The violent disruption of the seminar at Delhi University’s Ramjas College on ‘Cultures of Protest’ is not the first of its kind and certainly won’t be the last. There is a pattern to the logic emanating from within higher educational institutions in the country, where every issue is getting boiled down to the binaries of violence. Worlds of imagination and political reality are being reduced to a crude calculus of who is for or against nationalism. Proponents of the only brand of nationalism that is allowed to exist today are clearly drawing the lines: their idea of culture is pitted against others, their notion of nationalism trumps democracy.
There are two things to be noted about what exactly is at stake in this battle for political values: Firstly, one group considers culture, protest and democracy as significant elements within a nation, while the other group treats the question of culture, protest and even democracy as insignificant, before the overriding passion of nationalism. Secondly, for one group ideas are by themselves precious, whereas for the other group, ideas are by themselves dangerous, and need to be thwarted. The culture of resorting to violence in the name of protest jeopardises democracy and reduces the idea of nationalism to pure and absolute violence. This is of course worse than the problem of binaries to begin with. For if questions of culture, protest and democracy are to be brought down to the level where violence replaces arguments, or violence becomes the only argument, then you are not allowing these indicators of civilised life to exist. That is precisely how a fascist version of nationalism and democracy thrives.
In a recent election speech in Uttar Pradesh, the prime minister said that if a (Muslim) graveyard is made in a village, then so should a (Hindu) crematorium, and that if there is enough electricity for Ramzan, it should be the same for Diwali. Narendra Modi is not making any profound point but he is using the language of representation to create cultural binaries in an antagonistic and competitive manner. As if Ramzan and Diwali are festivals that are defined by electricity. The other example between cemeteries and crematoriums is a strange but tricky one, for cemeteries obviously need much more space for burials whereas crematoriums don’t. The comparison doesn’t hold, though the point is, it was made. To make people think of religious festivals and death rituals in terms of space and favouritism is to divide cultural spheres into competitive zones and inject a psychology of divisiveness into what are simple and collaborative ways of living, celebrating – and dying.
The idea of a nation that pays secret, subtle or open allegiance to one religion and way of life is inherently divisive, for the very idea of one, of oneness, is against the idea of heterogeneity, of otherness. The politics of binaries – where differing world views, ways of life, eating and drinking habits and ways of worship are seen from the perspective of what is sacred and what isn’t – tends to infuse violence into diversity.
To come back to the events that happened at the seminar in Ramjas College, members of the ABVP could have attended the seminar and voiced their concern, even aired their protest against views by particular speakers they had serious objections to. But that is perhaps asking for too much, for it takes a certain capacity to argue and challenge ideas. So the democratic form of protest itself is rid of its argumentative character and reduced to a culture of violence. Violence is not an idea, though it may serve an idea. Nationalism is an idea that does not serve any idea other than itself. Hence it creates, in the first place, a binary between itself and democracy. In times when nationalism has active plans, it creates further binaries that divide cultural and intellectual worlds into antagonistic zones where the sole question is who serves the nation and who doesn’t. The culture of protest proves the passion of arguments, whereas cultural dictatorship is only interested in the passion for violence. When passion thrives without thought and doesn’t allow arguments to prosper, the meaning of passion itself is reduced to a certain animal form.
Nationalism reduced to hunting for enemies who think differently makes nationalism an enemy of thought. The idea of culture is impossible without a certain freedom of ideas challenging each other. If nationalism cannot argue its case without allowing that freedom to exist and thrive, it divests itself from the fundamental meaning of culture. That is why we can no longer speak of any culture of nationalism. Rather we have to speak of the violence of nationalism against the idea of culture itself. Educational institutions are the primary spaces of cultural life. To harm the intellectual liberties of such institutions by the display of hooliganism showcases the fear of arguments by students of hyper-nationalist organisations. It is rather disturbing when you realise that students of a certain political predilection are prepared to do politics without ideas, which translates into a politics against ideas.
If the crisis of nationalism has come about due to the ideas and actions of those who challenge and critique it, why not challenge that crisis in turn by placing your arguments on the table? Or else, what prevents the ‘argumentative Indian’ from concluding that the crisis of nationalism has been brought on by the proponents of nationalism themselves? The argumentative Indian makes no sense if s/he belongs to the thought-police of any ideology. It is the argumentative Indian who has resisted the governments of all political parties as much as s/he has fought against corporates and challenged the corrupt in bureaucracy and law. It is the argumentative Indian who has not stopped asking questions about 1984 and 2002. The cowards who fear the power of thinking should not delude themselves into believing s/he can be so easily silenced.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet and writer