History at the altar of Nationalism: The Stakes of the Student Resistance in India

Bhargav Rani

 

What characterized the revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are going to make the continuum of history explode.

Walter Benjamin

How do we identify a historical moment as a crisis? How do we proclaim that it is a disjuncture which breaks the continuum of history? The prudent way of writing history would of course be to allow the passage of sufficient time, to wait and see what kind of a future the crisis unfolds. Before it can be proclaimed a disjuncture, it would demand an evaluation of the historical moment in relation to the conditions leading to it as well as to the kind of society it produces after.

But often times, these disjunctures in history bring with them, in the moment of their happening, a peculiar kind of historical consciousness. This consciousness is not only that of our place in history, an acute awareness of the exact conditions that have led to the crisis as well as the precise consequences that it would produce. It is also a self-reflexive consciousness of ourselves as agents of history, one in which we are made aware of our own power and potential to change the course of history, to willfully steer it into a new horizon. Thus, it is precisely in such moments of disjuncture that those who have been historically marginalized become acutely conscious of the possibility, however elusive, of seizing history from the hands of the powerful.

The task of writing history, which involves not just a dialogue with the past but also attention to the rhythms of the present, assumes a distinctly political character in these times. The comfortable certainty of prudence must give way to the precarious terrain of preemptions. I don’t mean that in a prophetic sense. Rather, as historically conscious agents, we must find ways of writing history that preempt and realize a radical vision of the future in the present with urgency. The future does not simply arrive, it must be willed into the present through the very act of writing. It is with this political will to herald a new future onto the present that I preemptively read the current political climate in India as a critical disjuncture in its history.

On 18 February, nearly fifteen thousand people marched from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to protest against the Indian state’s attack on the autonomy of academic spaces, its suppression of intellectual freedom and dissent, and its institutionalized practices of marginalization and oppression. The bodies of the dissenting masses were all charged with a historical consciousness, each embodying and performing the formidable struggle against the histories of the dominant. It is in this material, corporeal presence that the marks of this disjuncture are most indelibly etched.

But this disjuncture has already been preempted repeatedly, at least since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. The sharp ascendance of Hindu fundamentalism; the waxing authoritarianism of the state and its sustained assault on Democracy and dissent; the militarization of society and culture; the polarization of its people on the lines of caste, class, religion, food, and gender; the culture of lynch mobs and public executions; the utter subversion and mockery of the judicial system; the unprecedented scale of anti-intellectualism; all had the premonitions of our current historical condition.

On 9 February, certain left-leaning student-activists from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a premier public university in New Delhi, organized a cultural protest meeting in support of Kashmiri peoples’ right to self-determination, and to question the judicial killing of Afzal Guru in 2013 in relation to the terrorist attack on the Parliament in 2001. While debates around the legality of the Indian occupation of Kashmir and the judicial integrity behind Afzal Guru’s execution are categorically expunged from the public discourse influenced by the Hindu Right, JNU has always been a progressive space of free intellectual exchange where such arguments were both commonplace and critically interrogated. However, what was uncommon on that February night, and rather surprising, was that some unidentified people in the congregation raised slogans that called for a “destruction of India.”

The very imbecility of these slogans, which fail rationalization in any shade of left politics, should be indicative of the identity of the instigators, for they sound suspiciously like the Hindu Right’s imagination of what the Left would say. But more importantly, the identity of the instigators is beside the point, for the act in itself is not unconstitutional. Notwithstanding the right to free speech, slogans do not circulate in a purely affective realm but must be grounded in material realities, in the absence of which they cease to be affective and effective. In a progressive space like JNU, a few, stray slogans calling for a “destruction of India” stood absolutely no chance of gaining any currency. The gravest offence that these slogans can be charged of is stupidity. Beyond that is all rhetoric.

What should, in a rational world, have been dismissed as a non-issue became an elaborate ruse for a severely disproportionate assault on the university and its students by the Indian state. On 12 February, the Delhi police barged into the students’ hostels with a “list” and arrested the elected President of JNU Students’ Union Kanhaiyya Kumar on the arbitrary charge of sedition, despite no evidence of his participation in the sloganeering. What followed in the next few days and continues still is a perverse drama of witch-hunt and persecution orchestrated by the state with its many arms and apparatus. Filtered through the prism of “nationalism” as defined by the Hindu Right, the go-to rhetoric of oppression for the ruling regime, and in collusion with large sections of the corporate, mainstream media manufacturing not just consent but “evidence” as well, an entire university and its student body was vilified and labelled “anti-national,” as the hotbed of “terrorists.” With the help of doctored videos and a spectacle of imagery, one of the five students accused of sedition, Umar Khalid, a self-avowed atheist and a Communist with a long history of involvement in left politics at JNU, was maliciously painted on national television as an Islamic fundamentalist with links to Pakistani terrorist groups, all on the sheer convenience of his Muslim name. Meanwhile, the university campus has been placed under siege with hundreds of armed policemen patrolling the streets in an immensely autocratic move towards militarization. A climate of fear and intimidation is being nourished in a space of free thought and learning. All on the excuse of a few innocuous, inane slogans.

