Foster debate, not violence

by January 8, 2020 0 comments

The hooligans who vandalised JNU must be arrested. This might give some kind of closure to aggrieved students. But we need to rekindle the culture of debate and dialogue

As one gets down to write about one of the most disturbing episodes in the history of university politics in independent India, it becomes difficult to aim for balance. When bloodied faces of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) girls and menacing images of masked mobs brandishing hammers, machetes, iron rods and sticks flash across one’s mind, how does one show restraint in expressions?

It is possible that a few readers might misconstrue my opening observation as a clever but pliant pretext to dodge public condemnation of the attack on JNU. Some might even argue that if I were to write anything other than a spirited declamation of the State and the JNU administration, I would be doing the institution a great disservice. However, if no denunciation of violence is sufficient — and the horror of it cannot be summarised in language — must public intellectuals be endlessly polemical in their writings and speeches? Ever since the JNU crisis escalated, we have been swarmed with accusatory articles of two varieties: One that calls for clampdown on “urban Naxals” and the “tukde tukde” gang, that allegedly thrive is JNU’s subsidised campus, and a second that accuses a State-corporate nexus of attempting to privatise higher education and muzzle voices. I feel emboldened to argue that it is precisely this practice of using public forums to launch no-holds-barred assaults on adversarial viewpoints that has aggravated the crisis. This may not be the occasion to philosophise but to me, the sight of masked-assailants targetting political adversaries suggests a heightened state of intolerance and a complete refusal to communicate.

Simmering intolerance: As has been repeatedly pointed out, the crisis in JNU, to a great extent, is a fallout of a hostile rhetoric that has been doing the rounds on news channels and social media. The nature of this rhetoric is such that it refuses to allow even the slightest concession to its opponent. It is, therefore, no surprise that over the last few years, even as India kept debating “intolerance”, tolerance has been the greatest casualty. For months on end, agitated citizens tuned in to news debates, hoping to find answers to issues that had suddenly come to seize the public sphere. But the domineering news anchors and the blaring experts offered precious little other than orchestrated shouting duels. For a sizeable segment in India, which includes students, shopkeepers and senior citizens, such inflammatory debates, accessed through TVs and smartphones, provide an escape from the monotony of their placid lives. To argue after Professor Craig Jeffrey, this has been our “national timepass” or the politics of waiting in India. It is, therefore, all the more important that on a day such as this, we refrain from indulging in competitive intolerance or freestyle rhetoric.

While it is indeed a painful truth that balanced attempts at seeing the other side in contentious debates are socially not so rewarding but given the circumstance, it has become imperative. Occasional self-criticism, reflection and survey of the socio-political trends, which have dragged us to this point, will, perhaps, throw up strategies to escape this quagmire.

Breakdown of communication: Let us also admit that over the past two decades, in spite of the giant strides that we have taken in the field of mass communication, our ability to communicate has diminished significantly. If intolerant rhetoric is public enemy number one, breakdown of communication occupies the second spot. Further, those little conversations that we manage to have with our adversaries are so toxic that they end up pushing us in back into our respective cocoons, instead of helping us crawl out of them. As we debate, we interrupt, hoot, caricature, abuse and threaten.

In Think Again: How to reason and argue, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that these days, people do not have close friends with radically different political views. It is indeed true that today, the majority prefers to live in communities, both real and virtual that are similar with respect to religion, politics, news sources and even social media networks. Moreover, if at all we encounter people with views hostile to our own, we avoid interacting with them. Consequently, the ideological schisms that divide us have widened more than ever. The world, including India, has transformed into a parliament of ideas with little possibility of syncretic exchanges and every chance of violent confrontations.

If you ever speak to the JNU alumni, you will find that the stories of campus camaraderie that cut across political ideologies and all other affiliations are aplenty. Most will admit that while the campus debates were always intense, they never even bordered on hatred, let alone violence. However, of late, things have taken a rather unfortunate turn. Shortly after the violence on January 5, a friend from JNU posted something to the effect that hereafter she would banish all BJP/RSS sympathisers from her life and that she would never ever interact with any of them or engage them in debates. If dialogue is not the way forward, how then do we propose to take things further and resolve the crisis?

Beyond JNU: This breakdown of communication inside the campus is matched by a similar disruption of communication with the world beyond. People outside the campus, even academicians based in prominent regional centres, are upset because media houses and activists have persistently refused to engage with the plight of universities beyond Delhi. For anyone, who has studied at provincial universities, scenes such as those witnessed by JNU on January 5 are commonplace. The present outcry over JNU, which is being projected as the last citadel of knowledge and democratic values in India, tends to overlook this reality. While the slightest suggestion of State intervention in Delhi-based institutions provokes massive outpouring of grief and indignation in certain sections of media, activists from Delhi had turned a blind eye when universities across India were being systematically dismantled. And those responsible for destruction of the likes of Patna University, Allahabad University and Lucknow University, among others, were socialists and the self-proclaimed followers of Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). According to Andre Beteille, the JP Movement did not lead to any significant moral cleansing of the students.

Student politics today: In 1970, writing on university politics in India, PG Altbach dismissed student activism as a spent force. He felt that it had lost its pre-independence idealism and sense of purpose. Although Altbach was proven wrong by the JP Movement, yet it is fair to argue that the months preceding Emergency saw the last major show of student unity. Since then, these movements have been spontaneous, sporadic and mostly disjointed. This can be attributed to a number of factors. First, owing to the expansion of institutions of higher education, the student population has become much more heterogeneous than earlier. Second, emphasis on commerce and technical education, as opposed to liberal arts and social sciences, has rendered them largely indifferent to socio-political issues. Third, our public institutions, such as the Parliament and judiciary, have become much stronger than earlier. Fourth, the extent and practice of students activism is not the same everywhere. Those based in metropolitan centres are more aware of politics and, therefore, more prone to activism. This difference has been further sharpened by an ever-widening rural-urban divide. Fifth, to most onlookers, student politics is a waste of time, resources and a breeding ground for corrupt politicians of the future. It is no surprise that calls for banning campus politics have become so ubiquitous in public discourses. Given the glorious legacy of student politics in India, this is highly undesirable. However, under the changed circumstances, some initiation in campus behaviour, culture and political socialisation should be made a part of orientation programme.

The hooligans, who vandalised JNU, must be arrested. This might give some kind of closure to the aggrieved students. But we need to rekindle the culture of debate, dialogue and cordial disagreement too.

(Writer: Gautam Choubey; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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