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The moral economy of the Indian Left: The JNU crisis and the ‘progressive Indians’!

By Idrees Kanth

“The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”—Aristotle

While there has been a visible divide among the Indians on how the government ought to have dealt with the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) crisis, there is unanimity across sections of people, including the progressives, the liberals, the leftists, that certain actions — raising slogans in favour of independence for Kashmir — that emanated from the JNU campus are deeply deplorable. And that while free speech must be protected, the Indian ought to be a good nationalist, of the Kanhaiya Kumar variety, who limits his speak to the permissible limits of aazadi within India.

Many progressive Indians, including radical parties like CPI (Marxists Leninists), while they justifiably protested the unlawful detention of Kanhaiya, who they maintain did not utter any ‘anti-national’ slogans, have also stood in support of Umar Khalid — who is still in police custody. However, in the case of Umar they have tried to explain away his ‘anti-national’ sentiment. They claim that some unknowns (read: Kashmiris), and not JNU students, were the ones who raised the inimical slogans of Bharat ki barbadi and Kashmir ki aazadi. As one of these progressive Indian writes:

“From the very beginning, it has been amply clear that the people who raised anti-India slogans at the Jawaharlal Nehru University on 9 February were Kashmiris. Yet, the Delhi Police has not even been looking for them, because arresting Kashmiri students in Delhi will finish any remaining chance of saving the BJP’s alliance with the local political party in Jammu and Kashmir. As a result, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya are in jail even though they raised no anti-India slogans. If anything, they tried to douse that fire.”

While Umar’s being a Muslim makes his case all the more difficult, the ‘progressive’ Indians claim that he is a PhD student, an atheist, a communist, and not a Kashmiri. They quote his father and his sisters to assert that “Umar is not religious at all, he is a communist pagal.” By this logic, thus, Umar cannot be labeled an anti-national. He is neither a Muslim nor a Kashmiri.

Forgetting the Kashmiri part – for Umar is not one (and also because Kashmiris like me and others, who do not claim to be Indian nationals, cannot thus be anti-nationals) – the case again demonstrates the vulnerabilities and the complexities that come with being an ‘Indian Muslim’. In this context, the historian Gyan Pandey, perceptively remarks that unlike the ‘Nationalist Muslim’ there is no equivalent category for the Hindus, or for that matter any of the other religious groupings in India. Of course, there is the term: ‘Hindu nationalist’, but it does not refer simply to nationalists who happen to be Hindus. It is, rather, an indication of their brand of nationalism, a brand in which the  ‘Hindu’ moment has considerable weight. It is a nationalism in which Hindu culture, Hindu traditions, and the Hindu community are given pride of place. Thus, as it appears the only feasible option for an Indian Muslim to be accepted within a certain alternative version of ‘national’ community (read: progressive) is to be a ‘progressive’ Muslim himself, even as this progressive community reinforces the national identity albeit in a different way. Perhaps that’s the reason why the (Irfan) Habibs, the (Mushirul) Hasans, the (Shabana) Azmis, etc., are all ‘progressive’, and, therefore, Indian, to answer Pandey’s question: Can a Muslim be an Indian?

The unrelenting Indian romance with nation and nationalism – progressive or otherwise – is as old as the Indian national struggle. Even in such apparently emancipatory academic projects as the Subaltern Studies, the ‘national’undertone becomes apparent when we read the latter volumes. While the initial volumes sought to rescue the subaltern from being lost to nation and history, the substance and meaning of subalternity shifted after 1986, as the framework of study increasingly stressed the clash of unequal cultures under colonialism ‘and the dominance of colonial modernity over India’s resistant, indigenous culture’. Subaltern Studies thus became a post-colonial critique of modern, European, and Enlightenment epistemologies; a national history from the backdoor, should one say, one that has had little connect to the actual subaltern on the ground who disappeared from the project to enable the indigenous Indian culture to emerge as the subaltern voice.

Nonetheless while one ought to stand in solidarity with the students of JNU in their struggle against curtailment of free expression, etc., it is also a moment to ask other questions as well. The good national — the bad national; the national — the anti-national, and other such dichotomies are not effectively relevant, or less relevant unless one also reflects, as the philosopher John Rawls would say, on the moral quality of the actual collective life (in India), and elsewhere as well.