Yes, innocuous!

Slogans don’t destroy a nation; monolithic imaginations of nationalism do. The entire spectacle of the state has been founded on a dramatic animation of an insignificant incident into a national crisis in the public consciousness through a clever deployment of rhetorical and performative strategies. This has been the characterizing feature of the Hindu Right’s mode of operation. It is a politics of affect, of spectacle without substance. “Nationalism” as a framework and the figure of the “anti-national” fit neatly into the state’s modus operandi precisely because they are not only remarkably effective at reducing all nuance in any issue, but more importantly, they carry an immense affective potential to polarize the masses. Pick a Muslim name, the convenient Other; stamp a face to it; paint the words “anti-national” across in a bold font engulfed in flames; invoke an association with Pakistan, the original and perennial Other of the Hindu nation; shout it from the rooftops, so to speak; and even lawyers can be made to forget our constitutional rights. Add to that the figure of the martyred soldier, the “nationalist” paramount only in death, in a misplaced juxtaposition of symbols, and we have unthinking masses baying for the blood of a few students in a preemptive measure of self-preservation lest their own “nationalist” credentials be brought into question. But underneath these demonstrations of jingoistic pride and patriotism, the affective politics of the Hindu Right belies an essential ahistoricity, a void that signifies a disdain of and divestiture from all histories that refuse to stand by in silence in its conquests. That is not to say that nationalism itself does not have a history. Rather, it is to say that even the history of nationalism will testify against its idea of the nation.

Notwithstanding this ahistoricity, we find ourselves compelled to fight the regressive measures of the state in the very terms of discourse established and promoted by it. This is because the affective politics of the Hindu Right does indeed produce real, material and dire consequences. The laying on of rhetoric only partially obscures the laying on of hands. Kanhaiyya, who was imprisoned for nineteen days, was brutally beaten in custody by policemen and lawyers for three hours till he agreed to say, “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” (Hail, Mother India!). On the day of his hearing, lawyers of the Hindu Right attacked and manhandled JNU teachers and students who had gathered there in support of Kanhaiyya inside the courthouse itself, even as the police watched in silence. Umar and Anirban Bhattacharya, another of the accused students, who were compelled to go into hiding in fear of a mob lynching, recently resurfaced and surrendered to the police and we have every reason to fear for their safety.

Moreover, this affective deployment of “nationalism” with the help of the mainstream media nourishes an ecology of simmering resentment and hate towards a constructed Other that threatens to break into violence at any moment. JNU, which has not only existed peacefully with its neighboring communities for almost fifty years but has also actively fought alongside them in their struggles, is now being viewed with suspicion by the people in these very communities. Students living outside the campus are facing eviction threats from landlords; auto-rickshaw drivers in the city are refusing to take students to the campus; people are being attacked by mobs because they “look” like JNU students; and even sections of the so-called educated liberals of the country are demanding a shutting down of the university. It is because of these real, material implications of the ahistorical distortions of “nationalism” as propounded by the state that the teachers’ association at JNU has been holding a series of teach-ins, lessons in history, on “what is the nation?” and the idea of “nationalism.”

I dwell here at length on the subject of history because that is precisely what is at stake today. And this is something that not only the JNU teachers and students but the larger academic community is acutely aware of. Academicians and intellectuals, including eminent scholars like Noam Chomsky, Akeel Bilgrami, Judith Butler, Partha Chatterjee, Sheldon Pollock, Meena Alexander of CUNY, as well as students from universities across the world have come out in support of the student movement that is now brewing in India. The Doctoral Students’ Council of the Graduate Center passed a resolution in support of the protests at its last plenary on 19 February and the Professional Staff Congress has issued a statement of solidarity. There have also been public rallies, demonstrations, and teach-ins condemning the actions of the Indian state in various cities and institutions around the world.

