By Aashique Iqbal
Writing in a different context a long time ago, Indivar Kamtekar pointed out the difference between the concepts of sympathy and vulnerability. Sympathy, while it implied a degree of empathy with the problems of others, also suggested one’s own distance from them. Vulnerability on the other hand was a much more personal experience. Over the past few days there has been an outpouring of grief over the passing of Professor Pandian. He was an extraordinarily popular man and I would have been surprised if it had been otherwise. I have little to say that has not already been more coherently articulated by MSSP’s friends, students, and colleagues. The only half-formed thought that I have to share is on the vulnerability that MSSP, alone among my teachers, displayed.
Speaking once on the space that religion occupies in our country, Pandian said that he had only begun to hang the Christmas star outside his house after the demolition of Babri Masjid. As someone, who has had a fairly tortured relationship with his religion, that anecdote struck a chord in me. It felt like someone was giving voice to a thought that I had never been able to articulate.
Later when a great meeting was held at the university to critique the decision of the Allahabad High Court to partition the land on which the Babri Masjid had stood between the perpetrators and victims of its demolition, MSSP, to my surprise, took no great part. I left the meeting somewhat disappointed and confused that he had not spoken. A week later a friend told me how he had later told the speakers that he felt that as a Christian, he felt that he was stuck between two groups of people. On the one hand were those out to harm the minorities and on the other were those who were out to save them. Once again I was struck by how a shapeless discomfort with the meeting I had at the back of my head had been spelled out by Pandian.
Simply seeing a Christian Tamilian, from Madras Christian College no less, sit at the high table of academia was an encouragement and inspiration for me. I fear now that he is gone a potent symbol in academia of those who live on this country’s margins is lost. Sir felt the vulnerability that I did in the national heartland and that pushed his politics beyond the point of sympathy. Vulnerability need not be a recipe for weakness, MSSP seemed to suggest, but an opportunity. By not inhabiting the national mainstream, vulnerable groups could question dominant ideas. This meant not only questioning our opponents but more so those who were close to us, even when they were sympathetic. Once when I showed him work I was doing on textbooks written by members of our own centre, he told me to “Hammer them” since they were our ideological comrades.
MSSP made me feel proud to be a Muslim and a Tamilian. He understood the many fears and anxieties that live under our surfaces even in the most inclusive places. I know that MSSP felt more and not less vulnerable in his last few months and in a perverse way I will miss it.
Aashique Iqbal is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University. He read his M.A and MPhil. at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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