The irony couldn’t be thicker. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organ Panchjanya recently devoted a cover story to an assault on the Jawaharlal Nehru University, claiming that it is a citadel of divisiveness (darar ka garh) where anti-national faculty and students seek to rive and destroy India. At the same time, the Sangh is unabashedly spreading sectarian hatred.

Rashtra Dharma, another publication of the RSS, recently produced a special issue with an article promoting Deendayal Upadhyaya’s views against “Hindu-Muslim unity” and arguing for the “political defeat of Muslims”. The special edition had all but the official seal of approval of the Modi government: it was released in Lucknow by Union Minister Kalraj Mishra and the piece spouting Upadhyaya’s views on Muslims was authored by Union Minister of Culture Mahesh Chand Sharma. Moreover, the issue had greetings from a range of Bharatiya Janata Party and RSS brass, including party president Amit Shah, LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Mohan Bhagwat.

In the recent past, the RSS attempted to disown responsibility for the Panchjanya’s views arguing Vedic sanction for killing of those who slaughter cows, and the Modi government shrugged off responsibility for anti-Muslim hate speeches, claiming these were made by fringe elements. But how can the RSS, BJP and the Modi government distance themselves from this article, coming as it does from the pen of a union minister quoting the BJP’s favourite ideologue Upadhyaya?

The article is titled Muslim Samasya: Deendayal Ji Ki Drishti Mein (The Muslim Problem: In Deendayal’s View). The Muslim citizen in India, then, is a “problem” for Upadhyaya and for India’s culture minister. The article quotes Upadhyaya to say that “a person turns an enemy of the nation after becoming a Muslim”. Upadhyaya, it says, believed that while a Muslim may be good individually he is “bad in a group”, whereas a Hindu who may be bad individually is “good as part of a group”.

This theory explains what prompted the culture minister to say that “despite being a Muslim, APJ Abdul Kalam was a great national and humanist”. Kalam the individual, in his view, was good despite of the inherent bad nature of Muslims as a group. This is also why, for the BJP-RSS, every crime by a Muslim confirms the bad nature of Muslims as a collective, whereas a crime by a Hindu gets isolated as an individual act.

Subordination of Muslims

The Rashtra Dharma article says that Upadhyaya advocated the “political defeat of the Muslims”, which will require the political defeat of Pakistan – “Political defeat will end his [the Muslim’s] aggressive attitude and he will return to his original Hindu nature.”

In this line lies the clue to why BJP president Amit Shah made a speech claiming that “firecrackers will be burst in Pakistan if BJP loses Bihar”. In the BJP-RSS imagination, Pakistanis are politically wedded with the Indian Muslims. In effect, Amit Shah was telling the people of Bihar that “all Muslims are Pakistanis at heart and that is why they will rejoice if the BJP is defeated. Voting for the BJP will mark a ‘political defeat of Muslims/Pakistanis”.

According to Upadhyaya, those who advocate Hindu-Muslim unity rather than the defeat of Muslims are Muslimparast (appeasers of Muslims). In Modi-ruled India, our ministers are telling us that Hindu-Muslim unity is divisive because it “appeases” Muslims rather than defeating them.

We must remember that Upadhyaya was less explicit than RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar about the subordination of Muslim citizens in India. In We, Or Our Nationhood Defined, Golwalkar wrote: “Muslims living in India should be second class citizens living on Hindu sufferance, with no rights of any kind… may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizens’ rights.”

This is the same Golwalkar whose “unambiguousness” Narendra Modi admired in a hagiography authored by him in 2008. In that, the Indian prime minister, then still the chief minister of Gujarat, expressed reverence for Golwalkar as a formative political influence. Not surprisingly, the list of “great men” of Indian history with admirable qualities cited by Modi contains not a single Muslim or Christian.

Moreover, it refers to Ambedkar as “the modern Manu” – a phrase that could only be a deliberate insult to Ambedkar, who burnt the Manusmriti for its advocacy of the subordination of Dalits and women. Ambedkar wished India’s Constitution to be the very antithesis of the Manusmriti, while the RSS wanted Manusmriti to be the Constitution of independent India (as evidenced by the editorial of Organiser, November 30, 1949).

The subordination not only of Muslims and other religious minorities, but of Dalits, other oppressed and backward castes, and women is then central to the RSS vision for India – a vision that is espoused wholly by the BJP. This is a vision that is divisive and dangerous for India.

Oppressed castes and reservations 

The Panchjanya cover story on the Jawaharlal Nehru University is also revealing about what the RSS hates and fears most about academics and intellectuals, and what it envisions them to be.

One article in the Panchjanya’s JNU feature, authored by Ravindra Singh Baseda, is titled Den of a Nexus of Crypto-Christians and Neo-Leftists. What struck me forcefully about it was its aggrieved observation that socialists and communists, after the Soviet collapse, embraced the slogan of “caste struggle” rather than “class struggle”. This analysis points to the deep and abiding discomfort of the RSS with caste-based reservations and the social and political assertion of the Dalits and backward castes.

The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe began in 1989, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This was the period in India when the Mandal Commission’s recommendations of job reservations for other backward classes were implemented, followed by violent anti-Mandal agitations on university campuses across north India.

The Left organisation All India Students Association, born in 1990, defended the Mandal recommendations on many north Indian campuses, and the 1989-1990 Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, with the independent Amit Sengupta as president, resigned as a result of refusing to uphold the mandate of a University General Body that passed an anti-Mandal resolution. The anti-Mandal agitation was the catalyst that marked the emergence of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad as JNU’s foremost right-wing organisation, eroding the base of non-Left organisations like the Freethinkers.