Moreover, there is a general recognition that this assault on history by the Indian state is part of a larger pattern of intense anti-intellectualism, a sentiment reflected in its appointments of right-wing individuals of dubious academic credentials to top positions in research institutes and universities; in the murders of activist-scholars like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi; in its self-aggrandizing claims on history and culture that defy all reason; in its revocation of scholarships for public university students; and in the saffronization of school and college curricula. It is against this background that the assault on JNU, a premier public university that has always been a formidable center of knowledge production, and the particularly intense attack on the Centre for Historical Studies there, must be understood. While it becomes the urgent political imperative to counter the Hindu Right’s assertion of nationalism with a historical deconstruction of it, to fight its ahistoricity with history, it is also important to ask what precisely are the histories that this insistent ahistoricity is trying to elide. Whose histories are being suppressed and silenced under this red herring called “nationalism?” And we need not go too far back in the past to find answers.

On 17 January, Rohith Vemula, a young Dalit research scholar of Hyderabad Central University (HCU) hanged himself in a friend’s hostel room. Rohith was a member of the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA), a political group advocating for Dalit rights. He, along with four other Dalit students from the group, were suspended from the university and barred from entering the hostels and common areas after a right-wing student leader filed a false report against them. In protest against the administration’s decision, they pitched a tent on campus and went on a hunger strike. The script is the same here. Rohith and the ASA students were frequently targeted by Hindu right-wing organizations for their activism, and their suspension is believed to have been impelled by political pressure from the BJP to crackdown on what it called “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics.”

The institutional murder of Rohith brought the question of caste discrimination in elite institutions of learning into sharp focus. Protests erupted across the country, including at JNU as well, and statements of rage and solidarity inundated social media and alternative news platforms. There was mounting pressure on the BJP-government to respond to these statements. Demands are being made to introduce new legislation to safeguard the rights and dignity of caste minorities in higher educational institutions. A long history of caste violence and oppression, inscribed on the bodies of students like Rohith, experienced as an everyday reality by millions even today, but routinely erased in the sanitized discourses of the dominant, forced its way into the public consciousness through the rupture that this incident opened in the fabric of history. The extent of this erasure can be seen in the increasing mileage that demands for class-based reservation in place of the existing caste-based one are gaining, especially among sections of the urban, educated liberals.

But this history of caste oppression in its everyday reality is a subject of immense discomfort for the Hindu Right for it directly implicates and threatens its Brahmanical hegemony. Only three weeks after Rohith’s death, JNU happens. The uncomfortable history of caste is hurriedly obscured under the affective spectacle of “nationalism.” As a few picket signs at the march in Delhi succinctly put it – “JNU to bas bahana hain; Rohith ka muddha dabana hain” (“JNU is but an excuse; Rohith’s issue is to be subdued”). While the suppression of this resurgent history by the Hindu Right is being met with resistance from the student movement, with the institutional murder of Rohith and the attack on the autonomy of universities being viewed as a continuum of state oppression by many, it is imperative to keep in mind that the dubious and ahistorical category of the “anti-national” as deployed by the state is nothing more than a reformulation of the caste Other into a more affective lexicon.

Caste is not the only history that is being silenced. The Hindu Right’s imagination of the “nation” is as much subservient to neoliberal interests as it is detrimental to the minorities and marginalized communities in the country. Even as certain sections of the educated liberals have the audacity to assume a sanctimonious position as taxpayers funding public education in order to demand and justify the crucifixion of a handful of university students, public sector banks in India have written-off bad debts of major corporations in the order of $16 billion USD in the last three years. The finance ministry proposed a capital infusion of about $10 billion USD over the next four years in the interest of the stability of the public banking sector, a disbursement that will come from the pockets of these very taxpayers.

In consonance with this capitalist subservience, the state is also accused of diluting the land acquisition restrictions and particularly the Forest Rights Act, which safeguards the ownership of forest land to the tribal dwellers living there and depending on it for their sustenance, to allow development projects in forest areas to circumvent clearance requirements from the local governing bodies. Unidentified men in Bastar recently attacked Soni Sori, a prominent activist fighting for the rights of adivasis and tribals in the Maoist-conflict regions, and they mutilated her face with acid-like chemicals. For the past two years, Sori has been leading the protests against the state for alleged fake encounters and sexual violence perpetrated by its security forces. It is these histories of neoliberal exploitation, land dispossession, and state violence that need articulation in the current political project.

