Teaching History in 'Argumentative' JNU

At JNU we love a good argument. We can spend incalculable hours arguing over anything. Tutorial and seminar discussions go on for hours, often we have to plead with the audience in conferences to make it that one last question and meetings drag on endlessly with everyone wanting to have a say. It is precisely this environment that makes JNU a good place to think, reflect and discuss.

JNU students protest the police action against JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar. Credit: Shome Basu

JNU students protest the police action against JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar. Credit: Shome Basu

At JNU we love a good argument. We can spend incalculable hours arguing over anything. Tutorial and seminar discussions go on for hours, often we have to plead with the audience in conferences to make it that one last question and meetings drag on endlessly with everyone wanting to have a say. Imagine my plight – I actually teach at this very ‘argumentative’ JNU. But it is precisely this environment that makes JNU a good place to think, reflect and discuss.

Sadly, these days the overall context of what I think and reflect upon has been radically altered and is under attack from various sides. I’m being told that my university has been aiding and abetting anti-nationalist elements among my students. Voices are raised in anger to demand the shutting down of JNU. I, who teach economic history of early modern India, suddenly stand implicated in a conspiracy to undo the nation. This is not to say that studying early modern India isolates me from the modern nation. I’m a part of it by just being there, by participating in it as a socially conscious, law-abiding citizen, and generally by not going out and hurting others by my speech or actions for differing with me.

I’m accused of standing on the sidelines and watching while students shout secessionist slogans in support of ‘terrorists’. I’m fully aware that this is not the first time that this sort of an attack has been mounted. But this time it is more concerted, sinister and pervasive. Muck-raking TV anchors scream at panelists who come to argue the JNU point of view. Video footage of subversive meetings are tailored, photographs morphed and conniving panelists are line up to condemn me and my ilk as deshdrohis and gaddars. Students are picked up and charged with sedition. Footage is aired on TV channels of lawyers boasting of beating up Kanhaiya Kumar, the arrested president of the students’ union, for three hours until he peed in his pants. This is now seen as robust Hindutva nationalism. I feel nauseated.

I begin to grope for answers. But I also have questions.

JNU’s liberal ‘leftism’

What is my politics? Contrary to the comfortable views of the armchair chateratti, not everyone in JNU is a ‘commie’ or a jholawala. I certainly am not. I’ve felt deeply disturbed by the intellectual arrogance and overreach of the institutional left, both within and outside the university, and have always maintained my intellectual autonomy. On the other hand, I have nothing but contempt for the anti-intellectualism and anti-liberalism of the institutional right. My ideological disposition is broadly what may be called a left-liberal and many of my colleagues with whom I interact on a daily basis can be easily fitted in that political spectrum. My dislike at being called a communist is presumably the same as that of Swapan Dasgupta or Chandan Mitra, if they were called communal-fascists. Therefore, the current concern among teachers at JNU is not a defence of communism on campus but of the liberal and progressive ethos of the campus itself, which is why there are so many of us out there protesting.

JNU is a profoundly liberal place; in fact, even far too liberal among some of its critiques, of which there are many. What kind is this liberalism? It’s an organic stream of thinking. This stream premises itself on accommodation, acceptance, and argumentation, and enables a deep respect of people and the pluralisms they embody. The usual response to a tense situation in JNU is to discuss or debate it. Politics, generally is a search for answers. Jawaab tumko dena hoga is the battle cry of students of all shades of political opinion.

Ideologically this broad liberal ‘leftism’ in JNU has often been appropriated by a harder or a sharper left. I feel this appropriation is facilitated by the prevailing intellectual climate that encourages a quest for answers and makes most students gravitate to a position that is generally not sympathetic to the right wing. It is therefore no accident that the right wing (like the ABVP) or even right-of-centre parties (like the Congress) have only a marginal presence in the campus. The state is always an object viewed with great suspicion; an instrument of repression by, and of, the ruling classes. It’s anti-state, not anti-national. Being anti-state and anti-government is a birthright of every thinking JNUite. This is perhaps the main reason why JNU is perceived as a den of communists.

Teaching nationalism

Is our teaching and courses deprived of a nationalist kernel? The answer is no on both counts. I scan through the lecture and seminar courses being offered at my centre where I teach, and I am struck by the impressive numbers of courses on nationalism, the freedom movement, anti-colonial struggles and social emancipatory movements. Aren’t we teaching too much nationalism in my department?

Two among the students accused of anti-national activities belong to my department. I’ve taught, not nationalism mercifully, but the history of the medieval world. Do I become complicit in their politics? Certainly, no. But did I perhaps have a hand in shaping some of their views? Maybe I did, because even in that single compulsory course that they credited with me, I discussed feudal exploitation, serfdom, suppression of women in medieval societies and protest, including violent protests by the subalterns to overthrow this oppressive structure. I discussed the immense power that ideas have in shaping and re-shaping the world, and emphasised the historical importance of rebellions and insurrections in medieval societies.

