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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Who is the True Anti-National: A Long Perspective on the JNU Debate

It was not long ago when JNU organized an event on 'The Use of Technology for Good Governance' on Good Governance Day. Now as most people might be aware, Good Governance was one of Modi's initiatives, wherein he encouraged the use of technology for the purpose of good governance. Now while I believe that technology can definitely be used positively in facilitating timely services to people and to prevent corruption, there are counter-arguments that call it a way to increase government surveillance, and how it would make government-backed witch-hunts a lot easier. There may be many more arguments on either side, but that is beyond the scope of what I have to say here. So there was an oratory competition, where 13 speakers had to come and speak, and I was nominated by my Supervisor, as a faculty member at the Linguistic Empowerment Cell, to adjudicate this competition. We were given four parameters on which to mark them, which I think were content, structure, language and delivery. As we proceeded with the competition, however, students from left-backed student wings started protesting outside with comment like 'Vice Chancellor Hai Hai!" and "Modi ke chamche Hai Hai!. They were so loud that we could barely hear some of the speakers at the competition. We were greatly annoyed and perturbed by this display of protest. Let me highlight though that there was no violence involved at any stage. I sincerely wished that there had been some technology handy to silence those protests that day.

I met my friend Phani the same evening and we shared a cup of chai at the Sabarmati Dhaba when we laughed about how he and I saw each other at the protest, and I was sitting inside while he was sloganeering outside. There were some other friends of mine who were shouting out there with him too. I told him that my first impression was one of irritation when they had started sloganeering, as I felt that they were doing nothing constructive by disrupting the session. So in my discussion with Phani, I told him that if they really had differences in opinion, they should have come in and made their points as a part of the Oratory competition. This way, their points could have been heard by everyone inside, who by the way were definitely not 'Modi ke chamche', and they could have had a lavish dinner at the Mughal Darbar dhaba with the money they could have won if their oration had been good. There were three prizes too, so they could have sent in multiple speakers and claimed all three prizes and made their point as well. What better way to set the establishment right! 

Phani smiled as he agreed with me on this point, and we continued to speak about other issues around us, like how the campus had changed over the years, and about how pretty that girl was who was having samosas on a table in front of us. This is life in general at JNU. Some party protests against one thing while another protests about something else. I often feel that these student unions and student wings of political parties must reinvent the way they protest - maybe try some new body language instead of the age-old 'laal salaam' sequence with the hand going from the forehead up into the air.  I'd also like them to come up with more definite, practical results to the issues they raise. In their idealism, they also end up looking at everyone else as enemies and hence end up losing support on valid issues they raise. I have also often wondered why they are so loud in everything that they do. Why not instead focus on ways to solve these problems and go about it in a less noisy manner? Why not protest less and act more, so that they don't end up in situations like the present case in question, which has led to what the world is now calling the JNU student uprising, but I am now  glad this has happened, and I shall try to explain why.

To summarize the cause of the protest at hand, a group of ten students wanted to organize a 'cultural show' (whoever came up with this title!) in commemoration of the hanging of Afzal Guru (convicted terrorist! no wait, maybe not, say some. What the hell, let's kill him in the dark and finish it off! No last wishes. Off with his head! Body not returned to family), The administration gave the approval for this show (No clue what they were trying to show, coz the show actually never happened), but five minutes before it was to begin, the administration withdrew permission. So the Students Union was called, and they realised that some ABVP representatives had gotten the event cancelled, and what resulted was a sloganeering yuddh between the red and orange forces. There was also the recent suicide of the Dalit (I wonder why people have to highlight this fact!) student, Rohit Vemula from Hyderabad University. Owing to his support for Yakub Memon (another convicted terrorist!) that led to a scuffle with members of the ABVP, consequences that created circumstances leading to his suicide have been linked to the interference of the Labour Minister & the HRD minister, who start exchanging letters (they weren't letters about love, surely) about the normally autonomous functioning of a university in the background. 