The mainstream Indian culture (if one is permitted to use the word, and give it a longer history) has lacked a genuine and a perceptible egalitarian tradition. If at all, the tradition has emerged from the margins, but even then it has largely been employed more as a moral language, than anything else, by those Indians who continue to set the terms of public and intellectual discourse in India. But have these ‘progressive’ Indians also internalised the discourse, and tried to make it a part of their everyday moral life? There are countless unreported cases in the so-called politically sensitive campuses like JNU, wherein the under-privileged students experience subtle forms of humiliation from people who never stop short of talking about equality and dignity in the public domain. But unlike the privileged, they are too vulnerable to report them, or make any headway. Considering this dichotomy thus, there is this opportunity of meeting some very interesting brand of ‘progressive’ people in India. Those feminists who strongly espouse women’s rights but have a deep nationalist streak in them; a posse of leftist academics who claim they are not caste conscious, but do not always feel comfortable to supervise Dalit students. And still further those ‘emancipated’ souls who claim that meritocracy is socially constructed and depends on social location, yet cannot stop projecting their intellectual eminence as something intrinsic to them, etc.

It is this acute sense of the poor quality of moral life in India, and the associated inequalities, is what made Rohit Vemula “feel empty” and thus perceptively remark that, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility; To a thing!” Vemula learnt from personal experience, that while the communists and leftist activists had given up their faith in God, they could not bring themselves up to abandon their faith in the caste system, and, should I add, their deep allegiance to the national sentiment. He also became aware, as one of his friends wrote, not just of the Brahminical tendencies of individual CPI (Marxists) activists, but also the fact that Left parties including the CPI (Maoist),while they have had a loyal Dalit cadre in the lower ranks, they have never allowed a single Dalit as a politburo member, or to hold the leadership of the party, ever since they have existed. This explains why social location continues to be a very important marker in understanding a variety of social and political inequalities in the Indian society, including the fact of some people being more ‘resilient’, while others committing suicide!

To conclude, the national/anti-national debate has some relevance to it only when the informed Indian citizenry, and particularly its progressive opinion makers, learn to be sensitive to the plight of its oppressed people; learn to treat the Dalits and other marginal communities with dignity, not as favour, but as their genuine human right; accept the Indian Muslims as a people, who do not always need to put up a ‘progressive’ stance; and allow the Kashmiris their legitimate right to determine their political future, etc. And perhaps equally importantly when politics in India and Indian universities becomes more than just being politically correct! 

Postscript: Even the solidarities are so unequal! 

The write-up was originally published in the Daily Vox, South Africa. I thank its editor, Azad Essa, for putting it up there. Subsequently I forwarded the write up to a few people in Delhi, one of whom wrote back saying it should also be put up on portals and web-magazines like the Kafila and RAIOT.IN to allow for some discussion. Subsequently it was published at RAIOT.IN for which I am again thankful to its editor. I also thank Mary Ann Chacko for writing to me and wanting to repost the essay at Café Dissensus. However, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, one of the editors at Kafila refused to put it up citing that the writer does not apologise for the Barat ki Barbadi slogan. Sengupta’s opinion, as it appears from a volley of emails he sent me, is that it was my ethical duty (since I am a Kashmiri myself) to denounce these slogans which have been apparently attributed to Kashmiris living in Delhi. He also says that there is an easy blurring of ‘Azadi for Kashmir’ slogan in the write up with the ‘Bharat ki Barbaadi tak, Jang Rahegi, Jang Rahegi’, and ‘Bharat Tere Tukde Hazaar, Inshallah, Inshallah’ slogans.

As would be obvious to anyone who reads the write-up, it barely engages with the slogans, or sits a moral judgment on them. The write-up has a very different purpose to it. It is titled, “The moral economy of the Left”. Basically I use the JNU episode to make a larger argument on the quality of moral life in India, tying it to the moral bankruptcy of the ‘progressive’ sections of Indian society. I finally conclude that the progressive sections should be more sensitive to the plight of the oppressed people in India, making it again evident that the sloganeering of ‘Bharat ki Barbadi’ issue is not my concern in the essay.

But there is a deeper problem with Sengupta’s response. Sengupta claims he is not a nationalist, evoking Arundhati Roy (in one of the many emails to me) to say that like her he stands opposed to this sentiment. Yet Sengupta essentially constructs me as a ‘Kashmiri’ who ought to have apologised to the Indian people for the inimical slogans. Other than this concern, it seems there isn’t much else that merits his attention in the essay. But would he have raised the same objections if a ‘non-Kashmiri’ had written the write-up? Why could he not see me as a conscientious human being raising some moral questions? I do call myself a Kashmiri in the text, not in the sense of a nationalist though, but to make the semantic argument that since a Kashmiri resists the appropriation of being an Indian, therefore, he cannot be an ‘anti-national’ in the first place.

