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'Did you check your facts?': Makarand Paranjape has some questions for Kanhaiya, Leftists and JNU

In the on-going series of teach-in lectures on nationalism, the professor asked if JNU was a 'democratic space' or a 'Left hegemonic space' and why Leftists had trouble accepting the 'legitimacy of the Indian state'.

The 15th lecture, “India’s Uncivil Wars: Tagore, Gandhi... JNU and what is ‘Left’ of the nation”, in the teach-in series of lectures on nationalism, titled “What the nation really needs to know” at the Jawaharlal Nehru University administrative block since the controversy over the arrest of its Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, turned out to be quite different from the earlier 14 lectures in the series.

Makarand Paranjape, a professor of English at JNU's Centre for English Studies since 1999, began by noting what makes the university where he teaches so special:

I think that one of the things that makes us special or important to the nation is precisely this alternative, performative platform, this stage on which we can demonstrate our ideas, our disagreements – how to think clearly in fact, rather than the other performative, which is, I would say, mesmerising. 

When Kanhaiya came out of jail and gave this talk,  I was a convert: I was also swaying and dancing around with everyone. It was a great moment. 

But what I am going to do today is to emphasise the other performative – where we talk about ideas, we are objective, we are critical, we do not get carried away, we are open-minded, we interrogate and critique ourselves and not just mount attacks on people we disagree with. 

And, indeed, also check factually incorrect statements, the sources of our ideas and so forth. And I do hope there is an occasion to discuss some of these things.

Paranjape spent the first 40 minutes of his lecture on Tagore and Gandhi's concept of nationalism before coming to the events at JNU since February 9.

This, incidentally, was the first lecture put up by "Stand With JNU Media Group" that, on its YouTube page, was accompanied by a caveat titled "A critical analysis of the lecture" by Anshul Trivedi who began by noting that this lecture made him "learn the difficult art of rationally listening to something which I am viscerally repulsed by." Trivedi went on to offer his critique which can be read here.

Paranjape had recently been in news for being part of a petition calling for an "unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India" that accused those behind the "closely-linked statements" on tolerance or "award-wapsi" as being "neither intellectual nor academic." He was also part of those who wanted Sheldon Pollock removed as mentor and general editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.

Paranjape spoke in English, interspersed with some Hindi and began with an epigraph from John Gallagher: "Revolutions devour their children, nationalism eats its parents."

Tracing the first part, "Revolutions devour their children" to Jacques Mallet du Pan in 1793 after the French Revolution, he went on to discuss the space between the so-called "revolutionaries" and the so-called "ultra-nationalists".

I am a student of literature and I am deeply interested in how texts are read and interpreted. And texts include so many things, including slogans. 

I am deeply interested in hermeneutics and interpretation and I would like to suggest for your consideration today a certain kind of hermeneutic of mediality. And it is interesting that these words – medial, medium – go back to very old roots where they merge with words like madhyam. And for those of you who are interested in classical Indian thought, there is a very famous school of Buddhism which is called Madhyamaka.

So how to mediate? What kind of hermeneutics can we have of mediation? A medial hermeneutic. Perhaps to begin with there has to be an intermedial hermeneutic so you find a way to negotiate or stand between two opposites or two poles to see how these two sides, how these two positions can speak to one another.

But perhaps if this project of mediality really succeeds, then from being intermedial might end up being remedial and the idea of remedy really connected with what we consider our state of health. Our state of health in many ways is about restoring equilibrium really. And of course it is very difficult to do in these times. But this is what we require today. And may I mention that there is an equivalence of this in contemporary thinking and that is called a diatopical hermeneutics.

He said he wanted to go beyond the easy and reductive formulations of pitting friends against the enemies.

What follows is a rough transcript (and translation into English) of the lecture from about the 40-minute point of the video below.

Play

So much has been said, so much ink has been spilt – thankfully, not so much blood. When I heard the title of this series, “What the nation really needs to know” – and as my friend Kanhaiya also said, “We will tell them” – I felt we in JNU need to ask: Do we not have to listen? We only have to tell? Have we understood it all?

We too should listen to what they say. This is what I feel. This is the “diatopical intermediality” I was telling you about.

We will speak, but we will also listen.

So when we listen to them – and certainly there are misunderstandings – but it seems as if the discourse that emanates from here – the discussion and debates that come out from here – is very anti: It does not seem constructive. So people have told me, even some of those who think. Everything is very negative and destructive. So then question arises, and these are very important questions.

Someone said here, “We will fight, we will battle, we will do this, we will do that, we will increase the fellowship too...” Wonderful, if you can accomplish it, but this is our state, I mean, we have elected these people. Unless we say, “This bourgeoise democracy we don’t believe in.”

This is the rub. This is where I come to the last part of my talk.

Did you check your facts?

What’s left of the nation – “left” here has a double meaning obviously. But by left of the nation, it means “What remains?” We’ve lost the middle-ground. Only the extremes remain. What is left of the nation? But what is left of the nation also means what the leftists have been saying about nationalism.