Viewing the disruption of this event as a similar politically backed interference, there was a verbal scuffle that followed, as is usual in JNU, where slogans were hurled at each other like cakes of cowdung, and because the ABVP students were perceived to be trying to stifle the voice of Kashmiris by disallowing this show, there were slogans in favour of Kashmir's freedom. At this point, a group of students? go bonkers with "Bharat ki barbadi tak jung rahegi" and"India Go Back" slogans (are they out of their mind??!!). The point to be noted is that in this particular video, the only one which is objectionable and could be worthy of police action, it is very dark and one cannot figure out who the people in the video are, but well it is sent to the media channels who get their night-vision glasses on, and voila!! 'JNU students are anti-national' 'This is how they use the tax-payers' money'. Now before the earth could spin around it's own head once, ALL of JNU is declared to be an anti-national space by the angry mob, whose only aim in life is to save Bharat Maata. Wait, this is not the plot of a political crime thriller; this is real life stuff happening as we speak!

Coming to the point I'm trying to make, despite the differences I might have with the politics of the Left, this is not synonymous with my feelings towards the university itself. JNU is a multicultural, multi-layered institution with students and faculty of all strata of society. It is also a place where dhaba walas selling chai are accorded the same level of respect as other students or even faculty members at times. To interpret JNU in a blog entry would be like summarizing Sachin Tendulkar's lifetime achievements in two words, but when some people say 'JNU is full of anti-nationals or terrorists', I cannot but try to talk about the ridiculousness of the argument. This is like saying that because one person from your community was convicted for felony, your entire community is evil, but then we say that too, don't we? While I agree that certain slogans like "Bharat ki barbadi tak jung rahegi" or "India Go Back" or "Bandook ke dum par" had definitely crossed the line, I maintain that there is no evidence that identifies the students who were actually saying these slogans, and that a majority of the other slogans in the protest, including slogans asking for Kashmir's independence, were not anti-national, albeit against national interests. While my whole view on what constitutes a nation, and how the concept of a nation leads to blind jingoism and irrational sentiments towards people who don't belong to the nation is a (u)topic in itself, I shall refrain from getting into that at the moment, as I would want to stay as close as possible to the question at hand, which is whether JNU ought to be deemed anti-national or not. 

To speak about what JNU stands for, I would like to quote a joint statement signed by 455 academicians from global universities, including Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Cambridge, which said, “JNU stands for a vital imagination of the space of the university -- an imagination that embraces critical thinking, democratic dissent, student activism, and the plurality of political beliefs. It is this critical imagination that the current establishment seeks to destroy. And we know that this is not a problem for India alone.” JNU has always been a place for political debate and dissent, and issues like these, that may be taboo for the rest of the country, are raised day-in and day-out. What usually needs a special event backed with security outside, is usually a topic for daily debate over a cup of chai for JNU students. Such is the plurality and the levels of tolerance inside JNU. People don't feel threatened when they express their points of view, and thus their ideas get a form of expression in these discussions, and this facilitates dialogue, and with dialogue we develop bonds and affinities, through which opinions are changed and extreme thoughts tend to develop milder tones. Thus, the marginalized gets a chance to find a comfortable spot in the mainstream and there are increased levels of acceptance and a sense of acceptability in the fringes. If you call this kind of space a bed for anti-national activities only because we allow a vent for feelings otherwise suppressed, for feeling which would otherwise tend to find more violent forms of expression, then I would sincerely beg to differ.

Today, when someone asks me where I am from, I say I am from India. When they ask me which part of India I'm from, I usually just shrug my shoulders, because I don't know how to say it in one line. I'm a person of Tamil ethnicity born in Madras (it wasn't Chennai then) raised in Bombay (not Mumbai) and Aurangabad (a city in Maharashtra where the population has been 40% Muslim for a while now, one of the highest numbers for cities in India outside of Kashmir, including cities like Aligarh and Hyderabad), have been a resident of Delhi for the last 15 years, and with a known affinity towards the North-East of India. I was born to a Christian mother who had grown up in the tea estates Kerala and an atheistic father who had grown up in Delhi and worked in Bombay. Needless to say, I had a lot of plurality in my house and my environment when I was growing up, not to mention the dogs who were a part of my family, who taught me more about loyalty and unconditional love as I grew up that any political party has, to date. So don't you call me disloyal or anti-national. Speaking of my beliefs, I'm an agnostic with primarily Buddhist & some Vedic spiritual inclinations, some curiosity about Islam and other religions, a proponent of peace & social justice irrespective of imaginary boundaries on land or in the mind, an activist for animal rights and for respecting the planet we're on and it's resources, and an advocate of critical thinking. My point here is that the only identity I have besides being human is that of being an Indian, and you are taking that away from me by calling me anti-national, just because I say that people must be allowed to say what they feel, for if they are not, then there is a greater likelihood of them resorting to more violent forms of expression; just because I do not agree with one form of nationalism that is propagated to our masses through our government channels and through the media, where microphones are muted as per convenience. 

