Last year, the month of September was rife with irony. On one hand, the victory of Left Unity1 in the polls for Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) was heralded as a push-back to the fascist take-over of the university, as JNU’s redoubtable answer to the forces of fascism, while on the other hand, leftist intellectuals were at war with each other about the very nature of the BJP regime; this was sparked off by Prakash Karat on a note of semantic quibble. Karat argued that the BJP government resembles authoritarianism, that it does not by itself “constitute the establishment of a fascist order.” S. Sudhakar Reddy, in tune with Karat, insisted that ‘the present BJP government is “fascistic but not fascist yet.”’ Another ostrich-like rejoinder came from Vijay Prashad, who said that the RSS is “semi-fascist or fascisant because it can never hope to achieve hegemony over the popular imagination, but has to impose its fascistic ideology from above.”
Aditya Nigam rightly quipped that the Left’s ‘non-debate’ was “in fact a simple question of whether or not to have an electoral alliance with the Congress!” The Left’s terminological skirmish on the word fascism itself rings hollow in its inability and unwillingness to confront the foundation of fascism in India: namely, Brahmanism. Brahmanism is the hallmark of Hindutva through which it seeks to unify numerous caste groups of Indian society into a nationalist Hindu entity, with the Muslim Other as its perpetual antithesis. Brahmanism is the premise of both ‘casteism’ and ‘communalism’ in India; in fact, caste oppression and Hindu majoritarianism are dovetailed with each other through the hegemony of Brahmanism. The Sangh Parivar has popularised a particularl malevolent form of nationalism through Brahmanism. But the well-meaning harangues penned by intellectuals like Prashad do not see how Brahmanism purports to unite India into Hindutva. Ambedkar’s famous formulation of caste as a system of graded inequalities which provide the anchor for Brahmanical Hindu society is ignored by Prashad; instead, he mentions caste only twice in his essay, bizarrely arguing each time that caste is “a fissure that tears through society” and makes India multi-national. Prashad seems to be oblivious to the depredations of casteism and suggests instead that the persistence of caste ensures plurality within the Indian nation and does not “allow the RSS to dig its roots into the Indian popular imagination.”
Universities as Sites of Nationalism
The suicide of Rohith Vemula, which was to all intents and purposes an institutional murder committed by the authorities in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and the HRD Ministry, provides proof contrary to the idea of the nation espoused by Prashad. Vemula’s humiliation at the hands of the university arose because he questioned the nation repeatedly through the fulcrum of caste. Rohith’s radical imagination of solidarity included the performance of namaaz for Yakub Memon, a ‘terrorist’ condemned to the gallows. Solidarity for the ‘enemy of the nation’ is always an act of trespassing against the nation, and Rohith was accordingly declared an anti-national. But the hold of Brahmanism inscribed in universities ensures that such acts of transgression do not go unpunished; the nation must be restored by teaching a lesson to the transgressor.
On 9 February 2016, a cultural evening was observed in JNU to commemorate Afzal Guru, another ‘terrorist’ executed by the Indian state. What happened after that is a chronicle often retold. On account of fake videos which were circulated widely over the internet, the students responsible for the event were labelled as seditious anti-nationals; one of them, who happened to bear a Muslim name, was said to have links with LeT chief Hafiz Saeed. Several other students from leftist student organisations in JNU were simultaneously targeted by stringent penalties imposed by a High Level Enquiry Committee. This was clearly a manifestation of a fascist attack on JNU.