In the courses connected with their period specialisation (modern history) they learnt more about these things, and of the contemporary relevance of such issues. They learnt about the dynamics of the freedom movement and of its many contradictions; about tribes and tribal movements; about caste and about movements against caste-based discrimination, and of many other troubling aspects of Indian history that did not sit prettily or happily with comfortable narratives of nationhood or nationalism. The nebulous conception inbuilt in terms like nation’ andnationalism’ began to get unpacked. Are they tangible categories or are they more malleable conceptual categories on which certain majoritarian ideas of oneness or nationality managed to inscribe themselves, often non-consensually? The discursive strategies of power and the narratives of exclusion in nationalism itself began to unfold in front of them. Who were the victors in the successful completion of nationalism, and who were the ones who got left out or remained stationery. Here questions of caste, tribe, communities, gender and the rural-urban divide, among other questions, began to occupy centrestage. I’m now beginning to understand how our courses make their thinking so anti-establishmentarian? Just look at the consequences these went on to shape their politics.

I’m not in a position to comment on the correctness or errors of their politics, and nor do I intend to. Five students are in the dock, including the two from my department.  Progressive, radical or extremely radical are the closest I can come to describe the spectrum of their political beliefs, practices and organisational frameworks. Socially they include the marginalised, the backward, the middle class and the minority community. Nothing could be more emblematic of the plurality and the oneness of this country, and nothing could be more symbolise the idea of the Indian nation.

Political life at JNU

I’m still worried and still seeking a way to academically rationalise the events of February.  So I turn to political life on the campus. JNU is a hothouse of political ideologies and practices. It’s perhaps the most politicised campus in the world. Issues that ordinary people perhaps cannot even conceive as political can become political here. Caste, class, gender, tribe, community, environment — no subject is above politics. As the joke goes, even the quality of the food being served in the messes can become political. Students argue and differ vociferously, ideas and counter-ideas are hurled about, and the disagreement decibel levels can be deafening.

Perhaps the gravest of concerns that politics here has is over the plights of the dispossessed, disempowered, the marginalised and the excluded. JNU provides a safe haven for all such ideas and political movements. Dalit and tribal concerns, and the concerns of the impoverished and oppressed are taken up, voiced and acted upon. They are acted upon politically as well as institutionally, the latter being manifested in the vigilance students exercise on the admissions process and in the filling up of all the reservation quotas. The faculty is largely proactive on institutional correctness, which makes it somewhat easier to implement statutory requirements. I can’t visualise a Rohith Vemula-like situation occurring in JNU for the simple reason that Dalit issues have been ‘mainstreamed’ into campus issues by a convergence between student activism, correctness of procedures and faculty concerns. One reason for this ‘mainstreaming’ is the fact that in almost all students’ unions, as in the present one, there are always a fair number of students from Dalit castes and scheduled tribes elected to the executive committee. Dalit and tribal politics are antithetical to the upper-caste centric and fundamentally disempowering politics of Hindutva.

How do teachers come into this? In a big way, for while we, as teachers, discuss the great achievements of the people of India we don’t freeze that into a sterile, monolithic discourse. We also talk about the repressive nature of the state and social relations through Indian history. We argue how protests, seditions and revolutionary movements have turned against the state at some point. We don’t do this deliberately\ or because we have an anti-national intent; history makes it inevitable that we do. Indian history is seething with such dissensions. Peasant revolts, tribal uprisings, protest movements spearheaded by the Dalits all crowd the pages of our history. We only point students into those labyrinths. Students study the French and the Russian Revolution and understand oppression and the struggles against oppression. They study capitalism and colonialism and internalise the global dimensions of imperialistic, and their various local manifestations.

Students pursue courses on nationalism and engage with India’s freedom movement and the post-independence processes of nation-building. While some or the other facet of nationalism is inbuilt in everything that is taught by us, we also take pains to emphasise is that the state and the nation are not collapsible, and ruling political party, or the coterie of its retired army officers, are not emblematic of the nation. What we are busy grooming are the country’s thinking citizens. I can’t believe what they do or say is a willful attack on the nation’s oneness and integrity, even if some of their words they use may be deeply uncomfortable for the current ruling dispensation.

No wonder our students are so sceptical of majoritarian ideologies. No wonder some of them raised slogans against manuvad, samrajyvad, punjivad, among other oppressions, including hunger and starvation of the poor of this country; and no wonder in these dark times they all stand accused of sedition.

In my many years as a teacher, I have never urged my students to shout inquilab zindabad or any political slogan; but now they’re telling me that I ought to have encouraged then to chant vande mataram. Not having done so has apparently made me anti-national.

Rajat Datta is a professor at JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies.