A number of students feel that once admitted, they should never have to leave the campus

Prof Makarand Paranjape is a Poet and Professor at Jawahar Lal Nehru University. He has been teaching undergraduate/postgraduate students for almost 30 years. Recently in news for a talk he delivered on Nationalism in JNU campus, Prof Paranjape started the debate whether JNU should be a hub of radical leftism or should it welcome all thoughts and ideas. We speak to Prof Paranjape about variety of issues ranging from Student Politics to JNU culture.

Prof Makarand Paranjape, Thank you for speaking to MyIndMakers.

Prof Paranjape, in your open letter which is a response to the open letter to Prof Rajat Datta, this line stood out. You say ‘This is not a battle between those who uphold the freedom of speech and those who seek to muzzle it, but between two opposing and politically charged factions’. You have diagnosed the issue correctly here. It is not about freedom of speech as much as it is about monopoly of one thought, one view and one ideology. Would you agree?

MRP: Yes, of course. Some people use “freedom of speech” as a mask to hide hegemonic practices, worse as a weapon to attack others.

The lecture that you delivered on Nationalism has since gone viral on social media. Apart from the little joke that ‘When has a serious hour long talk on Nationalism gone viral in an age of 140-character time -spans’, on a serious note It really points to the larger malaise. Alternate voices to the Leftist Hegemonic voices are few and far between. When someone as articulate as you delivers a very balanced talk on nationalism, people lap it up. Is there a message in all this for us to understand? Does India need more balanced voices?

MRP: Balance, mediality, hermeneutics of generosity – all these signify how the public sphere in India needs repair, equilibrium, even sanity. Most Indians are not interested in our “uncivil” wars; they want the health of the body politic to be restored. But how to do so? Many, many more intellectuals need to speak out, to reassert common decency and the middle ground. What is more, we need a minimum cooperation between major political groups so that they don’t try to score points against each other when it comes to obvious national interests. This cooperation at the top of the pyramid will also send the right kind of signals to the cadres. Perhaps, in the process, the really obstructive and negative, will be marginalized, without really being attacked or threatened because new, more constructive coalitions may emerge. But perhaps I am being too hopeful.

There is a school of thought that believes in the philosophy of ‘Catch ‘em young’; when translated to Student Politics it means let students delve in politics in colleges and educational institutions. That is where they learn. However, Student politics in our day and age has acquired a whole different connotation. Now it is a launch pad for organized politics and a playground for politicians to fish in for future recruits. Student Politics should have been about ideas not ideologies, about debates not sloganeering, about solutions to fault lines not exacerbation of fault lines. How do you view Student Politics today?

MRP: It would make sense if student organizations were concerned with self-government within campuses. But now they have become arenas for national power politics, with major parties and their student wings battling it out on campus. This is unwarranted and damaging. It spoils the lives of some students, misleading them into thinking that politics is more important than studies or worse that politics is the same as studies. Many of our campuses have become dens of radicals, who have little backing in mainstream politics. They brainwash some students into anti-social and anti-state activities by preaching hatred and disaffection. Students, being young and idealistic, are sometimes easy targets for such forces, which use them for their own ends. There is also this strange notion that campus politics must address the totality of the nation or even the world. In JNU at least they believe that their business is to critique the state, the entire government, even the world-system. Some may consider it romantic revolutionary, others tilting at windmills.

There is a phrase that is often used these days- ‘JNU Culture’. You have spent a lot of time in JNU as a faculty member. What does JNU culture mean to you and do you think what is being called ‘JNU culture’ today is a far cry from what this university actually stands for?

MRP: The phrase “JNU culture” seems to be a cover for all kinds of things, some good, some bad, some indifferent. But one thing stands out: studying hard, being disciplined, punctual, responsible, professional, keeping one’s word, respecting deadlines, submitting assignments on time, being prepared for class, reading the assigned texts in advance, maintaining good research and citation habits, reading original texts – many of these practices which you would take for granted in a “top” universities in most parts of the world, these, alas are not always a part of JNU culture. Here, an attitude or laxity, even irresponsibility, prevails, when it comes to academics, especially in certain Schools and Centres.

There is also a strange admission-to-retirement sense of aspiration if not entitlement: a number of students feel that once admitted, they should never have to leave the campus, not only being subsidized all through their years of M.A., MPhil., and Ph.D., but finding jobs, settling down, raising families, securing timely promotion, basically sticking around till retirement. The place is simply too comfortable to leave. Or is it that the world outside functions differently, by different standards and values, which is why several JNU-ites find it hard to survive, let alone do well there? But there are also wonderful things about JNU. I have found it a place of unpredictable possibilities and creative self-development. This too must be acknowledged; this too must be cherished.

There is a lot of talk about intolerance and ‘intolerance wars’ are being fought everyday in television studios at 9 p.m. Ironically those who have access to the biggest pulpit in the town are screaming intolerance the most and those who are ruing restrictions on freedom of expression are doing so in the pages of the most widely read dailies of India. Does this amuse you or do you think intolerance is a real issue being trivialized by TRP hungry television anchors and politicians who are playing petty politics?