Kanhaiya said yesterday, “Ours is the oldest organisation, and we fought for independence.” But I want to ask him: What about the flip flop that happened by the Communist Party of India when they suddenly declared that the imperialist war was a people’s war? They said to the British – the Community party of India sent a secret letter to the British – that they “will not agitate when you are fighting, we will cooperate with you.”

So when he [Kanhaiya] said, “We fought for India’s independence” – that is the Left students associations – I want to know what the evidence is.

It is very important to ask these questions.

Similarly, I might ask my friend Kanhaiya – he is right here. He said, “[MS]Golwalkar met Mussolini.” [Addressing Kanhaiya]: Did you not say that? Did you check your facts? It was Moonje [BS Moonje – a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, and not Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] who met Mussolini.

I am not saying they [the RSS] were not impressed by the fascists – they were. They thought it is a very good idea to have an authoritarian system. Please let us agree on what is factual and what is not factual.

So, we have to check out facts, that is what I am saying.

Judicial murders

Fascism stands for anti-democratic position – and so does Stalinism. I am proud to belong to a country where one so-called “judicial murder” created such a huge ruckus.

Do you know how many judicial murders were committed from 1920 to 1950s in Stalinist USSR? 799,543. Almost a million.

And how many people were executed for criminal and civil charges? Only 34,000.

How many went to the Gulag? 14 million.

How many perished there? 1.4 million.

Now, my submission is – and where I am getting these facts from? Soviet records – Please look. Please, this too should be discussed. Fascists are anti-democratic. But we have also to look at the record of some of our friends from the Left. They were very anti-democratic – Stalin certainly was. He killed everybody who disagreed with him. He killed Trotsky as well.

Who tolerates dissent?

And this is not new in JNU. 1970s – you read the history of JNU. I think the author is somewhere here – I saw him earlier – oh, there he is. There was a very interesting Trotskyite called Jairus Banaji, and he challenged the most charismatic established Left leader who was none other than Comrade Prakash Karat. And in the following year, Anand Kumar won, defeated Karat in the JNUSU poll as a free thinker.

So we have to look at our own history and see what has happened. So please let’s examine the details and see:

Who tolerates democracy?

Who tolerates dissent?

And who doesn’t?

Now, we have had so many statements from everywhere, but can you show me a statement from North Korea? Or even from China?

Because in China even today – I have been to China five times – and it is ruled by the Communist Party of India – but it is a capitalist state. I have met many Chinese intellectuals. In a cafe , over a drink, they can tell you whatever you like, how bad certain things were. But ask them to take out a morcha, they can't.

You go to Tiananmen Square and take out what poster and see what happens. You will be whisked away.

Where? Who knows?

So who is democratic? Who is not democratic? It is something we have to deeply, deeply ask ourselves.

‘Ye Azadi jhooti hai’

Allow me two more things.

I have told you one instance of what happened during the Independence Movement. I will give you two more instances and then I will finish my talk and you can ask me questions.

So India became independent in 1947 and Communist Party of India, which was then not divided, was led by a man called Ranadive [BT Ranadive] who gave a slogan – “ye azadi jhooti hai [This freedom is fake]”.

Romesh Thapar who edited a journal called Crossroads was trying to smuggle copies– “smuggle” because he was taking them to Telangana – and Nehru invoked sedition. He also invoked sedition against Organiser, let me tell you. Nehru said to both sides “Boss, what is happening?” Both sides, in different ways were saying – were attacking – independence.

So these slogans – about “fake freedom” – ye azadi jhooti hai – have persisted over time.

So the Communist line on India’s independence followed Stalin, where he said revolution in the colonies would be a two-step process: First step, you know, you will have a bourgeoise kind of revolution or a bourgeoise take-over of power and in the second step you’d have a truly communist government in place.

So, this two-step theory was followed in India.

Legitimacy of the Indian State

Another moment when China invaded India [in 1962], EMS Namboodripad [another Communist leader] said India is the aggressor.

The only thing I am trying to say is: Why is it so difficult to accept the legitimacy of the Indian State? For many people in the established Left. Forget about the Maoists.

The Maoists believe that they have to use armed revolution to dislodge this government, and take over power. And you know the DSU [Democratic Students’ Union that arrested leaders Umar Khalid and Anirban earlier belonged to] is an offshoot of this Maoist party.

And let me also tell you – please also take a look at the letters of resignation that Umar Khalid, Anirban wrote from DSU. They said, “We are resigning because there is no scope for dissent. There is no democracy in DSU.”

Look at the ironies of these situation. I want you to be alive to that. So that is another moment.

Be a critic

And the third moment, if you want to look at it, is what happens after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And you look at the New Left Review issues and it is a great crisis: What to do?

Because the only counter to imperialism – the only counter to capitalism – is now gone.

And then they said, well, within the state, within the bourgeoise state, be a critic. Which I accept, but the point I am trying to make is that different shades of the Left in India have had a great deal of trouble in accepting the legitimacy of the elected government of India, whoever the party is.