When I first I went to study in Delhi as a second generation Stephanian and had my first cultural shock when I playfully kicked the boy sitting in front of him from under his chair (which has a nylon mesh seating) and accidentally caught him on his balls, which made him send out a muffled scream. At this point, the girl sitting next to me looked up and asked me what happened. I turned around and said, "I kicked him where I shouldn't have", and she turned around and said, "Can he get it up anymore?" For someone coming from Aurangabad, where the girls in school barely made eye contact or shook your hand when you met them, this was only the beginning of my culture shock, as I witnessed girls and guys hugging each other and kissing each other on the cheek as a normal form of greeting. This shock generally died out as I spent my years in college. My years in Stephen's were a great education for me not because of what used to happen in class (most of which I missed, some of which I spent gazing out the window because the teachers were boring), but because of the wonderful interactions I would have with the brightest minds in the nation. I realized how well-read, multi-talented and articulate everyone was and always felt mediocre in such company. By the time I graduated, I was a totally different person from what I was when I came in, for I had absorbed new ideas, a new lifestyle and new ways of thinking and found a space where I could express myself. At this point, I wanted to support myself and my education as I felt I was no longer justified in making my parents pay for my education, so I took up this job as an accent trainer where I mostly worked night shifts, and would travel on my Thunderbird (motorbike) all the way to the Delhi University North Campus for two years in order to finish my MA. Life was tough and busy, but in two years, I had an MA degree. Please note that I had no time for protests and always rode with my helmet on.

My job in accent training plus the one paper on linguistics we had in MA got me interested in Linguistics, and I wanted to research what I did at work and earn a degree in telling people where to place their tongues so the right sounds could be produced. This is when I first got acquainted with JNU. I remember finishing my night shift and going to some obscure Kendriya Vidyalaya in West Delhi for my entrance exam. I nearly blanked out even before I found the place, forget about my reaction when I saw that arduous question paper, but I sat through the three hours and finished the paper with a lot of creativity, to put it moderately. To my surprise, I was called for the interview, and when I appeared for the interview, I went with the view that in the worst case scenario, I would at least know what JNU professors looked like up close. When I met them, I realized they were human beings too! So I didn't hurl stones at them and instead, we had conversation. Yes, this is how people communicate in JNU - using words! I told them that I worked in the corporate industry and wanted to study accent training, upon which I was grilled for nearly half an hour in that room. "All of us are ta/da", said Ayesha Kidwai (using the retroflex Hindi t & d), that now familiar smirk on her face, and I humbly agreed. I convinced them that accent training and language teaching is not something that proves one accent to be superior to another, but is just about realising the fact that there is a job market for a certain kind of accent and if training people on being comprehensible to people across the world gives them a job, then I don't see anything wrong with it. At that time, I remember professor Manjili asking me in that interview, "What if one day India became powerful and the West wanted to learn Hindi?" I said that I would long for that day to come and I will gladly be willing to teach Americans or Englishmen Hindi. 

Today, this is precisely what I am doing on a Fulbright fellowship in the USA, as a cultural ambassador of the country, teaching Hindi to students in the USA for one academic year, of which I am proud, because I am helping people half way around the world to learn the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world, and more importantly a language that represents India to the world (although it is NOT our national language). I intend to return to India to apply my learning from my association with the 'khwool' American education system, to improve the state of education in India. I also work for an organization that runs training programmes for corporates and also partners with NGOs to impart essential knowledge and skills to underprivileged children, and also works with teachers from different schools in order to enable them to teach better by adopting more effective strategies (so that fewer children spend their time gazing out the windows & actually end up learning something in class). All this is in an endeavour to make people's lives better and to make a useful contribution to Indian society, and when you call everyone from JNU anti-national, you include me in this list, and it is people like me who are going to be under threat when some fanatic right-wing elements scout the streets looking for people from JNU so they can rough them up, and journalists like Arnab Goswami are not helping the cause by holding one-sided debates where the invited participants are barely allowed to speak. Most media channels these days are driven by TRP ratings and political affiliations and this to me is more anti-national than what happened in JNU. There is an ancient Hawaiian saying, "I ka ‘ōlelo nō ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make" (In language there is life, in language there is death). I hope we realize the power that lies in language and learn to use it wisely.

I cleared that interview for an Mphil in Linguistics, went on to finish my MPhil and PhD, and taught Communicative and Academic English for 5 years at JNU at the Linguistic Empowerment Cell. As teachers, we always encouraged students to raise their points and engage in constructive debates without trying to assert our own ideologies upon them, and this is true for most of the faculty on campus. I am not saying that everything in JNU is hunky dory and that it is a true utopia. Of course it isn't. There are politics in every department, there are shameful actions by several people in the administration and well as the faculty. There is propaganda, there is retribution and people are targeted as well. As my fellow JNUite and tennis buddy Yogesh has rightly said, questioning the JNUSU's view of freedom of speech and expression, "when they forcibly stop students from attending classes or when they stop American and Israeli officials from entering the premises or they lock up the registrar in his car!" Yes, some of the actions of the self-proclaimed activists of freedom border on ridiculousness. However, this is a part of human nature, and this happens everywhere. Should we aspire to get better? Yes, definitely! Is there room for improvement? Always!!

What makes JNU unique though, is the fact that it provides everyone with a space for dissent, a space for disagreement and protest, and there are systems in place to question every action taken. This system was well-capable of handling the present situation as well, but the insistence of the home ministry on sending the police into the autonomous space of a university by blowing the event out of proportion and by maligning the entire university for the actions of a few students (probably outsiders?) is despicable. I mean, there are students in JNU who are opposed to the slogans raised on the 9th of Feb, and not everyone in JNU is a supporter of the Left. There are a lot of students like me who have issues with the way the Left conducts its politics, as I have mentioned at the start of this article, and there are debates and disagreements all the time. What we all agree upon though, is that the right to express one's ideas should not be stifled in the name of nationalism. Sedition is a totally different term which may not even apply to the present case, as in the Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, the famous 66A judgment, the Supreme Court drew a clear distinction between 'advocacy' and 'incitement', stating that only the latter was punishable.

They ask us what linguists do for society. Besides being good with our tongues and lips, linguists at JNU have done a lot more for society than you would imagine. We have documented the Andamanese language, a language that was left with the last generation of speakers and would have otherwise died out, thanks to colonizing languages like English and Hindi, which are driving more and more languages into endangerment or extinction each day. When a language is lost, a whole amount of ancient knowledge as well as a culture intricate with words and terminologies in that culture is lost, and if it weren't for a group from JNU led by Prof. Anvita Abbi, there would be no documentation of or revival efforts for Andamanese today. There is also another language in the border areas of India and Nepal called Tinker-Lo that is currently being worked on by linguists led by Prof. Ayesha Kidwai and Prof. Pradeep Kumar Das in JNU. Prof. Vaishna Narang and her long list of students and research scholars have long been researching speech defects in clinical cases of Aphasia, Stroke and Alzheimer's and other such syndromes in order to use linguistic analyses to diagnose symptoms so that a lot of casualties and the onset of these conditions can be prevented. Professors like Ayesha Kidwai, Anvita Abbi and Vaishna Narang have received recognition from across the world and by our own nation for their contributions in the field of linguistics, including awards as prestigious as the Padma Shri. These are merely SOME of the contributions ONLY by the department of linguistics in JNU. Each department could come up with a similar if not more impressive list of their own. Now, if the nation wants to undo all these efforts because of slogans shouted by ten people who probably weren't even students of JNU (which weren't half as loud as Arnab Goswami's slogans in the first place!), then I sincerely object to it. 

The Linguistic Empowerment Cell (LEC) at JNU was set up by my supervisor, Vaishna Narang, who believed that Lingusitic Empowerment is Cognitive Empowerment. JNU has always been that one university that provides deprivation points for people applying from remote parts of the country. A lot of other universities do this too, but while most universities only take these students in, JNU realizes that a lot of these students come from backgrounds where they barely ever spoke or read in English, and most of the readings available in higher education in the social sciences and sciences across the country are in English. So the LEC was set up to empower these students to be able to read, understand, speak and write in English so that they are not left behind in comparison to their more privileged classmates only because they grew up speaking a less ambitious mother-tongue. This is the extent to which JNU thinks about its students. JNU not only gives the opportunity to people from the remotest corners of the world and empowers them to think for themselves and to succeed in their lives. Without JNU, a lot of these students would not have gotten the opportunity to achieve a good education. So when people talk about their taxes being used to fund the studies of students here, I would urge them to think about whether this cause is something they'd rather their money be spent on or would they rather be angrier about the tax subsidies being given to corporations and individuals who are in cahoots with our government. Needless to say, the students of JNU and their families are tax-paying citizens of the country too. So it isn't as big a portion of one's taxes that are utilized to run an institution like JNU, and the contribution of JNU students in society has already been highlighted above. 

