If there is one claim being made by the BJP, that nothing like this has happened since India’s independence, which rings true, it is the BJP’s success in introducing a discourse of binaries in the way nation or nationalism ought to be understood.
What do I mean by this discourse of binaries? The central point of this discourse is not the way nationalism is constructed, but the manner in which a rhetoric of anti-nationalism is articulated, and then morphed into an ideal nationhood. Significantly, this binary perspective of nationalism/anti-nationalism was put into the public arena in the post-9 February 2016 confrontation in JNU, and the issue of sedition, which was subsequently crafted raised it to an altogether different level. The programmatic aspect of this construction is that dissent which questions one particular kind of nationalism is considered dangerous, and is immediately labelled seditious or anti-national. Discussions on Kashmir, tribal rights, human rights violations, and radical movements of social and political emancipation, or of regional self-determination, are all labelled anti-nationalist. Gradually, the scope of anti-nationalism has been made to increase through pincer like attacks on dissent, speech, and freedom of expression in general, among other things.
Such a view of anti-nationalism denies dialogue, not in a broad liberal sense of occupying a middle position among contending views, but as a fractious embroilment of opposing political and ideological dispositions, which is necessary to expand and broaden the democratic space in a free-thinking environment. The worst victim, in my view, of this kind of constriction is old-style liberalism. What we are seeing in India increasingly is a vicious attack on that. Old-style liberalism, earlier articulated as an idea unattached to narrow sectarianism or ideology, has now been relegated into a weak, supine, and ineffective adherence to a ‘Congress-type’ view of the nation. A combination of conservative and right-wing ideologies is positing this view as anachronistic, and subverting it as unsuited for India today because of its adherence to the idea of the nation as a pluralistic, inclusive, and secular entity. The counter-point to this ‘old’ style liberalism is the ‘neo’ liberalism of the conservative-right-wing combination, now being vociferously aired in academic and non-academic circles.
There are essentially two variants of this neo-liberal position. The more conservative one is that of equivocation. All views ought to be heard, or ought to be heard, without necessarily taking sides, almost as if a non-partisan hearing of randomly expressed ideologies is enough for sustaining the democratic process. However, this equivocation has inherent boundaries. Certain views are anathema, for they hurt the new nation building project. From this, follows an almost inevitable ideological attack on institutions seen as bastions of old-style left-liberalism, for instance the JNU. The recent incident in Ramjas college where a student of JNU was not allowed to speak on tribal protests because of his radical views, following which the random violence of the ABVP, an organisation closely affiliated to the BJP was post-facto justified by the fact that a yoga expert closely affiliated to the ruling party was earlier not allowed to speak in JNU. The argument thus being made is that random intolerance begets a counter random intolerance, and therefore, equivocation is the best defence of a true liberal structure.
A university is an open-ended entity, where multiple voices, ideologies, arguments must find space to be heard, but not necessarily accepted by everyone. People can choose to ignore, protest, and question as they choose. They can also express strong reservations against speakers, but must not, coercively keep people out. However, despite these caveats, I believe that this idea of equivocation plays into the end-game of conservative and right-wing ideologies. Allowing space to express views does not justify bland equidistance from all views, for ideas and their entanglements are essentially ideologically charged and political acts.
On the surface the mask may be liberal, but the face behind the mask is of a closet right-winger, or an out in the open conservative. Further the idea of equivocation also implies an acceptance that all political views, and political activity are of equal value. This is destructive valorisation, as the politics of social emancipation and the politics social exclusion of the hard-right are fundamentally at variance from each other. Radical student politics, as it is vocalised in many Indian universities, particularly in JNU, calls for a direct opposition to the deeply entrenched caste/class interests which are protected and nurtured by the ruling dispensations.
On the other hand, neo-liberalism and big corporation-political nexus foregrounds such right-wing and conservative politics. This is a politics which must stifle dissent, or at best make it of residual significance, and equivocation, in the avatar of a new `liberal’ language is precisely designed to marginalise radical dissent. In a nutshell, this is the more genteel face of the shift towards conservatism in India by many, but particularly by some who had in the years prior to 2014 been quite happy adherents to an old-style ‘Congress-type’ liberalism.
But the liberalism of the new conservative has another face. This is the face, which again wears a mask of equivocation, but the dead giveaway here is the argument it advances. First, the onus of an unacceptable, and disruptive, form of praxis is laid at the doorstep of all forms of left-wing student politics. They are indiscriminately blamed for undermining civil forms of political life, the responsibility of whose defence is then shifted to the right-wing student. All forms of right-wing violence (including rape threats to left-wing women activists) are elided, and made into an unwilling reaction to the unnecessary and unwarranted intrusion of the left-wing. The right-wing spectrum of the political system is therefore absolved of coercive agency and culpability, and instead, is imbued with the grace of innocence and the earnestness of defending the democratic space. Such elision is then justified in the name of equivocation or being objective.
The second important component of this ‘new’ liberalism is a call to disconnect education from politics. De-politicising students, it is argued is a way of protecting the nation from the poison of radicalism. Some spurious examples are then randomly thrown in to show how some technical institutions, or one or two universities where students unions are banned have become exemplars of academic life. The single biggest problem with this line is JNU, which despite all its radical politics has been recently recognised as the best university in India, while none of the so-called excellent technological institutions have ever figured within the first one hundred of global rankings. One should recall the immense international groundswell of support which poured in from the topmost academics and institutions, and has been pouring in for JNU after 9 February 2016, precisely stressing the academic excellence of this university, as well as the uniqueness of its radical politics.
The call to de-politicise students is a fig leaf to legitimise an ultra-right wing ideology under the mask of equivocality. De-politicisation does not mean the absence of politics. It is another means of covertly creating the space for the right-wing to take over, without opposition, the space to be vacated by left and left of centre political formations. Once this happens universities will die; so, will the nation.
Rajat Datta is a professor with the Centre of Historical Studies, Centre for Historical Studies
Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal