I wish to present Ramjas College as a text. It is true the college has been the epicentre of certain events over the past few days. A seminar was called off. Ideological battle lines were drawn. There was violence. Consequently, many newsworthy narratives spun out of these events. The present analysis will try to look beyond those events. Moments dissipate, texts remain.
Readers would, right at the outset, wish to ask, why Umar Khalid (a JNU PhD scholar), was invited to speak at the seminar. The correct answer is what George Mallory said when asked why he wished to climb the Everest. He replied, “Because it’s there.” Or more brazenly, “Why not?” Having said that, I, as a teacher in Ramjas College, wish to state that this does not necessarily imply that the college subscribes to Umar’s political views. But while we may not support his politics, we certainly support his rights. We support his rights because we believe our own rights are best protected when we protect the rights of others. That is the essence of a progressive democratic polity. In any case, he was invited to be part of a panel where he was to present his work on Bastar, the subject of his PhD work. Could he have made politically contentious points while speaking on Bastar? Most certainly, he could. But that’s exactly why we host seminars. To hear, to learn, to respond, to contest, to challenge, and perhaps at times, even agree!
The second question that might be asked of us is this: Is this a JNU moment, is this a repeat of February, 9, 2016? I wish to assert unequivocally that it is not. I teach a class of B Com students. A straw poll taken in class recently revealed almost 100 per cent support for the government, note ban and its economic policies (this was in the context of group discussion preparatory classes on business and the economy). After the recent incidents of violence, the same cohort of people was afraid of the muscular nationalism on display.
In JNU, the battle lines are drawn. There was no such line here. But the violence that transpired, the sight of brawny activists invoking Bankim’s call (that Tagore so feared) — Bande Mataram — and “Bharat mata ki jai”, abruptly pushed these ideologically neutral students onto one side of a line that was suddenly drawn. That moment became a text, visually lodged into the consciousness of onlookers. These commerce students, like everybody else, value freedom. When the very right to freedom from fear is snatched away from them, they begin to value it even more and start asking questions of the few who presume to impose their will on the many. What I am saying is that the protests against the invitation to Umar probably had the opposite effect — if it was meant to depoliticise the average student, it instead made her political. That is a story specific and special to the events that unfolded at Ramjas College. It was not a JNU moment.
The third important issue, and this is the most important question to my mind, is this: Are universities places for slogans? Slogans cannot ever substitute argument. Students on either side of the ideological spectrum take positions against each other through slogans. Slogans create battle lines, and at times even spawn violence, like what we have seen in this instance. Students are meant to ask questions. They are meant to critique positions. Yes, they are even meant to argue.
Universities are meant to be places where students develop the ability to think critically, ask questions and learn to argue. Fuelled by idealism this often leads to sharp political positions. Being political is what university education is all about, but shrinking discourse to fit the narrow space of politics is reductive. Once you start marching to tune of “Left Right, Left Right” you’re well, mostly marching, and not thinking critically.
The thinking that wants India to assume knowledge leadership, and triumph in a globalised world, needs to recognise the importance of creating critical thinkers. Young people have the ability to think critically through any text you present to them (a movie, a T-shirt with a slogan, a street vendor’s song). That ability gets sharpened when having to face, and engage in discussions with, contrarian views. Which is why in the liberal arts and humanities and the social sciences we continually try and look beyond simple structures of thinking, beyond obvious self-professing ideas.
We do that not because we are necessarily against every settled structure of society. Personally, I’m against slogans because they are usually negative. Critical thinking does not mean negativity; in fact it implies quite the contrary. Critical thinkers are capable to making the future better for any society, as professionals, as activists, and as leaders in different fields.
Critical thinking is shrunk when the weight of nationalism is brought to bear on the young, when they are asked to substitute reason with emotion. This is just the type of nationalism the gentleman, before whose eloquently penned anthem we are required to stand before witnessing cinematic entertainment, spoke of: “It is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
There was a moment during the fracas when, while the conference was on, those opposed to the conference played “Hai preet jahaan ki reet sada” (from Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim), which eulogises India’s ancient scientific discoveries, and contributions to the world of knowledge. I smiled to myself at that moment. That was a moment of creative protest, of critical intervention. Unsophisticated, but interesting nevertheless. The violence that followed completely negates whatever cause the students were supporting. Once you resort to violence you proclaim the absence of argument, of inner conviction in your cause. Only by eliminating the contrarian view, from disallowing its articulation, do you feel secure. Young people should not join universities to take shelter under the security of slogans. They must, I believe, develop the ability to ask questions, even difficult questions. What I present herein is not just an analysis of events, it is a text. And Ramjas College today is that text.