[While the media worked overtime to present the developments in Ramjas College and Delhi University as a clash between two student organizations and two political formations, Baidik Bhattacharya here reflects on the new kinds of politics, rooted in the everyday and in love, that found expression in the University.- AN]
Image: Hindustan Times
On 28 February, 2017, thousands of students and teachers of Delhi University and other academic institutions of the NCR region marched across the North Campus, protesting against the recent acts of vandalism and violence at Ramjas College. As the march progressed through the winding roads, touching various colleges and departments of the university, feisty students raised several slogans to oppose the perpetrators of such violence, the student organization of the RSS—the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP. Some of these slogans were well-known, some predictable, but some were really creative. I want to briefly discuss one such creative slogan, and its implications: “Karenge politics karenge pyar, ABVP hoshiyar.” Chanted primarily by groups of women and queer activists, this innovative rendering of one’s rights across the university campuses captured some of the pressing issues that have surfaced in the last couple of years in student politics.
What may such a slogan mean, in the face of intimidation, rape-threats, and other suggestions of physical violence? Why are politics and love being paired as a strategy and also as an effective way of resisting whatever ABVP stands for? And finally, why is it thought necessary to chant a slogan like this right now, in the present moment of crisis? To get an answer, we first need to mark our distance from the banal argument that students are supposed to study in colleges and universities and not indulge in politics. Such a view conceptualizes politics only in terms of electoral battles and organised party lines, and even then tends to forget that all these students are adult enough to cast their votes and as such they are supposed to have a clear understanding of the prevailing political cultures. The idea of politics I want to discuss here, and which I believe is also part of the slogan mentioned above, is much more permeating, much more intimate, and even ordinary. It emerges from our daily lives, from our everyday interactions with our friends, neighbours, relatives, partners, strangers and, to a large extent, defines who we are. In a university campus, this politics infuses our institutional mechanisms and academic pursuits, so much so that it has an unavoidable inevitability. We will only delude ourselves if we believe that we are outside of the matrix of politics or that we can escape its reach if we so wish.
I am not suggesting for a moment that politics in this sense needs to be read as personal conversation or as a strategy for manoeuvring our daily lives. As the students make it clear, this sense of everyday and ordinary politics prepares us for larger issues, constitutes our political self, and forces us to take sides in a battle. That is precisely the point of the unexpected pairing of politics and love, of the assertion that these two do not represent mutually exclusive emotions or worlds. When chanted by women and queer students, this pair exceeds the more familiar slogan of an earlier era, i.e. ‘personal is political,’ since this new slogan does not simply propose an equation between the two worlds of an individual self, but, through the inevitability of their coming together, reaches out at several fields of injustice. The slogan, in effect, evokes our recent memory of gross injustice taking place in our otherwise regular relations. Just open your morning newspaper, and you’ll be inundated with stories of how a young couple have been tortured and killed because they married out of their caste or gotra, how khap panchayats are determining what young women should eat or wear, how a woman of ‘lower’ caste is being paraded naked because of her caste identity, how a Muslim man is lynched because his neighbours suspected that he was having beef as part of his dinner, how a trans-or-queer citizen of this country is being harassed everyday, or how a dalit sarpanch is murdered simply because he manged to win an election. In moments like these, in moments when you smell death or when you are in mortal fear, you realize that a different politics is also possible. A politics free of hatred or violence, a truly democratic politics. How do you save these suffering individuals? How do you even save them from sheer humiliation, let alone a degrading and forlorn death? You do it by conjoining politics and love. By saying, quite simply, that we do care for these suffering fellow-citizens, by declaring that whosoever is the perpetrator, our politics is against him or her. Our students are fashioning a new language of politics, and we should pay attention.
There is a second implication of this slogan. We are asked, quite bluntly, can there be any politics without love? Can there be any sense of being together in these difficult times without caring for each other, without being drawn into an empathetic relationship with our fellow sufferers? We are being asked to rethink our idea of politics, and to refashion it as a relationship where we are neither alone nor endangered. It is a new language of solidarity, of political bonding that we need to take seriously. It is possible to face hooliganism (as many of my students did last week), or it is possible to be roughed up by violent goondas (as was the case with my colleague Dr Prasanta Ckakravarty and many college teachers from Delhi University), but that is not the end of the story. One can, through this magical mix of politics and love, regroup and come back on the streets in even greater numbers. One can give an unambiguous message that the students and the teachers of Delhi University are capable of fashioning out a new language of politics that is not afraid of a few hired pehlwans of nearby akharas. The unexpected pairing of politics and love tells us that here politics is not simply electoral calculations and love is not mere romantic bonding (though these two remains important).
This new politics also makes it clear that the reason for this recent and virulent attacks on universities is not very difficult to grasp. There is a fundamental discrepancy between the idea of a university and the ABVP. While a university stands for democratic space, fierce debate and exchange of ideas, a conjugation of politics and love, the ABVP is oriented towards monolithic faith and homogeneous obedience. The situation is made even worse by the fact that their ideological source, i.e. the RSS, has been able to evolve only one intellectual rhetoric in its history of almost a century now—i.e. militant nationalism. What I have described as the new university above that wants to unite politics and love does not find any intellectual answer in this intolerant rhetoric, and, consequently, suspects its core values. The ABVP has widened the gap even further through their staple rhetoric of anti-minority, casteist and misogynist jingoism. This is most clearly visible in the recent spate of violence across different campuses where, on the pretext of a seminar or a performance, the stormtroopers have unleashed violence on this very culture of democracy and dissent that define any modern university..
It is equally important to note that almost all these recent events of unrest have taken place in universities with strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences. The reason, again, is not very far to seek. Unlike institutions offering technological or managerial skills (IITs and IIMs, for instance), these universities offer subjects and courses that have a direct bearing on our everyday lives. Many of the contentious issues of the new India—nationalism, caste, class, gender, sexuality, religion and so on—are debated and discussed every day in these courses, and students are encouraged to form their own minds in light of different forms of thinking and different currents of history. Our students have taken this challenge even further, and have made their university experience part of their lived world. They have put their own lives, their settled ideas and intimate desires on the crossroad, and have repeatedly exposed themselves to be interrogated in light of the questions they have encountered in the classroom and beyond. They have made the university space the battleground of ideas and arguments, and have repeatedly challenged any imposition of prejudiced values in the name of tradition or national culture. Consider the case of the Dalit student who had to battle all odds to reach the university, or the woman from a small town who defied all threats to form a movement like “Pinjra Tod”—it is very unlikely that they will be cowed down by a few campus hooligans and their toxic ideology. They will not disappear either. Many of them will move into different parts of the society with their ideas and arguments. Many more will come back to academia as teachers and researchers. What they will ensure is that the current battle between the university and its detractors will spread beyond a few campuses. This requires immense courage. This requires the courage to join together politics and love. It is time for all of us to choose our sides—on the one hand the university with its courageous students or, on the other, the ABVP with its intolerant bullies.
The author teaches English literature at the University of Delhi