Recent controversy over the issue of sloganeering by a few Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students has brought to light the role of the university in the wider arena of knowledge production that shapes the politics of society and its path of evolution. Make no mistake, as a former student of the university, I have deep attachment to this institution on a personal level, but that should not impact my understanding and experiences of the tangibility and relevance of what passes as intellectual, pro-poor discourses that university as a whole has been world renowned for.
JNU should not be homogenised, let's just for the sake of argument divide it between two groups: one consisting teaching staff and other comprising of the student community. Both have their own fallacies but my main problem is the role that knowledge produced by many constituent centres of excellences of the university plays in society, which more often than not is considered anti-establishment. But a careful look will make you wonder, quite ironically, about the status quoist nature of the university. Not because of the large number of civil servants that it produces but because of the modern mechanism of appropriation of social movements and legitimacy derived from JNU which kills any alternative explanation of society, both past and the present.
The dalit discourse [let's call it anti-caste discourse hereafter, because reducing it to dalit is key to all the problems it generates] which emphasizes the primary location of caste and its role in understanding Indian society is almost completely disregarded in post-british arrival. And having been affiliated with the Centre for Historical Studies, my experiences with the study of the Indian past, which should have enabled me to gain a clearer understanding of the present, is distorted. No one can doubt the benefits of Buddhist sources providing an alternative to Brahmanical sources thus playing substantiating role in understanding ancient Indian institutions and themes that leads to explorations by researches. Similarly medieval historians have at their disposal Arabic, Persian, and early Portuguese, Dutch and English records, which for comparative studies are proving exemplary.
The problem in analysing caste as an agency in above mentioned periodisation is somewhat obscured by the paucity of contemporary literary sources giving voices to the role of caste from the lowered caste groups. But with the advent of the imperialist British and the changed dynamics of Indian society both inside British presidencies and princely states, the monopoly of education was democratised even if at a very miniscule level. This gave the lower caste groups a chance, for the first time in history, to produce their own discourse by producing literary records - starting with Jotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule and later substantiated and articulated by scholars such as E.V.Ramasamy Periyar and B.R Ambedkar.
Let's analyse what anti-caste discourse really has to offer in an attempt of analysis of the society. This would enable us to understand what the role of JNU has really been in maintaining the status quo and disseminating caste prejudices disguised as progressive views because of its claim as caste neutral knowledge [remember this virtue of being caste neutral is not available to anti-caste discourse.]
In 1916, at Columbia University, Dr. Ambedkar presents a paper on "Castes in India: Their mechanism, genesis and development", which for the first time in history presents a mechanism of caste system as articulated by a lower caste individual. And yet this epoch breaking moment has very little takers among mainstream castes' scholars. Ambedkar later went on to produce a substantial amount of literary capital, analysing various aspects of society which formed the basic foundation of anti-caste discourse. And also striking at the idea of homogenising tendencies by caste neutral [?] leaders during the national struggle for independence who were constructing the idea of Hinduism and relegating to the periphery the role of castes, unequal differentiation between them, hierarchy and relation between wealth, occupation and castes. This overarching conception of Hinduism [constructed mainly by 'caste neutral' Brahmins] succeeded in creating the binary of Hindu vs. Muslim, leading to partitioning of the society into two states.
This flawed conception of caste neutrality of upper caste scholars and the simultaneous reduction of anti-caste discourse as sectarian, and not as an alternative viewpoint, helped in the further formulation and substantiation of the flawed conception of Marxism, nationalism, secularism, communalism, and now even feminism, whereby the role of caste is completely ignored by caste neutral scholars who continue to dominate the social sciences and knowledge production in the country.
Take nationalism for instance - anti-caste discourse argues that the binary of secular nationalism vs. Hindutva assumes that nationalism based on religion [Hinduism] existed in post-independence India or exists thus arose the need for a secular nationalism to protect others. Because of caste neutral Savarna scholars' blind folded view of role of castes in Hinduism, a wrong picture of Hinduism as homogeneous is created, thus simultaneously assisting hindu communal consolidation in opposition to the non-Hindus. Exactly similar religious consolidation occurs in other religions, wiping away the diversity and other cultural/ territorial nationalisms. This phenomenon seems to have been accelerated by inclusion of the word "secular" by the 42nd constitutional amendment to the constitution of India in 1976, at around the same time as the establishment of JNU, which gets wrongly accepted vociferously by the new generation of casteless scholars resulting in further religious consolidation.
Similarly, casteless Marxist historians reduced caste to religious ritual hierarchy, missing the linkages of actual material privileges and castes, thus also missing the origins and perpetuation of landlordism and material wealth. Such continued avoidance of anti-caste discourse resulted in the omnipresent contradiction in academic circles, wherein social/cultural manifestations of caste hierarchy seemed natural to these casteless scholars.
Now, let's jump to the present scenario of the new millennium and see what's really going on in JNU.
• religious consolidation is taken as accepted fact [wrongly],
• being casteless or caste neutral is still a virtue available only to the upper caste Savarna scholars [still],
• Anyone who points to the flaws, even if it's a lower caste scholar, is branded casteist and sectarian.
The knowledge produced is almost directly proportional to the hierarchical position of a particular caste in the Hindu system. So just a few Savarna intellectuals propagate the flawed discourse that this knowledge is casteless, non-sectarian, and therefore universal. This results in the reappointment of a minority group of intellectuals who set discourses for the masses. Therefore, the democratisation of knowledge production in Indian society has yet to take place. Thus insularity of idea propagation is a feature of JNU and it won't change that easily.