As the Sangh Parivar attacked JNU for being ‘anti-national’, the university embarked on a project of enunciating pluralistic meanings of nationalism. In a month-long series of lectures called ‘What the Nation Really Needs to Know’, the site of the university campus was defended as a space for free speech and the right to dissent. ‘#StandWithJNU’ resuscitated the mantle of JNU’s progressivism, with support and solidarity for JNU pouring in from different parts of the world. But the same progressivism, represented as it were by the mainstream Left, had effected a shift in its discourse. What had been an evening of transgressive speech claiming azaadi for Kashmir, became something that must be hushed up; as one commentator has remarked, the debate about Kashmir was “hijacked in the name of free speech and right to dissent and traversed what the event actually was organised for.” Leftists in JNU could not stomach talks about the secession of Kashmir. But at the same time, they defended the virtues of free speech. The climax of this contradiction was seen in Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech after his release: “Humein Bharat se nahi, humein Bharat mein azaadi chahiye.” (We want freedom within India, not from India).The right to dissent was celebrated in the same breath which pronounced Kashmir to be an integral part of India. In effect, JNU had proven itself to be in line with nationalism with respect to Kashmir. This doublespeak on azaadi and Kashmir was reflected in JNU’s inability to express coherent solidarity for the Kashmiri resistance which surged after the martyrdom of Burhan Wani, even as a fascist state occupation intensified its brutal clampdown on Kashmir. While ‘Stand with JNU’ built solidarity for all those leftist students who had been targeted by the JNU administration, JNU’s ambiguity about Kashmir invisibilised those Kashmiri students of the campus who had to face the repercussions of the February 9 event.
‘Framing the Minority’: Further Limits of Progressivism
Be that as it may, the Left Unity in JNU rode on the legacy of the ‘Stand with JNU’ euphoria and emerged as the winner in the Union elections, with the explicit collective mandate to fight fascism. But a month after left supporters had arranged a mock funeral for ABVP symbolizing the latter’s defeat, an enforced disappearance of a Muslim student left the campus in shock.
The prima facie “narrative” of the events of 14th October — the night Najeeb Ahmad was attacked — is fundamentally flawed and rife with contradictions. It has been alleged by the members of ABVP that Najeeb was the one who had precipitated the attack; he had apparently slapped Vikrant, an ABVP member, who had visited his room on a campaign for the upcoming elections in Mahi-Mandavi hostel. The reason behind this “attack”, as given by ABVP, seems absurd: that Najeeb had taken offence to a sacred thread on Vikrant’s wrist. No witnesses have testified to this story; it is clearly a fabrication, designed to play off the trope of the butthurt Muslim. The counter-attack on Najeeb which occurred seemingly in response to this has been justified by ABVP as a “reaction”. The action-reaction formula for rationalising attacks on Muslims has been popularised by Narendra Modi during his tenure as the Gujarat Chief Minister. And the counter-attack was vicious. Najeeb was brutally beaten up even in front of the hostel warden.
When the initial account of the events on the night of the 14th of October were made known to the larger student body in JNU, it emerged that in the written version of the scuffle, Najeeb was framed as the “accused”. The fact of a near fatal attack perpetrated on him was omitted. This official communication bore the signatures of the Senior Warden, the Hostel Warden, the JNUSU President, the hostel president and Najeeb’s roommate. As per the decision of this letter, Najeeb stood guilty of physical violence and was expelled from the hostel forthwith. Later on, there were other communiques which contradicted the initial one. But Najeeb’s intense vulnerability to a near mob attack was completely obscured by those signatures. Even the President of the Students Union was complicit in the fascist victimisation of Najeeb.
In the days following the attack on Najeeb and his subsequent disappearance, there was a sustained attempt by the fascist government to stereotype and demonise him. He was said to be a depressed and unsound mind, while the Lt. Governor of Delhi declared that he had been sighted in Darbhanga, a place associated with terror modules of the Indian Mujahideen. Rumours of Najeeb having been sighted in Darbhanga, or speculation that he has gone astray to join global terror groups, constantly impose a “frame”2 upon Najeeb and his disappearance. All these frames impinge upon Najeeb’s Muslim identity. Najeeb’s susceptibility to getting framed is directly related to the fact that he was a Muslim. As per the fascist narrative of the ABVP, Najeeb was to be blamed for the attack on him. In other words, Najeeb’s ‘guilt’ is framed over and above the fact that he himself had been made the victim of a brutal assault.
