New Delhi: Hot on the heels of the JNU controversy, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) organised a symposium at the Constitution Club on “The Assault on Thought”. The list of speakers at the Sunday event included academicians, lawyers, and the JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar. The confluence of red and blue colours on stage sent a clear message on what direction the symposium would head towards.
The event was hosted by noted photographer Ram Rahman, who is also one of the founding members of SAHMAT, and was chaired by Prabhat Patnaik, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Rahman explained how SAHMAT was formed when he was around the same age as Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, and writers, painters, cultural activists, and media persons came together within weeks of Safdar Hashmi’s death. Hashmi was a well known street theatre artist, and one of the founder members of the Jana Natya Manch (JANAM), who was murdered while performing a street play in Sahibabad.
Explaining the context in which the symposium was being held, Rahman said the current political climate in the country is a result of many years of right wing assault on the freedom of expression. Citing the examples of Hyderabad Central University, JNU, the exile of M F Hussain, and the killings of Narendra Dabholkar and M. M. Kalburgi, he said that all political parties have historically stepped back whenever there have been attacks by the right wing, and that this ‘accommodative’ nature of the mainstream political parties is the reason there is a threat to Indian democracy today.
Prabhat Patnaik, in his introductory address, said that HCU and JNU aren’t individual episodes, or even series of episodes that we are used to witnessing whenever BJP is in power, but that this time there is a decisive shift in the political narrative led by an assault on thought. He said that at the risk of it being dismissed as hyperbole, he would argue that fascist elements have come to power, but India is not yet a fascist state. “The present government’s admiration for the RSS is well known. And this corporate backed authoritarian state resorting to an extreme form of nationalism, as defined by the RSS, which is an anti-minority and anti-democratic organisation, is an attempt to push India into becoming a fascist state,” he added.
He further explained how nationalism in India is a phenomenal reality, but the “hindutva brigade” is substituting the anti-colonial nationalism from our independence struggle into a metaphysical one by deception and continued glorification of their version of nationalism. This allows them to keep adding arbitrary dimensions to this definition of nationalism and identify those who don’t agree with it as “anti nationals”. The assault on thought is a condition for a hindutva insurrection against the constitution, he concluded.
JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) President Ajay Patnaik began his address by explaining why JNU has a unique heterogeneous social composition and how it has helped shaped the political discourse in the campus today. He walked the audience through the history of JNU from the time that he was a student in the 70’s, explaining how he found the place to be very elitist but with progressive admission policies such as “depravation points” (extra marks to students coming from underprivileged backgrounds) and the setting up of the first ever equal opportunity office in the country dedicated to handling complaints of sexual harassment on campus, it gradually evolved into what it has become today.
He ended with a call to young students to keep fighting in defence of democratic values, and assured them that the teachers would always stand by them.
Nandita Narain, President of Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), began by congratulating the JNUTA for standing firmly with the students. She elaborated on Ajay Patnaik’s claim of how JNU was such a progressive space because of the diverse social composition on campus. “Excellence is derived only when you draw talent from even the most marginalised sections of the society, and that’s why JNU has such a strong and progressive student movement,” she added. Right from the start, her focus was on how we need to defeat the “neo-liberal agenda” to commoditise and privatise education if we want to safeguard our democratic and constitutional values. She stressed on the need to safeguard higher education from the fate that school education has suffered in India, and to maintain the quality of public funded education so that a critical consciousness could be nurtured in such campuses which could challenge all forms of oppression and injustice. She ended with a warning saying, “let us not be complacent on the bail granted to Umar, Anirban and SAR Geelani because the real fight is in the hearts and mind of the common people. Let’s engage with them and initiate a dialogue.”
Senior Supreme Court advocate Chander Udai Singh looked at the assault on thought from a point of view of legal tools being used by the state. He explained some legal provisions that give sweeping powers to the state and central governments, the police, and even individuals. While explaining ‘heckler’s veto’, he cited popular examples like Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism and said that governments from across the political spectrum have caved in to hooliganism, and it has only emboldened such people. He also said that the present government is already cracking down on dissenting voices, adding heckler’s veto makes for a deadly cocktail where state power is being used to curb dissent. He then explained the misuse of sedition law, and also discussed many landmark judgments made decades ago, and contrasted them with the present state of the judiciary. He argued at length on the need to get rid of the sedition law, and ended by saying that everyone needs to stand up and say that “we just won’t accept this.”
Rohit Azad, assistant professor in JNU and former JNUSU president, began by punching holes into Modi’s development model. He said that even if Modi had delivered on his promises of development, which he hasn’t, the process itself is essentially inequalising and would inevitably create an “us” vs “them” dichotomy because the workers would have to be exploited for Make in India to be successful. He said that this “crass nationalism” and “jingoism” will worsen because Modi’s economic model is a failure. He said that what he found most remarkable about the JNU movement was a transition from ‘Lal Salaam’ to ‘Jai Bhim-Lal salaam’.
He further discussed how the political discourse has changed in JNU, and a left-dalit unity movement that is being forged will be the most effective weapon against the right wing insurgence.
Kanhaiya Kumar was the last, and probably the most awaited, speaker of the event. He preferred to keep his address focused on introspection rather than an attack on the RSS. He said that a two pronged approach – starting from setting an ideological discourse, and then to take it to the people, was essential for a sustained struggle against the right wing. He talked about how left parties in JNU lost precious time and didn’t come together even after Modi was elected to power, because they were too antagonistic towards each other. He alleged that this led to the rise of the ABVP in JNU campus. He explained how the RSS tested caste, religion and ideological discourse through attacks on Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, FTII, and in Dadri. He claimed that Kalburgi and Pansare were killed because the RSS understood after it’s experiments that intellectuals posed the greatest threat to them. He further talked about how RSS never attempted to save public schools, but ran Shishu Mandirs and private coaching centres to educate young minds, which the left failed to address. He said that it is due to these training centres that the RSS has sympathisers in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and everywhere else. He invoked Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals” and said that we need more organic intellectuals of the people. On an ending note, he interestingly advocated “productive capitalism” against “financial capitalism”, saying the former would be a sort of offence to global capital hegemony. He also urged everyone to make the most use of new media and reach out to more people as “the outflow of these ideas is essential to save democracy,” he concluded.