Book Review of JNU: NATIONALISM AND INDIA’S UNCIVIL WAR by Professor Makarand Paranjape
Published by : Rupa Publications
Genre: Political Non-Fiction
The author, Mr. Makarand Paranjape is the senior-most professor at JNU. He left IIT Delhi to join the university in 1999 for the position of Professor of English. In JNU’s ‘tukde tukde’ phase, Makarand R. Paranjape, professor of English, was one of the few who stood up to the ‘anti-national’ lobby.
Despite being a faculty of the JNU, his political ideologies seem somewhat to be what most people would call ”Right-Wing”. The author writes in the prologue, “The book, however, is not merely a collection of anecdotes or personal experiences. Nor is it an exercise in institutional historiography or hagiography. Instead, it is an informed insider’s account of the cataclysmic changes in one of India’s premier institutions of higher education during a five year period, 2016–2021. But more than that, I would like to believe that this book is also a history of our times, of India’s ongoing transformation. It is the story of the changing self-apprehension of a people, of the multiple meanings of nationalism. It is about being Indian itself. JNU, as I shall show, is at the centre of discussions and debates on topics of national importance. It always has been. So that is not what makes these times special. What is different now is that the university, which went through an unprecedented crisis, was the location and theatre of this larger change.” As to the specific circumstances of this book’s genesis, much of it emerged out of the author’s continuous public engagement with the happenings in JNU since February 2016.
The book begins with the outline of the wider context. The national, even worldwide, debates on liberalism and nationalism, thus, form the core of Chapter One. Particularly, how a certain brand of the latter has come to substitute the Nehruvian version of the former as the driving ideology of India. When we go back to 2016, it is clear that whatever happened in JNU had a wider context, both national and international. We might call it the crisis of liberalism and the resurgence of conservative nationalism. To start with the former, not just in India, but all over the world, liberalism seemed to be in tatters. What is more, the calamity of global liberalism was mostly of its own making. If ‘liberalism’ means the pursuit and promotion of individual freedoms, rule of law and constitutional government, most liberals have utterly miscarried their attempts to defend it. The sad truth is that it is liberals themselves who have failed liberalism. While there are real dangers in the Right-wing upsurge in our societies, it is equally true that the excessive preoccupation of the LeftLiberal intellectual establishment with this resurgence has made it blind to other forms of intolerance and totalitarianism, including Liberal and Islamic fanaticism. Not surprisingly, the phenomenon of ‘Illiberal Liberalism’ is as rampant in India as elsewhere in the free world. The same sort of blindness or duplicity, evidently, prevails here. Leftist Liberal journalist intellectuals and the periodicals they patronize, often train their polemical guns on the Hindu Right, but seldom on Muslim and other forms of ‘minoritarian’ intolerance. They soft-pedal the latter as if it poses no real threat to Indian liberalism. If the Sharia-like conditions are imposed on reluctant Muslims in Muslim-dominated areas, or even on non-Muslims, they are silent. If entire neighborhoods become minority ghettos and no-go zones for sari-clad women or clean-shaven men, they do not protest. Even more harmful to national unity and integrity, if Kashmiri separatists actually peddle Islamic theocracy in the guise of azadi, they look the other way. If predatory conversion, ‘love jihad’ or illegal immigration destabilize demographic and electoral scales in certain regions of the country, our Leftist Liberals do not cavil or worry. If Hindus are abducted, raped, killed or converted in Pakistan or Bangladesh, they do not raise any alarm or stage a demonstration. Instead, Marxist-Dalit-anti-Brahminical-minority feminist-‘anti-Hindu’ alliances are applauded and promoted. In India, today, no side or shade in our political continuum, in a strict sense, is truly liberal. Most political parties, regardless of their beliefs, are statist, if not status-quoist. All of them push for greater bureaucratic and political control of our lives. When it comes to liberalism, admittedly, traditional fault lines in its framework and discourse become evident. There is often a clash between classical liberalism and social liberalism—the former stands for economic, cultural and social freedom, while the latter has tended to be more interventionist and regulatory, focusing on justice and equality, rather than liberty. But the real reason for the failure of liberalism is not its inability to reconcile rights with duties or freedom with justice. Liberalism the world over has failed because of one deadly disease, to quote our Dear Prime Minister— hypocrisy—which is just a polite form of falsehood. The defeat of pseudo-liberals is the first step towards restoring true liberalism to its rightful place as the guardian of a way of life that most of us hold dear. Lest we forget, in the heyday of communism, many western liberals colluded, even spied, for the Soviet Union. How could they justify such a betrayal? The answer is simple—a combination of ideology and expediency. Today’s liberals are similarly seen supporting or countenancing radical Islam, which though in a different manner and register, is also terribly intolerant. Just as Soviet-style socialism used to be. Even if countries like Saudi Arabia themselves are pushing through radical reforms, any criticism of Islamic intolerance is immediately branded as ‘Islamophobia’ and targeted for cancellation. Similarly, other ‘woke’ causes, some of them perfectly worthy in their own right, are imposed in a coercive and illiberal manner.