My apprehension is that the reasons for refusing the write-up are implicated in the very dichotomy that I speak of in the essay (In fact, I will be writing a longer piece as a rejoinder to Sengupta’s objections and making other arguments on the same theme).

Here are the Senguptas of this world building solidarities, and people like I, very unknown and unfamiliar to THEM — because they are friends with all the brightest people in the world (this is called class solidarity) — are out there only to disrupt this great struggle that THEY are supervising. While his argument is morally indefensible, yet none of his ‘progressive’ class-mates would let him know that he is making a moral error (this is called class behaviour).

The fact of the matter is that many of these progressive people have often had the best possible access to education, and other privileges, much like the fact that their children go to the best universities in the world, and get employed in the best possible places. Of course that is no issue; they have every right to make use of the opportunities. But do they even ever acknowledge that their social location, their class position, their family genealogy, their vast networks, etc. play an important role in making it all possible? The very question I was trying to ask in the essay!

And finally here is what the Kafila site mentions:  “The views expressed by Kafila’s authors are their own and not that of all of Kafila or all its authors. Similarly, the views expressed in a guest post are that of the guest writer only and may or may not be shared by the Kafila author who has published the guest post.” So could Sengupta not have published the piece with a similar disclaimer?

Idrees Kanth
is a research fellow in History at the Asian Modernities and Traditions (AMT) research profile at Leiden University, The Netherlands.  

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4 Responses to “The moral economy of the Indian Left: The JNU crisis and the ‘progressive Indians’!”

  1. younusmalla

    Sengupta is an embodiment of this hypocrisy, not just from the moral frame but from the political frame. The author should not take his demand for an apology as ethical duty at a face value. In fact Sengupta is playing on the border line of moral-political nd making a political demand rather than a moral one. For the action of apologizing will first b considered political and only later judged as a moral one. Politics precedes ethics. Politics here becomes an event for the afterplay of ethics.

  2. Premangshu Ray

    Quite a few people would agree with the basic argument made. Some might disagree. However, the points of view are not the problem. What is a problem is that the argument is made in a very small part of the write-up. For the most part, the write-up is highly verbose and convoluted. This is what makes it highly uninteresting. However, if it were to be more to the point and substantiated in a less confusing manner, it would probably make a piece worth reading.

  3. shikha

    It is a totally uninformed article , makes very general and sweeping critique which are generally applicable to elite academia anywhere in the world and transposes it to Indian universities and the moral life of progressives. The processes of social justice are complex and indeed no campus including JNu is free of structural inustices that arise therein , how can it be given the society we inherit ? But to say everything is just political correctness and there have been no genuine critical engagements with any of these issues while sitting in a campus abroad , being totally unaware of the struggles of a student body and a university community and pronouncing pious judgements on teh basis of generalised critiques is not only self righteous , but denies agency to teh very people who’s cause it attempts to champion . Those voices which engage in public universities and feel empowered through it in so many ways coming from socially and economically marginalised classes need to be heard first instead of a banal critique about moral economies which is equally applicable to a campus where you reside. Try talking to generations of inter sectional jnuites about what the university has meant to them and the myriad ways in which they connect with the space and the community it has provided, even as they have their own critiques about it – this cynical dismissal of complex processes is typical of fashionable critiques from distances of contexts and histories you do not bother to actually engage with from sanitised environments. And equally banal is teh critique of good muslim , bad muslim- fails to understand that it is the progressive muslim who’s more vulnerable in a country which can accomodate the mullahs and the believers so that it knows how to slot them and have their communities intact but will hound the irfan habib’s wherever they can – in dens of minority conservatism like AMU , a campus as conservative as hindu right campuses like BHU. This is the age of attacking the intellectual, the liberal and the progressive and calling them out in ‘competitive radicalism’ but actually put in none of the hard labour and sustained struggles and traditions that have built institutions like JNU. Really , what you say is trivially true of all campuses but misses out completely on what is affirming about certain spaces . Please do not extend solidarity without understanding what makes certain places what they are even -and for your information jnu is the only space where kashmir and north east are even discussed in theway they are and should be in any university . And umar may have supported self determination for kashmiris , but he and anyone else will refuse to endorse a slogan like bharat teri barbaadi – is the indian state the same as the people of india ? why should anybody’s azaadi mean barbaadi for the people at large ?And as for nationalism, really what about kashmiris , are they free of their own brand of romantic nationalism ? Ofcourse this does not justify teh Indian state’s interventions in kashmir , but not to understand where nationalism can possibly come from in one context and how they reflect an aspiration of a people , while reifying the idea of kashmiri nationalism’ is really too rich .


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