The recent debates around Delhi’s Ramjas College have to be read beyond the immediacy of battle. In a political and symbolic sense, the protagonists represent wider social forces and the drama enacted has an epic quality which needs to be emphasised.

In fact, Ramjas should be seen as a metaphor, a symbol of the possibilities and limits of reform. For many of us, the Ramjas of the 1980s and ‘90s saw major examples of goondaism. But Ramjas also became the site where teachers like Mukul Manglik and Dilip Simeon gave students a sense of history and taught them the value of scholarship. Ramjas students talked of their college with pride, even contending that if St Stephen’s and Hindu College embodied the great traditions, it was Ramjas that evoked the current innovations of knowledge and pedagogy and brought an everyday excitement and anticipation to scholarship on the campus. It was one of the least advertised cases of a college’s effort to rise above its environment.

A metaphor and a pretext

If Ramjas is a metaphor, Jawaharlal Nehru University today has become a fetishised pretext, an all-encompassing theory of causation. The emerging Right has a way of arguing that its actions were designed to stop a repeat of “what had happened in JNU”. To them JNU is a phenomenon, a fiction that legitimises violence. JNU represents that delight in the excess of freedom, of intellectualism that the new puritans of the right want to repress. For the Right, for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in particular, nationalism is a dismal science, a puritanism designed to suppress academic excess which JNU as a myth exemplified.

Nationalism in the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party is designed as a Victorian corset to constrain, the real and alleged excesses of JNU. It turns any form of academic enquiry into an excess. In fact, research and academic life becomes an elite activity, an act of conspicuous consumption which eliminated or alienated many groups in the campus. So, what emerged on the campus was a battle of stereotypes between the Left as an academic excess and the Right as a form of academic resentment. Both ideologies behaved as if the party was a club, forgetting the university was designed for open debates and pluralism.

Image: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Between populism and elitism

When Ramjas as metaphor converges with JNU as a fetishised pretext, what we get is the events over the last few weeks. It brings out the worst of both sides, juxtaposing violence as brutality with analysis as a farce. It is an escalation of intolerance which comes out best in the idiocy of Twitter wars. One saw it in the encounter between Gurmehar Kaur and former Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag. Her placard about not being afraid of the ABVP was not engaged with. Instead, one of the many placards from a video she had put out last year, “My father was not killed by Pakistan. He was killed by war”, was trolled. Eventually, Sehwag, with typical nonchalance seemed to have replied to it with his own Tweet which carried a sign of him saying, “I did not score two triple hundreds. My bat did.” There was no possibility of seeing humour and idiocy in the situation, to realize that the joke might be on Sehwag. He literally impressed as the bat did his talking but his own statements have a foot-in-mouth quality which often gets mistaken for humour.

The sadness was that this inane exchange of messages got caught between populism and elitism. Javed Akhtar, the poet and Hindi movie script writer, condemned a “hardly literate player or a wrestler”. There is a snobbery here that is distressing especially from someone who was the Sehwag of film scripts. Others dismissed Randeep Hooda, someone who had found Sehwag’s humour very funny, on parochial grounds. Sadly, Left snobbery met Right populism which turned its obsession with nationalism into an official gestate. As populism met snobbery, what we witnessed was violence. Both groups sought the moral high ground, yet the real casualty was the University. There is a coerciveness which threatens any view that disagrees with it. The first casualty is humour, the second is playful debate and third is the university as a plurality of ideas. One is forced to choose between the two sides as if they exhaust all interpretation and invention.

Image: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Pomposity of representation

I want to emphasise this point because as one listens to the debate one senses it is haunted by what I call the “pomposity of representation”. Anyone who claims the right to speak is representative of some collective or some official group. Each pompous ‘I’ represents the collectiveness of an official ‘We’. What one misses is the voice of the ordinary student living in the crevices between these dominant groups. In fact, for a debate that invokes the word democracy incessantly, the ordinary citizen’s voice seems to be missing.

The tragedy is that the university has become a site for a civil war of interests rather than ideas. The University over the last few decades has been a battleground between the superficially cosmopolitan enacted by the Left and the local Right and between a national English-speaking elite and the regional elite which acted as if English itself was anti-national. The university became a masquerade where this battle of interests pretended to be a battle of ideas using the students and teachers as fodder. The university as an institution collapsed under this stress.

Downgrading western legacies

The BJP and the Left have become the embodiment of the battle of interests masquerading as a battle of ideas. But it is only the exchange and discussion of ideas that can rescue the institution as the domain of plurality, of reasoned debate. In fact, each side appropriates and downgrades a western legacy. The Right acts as if it has patented Nationalism as a piece of intellectual property and the Left pretends to enact out a B-grade vision of Enlightenment. As the script gets played out as an endless serial of violence, one moans the fate of my favourite institution: the University.

Caught between populism and a superficial elitism, it is dying a slow death. It is the dying of the university and its composting as an electoral surrogate, an employment substitute, a finishing school for goons that few talk about. Ramjas was an attempt to arrest such forces, to go back to the basics of scholarship. Today it might be the first casualty of the new civil war fought around the Indian University.

The ideologists of university will tell it a different way but what Ramjas and many other colleges need is a storyteller who recounts the battle of the academe in an everyday sense.

Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science Nomad.