And yet, the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and JNUSU office-bearers repeatedly insisted that the near-fatal attack on Najeeb Ahmad must be seen as one that had occurred on a common student. The vulnerability that Najeeb bore as a result of his identity3 was not acknowledged. No efforts were made to render his targeted identity free from blame and suspicion. .
Reluctance to Confront a Fascist Administration
While the fascist minions in the JNU administration ranging from the VC, the Rector and the Proctor continued to make a mockery of justice for Najeeb, the JNUSU was increasingly inept in scripting any coherent struggle within the campus to ensure justice for Najeeb. A University General Body Meeting (UGBM) failed to pass any resolution calling for a sustained movement inside the campus. Only the Union’s resolution for ‘Chalo Badaun’4 was passed; till date, nothing has come of it.
As the JNUSU kept insisting on non-confrontational modes of agitation, the Vice-Chancellor M. Jagdeesh Kumar demonstrated the effectiveness of fascism in shielding its minions. The ABVP members who were found guilty by a much delayed proctorial inquiry were given a mere hostel transfer by way of ‘punishment’. At the same time, the VC capitalised upon the ‘opportunities’ provided by the attack on Najeeb to unleash a fascist onslaught upon the spaces of free speech cherished by JNU students. The Admin-block which had been rechristened as ‘Freedom Square/Azaadi Chowk’ was declared out of bounds for student protests. The installation of iron grills cordoned off the space which had been used by students to hold hunger strikes, house alternate accommodation for students not given hostels, and to gherao the VC for his inaction on Najeeb’s disappearance. But despite the all-out fascist attack upon the democratic space for students, the Union continues to be undecided upon any active measures to be taken to fight the fascist muscle-flexing of Jagdeesh Kumar. It is rather disconcerting to realise that fascism has succeeded in weakening the resolve of an elected Student Union to mobilise a campus and fight against the fascist takeover of a university, that the stringency of activism is now measured only through a highly visual simulacrum of struggle. Slogans and photographs on social media only visibilise activism; in no way can they replace the need for sincere commitment.
The reason for this alarming lack of gumption on the part of JNUSU is not difficult to find out. Under the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations, sweeping changes in student politics have been effected. These include a stipulation that ‘to keep anti-social elements away from the campus politics, any student with a criminal record, which included trial in a case or a conviction, a misdemeanour, or being subjected to any disciplinary action by university authorities, would not be eligible to contest.’ The LCR is an extremely authoritarian ruling which imposes severe constraints upon student activism in university spaces. This ruling stems from the Brahmanical assumption that campus activism is a vocation for students, instead of a quest for emancipation from marginalisation. The LCR inserts an artificial division between students activism and academic pursuits. It is responsible for diluting the force of student protests, since students find themselves under the perpetual apprehension of being inflicted with disciplinary action. At the same time, last year when there came an opportunity to reject the LCR and restore the JNU constitution for holding elections, the ‘Left Unity’ got cold feet. No resolution rejecting the LCR in toto could be passed in the UGBMs that were held.
