JNU has been in the limelight since 9th February, when supposedly “anti-national and seditious” slogans were raised in the campus (the matter is sub judice). In this scenario, many eyes were turned towards the JNU Students Union elections which happened this September. What was also evident is that the idea of nation and nationalism would be important grounds of consideration during this election.
In the election, we saw a competition between three strong ideological forces– the right (ABVP), the left (AISA-SFI ‘Left Unity’ alliance supported by other left organizations) and the Ambedkarite (BAPSA). In this context, I would like to argue that three different ideas of nation emerged from these three positions.[i]
The Right’s Idea of Nation: “Only Right is Right”
The ABVP, associated with the RSS, believes in the idea of the ‘Hindu Nation’. According to it, the right's way is the only right way to think of the nation. Their idea of nation is based on unity (ekta) and not on equality (samta)[ii] and any dissent is seen as a threat to the nation. This right wing force defines nation mostly by pointing to the anti-national. Like the leaders of BJP who have several times asked people to ‘go to Pakistan’, the ABVP has taken it upon itself to give certificates of nationalism. Thus, a vast majority of people are excluded from their idea of nation – people who wear the ‘wrong’ kind of clothes, people who eat the ‘wrong’ kind of food, who fight against Brahmanism and patriarchy, who raise questions about capital punishment, who raise questions on the rights of Adivasis or even those who work in NGOs. The resignation of many Dalit members from the JNU unit of ABVP clearly indicates the growing disillusionment with their idea of nation based on the Manusmriti.
War on Universities
With the coming of the BJP-led NDA government (more correctly called the ‘Modi Government’), universities and educational institutions have been under tremendous pressures. Governments always try to install puppets as heads of important institutions since they realize the importance of such institutions in producing ideas. However, the Modi government’s assault is much more stringent since it is also directly attacking the students. The pro-active involvement of MHRD in HCU which led to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, stopping of scholarships of ST students, giving notifications to not implement OBC reservation at the professor level, are only a few examples of their systemic assault. This government sees any new idea as a threat and has started a war on the universities. The ABVP across campuses play an important supporting role in this as is clear from their involvement in Rohith Vemula’s case and the JNU incident. The right wing exploited the patriotic sentiments of the people by projecting JNU as a den of anti-nationals and a threat to the nation, to the idea of a strong and united ‘Hindustan’. It started a strong campaign against JNU, with #ShutDownJNU becoming very prominent on social media at the time.
In response, students and teachers of JNU across parties (of course with the exception of ABVP) started #StandWithJNU protest. A lot of support poured in from the academic community across the world. Many progressive minded citizens and civil society organizations came out on the streets and extended their support. JNU Teachers Association also started an open lecture series on ‘Nationalism’ and later ‘Azadi’ and a lot of lost legitimacy of JNU was regained.
The Left’s idea of nation: “Only Left is left”
During this election, AISA and SFI, two prominent left organizations that have long been opposing each other came together on the call of “Left Unity.” This alliance was supported by other left organizations like AISF (which didn’t contest this year) and DSF (which contested only for the post of Joint Secretary). The rallying point behind this call for left unity was the fear that ABVP would win otherwise. In the previous election, ABVP had won the seat of Joint Secretary and this had brought fears that they might win all seats this time. The Left Unity continued the slogan of #SaveJNU and rallied against the ABVP and the continued assault on universities by the Modi Government. They sought to retain the ‘idea of JNU’ and the ‘autonomy’ of universities. The left wants people to believe that left is all that is left when you reject the right. Its entire campaign was based on the fear of the right coming to power.
I would like to argue that an idea of nation emerged in this discourse of the left. For the left, JNU itself became a nation and hence the ‘idea of JNU’ needs saving much like ‘idea of India’ needs saving. Much like nations seek to unite when a common enemy appears, JNU needs to be united against the right wing assault. There are interesting parallels between the call to #SaveJNU and India’s struggle against Imperialism. Like India asked the right to self-govern, JNU sought the right of the university to autonomy. Like India projected itself as one united whole under the Congress, left unity tried to project JNU as a whole under its banner. Like the Indian political elite put the question of independence from British as the topmost priority, the left unity put defeating the ABVP as the top most priority. Like the Indian political elite put the question of ‘social reform’ as a problem for later[iii], Left Unity subdued all the issues inside JNU under the banner of ‘idea of JNU’ and ‘SaveJNU’, making JNU some sort of a sacred nation in itself.[iv]
The Ambedkarite response to the two nations: “Where is social justice?”
BAPSA stood in strong opposition to the right wing assault on universities, in line with the continued history of Ambedkarites’ opposition to brahmanical forces, and was part of the ‘SaveJNU’ movement. It has strongly rejected the ABVP and its casteist and patriarchal politics in the campus and talked of not just defeating but destroying ABVP. But BAPSA also has been raising and continues to raise questions about the ‘idea of JNU’ itself. In this supposedly ‘progressive’ campus, why are there several cases of caste-based discrimination by teachers against dalit-bahujan-adivasi students, high dropout rates, non-implementation of reservations at the faculty level[v] and Direct PhD? Why was there no strong reaction to the racist dossier saying highly objectionable things about people from the North Eastern states and Kashmir?[vi] Why have minority deprivation points and reduction of viva weightage from 30 to 10 not been ensured despite the long-standing proof of giving low marks to block entry of students from deprived backgrounds?
Outside the AC meeting of 10th May, BAPSA, along with other organizations like United OBC Forum, raised strong questions to the left for its prioritization of issue of HLEC report punishing students over the slogan raising incident over OBC reservation instead of giving equal importance to both[vii]. By saving JNU, by avoiding these questions and relegating them to the future, aren’t we also saving the discrimination in JNU? Doesn’t ‘SaveJNU’ become ‘SaveJaNeU’ if it doesn’t deal with the issues of making the university representative and thereby democratic and just? In one of its parchas, BAPSA asks “We stood with JNU; can the JNU stand with social justice?”
Realizing Ambedkar’s idea of nation- Call for Oppressed Unity
For Ambedkar, nation is ‘inclusive, integrative and egalitarian’[viii]. In “Annihilation of Caste”, Ambedkar writes “You cannot build anything on the foundation of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundation of caste will crack and will never be whole”. He places great emphasis on fraternity which considers synonymous to democracy. Democracy for him is a “mode of associated living, of conjoint communicate experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen”. Thus for Ambedkar, nation is something that needs to be built and to build it we must annihilate caste. Without the inclusion of the most marginalized we cannot have a nation. An individual must become a 'sharer in the associated activity so that he feels its success as his success'. No nation is a nation until the most oppressed in the nation feels included. Representation, breaking of hierarchies and inclusiveness are thus very important values in nation-building.
Similarly, a university cannot claim to be just, if the most oppressed don’t feel included. Putting forth a progressive image, trying to brush aside internal claims of representation, existence of hierarchies, and differences by using universal categories like ‘idea of JNU’/‘Save JNU’, projecting an enemy outside and having a patronizing approach towards the oppressed have been called to question. Just prior to the election they launched a lecture series called “Nation without Social Justice” which talked of the nation from the perspectives of those at the margins. It gave a call for a ‘Unity of the Oppressed’. BAPSA is thus attempting a practical realization of Ambedkar’s theory of nation. The Oppressed here was interpreted in its widest possible sense– including Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, Muslims, queer people, differently-abled people and people from states of the North-East like Manipur, Kashmiris, and other minorities. This was not just an attempt to form an electoral alliance with various groups but an attempt to start conversations and build relations among these groups. Inclusion of all these groups, their representation and breaking of hierarchies among them is in the true sense the process of nation-building, or in this context, building a just and democratic national university.