One thing about St. Stephen's College that stood out the most from the other colleges in Delhi University was its autonomous existence. While the entire Delhi University campus would be busy in politics and sloganeering, and often led to gunfights and curfews, students within the four walls of Stephen's would lead a life oblivious to all this, not being interested in any of the student politics and leading a life of contentment, visiting the Rohtas Dhaba for some samosas and gulab jamun. At our most adventurous best, some of us would climb to the roof of the girls' hostel and write 'Patrick was here' or set fire to the Dean's office door at night using Iodex, because he was an ass in general, or breaking the benches around the dhaba because of unsuccessful attempts at love. Our only foray into the rest of Delhi University would be to watch our basketball matches, where we once got beaten up by some Hansraj gundas, or to visit the Gwyer Hall dhobi once a week to get our clothes washed, to Balbir Dhaba or Ghanta Ghar for midnight paranthas, occasionally borrowing a cycle rickshaw and crashing it into roadside hoardings while racing with 'fuchchas', or to  the Kamla Nagar market to march as a group for a McDonald's Softy on Valentine's Day or for buying stationery, books and groceries, or to buy beer from some of the nearest theka at Kingsway Camp

For someone who comes from such an apolitical background to walk into JNU, the contrast is stark. The active politics, the power vested in the student union, the sloganeering, the protests, the strikes seemed absolutely unnecessary. The other difference that greeted us clearly was the significant difference in crowd. While at Stephen's we would also have a few students from small towns and villages, the majority belonged to relatively elite households. JNU, in contrast, was a truer representation of the entire nation, as there were people from all sections of society, from all beliefs one could encounter, and all kinds of political affiliations present on campus. While Stephen's was known for the student's lives beginning after the classes ended, in the form of theatre groups and debating societies and the myriad other clubs bursting into life an allowing students to work on their talents and skills they would need in life or their careers, JNU took these to a whole new level with the morchas, dharnas, candlelight marches, street plays, sloganeering, debates and cultural shows (real ones too, like the North East night, or the International Food Festival on Republic Day). And they didn't lock the women up after 10 PM, like they did at St. Stephen's.

For the first 5 of the 7 years I was at JNU, I didn't really live on campus or spend much time there. I used to come to attend classes and go back to work at IBM. Sometimes I would come to play tennis when my work hours permitted it, and then at night to have a drink or two with some friends who lived on campus. So while I missed out on a lot of activities that went around on campus, I was also in touch with the 'real-world' out there, and the fact that I was working in a multi-national capitalist corporate company and studying in a left-oriented campus helped me strike a beautiful balance between the two worlds. I was not extremely idealistic to the point of impracticality, and at the same time it helped me not get carried away by the whole capitalist philosophy of living to get promoted in the rat race, to keep yearning for more money and to be "in a better position on top of you", as one of my trainees at IBM once told his female assessor when she asked him where he saw himself in the next five years. I absolutely loved my years at IBM because it allowed me to travel across the country as well as abroad, and it made me experience so many different cultures and ways of life. 

One problem that I had with most JNU students was that they were happy demonstrating things on campus most of the time (with exceptions like the Nirbhaya case and others of course), while the rest of the world went by as usual, except auto wallahs who came to drop students off and left marveling the existence of such a space where girls could roam around freely after dark. I'm sure these ideas do get transmitted into society when students graduate and interact with the crude realities present outside, but I felt that JNU could do a lot more by initiating a dialogue with the world outside its walls. Despite all that has happened in this protest, I believe that it is a good thing that JNU has now received a platform to tell the world outside the walls what it believes in, and how a society can exist without having to fear consequences and retribution, and how peace can be maintained despite the presence of conflicting opinions, and how men and women can walk around dressed any way they want at any time of the day or night without feeling unsafe, where they can freely talk about their political beliefs, their sexuality, their religious and spiritual inclinations without fearing retribution. And for those who judge JNU without having ever visited the campus, I urge them to attend free talks on nationalism being organized by teachers now that they can listen to and participate in to express rational points of view that they might have in response. We do not throw stones at people in JNU.

If there was one place in India (and arguably the world) I would choose as my favourite, it is JNU. Even as we speak, there is a group of students and faculty members in JNU who are talking about the dogs and other animals that are suffering on campus. They have an active Whatsapp group where people inform each other of animal accidents, ailments and casualties, and they work closely with animal NGOs irrespective of their political affiliations, in order to try and do their best to protect and help those who cannot protest or speak up for themselves. This group also organizes tree-planting drives in response to forest fires that occur every now and then in JNU in the summer heat. I have been a part of some of these plantation drives, and the fact that we live in the middle of a forest and that we constantly encounter different kinds of deer, Nilgai, peacocks, rabbits, foxes, porcupine and a variety of birds enables us to be closer to nature and be more sensitive to our natural surroundings. There's something special about playing tennis on half-rolled clay courts with odd bounces when you've got Nilgai and Peacocks for an audience. We learn to care about natural resources like land and food and water, and we get to interact with students from all parts of the country as well as the world, and thereby understand the importance of these resources and are also exposed to how the politics of the nation impacts the people in some of the remotest corners of the country. This makes us more sensitive to issues such as those being raised by people in Kashmir for example, and hence makes us a lot more tolerant and a lot more thankful for some of the things most people take for granted - like the availability of drinking water, for example, or of three meals a day, or sometimes more importantly, freedom. 

As for the Kashmir issue, I understand that it is not a practically tenable solution to grant Kashmir independence, as this would definitely give away the significant strategic position we have today, militarily. With the Pakistan government funding terrorist activity and being ever-ready to claim Kashmir for themselves, and China pumping in tonnes of money into Pakistan and encroaching upon territory disputed with India, giving Kashmir independence would be akin to giving Kashmir to Pakistan and/or China and this would mean shooting oneself in the foot. India is a great democratic, secular space, and one must endeavour to keep it free from attacks by military states like Pakistan or autocratic, dictatorial states like China. The plurality and hospitality of India can be seen through various gestures like providing asylum to the Dalai Lama, all Tibetans and the Tibetan government in exile. Kashmir, therefore must be protected from these external forces in order to protect the rest of the country as well. Unfortunate as it is for Kashmiris, this is the sad truth and I don't see it changing, much like the sad truth for Tibet is that it has been taken over by China, and I don't see that changing either. However, there are similarities to what the Tibetans are asking for and what we should be willing to give Kashmiris, and that is the right to self-governance and self-determination. There are several examples around the world on how this can be done. I am not an expert on this and thus will not comment on this, but will narrate a story instead. 

I visited Kashmir a few years ago - in 2013 to be precise. I had quit my second job and gone on a month-long road trip across Rajasthan and UP before flying to Srinagar and visiting the nearby areas for my vacation. When I was 20, I had promised myself that I would take a break when I was 30 in order to think about life and where it was headed. Not that it was frikkin headed anywhere, but a little before I turned 30, I quit my job and went on this road trip. My French friend of Vietnamese heritage, who I had met when I was training for IBM in Saigon in 2011, was visiting India as she had heard a lot from her Yoga Master in Saigon. When we were on our way to Srinagar, I had told her that the place was reputed to be a 'Paradise on Earth'. She said that her Yoga Master had also recommended the place to her, having called it 'Heaven on Earth'. I still remember her reaction when she arrived amidst all the armed soldiers and intense security, where she needed to register her arrival and departure just so the government knew she was alive (she wasn't thrilled). I clearly remember her saying, "I see no paradise here" and it is then that it dawned upon me that Kashmir is not what we were taught to dream of it to be. I realized that it wasn't paradise at all, and I could understand the frustration of the Kashmiris when of the 7 days I was there, I was restricted to a houseboat and a few boat rides around the houseboat for 4 days because of the curfew imposed in the entire city. 

Police had killed a youth and then the army had enforced a curfew on the entire city. This was ordinary life for those people. Army atrocities happen day in and day out, but then Indian media never shows us what happens there, for it is not news when it is a daily affair. When you speak to Kashmiris there, you feel sorry for them. Speak heart to heart with a Kashmiri someday and you'll know why people like Afzal Guru come into existence. Hanging him in secret and refusing to let him meet his family before dying or to even return his body to his family would understandably make Kashmiris more alienated, and if we have to keep them as Indians anyway, then suppressing them is not a long term solution, but letting them speak is. And although I do NOT agree that Afzal Guru is a martyr or a hero, I respect the views of people who might think he is, as long as they are not inciting people or being secessionist. This is what was meant when students in JNU were shouting, "Kitne Afzal maaroge, har ghar se Afzal niklega" (How many Afzals will you kill, an Afzal will come out of every house), for it is true that suppression of voices only leads to the search for other forms of expression, which usually translates to violence. As Dr. Amit Ranjan rightly points out, "Campuses are temples of learning, and dissent and protest of students is a global phenomenon. If one knows France of 1969, or America of Vietnam times, or JNU of Emergency, or a hundred such examples, one would know that there is a long and respected tradition of resistance and student movements. This is what keeps a democracy robust. Even if you do not really believe in a real democracy, tactically, campuses are safety valves – where the youth have a voice to vent out, a place to put their word."

What the government is doing by trying to suppress these voices is to stifle this safety valve. Anyone who has had a pressure cooker explode in their kitchen would know how dangerous this is. What is more worrisome and anti-national too, are the violent incidents such as the one outside the high-court, where the goons have proven affiliations with the BJP, and the violence and might which the government and other opposing forces have come down upon ALL of JNU. All this while the BJP is in talks with the PDP (supporters of Afzal guru!!) in Kashmir to strengthen their alliance. The present government tends to assert its forces with great aggression upon ideologies different from theirs. They have changed the content of History textbooks and in certain schools, Baba Ramdev is being presented to children as a Saint!!!??? 

They want things to be made in India, requiring cheap labour for the global market and hence want universities to function like factories, where mere skills are produced without the cultivation of thought. While this may be true in engineering colleges or medical colleges, in Social Science universities in particular, people must be encouraged to think and to question existing norms. There have been several incidents where RSS activists and other right-wing organizations have taken the law into their hands, and the government has been silent about it. However, when it comes to ideologies that differ from theirs, they seem to be throwing their might around in several cases across the country, the two recent incidents being the Rohith Vemula case and the present JNU incident. What is also worrisome is that based on slogans that a handful of outsiders (or students?) raised, the media and the ABVP students have had the nation blame the entire campus for being a hub of anti-national thoughts, when it is a fact that even within JNU, there are constant debates and arguments that happen day-in and day-out. JNU is not one ideology, but a hot bed and a crucible that allows the mixing of several conflicting ideologies where healthy debates are held and conflicting ideas are brought face to face with each other in a non-threatening environment. If all of JNU thought alike, then why would we need to debate? Not even Yogesh and I agree on our political views despite often being on the same side while playing doubles on the tennis courts while peacocks and mongooses mate in front of us.

For those who think that JNU is suddenly standing up for Afzal Guru, or that they are picking up the wrong issues at the wrong time, and that they should have protested the Rohit Vemula case instead of dragging Afzal Guru in, I would like to say that JNU is a lot larger than these issues. There are a variety of issues that are raised and spoken about in JNU. On the night that the cultural show in JNU was to be organized, I am sure several other debates and discussions were also happening in other parts of the campus. Just because the media has decided to highlight this incident right now, doesn't mean that these discussions haven't happened before. The Indian Express covered a hunger strike on the Rohit Vemula issue by 7 JNU students a week before this incident was reported. What concerns me most is that I feel that this crackdown on JNU was because JNU has constantly been a pain in the neck for the government, by raising valid, rational questions by protesting against the 'Make in India' scheme for example, wherein the government wants India to start manufacturing things in India so that it can compete with China as a supplier to the global market. While this seems impressive on the face of it, people need to realize that for us to compete with China in the manufacturing industry, to maintain prices as low as China, we need to create a labour market that is similar to that in China, which means we need cheap labour that is subjected to great human rights violations. These and several other such valid points come out of the system of critique that goes by the name of JNU.

In Vimlendu Jha's response to Mohandas Pai's attack on JNU, he quotes Paulo Freire, one of the tallest educationist of the 20th century and the architect of ‘critical pedagogy’ as follows “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” He goes on to say to Mohandas Pai, "You seem to be equating educational institutions as factories with assembly line production, where pupils enter from one side as an empty vessel i.e. with no independent thought process of their own, and exit from the other side with the ‘vessel’ filled. You also seem to misunderstand that schools are not an extension of ‘Make in India’, instead it’s about ’Think in India’, critically... By design an educational institution is supposed to be as much a place of learning as well as a cultural and political body. Passive acceptance or agreement with the system or uncritically accepting the state point of view is surely not education". 

I would like to remind everyone that India has had a glorious past with several contributions in the fields of science, medicine, fitness, religion, spirituality and politics amongst others, and these developments surely did not come about without rational debates and discussions, and definitely not because of unwarranted hooliganism. We need to uphold the tapestry of coexistence despite our many differences and for this we need to seriously question our notions of what nationalism means, or what patriotism means. When the concept of the maata becomes more important than the people who live within these imaginary lines drawn around the maata, we might want to stop and think about what we're really fighting for. I have great respect for the soldiers braving adverse conditions and constant threats to their lives, and I know that they suffer way more than the civilians of the country, and all this is mostly owing to the partisan politics that has dominated the country. It is time that we stopped blindly following ideologies or political parties and questioned each event being reported after scrutinizing it thoroughly with a critical lense free of subjective statements and arguments being made by various sources. 

Patriotism does not lie in standing up for the national anthem in a movie theatre and going home to beat up one's wife or indulge in corruption. It cannot be gauged by superficial parameters like respect for the national flag or the national anthem and we certainly cannot force patriotism down the throats of people who do not wish to be patriotic in this sense. Forcing anything down someone's throat will only make them hate it more (most parents would know this). Suppression of voices will only lead to more violent forms of expression and violence only begets violence. As someone has said, and it doesn't matter who, "An eye for an eye only causes more blindness". We need to stop discouraging debate and dissent and stop following what is being sold to us on the media blindly, and we must strongly condemn all acts of violence, especially those backed by the government of India. Kanhaiya Kumar has been arrested despite not having shouted anti-national slogans (even Shatrughan Sinha from the BJP has vouched for it now!) while the real Kashmiri sloganeers are still running free. 
Government-backed police interference in the functioning of an academic institution, and hooliganism outside the High Court under the eyes of the Police by people closely associated with none other than the Home Minister of India are far greater threats to the country's reputation as the world's largest Democracy and the world's largest Republic as well as to our status as a Secular nation. 

While I say this, let me reiterate that I (or JNU) DO NOT SUPPORT OR CONDONE slogans like 'Bharat ki barbadi tak' or 'India Go Back'I am saddened that these slogans happened to take place in the JNU campus, and I sincerely hope these were NOT students of JNU who shouted them (for the video presented as evidence is too dark to identify who they were). I also hope these people are identified and questioned, and that the due legal procedures are followed while taking action in this regard. I also hope that right-wing extremists who celebrated India's Republic Day as a Black Day be called in for questioning, and that that case is investigated as rigorously as the JNU case is at the moment, and that the US moon-landing is also investigated as rigourously as well (Whaaaat??!!! Yeah well,  but you know, what's not funny is that not everyone knows at which point in the last three sentences I stopped being realistic). While the political parties and the media channels and the legal procedures sort these issues out, my only request to all those who have spoken against JNU is to please stop targeting the entire fraternity of JNU or condemning the entire event's organization as anti-national. Most importantly, for the sake of whatever you hold dearest to yourself, let's please condemn and end these unwarranted acts violence (hint: lawyers beating up university professors and students outside a high court, in police presence;) by irrational and true anti-national elements of our society. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

In These Forests of JNU

These times of trial call for great strength;
It takes courage to cross these gates.
There are voices rising east and west,
But as the noises get louder, they fade,
Against forces too khaki to comprehend,
Against an apathetic, bullying State.
Arise with us as we break across this dam,
So our ships can sail towards the seas.
These ships that sail for reason, for love;
Let's keep those lathis aside and speak.
Lend us your thoughts & we shall lend you ours,
Across this darkness of violent abuse; as we
Keep shouting the truth till it's louder than the lies,
With passion - in these forests of JNU.

We shout for a world where voices are heard,
Where the mind learns with the heart & the soul,
Where tongues have learnt to question and doubt
What the tyrannous times now show,
Where division and suppression find no space,
Where justice ain't hung in the dark on a pole.
We shout for freedom and peaceful times,
Where violence and war have no role.
Where people are heard, not trampled upon,
Where the masses are thinkers, not trolls;
Lend us your ears, your passion, your peace.
Let's brave the hooligans of hate and their crew;
Let's hold up our torches on these stormy nights
In peace - in these forests of JNU.