The Savarkar Provocation and the Death of Studentship in India

Our campuses need openness, humility, curiosity, dialogue and the art of listening, not rhetoric and brute power.

As a teacher, I long for the spirit of studentship. Everywhere, be it the classroom or the larger society, my eyes try to find young minds curious to learn, evolve and live with awareness and reflexivity. I dream of finding a potential Tagore – conversing with Einstein – seeking to build the bridge between poetry and science, or a passionate teenager governed by a spirit that resembles Marx’s idealism or Gandhi’s moral power.

Yet there are moments when a sort of despair haunts me; I see the death of studentship; and it is painful to observe crowd mentality – the way brute instincts, manipulative politics and gross sentiments negate the very idea of studentship. What else can one feel when one sees a group of students from Delhi University engage in an act of provocation – installing the bust of V.D. Savarkar alongside Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh?

Were they asserting the power of the ruling regime, and conveying a message that the old symbols of Gandhi and Nehru ought to be replaced by a new discourse of ‘masculinity’ and ‘heroism’? Or was it that they were legitimising Savarkar by equating him with Netaji and Bhagat Singh?

And then, yet another group of students emerged, and this time, they blackened Savarkar’s bust, preparing the ground for yet another round of campus violence. A manipulative version of the politics of symbolism, a clever game of appropriating thinkers and ideologues with no civilised debate and dialogue, no serious engagement with ideas and philosophies, and only muscle power – surely, this is not the kind of studentship I am longing for.

Also read: How Did Savarkar, a Staunch Supporter of British Colonialism, Come to Be Known as ‘Veer’?

I know that we are living in difficult times, filled with loud rhetoric, hyper-masculine aggression, militarism and anti-intellectualism. I know that these are also times when walls of separation and cultural exclusion are erected. Not surprisingly, I find a group of students at JNU over-enthusiastic to ‘defend’ Hinduism by reciting the Hanuman Chalisa. What a fall – from the ideal of cosmopolitanism to the limitedness of a narrow identity! Why is it so?

Demotivated students and uninspiring teachers

To begin with, I cannot avoid the sharpness of self-critique. After all, the fall of studentship also reflects the simultaneous decay in the vocation of teaching. Be it exam-centric rote learning or the mere acquisition of job-oriented technical skills – the mainstream pattern of education seems to have failed us.

While teachers have become mere ‘service providers’, traders of ‘skills’, or mechanised agents for ‘covering’ the syllabus and dictating notes in the classroom, students have become either demotivated or purely strategic in mastering the technique of cracking exams.

The result is for everyone to see. Empty classrooms, or demotivated students – with poor attention spans as the instantaneity of smart phones and the rapid flow of messages absorbs one’s existence completely – and uninspiring teachers deprive the culture of learning of even the slightest trace of wonder, curiosity, joy and creativity. The spirit of studentship has all but disappeared.

The simulations of the culture industry, the noise of loud politics, the superficiality of 24×7 television news channels, and the stimulation of rhetoric begin to cloud young minds. Great books are lost, and philosophy dies.

With parochialism, regionalism, identity politics, nepotism in the recruitment of teachers, politically appointed vice-chancellors, filthy guide books and the perpetual ritualisation of meaningless exams, most of our universities have become merely factories for the mass distribution of degrees and diplomas. There is no learning, there is no teaching, there is no studentship.

Second, when purely instrumental politics – playing with caste and religion, arousing a mob mentality, activating gross emotions centred on populism – becomes triumphant, it is not difficult to create a mockery of democracy. Moral conviction, creative thinking, the power of reason and communication do not matter anymore.

Also read: JNU Is Changing – but for Better or for Worse?

It is then no wonder that the political class does not hesitate to use and manipulate young minds. The irony is these young students, far from thinking differently and critically, begin to imitate the toxic behaviour of the political class. The language of the street replaces the power of persuasion and argumentation.

Is this the reason why a group of students would not mind inviting a set of speakers to JNU who believe that the name of the university must be changed, and it should be called the Narendra Modi University?

See the crisis. There is no sincere urge to ascertain whether Jawaharlal Nehru had a profound vision of higher education and university, or an intellectual dialogue to evolve a critique of Nehru’s educational philosophy, or for that matter, establish why Modi should be seen as a great educationist.

Instead, sensationalism, empty slogans and mob mentality take over. In the absence of critical pedagogy or civilised discourse, many fail to understand what they are talking about.

New Delhi: Busts of Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and Savarkar installed outside the Arts Faculty of Delhi University, in New Delhi, Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019. Photo: PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan

Predictable and mindless consumption of iconic symbols

I am a strong proponent of pluralism; I believe that in a democracy it is absolutely possible to have a rightist, leftist or other ideology. At university, a learner can indeed have a great fascination with Golwalkar, Savarkar and Jinnah. But then, there should be scholarship, a decent culture of debate, an art of listening. These days, however, we see only rhetoric or brute power.

Sometimes, I wonder if many of the students who often appropriate B.R. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and Swami Vivekananda have ever bothered to engage with them with any amount of seriousness. For example, have the students who love to club Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, Vivekananda and Ambedkar together ever bothered to read their texts?

If you read Vivekananda’s address at the Chicago Religious Congress, or his reflections on ‘practical Vedanta’, is it possible to support lynchings? If you understand the intensity of Bhagat Singh’s politico-existential quest while he wrote Why I am an Atheist, is it possible to force people to chant Jai Shri Ram?

Sometimes, even among the supposedly ‘leftist’ students, I see a similar poverty of imagination. They too have become consumers of iconic symbols – and at times, mechanically and predictably. So they would speak of Marx, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh; but never would they refer to Gandhi and Tagore.

Also read: How Neoliberalism Fragmented Our Universities and Staved off Student Unrest

Is there nothing to learn from Gandhi’s art of resistance in the age of totalitarianism? Is there no scope for a critically nuanced creative negotiation with Gandhi’s sharp reflections on the fate of modernity in this ‘risk society’?

Or is it altogether impossible to read Tagore’s Geetanjali and Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 simultaneously? The burden of predictable ‘political correctness’, or resultant reductionism – like the life-killing dichotomy of Gandhi and Ambedkar, science and spirituality, or materialism and idealism – has damaged the spirit of studentship.

The fate of democracy depends on the quality of mind we cultivate. Therefore, to imagine a world where studentship – by which I mean openness, humility, curiosity, dialogue and art of listening – have ceased to exist is really frightening. As teachers, elders and citizens, do we realise the gravity of the crisis?

Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at JNU.