The JNU fracas could in many ways be the perfect dark comedy had the repercussions of what happened not been so challenging – for the government, the liberal commentariat, and the political Right. The amplification of a deeply troubling display of misplaced political beliefs by a section of the radical Left by the media, and the equally disturbing display of heavy-handedness by the current dispensation has obfuscated two crises at hand – that of judgement, and imagination.
The crisis of judgement stems from the government’s – and the Left’s – inability to distinguish between what constitutes constitutionally-protected free speech, and what is truly seditious. A student leader from a mainstream – though irrelevant – political party, the Communist Party of India, was arrested for a speech that in no way constitutes incitement to wage war against the State – the defining criterion for sedition in Indian law. Whether this law is “good” or “bad” is besides the point.
That this law has been on the Indian Penal Code for as long as it has implies that it enjoys the protection of the entire spectrum of the Indian polity that has fought and won elections, unlike the radical Left which has historically been contemptuous of India’s form of governance. At the same time – if forensic evaluation of the video-clips confirms it – some of the sloganeering at the JNU campus event crosses the not-very-fine line between unpleasant provocations and anti-national exhortations. Meanwhile, the guilty parties are yet to be found, and academics and journalists have been assaulted inside and outside Delhi’s courtrooms for not conforming to hypothetical majoritarian standards. Dark comedy indeed, with a hint of Kafka.
But the issue is much deeper. If the Sangh Parivar believes that criticising the prime minister and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh constitutes sedition, the task at hand is not “closing down JNU,” as some have called for. It is that of setting up a classroom in Nagpur (where the RSS is headquartered) that will provide basic lessons in Indian law and the Constitution.
The radical Left imagines constitutional protection as something to be invoked at will while negating the very premises of the Indian state – territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the supremacy of a government elected by the people in a free election, whining about the inadequacies of the “first-past-the-post” system aside. This reflects a curious, and troubling, relationship the fringe on both sides has with the determinants of modern India.
Conservatism and India
The crisis of imagination is on the part of the Right. Its familiar refrain – that India’s higher education and academia in general is unresponsive to “alternative voices” – is a bit shop-worn by now. The fact is that the current government has made very little effort to seriously cultivate an intellectual Right in the country, beyond co-opting free-market economists in its policy-making apparatus. But conservatism is not a synonym for libertarianism, or simply a call for a diminished role of the state in the citizenry’s social and economic lives. It stands for continuity of norms in the Burkean sense – for the belief that hard power is the defining criterion of a state’s standing in the international order; for the primacy of culturally-inherited values.
But here lies the rub. Integrating these defining criterion with the reality of India’s plurality makes the task of defining “conservatism with Indian characteristics” an exceedingly difficult intellectual project. Instead of seriously engaging with this, the Sangh Parivar – and its political faces – have promoted a crude version of the same, grounded in majoritarianism and fuelled by an army of semi-literate trolls on social media.
Shed victim tag
The Right must face up to the fact that it needs more intellectual ballast, beyond professional provocateurs and known poseurs. Until this happens, political space will always be conceded to the Left, which has some of the most erudite and charismatic figures in national history on its side. Put another way, if Jawaharlal Nehru University is India’s Berkeley, where is India’s University of Chicago? The Right’s many mouthpieces need to ponder this critically by shedding the narrative of victimisation.
Those of us who have instinctively identified ourselves as being on the political Right have to engage seriously with this project if we are to remain a political force in India in the long run. We have to grapple and engage with some of the brightest young people in this country who have misidentified the Indian Right with a regressive political force that is offended at the slightest instance. The time has come to change this misperception.
Abhijnan Rej is Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.