MRP: I believe that the media too has its constraints and compulsions. We can’t blame them all the time. Also, by media is meant a multi-tiered and diverse system, with a few English channels at the top, but so many other ways of disseminating information, through print, internet, radio, and several other means. By and large, what we can observe is that we should be proud of our media. By and large, our journalists and editors work very hard and are really trying to do their job. They do succeed in upholding democratic values, freedom of speech, and the rights of citizens, even in an atmosphere vitiated by hatred and divisiveness. My only complaint is that they give too much space to political parties and their representatives. These spokespersons, by and large very competent, well-read, and well-informed too, must fight it out to retain their vote-banks. You can’t really blame them. But what happens is that they crowd out the really important issues and reflections, which we need to have more of in our media. Instead, we have sloganeering and slanging matches between familiar opponents. My humble suggestion would be to have one or two independent voices on every topic so that the level of debate and discussion might be raised.

Is the creative space for academics and thinkers shrinking as is being claimed? Or do you think space always exists for those who are willing to speak up and not be bullied by any ideology or ruling dispensation? Do you believe truly independent public intellectuals are an anomaly?

MRP: Our intellectuals are usually statist, that is they bend, sometimes stoop, to serve the interests of those in power. Even if their patrons are not in power, intellectuals usually look to them for support, even rewards after the lean period of being out of power is tided over. Their sponsors being at the helm of affairs for sixty years, intellectuals with certain ideological leanings managed to capture most institutions. Now they are being threatened with eviction. That is one reason they are crying “foul.” Their reasons are not merely ideological; they find their systems of patronage and perpetuation threatened.

Apart from being statist, many intellectuals also have their sponsors and patrons in the Western academy. These “big brothers” and “big sisters” are also their source of power and authority. When in trouble, they go running to them. “We are under attack,” they cry, “save us, save us.” So the big brothers and big sisters swing into action, marshal their forces, sign petitions, bully and browbeat when they can, boycott and brand when they can’t stop what’s happening in India. There is this nexus, where one patronizes, while the other legitimates. Pitched battles are also being fought on U.S. campuses against Left and Right wing Indian and diaspora intellectuals, along with their American colleagues and cohorts. What is at stake? For Indian academics: foreign travel, fellowships, publication opportunities, career advancement, and so on, even jobs and tenure in the West, the ultimate Holy Grail that every Indian would-be academic chases, from puberty to grave. The situation is comic if it were not sad. For those in the Western academy: their hold on India as an area of research and expertise, which is not possible without local support and endorsement.

Lately, there are additional players, such a private universities sponsored by rich philanthropists, which also afford means of patronage or advancement, but these are deeply integrated in prevalent power-structures, dominated by the Western academy in the first place. All in all, I would say that there are indeed very few independent intellectuals. That is because such independence not only requires a fair degree of financial and material security, but also intellectual self-confidence, competence, hard work, and inner resources. For it can be a long and lonely road. It is usually much easier, much more tempting to get one’s rewards the by siding with some political party or group, where a fast-track advancement is assured. But the price is quite high too; one must cede one’s independent and toe the party line.

JNU has come under lot of public scrutiny lately. Some of the criticism is genuine and some may be an exaggeration too. On the whole do you think, just as sunlight is the best disinfectant, some amount of scrutiny will help JNU cleanse itself of radical leftism? Do you see a future for JNU where all thoughts and ideas can coexist and all ideas can be put under scrutiny?

MRP: I agree that there has been a churn, but how deep and far-reaching only time will tell. The Left establishment has been shaken, but this is not the first time. They usually manage to regain their dominance because they are well-trained in the art of both academics and politics, better organized, and, with their backs against the wall, also much more determined. But, on the other hand, the other side is also catching up, even if clumsily, through trial and error. More importantly, they are in power. They had one chance in the past which they squandered. Now, with some rethinking and introspection, it remains to be seen what they can accomplish. What we have seen so far are occasional, somewhat ham-handed, interventions and shows of authority. These have been widely publicized and criticized. But have they really thought through an alternative? Do they have a plan in place? I am not so sure. Right now, for instance, I see initiatives like organizing seminars on neglected heroes, such as Hemu and Rana Pratap. But is this enough? Scholarship and academics are not your 100 and 200 meter dashes, but very long and enduring events like marathons or decathlons. To excel, let alone win, you need years of training, a variety of skills, and true open-minded, even wisdom.

In brief, you need alternate visions of the world, of history, of self and society. These visions need to be rooted, robust, and effective. They must be appealing on their own terms, not merely imposed in a high-handed manner. In our times, such alternate visions also need to be inclusive, egalitarian, and just. A large-scale restoration of the self-confidence of a complex and multilayered society such as India, thus, cannot be the work of a single party or entity. It is an on-going civilizational process, with many actors, many detractors, and the resources deep cultural memory. Those who have been placed in positions of power thus need to reflect upon such matters deeply. Rather than allowing themselves to be embattled or side-tracked by superficial, provocative, or temporary concerns, they need to think about enduring challenges to this country and its civilization. They need to forge multiple and complex alliances, with long-term strategic planning on fundamental matters. At the very least, they must ensure that actual competence and academic worth are never compromised in the name of ideology or political expediency. It is only such sincere, capable people who can save us from our uncivil wars. This is our best defense for India because none of us has all the answers.



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