Legitimacy: Now again, let's analyse the implications this process of knowledge production in the politics of modern Indian society. Because of the monopoly of these exclusive insular sets of casteless intellectuals and their ability to analyse any category - ranging from Panchayat elections to capitalism [funnily enough comprised of casteless Indian capitalists] - from their casteless position, JNU acts as an institution of legitimacy, to differentiate between progressive and backward, casteist and anti-caste, communal and secular, development and counterproductive, deciding the casteless leaders to lead the charge against the ills of the country..
Similar nexus of castelessness between scholars and people working in different spheres of discourse generation in society - for instance, in media, both print and electronic, in popular culture of bollywood, Indian capitalism and even to an extent in judiciary - can be seen. This is never attacked by 'mainstream' JNU casteless scholars. And therefore it's not a coincidence that mainstream news channel anchors, while publicly flashing their caste identity with pride, can simultaneously be self-appointed dissidents against communal politics. Yet, at every incidence of caste based violence or other form of discrimination, they will authoritatively say, it's not about caste'. Well, more often than not, it's about caste. It is the privilege of their castelessness which allows them to ignore it and yet be progressive and non-conformist.
Thankfully Indian political space and social media are much more democratic.
Mechanism: The characteristics of the ambiguous concept of merit need to be analysed. It must be seen as a social construct, especially in social sciences, because this flawed concept is the key to understanding the modern dissemination of caste prejudice, which functions through the quid pro-quo of citations, bibliographies, academic research papers and scholarships to foreign universities to casteless scholars disguised in the broad category of students. This certification of merit which is essential for one's work to be accepted as non-sectarian is hardly ever provided to marginalised caste students or others who write against the conception of castelessness and merit.
As a result of the flawed concept of merit, caste based affirmative action takes a beating from almost every casteless upper caste individual. Political bodies, working to dismantle the caste system, who point to the privilege of being casteless [disguised caste privilege] are branded casteist, even if within this political discourse contain the aspirations of almost a billion people, thus shifting the burden of proof of existence of caste to the sufferer.
Remember, this does not just happen for anti-caste discourse, but for every discourse that is not led by casteless leaders supported by casteless scholars of JNU, be it any independent Muslim, Christian or any other political outfit [which again I reiterate are not homogeneous entities].
It is here that the left leaning movement of India takes a fall as it never attacks the 'merit' of its own politburo. Similarly, casteless professors of JNU never consider being casteless as a privilege, eliminating the role of castes in society, thus maintaining their castelessness and never attacking the caste system. JNU does not need a centre for Dalit studies, rather it needs a centre for Brahmanical studies to critically analyse this giant contradiction.
Appropriation: another feature of JNU is the appropriation of marginal struggles by these hegemonic casteless crusaders which could only then be projected as progressive, imbibed with merit and thus humane. The proliferation of political outfits dealing with caste and other marginal groups, along the wide spectrum of political ideology, with such casteless crusaders within the limits of campus or outside the campus in the country is a case in point.
There is no doubt inside my head in saying that castelessness is a prerequisite to lead any struggle on behalf of others, even of those who are fighting against institutionalised caste system and its discrimination itself [again remember this virtue of being caste neutral/casteless is not available to anti-caste discourse]. One could see the pattern in parallel cinema/documentaries focusing on social issues, or in appropriation of Dr. Ambedkar's writings. Make no mistake, the minute they point to the nexus and mechanism of caste neutrality and its association with power, leadership and materiality, they will be deprived of their merit or at least publicly ridiculed. This explains the absence of Dalit leadership.
• Rhetoric: Any objective analysis of the knowledge produced by the JNU will clearly find a pattern for the ills of the society. It is alarmingly devoid of intellectual exercise, is rather plain and simply just rhetoric, and even just demeaning to the intellect of the masses. Large scale blame is put on Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, fascism, capitalism, or at best extremist Hinduism[?] and its political outfits, each unilaterally imposed on Indian society without taking anti-caste discourse into consideration. It almost borders on academic cruelty, yet no one can really challenge the merit of the knowledge produced.
• Community consolidation: Despite clear data of voting pattern of different communities, it's only the caste neutral community that is projected to be voting for development and progress even if the data show that they vote for casteless leaders. While on the other hand the rest are visualised as vote banks: Dalit vote bank, Muslim vote bank, OBC vote bank. Themes of saffronisation of dalits/adivasis is another example. This is just cruel.
JNU Culture: It's a place for subversion of anger into meaningless symbolic struggles [vehement support for beef eating and kissing], digressing from structural questions and thus alienating you to the very core, turning you into a conformist. It detaches the humanism of your fight, branding it as backward, casteist and status quoist. This suits the political movements which need foot soldiers for their fight. Therefore, JNU should be pictured as a consensually assigned space of dissent to usurp leadership of mass struggles. And I along with many wonder, will it ever produce tangible revolutionary dissent led by an underprivileged sufferer who is still alive, resulting in wider acceptability. My experience begs me to say, never.
Nilesh Kumar has done his MA in Medieval History from JNU and PG Diploma in International Human Rights, Humanitarian and Refugee Law from the INdian Society of International Law.