However, this might not be an easy process. Oppressed Unity can itself become oppressive if the differences between the oppressed and issues of intersectionality are not addressed. If Dalit women critique the discourse, it should not be seen as a question that can be dealt with later, but one that needs to be seen in the spirit of democratizing the movement. BAPSA has so far been responsive to such criticism– the president of the organization being a Dalit woman and the convener being a Muslim woman. How oppressed unity will operate is a crucial question. How will the complexities of the interaction between the queer discourse and the Ambedkarite discourse operate? What will be the implications of attempting unity of the diverse social groups like Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, Muslims, people from North Eastern states of India, and sexual minorities? How will they communicate without common vocabulary? How will they ensure that any points of conflict among the various groups doesn’t become an opportunity for outsiders to prevent or break unity[ix]? It is a difficult task and Ambedkar’s concluding words in “Annihilation of Caste” seem to fit here– “Yours is more difficult than the other national cause, namely Swaraj. In the fight for Swaraj you fight with the whole nation on your side. In this, you have to fight against the whole nation and that too, your own.”
How this complex discourse will emerge is something we must continue to examine. However, one thing is clear, that the oppressed have spoken and they are ready to speak for themselves. And there will be no nation without social justice and no university without social justice.
Aloysius, G. (2015). Ambedkar on Nation and Nationalism. New Delhi: Critical Quest.
Ambedkar, B.R. (2013). Annihilation of Caste. Mumbai: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra.
Marwein, B. (2016). NORTH EAST STUDENTS’ FORUM, JNU ON THE RACIST DOSSIER. Raiot. Retrieved 28 September 2016, from http://raiot.in/north-east-students-forum-jnu-on-the-racist-dossier/
Nehru, J. (2012). The Discovery of India. New Delhi: Penguin.
Pandian, M.S.S. (2000). The Hindu : Hidden agenda and beyond. Thehindu.com. Retrieved 28 September 2016, from http://www.thehindu.com/2000/04/08/stories/05082523.htm
[i] List of abbreviations used: JNU- Jawaharlal Nehru University; AISA- All India Students Association (student wing CPI-ML(Liberation)); AISF- All India Students Federation (student wing of CPI); SFI- Students Federation of India (student wing of CPI(M)); DSF- Democratic Students Front- independent left; ABVP- Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (student wing part of the Sangh Parivar); BAPSA- Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (independent Ambedkarite organisation); RSS- Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; MHRD- Ministry of Human Resource Development; HLEC- High Level Enquiry Committee.
[ii] Thanks to Dhaval Prabhu for pointing this out.
[iii] Nehru wrote- “The brief period during which the Congress governments functioned in the provinces confirmed our belief that the major obstruction to progress in India was the political and economic structure imposed by the British. It was perfectly true that many traditional habits and social forms and practices were barriers to progress and had to go. Yet the inherent tendency of Indian economy to expand was not restricted so much by these forms and habits and social forms and habits as by the political and economic stranglehold of the British.” (‘Discovery of India’, pg379)(emphasis added).
[iv] M S S Pandian wrote- “…straightforward fact: the enemies of Indian democracy are not confined to the Hindu communal sangh parivar alone. They have a much wider presence cutting across the divide of communal and secular. By reducing the complexities of contemporary Indian politic to the categories of communal and secular, and by not engaging with other equally important contradictions of Indian politics such as the ones based on caste, language and region, India’s modernizing elites can camouflage their secret impulse against democracy.”
[v] As of 19.01.2016, out of 606 faculty at JNU, 60 are SC, 16 are ST, 29 are OBC and 12 are PH. Rest of 489 are UR(Unreserved). Thus, SC+ST+OBC, which together constitute around 75% of the population have only 17.32% representation. Source- RTI
[vii] Rahul Sonpimple’s speech here(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgyvWRg1tQs). Rahul Sonpimple was the Presidential candidate of BAPSA this year.
[viii] G Aloysius(ed), “Ambedkar on Nation and Nationalism”, introduction.
[ix] Much Like Phule and Ambedkar were and are sometimes still tagged as colonial agents for questioning the hegemonic upper caste idea of India raising questions about representation and inclusiveness, BAPSA has been baselessly tagged by some as an agent of the outside enemy(ABVP) for raising the question of social justice in the ‘idea of JNU’.