims regarding Indian society being tolerant shall not be tolerated. Irony is fast losing a country.
From his long notes, one learns that Muthukrishanan was a weaver of complex narratives. Stories of his past, the family’s hardships, his love for his mother and grandmother, his love for beef, were woven along with his current life and challenges at the university. There is a touching moment from a January 30 post where he suddenly breaks off his third-person narrative while remembering his late grandmother: “In Taj Mahal, without girlfriend, I was thinking about only my Sellammal Aaya.” The absence of amorous comfort heightens the despair of memory. A friend bemoaned, hearing of Muthukrishanan’s death, that the storyteller has now passed into story. But the storyteller was painfully alert to the discriminating equations being forged between numbers and history by the UGC’s new directives on higher education.
Through highly abstract reasoning, Muthukrishanan argued for a mathematics that liberates rather than acts as a calculating tool of historical discrimination. The UGC’s devious move to make the viva voce the main criterion for admission to an MPhil/PhD programme as well as the proposed cut on intake of students will adversely affect marginalised sections with varying language skills, just when their presence is growing in universities.
It is largely due to the increasing presence of students from deprived sections that new debates on knowledge production and political ideas have entered university campuses. These demands are having intense repercussions in administration, teaching as well as student politics. Muthukrishanan was aware of the “modern Manu” bringing back discrimination in all forms, including through the back door of education policy. In a post he wrote on Rohith Vemula’s first death anniversary, he lays down the various “mechanisms of discrimination” being faced by underprivileged students. Apart from the constant threat of being dubbed anti-national, he spoke of the “hypersonic academic discrimination”, where fake complaints and charges are made against students and faculty. He spoke about the “alchemy of discrimination”, where everything from showing a film on Muzaffarnagar, to singing the national anthem in cinema halls, to demonetization, create a bizarre world of appropriation.
In this regard, Muthukrishanan mentioned the “invisible, cryptic discrimination” that pervades the current “militarisation” of campus life. To call his suicide “cryptic” isn’t an attempt to obscure its meanings but rather to suggest how the oblique nature of structural violence leaves invisible marks on a Dalit student’s body and psyche that no autopsy can reveal. More than anything else, it is this burden of accumulated structural inequity that Krish’s suicide has exposed.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.