The Brahmanical Depredations of Higher Education
At the beginning of this essay, there was a contention that the failures of Left Unity in fighting against fascism have stemmed from their inability or unwillingness to confront the Brahmanical nature of fascism. Prashad’s tokenist comments on caste as mentioned above reveal the Left’s blinkered perspective of Brahmanical hegemony which persists in higher academia and in leadership in student unions. In a recent article on Round Table India, Nidhin Shobhana has historicised the persistence of caste in JNU. The conclusion of his thoroughly researched arguments is that the ‘politics of deprivation points and reservations in admission were dormant and crippled with problems until the 1990s (marked by Mandal agitations)’. This flies in the face of leftist nostalgia for JNU as a campus which has always championed social inclusion. The contradiction between an aspiration for inclusiveness and the continuity of Brahmanical hegemony — a contradiction ignored by the Left — is explained by G. Aloysius in his essay The Brahminical Inscribed in the Body Politic:
The Brahmanical…has come to stand for the very embodiment of the discriminatory-exclusivist amongst groups and individuals in the modern context…This is the substantial-decisive of contemporary India. The ideational basis on the other hand of the institutional-formal is inclusive-egalitarian as expressed in the prescription of ‘rule of law’…The Brahmanical constitutes the dominant human agency, also manning the formal-institutional, the coalescence of the two could only be captured as the substantial being merely constrained by the formal…With the kind of grip that the Brahmanical has over the formal -institutional here, it is no wonder that the latter has been systematically sabotaged, emptied out from within, to end up as a mere legitimating device of the dominant.5
If the struggle against fascism is to be translated into the emancipation of those who have been historically marginalised and excluded, then it cannot maintain a conspiratorial silence towards the Brahmanical nature of academia. The struggle against Brahmanical fascism cannot content itself with compromises on the ideal of social justice. The problem of social exclusion cannot be externalized to simply the current BJP regime.
The fascist state in India has a detailed blueprint to curtail the access of university spaces by students hailing from marginalised communities. A recent notification of the University Grants Commission is a fascist charter of exclusion. It stipulates that for entry into M.Phil/Ph.D. research in universities like JNU, the entrance exam will be merely of a qualifying nature, while 100% weightage will be given to a viva-voce. This is a contravention of the recommendations of the Abdul Nafey Committee in JNU, which had investigated into the discriminatory nature of viva-voce exams and had recommended viva marks to be reduced to 15-20 from the existing 30. There have been glaring instances of discrimination against students hailing from socially deprived backgrounds, and any aspiration to combat fascism has to take the vulnerability of these students into account.
And yet, the Left Unity’s struggle against fascism has been hollow even in this regard. It has failed to express any sincere solidarity for the nine students who have been suspended (on 27th December 2016) for protesting against Jagdeesh Kumar’s move to push the UGC notification through the 142nd Academic Council meeting. The suspended students who were protesting against the fascist machinations of the VC all belong to socially marginalised identities themselves and do not hold membership of any mainstream leftist party6. Their suspension is reminiscent of the systemic humiliation of students from Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi social locations. The Left Unity alliance has responded to this victimisation by pretending that these Left parties have never been the mainstay of upper caste activists, that they too abound in students hailing from marginalised social locations.
Recognition of the marginalised ‘Other’ is the prerequisite of any anti-fascist movement. That ‘Other’ may have a different ideology, a different mode of praxis. But if these differences come in the way of building solidarity, then the track of the struggle against fascism becomes a nonentity. What is needed, therefore, is a reassessment of how fascism is premised upon Brahmanism; an engagement with students who choose a vocabulary of identity assertions in contradistinction to Leftist ideology; and a genuine self-introspection about the Left’s role in acknowledging the hold of Brahmanism within the ranks of its parties, and within university campuses that have a reputation of being red bastions.
- The Left Unity alliance is a combination of AISA and SFI; as part of the Central Panel, the former contested posts for President and Joint Secretary, while the latter for Vice President and General Secretary.
- As Judith Butler writes, ‘If one is “framed,” then a “frame” is constructed aroundone’s deed such that one’s guilty status becomes theviewer’s inevitable conclusion. Some way of organizing andpresenting a deed leads to an interpretive conclusion aboutthe deed itself.’ See 8, Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (Verso: London and New York, 2004)
- I have not used the term ‘Muslim identity’ as a disaggregate identity. In order to show how Muslim lives like Najeeb Ahmad are rendered vulnerable when caught between the fascist right and the progressive left, I have chosen to not disentangle the complexities of caste, gender, language and region among Muslims. Needless to say, the field of my analysis of identities extends to the red bastion of JNU.
- Badaun is Najeeb’s hometown.
- 44-45, G. Aloysius, The Brahminical Inscribed in the Body Politic, (Critical Quest: New Delhi, 2010)
- One of the suspended students belongs to a far-left student organisation which stands outside the Left Unity alliance.