In the polarised atmosphere in Jawaharlal Nehru University and elsewhere in the country today, it is more than likely that my statement that it was a great pleasure for many of us to see Makarand Paranjape deliver the 15th nationalism lecture at the daily teach-in series organised by JNU Teachers Association since February 17 will be received only as irony. However, my celebration of this event is sincere as the invitation to Paranjape was issued precisely because his is an oppositional voice within the teaching community at JNU.

Paranjape responded graciously to this invitation by putting aside his general disinclination to participate in centrist, liberal, and left discussions on the ongoing crisis at JNU. For someone who, on February 16, had traced the crackdown on JNU to be a problem created by Left student politics and the absence of compulsory attendance in classes, and as one whose epistolary proclivities have for some time now endorsed a pro-government, pro-Hindutva position (the most recent of which has been to demand Sheldon Pollock’s dismissal as the editor of the Murthy Classical Library because of his endorsement of the JNU resistance), his acceptance affirmed that the university can be a space in which all opinion, irrespective of whether it is majority or minority, is respectfully addressed.

The Paranjape lecture

In his lecture in the "What the Nation Really Needs to Know" series, Paranjape spent the best part of his speech pointing to the complexity that underlies Tagore’s critique of nationalism and Gandhi’s political philosophy of ahimsa. He argued that such nuance could only be understood through a “hermeneutics of mediality”, whose method is one of mediation between two opposing poles of opinion towards, it seems, an objective that is somehow remedial to knowledge itself.

His lecture was listened to with the great attention and patience characteristic of a JNU audience of at least 1,500 students and teachers (and this despite some factual errors about the personalities under discussion), and was interrupted only by slogans to welcome Soni Sori. Even when Paranjape threw his own professed method of intermediality to the winds and launched into a set of entirely disconnected arguments against the Indian Left, Stalin, China, Maoism, as well as the number of votes that JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar had polled in the university elections, the often exasperated audience was largely calm. There was some booing when Paranjape asked if it was possible “that this is a Left hegemonic space, where if you disagree you are silenced, you are boycotted, you are brow beaten”, but that was hastily suppressed by Kumar and JNU students’ union vice president Shehla Rashid.

Paranjape’s talk was followed by a Q&A session, which if the number of hands up in the audience was any indication, should have gone on for hours, but time constraints limited it to just under half an hour. A video of this can be found here, in which Chaman Lal, a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, advises Paranjape to “check his sources”, Kanhaiya Kumar wrangles out a condemnation of the violence against JNU students and faculty, and another JNU student’s question moves him to admit that he is not in support of a politics that opposes Dalits to Brahmins and Left to the Right. Tellingly, the enthusiastic questioning cannot get Paranjape to completely disassociate himself from the promise being aired on social media that Umar Khalid, another student accused of sedition, will be delivered the same azadi as the one that was given to 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front founder Maqbool Bhat – both of whom have been hanged. Rather, Paranjape says, he cannot “understand what this slogan means”.

How to take a class

But Professor Paranjape, to teach a class (and not only in these troubled times), one has to understand exactly that threat, and to integrate its meaning into all the messages about freedom, nation, social justice, and religious tolerance that we are receiving these days. To receive these meanings, you must, of course, check the sources of your information and the goals that information seeks to serve. And if your methodology of intermediality is to be really put to work, you must represent both sides of the argument in a fair manner to the best of your ability. When meanings are made invisible because of a refusal to let the gaze wander to Dadri,where a mob lynched a Muslim man last year after suspecting him of eating beef, to Dinanath Batra, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member who got US scholar Wendy Doniger's book on Hinduism banned in 2014, when individuals rather than ideas are picked to be the locus of rebuttal (and therefore details as to how many votes a particular student got in an election become relevant), where the lack of rational argumentation is supposed to be remedied by a professed neutrality (but belied by the sources one uses), this is not a good class, this is not good academics.

It is precisely for this reason that JNU teachers have been standing with our students in the struggle to save the space of the university as one in which reasoned critique can be mounted and challenged from any shade of the political spectrum, where no premises and conclusions are left unspecified, and where meaning can be teased out from even the opaquest of events, texts, and contexts. This assault is on the very idea of the university because it seeks to produce a (self-) censorship that limits what we students and teachers may be allowed to say. How in the panopticon envisioned for us as the new university, can a student ever be “treated as a mind”, as “a glorious thing made up of stardust”?

Ayesha Kidwai got her PhD at age 28 because she comes from a family where women were educated for five generations before her.