From JNU to Ramjas, Where Has the Spirit of Studentship Disappeared?

When political sensibility degenerates into political indoctrination, studentship receives a severe blow. Growth stops, the mind becomes closed, rigid, deterministic and hence, violent.

From JNU to Ramjas College – we find ourselves amidst a culture that reveals the assertion of brute power, the mob mentality and the volcano of inflated emotions centred on the practice of ‘nationalism’. With reaction and counter-reaction, physical power and intellectual arrogance, ‘moral puritanism’ of the radical Left and ‘reactionary conservatism’ of the Hindu Right, we allow ourselves to be trapped into a vicious circle that transforms our colleges and universities into war zones.

As a teacher, I experience this psychic and political turmoil. Yet, I try my best to remain calm, see beyond the binaries of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, and ask a non-fashionable question: Is it only about the historic conflict between the ruling establishment governed by the rightist or potentially fascist ideology and progressive/liberal teachers and students immensely fond of freedom of expression, pluralism of ideas and the plight of the subaltern? Or does it also indicate a deeper crisis – the growing disappearance of the very spirit of studentship and a dialogic teacher-taught relationship? In this reflexive piece – or is it apolitical as some of my colleagues may accuse me of – I wish to engage with this question.

What is the spirit of studentship I am referring to? Even at the cost of being condemned as ‘idealist’, I would say that it is the curiosity to learn and unlearn, to explore and experiment that characterises the dynamism of studentship. It demands a mind that is not closed, that has its open space, that is willing to be surprised, that doesn’t dislike unresolved contradictions and ambiguities.

It is a mind that cherishes a sense of humility because every moment is an occasion for learning, and most importantly one learns so much from one’s ‘opponents’. Furthermore, it means the integration of all the major faculties – the power of reasoning, the sensitivity of an artist, the wonder of a child and the intuition of a seeker.

In a way, a student in a college/university should have the spirit to engage with Karl Marx’s critical and passionate thinking (don’t forget that the author of Capital loved Shakespeare and Balzac), Rumi’s poetic revelation, Tagore’s eternal wonder and prayer, the logic of science, the symbolism of art, the ethnographic details of an anthropologist.

When it happens, studentship reaches its peak; it brings openness, not the closure of mind. You read Marx; but it doesn’t prevent you from exploring Sankara’s non-dualism; you study Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, and precisely because of that, it invites you to walk with Gandhi and understand his extraordinary path; you study Gellner and Anderson on nationalism, and with absolute wonder you seek to understand the symbolism of Abanindranath Tagore’s illuminating sketch of Bharat Mata. You study Sanskrit to explore the world of Kalidas; and at the same time, you attend a lecture on gender studies. This elasticity of mind radiates peace because it emanates from humility, dialogue and inclusiveness and a realisation that studentship is a never ending journey.

However, the present crisis shows how this spirit of studentship has declined. First, in this emotionally charged environment, we are confusing political sensibility with political indoctrination. Yes, politics as a sensitivity to the exercise of power in society is an inherent characteristic of studentship. It is in this context that one gets inclined to Marxism, Ambedkarism, feminism, Savarkarism etc. because these are diverse discourses that provide a theoretical map – how power has to be possessed, disseminated, exercised and shared and for what purpose.

But when political sensibility degenerates into political indoctrination, studentship receives a severe blow. Growth stops, the mind becomes closed, rigid, deterministic and hence potentially violent. See the nature and manifestation of this violence. If your political ideology is in tune with the ruling ideology, your violence crosses all limits, and with the support of the brute power of the state, it diminishes the ethos of learning.

Today we see its manifestation when the dominant ideology would brand JNU as ‘anti-national’, or when students and professors would be physically tortured and humiliated at Ramjas College because of their supposedly ‘anti-national’ agenda. It is sad to see this decadence – students of a political camp abusing and attacking their teachers. By no stretch of imagination, it is studentship; it is pure violence. But then, it is not new.

Be honest. And recall the violence in which Left students’ organisations in Bengal during their ‘glorious’ days used to engage, the way they used to block teachers, vice-chancellors, principals and humiliate their ideological opponents. Can we forget what the students’ wing of the Congress used to do during the time when Sanjay Gandhi was the youth icon pampered by his vulnerable mother – otherwise a potentially authoritarian figure? Accept it that this political violence supported by the brute power of the ruling establishment has only changed its colour, and possibly it has become more toxic, and less sophisticated in the absence of a ‘left/secular’ rationalisation. It is the return of the repressed, and hence it is absolutely pathological.

If this brute power denies studentship, we should not forget that the political indoctrination of the radical group is no less dangerous; it too negates the ethos of true learning. In fact, an alert and transparent observer of JNU or Ramjas College would see the radiation of symbolic violence perpetuated by this group. It emanates from intellectual arrogance, from moral puritanism (Ambedkar and Marx are on my side, and hence I am necessarily superior and correct). ‘See these rightist idiots. See these sanghis. They know nothing about Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and Irfan Habib’.

How often has the university seen this hierarchical observation, this oppressive gaze that stigmatises the ‘other’. It doesn’t do any good, it only generates negativity and arouses their anger.

Furthermore, this indoctrination rhetoric tends to replace serious enquiry. I still recall the M.Phil interview of a student who in his synopsis valorised Ambedkar and condemned Gandhi (almost like a Hindi film script – if there is a hero, there has to be a villain). “Did you read anything of Gandhi?” I asked. “Not so much, sir”, came the answer. “Well, you must have read a great deal of Ambedkar”, I sought to encourage him. He smiled. “Tell me now whether you have studied Ambedkar’s The Philosophy of Hinduism or What Congress and Mr. Gandhi have done to the Untouchables”, I asked with great hope. He remained silent. And then he said, “Actually, sir, I haven’t read. I have read only some pieces of Kancha Ilaiah and Gail Omvedt”.

This, I believe, is the problem. His growth has stopped. He has lost interest in Gandhi as well as in Ambedkar. He seems to be equating studentship with the ability to utter a slogan – an empty slogan. Quite often, I see this overflow of rhetoric, the absence of curiosity and the instant urge to define a thinker and a philosopher in fixed categories. Sometimes I wonder whether in these institutions it is at all possible to talk about mature studentship amidst the noise of slogans – ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai‘ or ‘Long Live Revolution’.

And this takes me to the final point. As a teacher, I feel that teaching is inherently a practice of studentship. A teacher remains a student. And a teacher is a teacher with an open heart; she/he is not just a feminist, a Marxist or a rightist; in his/ her finest moments of vocation he/she is above these categories. I ask myself: Is it possible for me to have a long conversation with an ABVP boy, even if I am a Marxist? Is it possible for me to borrow Acharya Narendradev’s Integral Humanism from him, even when I am a great admirer of Nehru and Lenin? If we keep classifying students, and if students keep fixing us into rigid boxes (see this Ambedkarite professor, his heart aches for the subaltern; or see this casteist teacher with patriarchal brahmanism who doesn’t quote so frequently Phule, Peryar and Uma Chakrabarty) there would be no end to violence.

One party would be replaced by another; one VC would be replaced by another. But things would remain the same. Intolerance would only change its colour – maybe from saffron to red. And hence at this moment of turmoil, is it possible for us to alter the nature of this debate – Left-Right; Right-Left – and restore the true spirit of studentship, and create a truly vibrant university based on love, trust, understanding, care and education as aesthetic play, as a fusion of horizons?

Avijit Pathak is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of The Chaotic Order: An Unknown Teacher’s Pedagogic Travelogue.