In the 1993-94 the JNUSU (then led by AISA) successfully agitated to restore the system of “deprivation points” in JNU’s admission system that had been scrapped a decade before. This system smoothed the way for larger numbers of students from deprived regions and castes besides women to enter university.

Years later, between 2008 and 2011, there was a successful struggle against a faulty interpretation of “cut-off criteria” being used in JNU and many other universities in India to avoid filling OBC seats. The agitation resulted in a Supreme Court verdict vindicating the interpretation argued by AISA, many members of the JNU faculty, and the late civil libertarian K Balagopal and retired IAS officer and social justice expert PS Krishnan.

It is these agitations in defence of reservations and affirmative action that the RSS refers to derisively as “caste struggle” and castigates Left groups for taking up. Equating Hindu upper caste identity with Indian identity, the Panchjanya article brands a range of Dalit Bahujan organisations and forms of protest as “crypto-Christian” and anti-national.

Egalitarianism and diversity 

The other article in the JNU cover feature of Panchjanya is by Ashwini Mishra. It objects to the inclusion of “human rights, women’s rights, religious freedom, discrimination and exclusion, sexual justice and secularism” in the JNU curriculum due to the “infiltration of decision-making bodies by neo-Leftists”.

As part of a “conspiracy”, the article says, academic centres like the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, Centre for Women’s Studies and North East India Studies Programme have been set up. It says these centre are stacked with “Leftist and crypto-Christian” faculty and students, creating an “ideologically corrupt” generation of students. This ideologically corrupt generation, says the article, establishes deep roots in India’s institutions of history, politics, media, judiciary and bureaucracy.

Along with a whole range of progressive modern academic disciplines, the RSS also finds progressive Left, Dalit, feminist, and queer politics offensive and anti-national. The article says that student activists achieve their aims with the help of “secularism, minority rights, human rights, women’s rights and the rights of deprived sections of society” – and “the flourishing crop of such poison can be seen all over the University in the slogans, posters and pamphlets that cover its walls” that “seek to divide Indian culture, civilization and society.” The library, says the article, has everything that ought not to be there – instead of being stacked with material on “Indian culture, philosophy and values” (note: for the RSS, Kabir and Phule, Kosambi and Basavanna do not count as Indian culture.)

The RSS, then, finds the academic disciplines or political ideology inspired by human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, rights of those facing discrimination and exclusion “poisonous” and a threat to Indian culture. Does this not tell us all we need to know about what the RSS seeks to establish as “Indian culture and society” – an India in which women, minorities, Dalits and other deprived sections will be denied freedom and dignity?

I feel for the poor RSS. What torture it must be for the organisation to and see men and women interact freely in JNU, the vibrant posters celebrating struggles for emancipation from Indian history and all over the world, the slogans for the liberation of women and oppressed castes, the many bold and defiant protests to defend civil liberties. From the walls to the library to the classrooms to the hostels and dhabas, everything must offend the senses of the RSS and frustrate its sensibilities.

What JNU stands for

JNU – its student movement and many of its most illustrious faculty members – has always spoken truth to power. It has been a reliable source of support for most people’s movements in the country. It has – as the Panchjanya resentfully observes – agitated to prevent the entry of Indira Gandhi at the height of the Emergency, with many student activists being jailed during Emergency. Its protest against a proposed visit by Lal Krishna Advani caused the BJP leader to cancel his visit. And its students have shown black flags to Manmohan Singh – and been beaten up by both National Students’ Union Of India and ABVP for doing so.

JNU is home to powerful feminist and queer politics and also to students’ sustained agitations for the rights of JNU’s own contract workers. And yes, in JNU, no slogan or political idea is taboo. There, no one is allowed to shut down a public meeting or a film screening or a book reading because the RSS declares it to be anti-national.

When I went to Lucknow University last year to give a talk on women’s liberation in India, the ABVP physically disrupted the talk on the grounds that the topic was an affront to Indian culture. The ABVP in Delhi University prevented a film on Muzaffarnagar riots from being screened – it was screened in JNU. The JNU student movement and intellectual atmosphere of scholarship prevents ABVP from being able to do the same in JNU.

The great thing is that none of this has remained unique to JNU. As the substantial increase in support for AISA in Delhi University Students’ Union polls shows, the students of Delhi University too espouse and welcome progressive politics and resent being held captive to NSUI and ABVP.

Indeed, Jamia Millia Islamia and Ambedkar University in Delhi as well as campuses all over the country – from Jadavpur to Puducherry, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras to the Film and Television Institute of India – have been witness to remarkable student movements inspired by the very same values that the RSS resents and JNU cherishes. These values are not held unique to JNU – rather they have inspired student movements all over India and the world.

As the JNU vice chancellor has reminded us, the university contributes many MPs, cabinet secretaries and ambassadors. But JNU’s abiding contribution cannot be measured in terms of how many of its alumni can be found in the establishment. Just as important are the activists it has contributed to people’s movements, and the fine scholars and researchers it produced in a variety of disciplines. JNU and its students, faculty and alumni speak with the greatest pride and love for the likes of Comrade Chandrashekhar, the former JNUSU President who went to Bihar in 1997 to be a Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) activist and was killed at the behest of the politician don Shahabuddin.

Above all, JNU’s best contribution – and that of every university – lies in sharpening the urge to question everything without fear or hesitation, and sharpening the intellectual tools to answer those questions. For many, JNU offered the space (to paraphrase Marx) to not only “interpret the world in various ways, but to change it”.

Kavita Krishnan is a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, secretary of the All India Progressive Women Association, and a former joint secretary of the JNU Students’ Union.