Representative picture: Students form a line in front of a cordon of Police during a protest against the Indian governments reaction to recent rape incidents in India in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan or the Presidential Palace on December 22, 2012 in N Photograph: (Getty)
Our universities are suffering because they have been entrapped by doctrinaire ideologies for far too long
I teach at Ramjas College, University of Delhi, the epicentre of an extremely visible clash of ideologies. This clash of ideas has been seen on television, as has been the physical fights that took place around the University last week. It is difficult to speak about the possibility of a centrist, liberal, democratic and rational voice, at a time when the shrill notes of the Left and the Right ideologues--television anchors included-- are overwhelming any attempt to articulate alternative positions. But precisely because it is difficult, it must be attempted. This moment of crisis can become a moment of rupture, leading to the emergence of fresh key words to help us imagine an India of the future.
I have to begin with a technical caveat, and the assumption behind this caveat cannot be viewed as frivolous, since its basis draws from nothing less than the preamble to the Constitution of India. And here is the caveat: ‘Every political party in India is socialist.’ How? All political parties in India must swear by the Constitution. And what does the preamble, the ‘key’ to the Constitution, say? That we are--a ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’.
Ergo, all parties are socialists.
The centre was just a vacant space, perpetually suggested as a spatial anchor for Left and Right, but perpetually absent in practice
But the important caveat to the caveat is this: the words secular and socialist were added during the national Emergency, in what is known as the (in)famous 42nd Amendment(s) to the Constitution in 1976. Lots of things changed in the Constitution. Fundamental Duties were introduced. You had to preserve not just the unity, but also the integrity of India. So here it is, straight down the line.
The emergency legitimised two polarised discourses, embracing Left and Right. One side got ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’, the other ‘integrity with unity’, and ‘fundamental duties’. The logical extention of this argument does not prove the obvious: that Mrs Gandhi was the Centre that held these two positions together. She could assume either side’s position to fit specific political goals. The centre was just a vacant space, perpetually suggested as a spatial anchor for Left and Right, but perpetually absent in practice.
There was no Centre. There still is not!
The absence of a centre in India presents a challenge. Whenever the Congress or the BJP is referred to as being centrist, it never is in a nice way. When the Congress fails to be Left enough, the Left accused it of being centrist. The same happens when the extreme Right finds the BJP testing liberal positions, especially with regard to the economy.
The genesis of the problem lies in our universities. We have for too long been entrapped by doctrinaire ideologies.
When socialism was raging through our campuses, even Bollywood was socialist. Raj Kapoor’s classics, and Guru Dutt’s Pyasa immediately spring to mind. When Nehru gifted JNU to the Left, it was a compact – we’ll run the state, you run the universities. This is not to argue that Left has not produced stalwart scholars. But no good thing lasts forever.
Eventually the enforcement of a singularly predominant way of thinking begins to stultify questioning. Contrary positions are shut out, history misrepresented, and unproblematised self-perpetuating discourses are relentlessly propagated. The tragedy is that the Right has taken their exclusion to heart. And decided it must shut the Left out of our universities once it has assumed power. And now, it has. Unfortunately for the Right, it lacks the intellectual might to take on the Left. Ergo, the use of muscle, or what might be called the instruments of the hard state – courts, sedition charges, and so on.
Unfortunately for the Right, it lacks the intellectual might to take on the Left. Ergo, the use of muscle, or what might be called the instruments of the hard state
In all of this the centrist, liberal and perhaps critical questions--often about one side, and at times about the other, and sometimes even about itself--get subsumed by either the Left or the Right. By liberal, I am attempting to identify those who do not wished to labelled either Left or Right, but often take positions that can touch and be inflected by one side of the political spectrum or the other.
I recall a wonderful book by Parth J Shah and Naveen Mandava called Law, Liberty and Livelihood - Making A Living On The Street. This was the work of a libertarian think tank. The basis question posed was this: “After the 1991 liberalisation, the poor do not seem to have gained as much as the rich. How can you carry out liberalisation only for the rich and expect the poor to benefit? The truth is there has been hardly any liberalisation for the working poor.”
The question posed above is significant. It clearly supports economic liberalisation, but wants more of it for the poor. Now this is the sort of position you will rarely find in universities, let alone in Indian public discourse. You will find either supporters of liberalisation, or its detractors. Few will ask the critical questions that can prise open the important spaces that lie in between.
Old ideologies often fail to define new positions. Bright young people with active and political imaginations are rethinking the way they wish to engage with the world. They pick and choose a bit of this and a bit of that. There is no defined slot you can push them into. The old way fears the emergence of a dystopian post-ideological world where politics is blunted and praxis is replaced by T shirt slogans.
But people who ask interesting new questions often find interesting new answers. Such questioning and such answers might not appear to be inflected with the type of ideological purity demanded by the Left and the Right, but they cannot be wished away. The older ideological positions continue to remain dominant, but their edges are frayed and crumbling.
The centre is crying out to be occupied. Wonder who’ll get there first.