The chemical attack on Sori and the nature of the death threats she has been receiving reflects another sordid story of oppression that the history of the dominant elides. The history that the Hindu Right hopes to write in the public consciousness is not only a history of capitalist exploitation and Brahmanical impunity, but it is also a history of patriarchal hegemony. Its idea of nationalism is a fetishized imagination of the Hindu upper-caste male, one in which the female body, stripped of agency and identity, is a site of appropriation and violent assertion of power. Nothing reflects this more palpably than the disturbing ease with which rape is invoked as a threat against those labeled “anti-national.” When Umar was declared a “terrorist” and a national threat by the mainstream media, it was a harrowing experience for his family members, who were subjected to lewd threats of sexual violence by the Hindu Right’s storm troopers. This easy resort to rape as a threat is a rampant phenomenon on social media platforms where it is deployed to silence any dissidence. But the extent of misogyny that informs the Hindu Right’s mode of operation is evident in the double negation of the female body that these threats often signify. There is, at one level, the physical negation of the body intended in the act of rape itself. But at another level, there is also the negation of the right to victimhood for the raped body for the threat is leveled against and understood as a slight on the “honor” of the male kin.

Moreover, this idea of nationalism propounded by the Hindu Right is also premised on a paradigm of morality, which is again monitored and policed by the Hindu upper-caste male. This is glaring in the preposterous comments of the BJP leader Gyandev Ahuja that there are 2000 bottles of beer and 3000 used condoms found in JNU every day. The comments indicate precisely how moral codes of behavior of the dominant are being naturalized in the name of “nationalism” in order to demonize the dissidents. Thus, it is essential to understand the current political climate of aggressively Hindu nationalism as a critical disjuncture in the history of feminist struggles in India, as an anathema to any emancipatory project that is founded on gender.

So yes, this is a crisis in history and a crisis of history. As historically conscious subjects, we now stand at a temporal impasse, hovering in suspended animation over a critical disjuncture in history as we contemplate how best to write histories of a new future. We seek ways of doing histories that do not passively await the coming of a better future but rather strive to realize a radical vision of the future in the present with urgency. While there are many in the movement who are more qualified to answer this, let me leave you with a glimpse into the vision of a profound thinker contemplating the same question at a time in history that dangerously threatens to repeat itself today. In early 1940, the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, wrote his seminal essay, “On the Concept of History” (or “Theses on the Philosophy of History”), his last completed work, in Vichy, France, where he was in exile from Nazi Germany. The evocative but complex essay, to which I was first introduced during my studies at JNU, has generated numerous debates by late twentieth century intellectuals, and Benjamin’s insights on his own historical condition remain prescient to our times.

One of his most significant intellectual contributions in this essay is his sharp critique of historicism, the construction of history as a continuum of human “progress” that is based on a linear conception of time, as progressing from the past into the present into the future. Such a view of history, Benjamin argues, is impotent to the extent that it posits any revolutionary project, a classless society for instance, as an infinite task of a never-to-come future. As opposed to this, he proposes a conception of history founded on a radical re-envisioning of time, not as a linear, chronological progression but as a tremendous abbreviation of the past, the present and the future into a single, condensed “messianic now-time” where the entire history of humankind is made visible. “Redemption,” according to Benjamin, is a humankind that “has its past become citable in all its moments.”

What is most revolutionary about his thesis, which might be of particular relevance to our present context, is that, for him, the realization of a better society no longer entails a longing gaze towards the future but rather demands a close attention to the past, a revitalization of history in its entirety in one sweeping glance. In our current crisis of history, perhaps what this means is that political action must entail a gargantuan project of rekindling in the public consciousness all those histories buried under the detritus of oppression, be it of caste, class, religion, sexuality or gender or be it of Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, as an intense abbreviation of messianic potential. Lessons on the histories of caste, feminism, sexuality, must follow the series on nationalism. The social sciences and the humanities must be radically democratized. And this is a project that must be guided by the teachers in the movement. On 25 September 1940, faced with the possibility of capture by the Nazi troops, Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets at a hotel in the coastal town of Portbou in Catalonia.

Perhaps the most disarticulating factor leading to the current historical disjuncture that India finds itself grappling with was Rohith’s suicide note. Poignant and profound, his final words jumped off the page to capture the imagination of the people, to blast a hole in the continuum of history, to bring the masses out onto the streets. Although Rohith, as he notes, aspired to be a writer, “a writer of science, like Carl Sagan,” he possessed the historical consciousness of a philosopher. There is something of a messianic quality to his words for even in their fleeting temporality, they evoke the entire history of caste oppression as an intense summation charged with revolutionary potential. “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” Rohith, at the end of his letter, almost “forgets” to write the “formalities,” that no one is responsible for his death, that it was his own decision, something the BJP leaders never tire of reminding. But make no mistake. While Rohith, from the goodness of his heart, does indeed forgive everyone, he does not absolve history. “My birth is my fatal accident,” he writes, in a succinct but severe indictment of the history that had already negated him before his death. In this crisis of history, history must be made to pay its debt.

 

(Photograph featured for the article by Tanushree Bhasin)

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