Where does the Left derive its legitimacy from?

Now the real question is this: From where does the Left – and there are all kinds of Left, you know.

There is a Congress Left, you know, the Socialists: Aruna Asif Ali, Achyut Patwardhan, JP [Jayprakash Narayan]. Now, these were branded by the Communist Party of India – look at the dialogues.

There’s a Progressive left. There are writers – Mulk Raj Anand was thrown out, Manto was thrown out for indecency.

So it’s a complicated story. And I don’t what to simplify it.

But all I want to do to ask you is this: When you say you will overthrow the elected government, where do you derive your legitimacy from?

Is it that all the peasants have been polled – to give you the legitimacy?

I submit for your consideration that the legitimacy that authorises violence in this case, and you know the summary executions of informants – please read what happens: If you are thought to be an informant, you are executed by these people. I can give you figures...

Anyhow, where does it derive its authorisation from?

Where does it derive its legitimacy from?

I submit to you that it derives its authorisation and legitimacy from ideology.

So it’s like a theological authorisation.

It’s not any plebiscite or vote.

So yeah, if people in JNU had voted, if the Student Union had organised an actual debate, like, say the Oxford Union on the eve of the war – World War II – when they said, “This house believes that England, Britain, should not join the war” or something.

And they voted and they won.

That was not sedition.

Debate on Kashmiri separatism

So let’s have a debate.

Let’s say: How many people on this campus support separatism on Kashmir? We can have a debate.

Let’s see how many people – there are 8,000 students in JNU, apparently, according to Professor Sopory’s statement. If you go to the website – the JNU website’s figures are not updated – these are 2009 figures, they are the latest and they say around 7,000 students.

And you know that my friend here, whom I deeply respect, Kanhaiya Kumar, was elected by a little over a thousand votes. And the second person got some 600 and some odd votes. You can correct me as to the actual figures.

And you could have a real debate – I have lived on this campus for over 16 years... and my suspicion is...

[responds to someone who says something] That’s right, but let’s poll. How many people support Kashmiri separatism?

[People shout]: No, no, not now, let’s have a proper debate, thank you.

But with due respect to you, you will see – you are far outnumbered.

Five people raised their hands.

[At this point the crowd roars and some more – a few more people from what is visible – raise their hands.]

Even so, anyhow, let’s get back to the point: I am saying, that’s another way to do it. And that’s my point.

And then there would be a legitimacy to this kind of movement.

And why not? I mean, every form of opinion should be respected. I don’t think that is the issue.

My question was that when something is authorised, what is it that authorises it?

And to me, social contract – call it Locke, call it Rousseau – is the basis of modern democracy, where people and their rulers have a contract: we vote you and you represent our will.

Left hegemonic space?

Anyhow, I will come to the end of my talk which was simply that when we consider ourselves a democratic space, we should also ask ourselves if this is entirely true.

Isn’t it possible that this is a Left hegemonic space? Well, if you disagree, you are silenced, you are boycotted, you are brow-beaten, or – or, sometimes, you are brainwashed.

[Loud shouts of No!]

I can give you so many examples. But let me just say one thing: I love JNU too. I love JNU as much as anybody else.

[Responds to some shouts that it is not about love] Love is very important [At this point Kanhaiya Kumar intervenes and counsels Paranjape not to get into a one to one with those present as it could go on, to which Paranjape agrees]

What makes us special, I think, is that we don’t beat the people we disagree with. We can bully them but we don’t beat them. I haven’t been beaten here – as yet. We are not like other people who offer a reward and all...

Autonomy of all institutions

I stand in solidarity of all who want to protect the autonomy, not only of JNU but all educational institutions.

I stand in solidarity of those who demand due process, who believe in the institutions – not of a university, but of a country.

I stand with all of this.

But the only thing I submit to you is that even I have been a victim of a campaign of vilification. Let me tell you there have been open letters against me, and I don’t know what someone is circulating against me today – let me tell you, I have never signed a Hindi petition so far. I don’t know what it is – the entire thing is in Hindi where my name too has been added – I have not yet read it.

The only thing I want to say is this – and this is my last point. After these things happened, you know, I was walking to the department, and I saw this person on a bicycle carrying a placard: “I am not anti-national.”

And I think we are not anti-national. I agree.

And when you hear my views which are critical of what I consider Left hegemonic practices – sometimes bordering on Left dictatorial practices – I hope I don’t have to carry a sign saying, “I am not anti-JNU”.

I am like all of you.

And if you read any book of mine, I acknowledge JNU, I acknowledge my colleagues, I acknowledge my students.

And I stand here before you because I believe that this performative is also important where we discuss ideas, we uphold the right of each other to disagree and we don’t reduce all politics to sloganeering and self-complacency but interrogate our own positions.

This is what I mean by “diatopical hermeneutics” where we acknowledge the incompleteness of our own positions and go forward.

Thank you.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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