The author further in the chapter talks about the Lit Fests across the country. About how most of these Fests are organized maily by the “LeLi’s” (Leftist Liberals). The author himself tried to curate a litreture festival , The Pondichery Lit Fest (PLF), but it was subjected to relentless attacks by these LeLi’s. Some called it a festival of BJP Bootlicker’s. In a similar event , the author mentions , Mr. Vikram Sampath had been eased ou of the Bangalore Literature Festival , which he had co-founded!
To return to the JNU scrapes of 2016, it is amply clear that they were directly related to the election of Narendra Modi as the prime minister of India in 2014. This single event strikes as the most important when it comes to shaking the foundations of what has been termed the Nehruvian consensus informing India’s ruling ideology. JNU and other universities in India were deliberately sought to be turned into flashpoints of anti-Modi and anti-BJP government protests. What was not as clearly understood then was that the anti-Modi agitation would hinge on divergent meanings of nationalism. The author also seems to praise the NaMo Nationalism way. “Modi’s two-pronged strategy to offer a corruption-free, efficient government within the country and to improve India’s image overseas, contribute considerably to such a dharmic nationalism. Robust economic growth(Are you kidding me?) and a more muscular foreign policy add to this sense of India’s strength. “,”…Also, for the first time in decades, the government did not seem to represent or favour a particular section of society. (Really?)”. “Modi has also spoken out, even though infrequently, against excesses of Hindutvavadis15 , including self-proclaimed cow vigilantes. He thus also shows the much-needed corrective to hyper-nationalism.”“The self-hating Hindu has gone out of fashion. In the process, some of his admirers have gone to the extent of calling Modi the yuga purush, the epochal man. Modi may well be the yuga purush—or he may not. But in his second term, he is certainly changing India in lasting and significant ways. This is the most important thing to bear in mind when trying to understand the phenomenon that is Modi”. JNU could not remain unaffected by this Modi wave that was engulfing the country. It became the very epicentre of the earthquake that shook India to its very foundation. Unfortunately for Modi haters and detractors, it was NaMo nationalism which came out stronger from the rubble.
The author then talks about the factors which led him to join the university. While this chapter seemed a little too long and unnecessary to me, here are some of the key things that I found interesting and annotated. “JNU tuition fee, I was astounded to learn, was then something like ₹20 a month. The hostel charges even less. Yearly tuition and room rent less than a thousand rupees.”” ? If the students studied and learned to be the best in India, if not the world, it would all be worth it. I would even support free education to all those who made it through our selection process. Yet, instead of a culture of excellence and competence, the prevailing ethic appeared to be partisanship and parasitism. Our indoctrinated students hated the bourgeois state. They made a virtue of freeloading off it. For them, it was a prelude, if not to revolution, at least to cushy civil service jobs. Exploit the State and use its resources to fight it. Then become a part of it yourself.”” Anti-government activists thriving at the government’s expense. This was what JNU socialism seemed to boil down to. I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’s words, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
There was also a season and schedule for such disruptions. It occurred at least twice a year, in the middle of each semester, strategically around Holi or Durga Puja. The Bengalis (Bongs) went home during the latter, the Biharis during the former. Half the semester was invariably wiped out in holidays and demonstrations. The Biharis and the Bengalis were easily the largest regional groups. Most of the latter were Leftist, a good number of the former, Right-wing. It was all about class. The well-heeled, English-speaking bourgeoisie were usually Left-leaning. The aspiring lower-middle-class, Hindi speakers formed the support base of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a youth group of the RSS.
Ever since its inception in 1971, Leftist students had totally dominated the JNUSU. Some 22 JNUSU presidents have come from the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), an affiliate of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI[M]). Kanhaiya Kumar, JNUSU president in the critical year of 2016, belonged to yet another Leftist group, the All India Students’ Federation (AISF). This is the student wing of the oldest of our Left parties, the Communist Party of India (CPI), founded way back in 1925, during the last decades of the Raj.
What surprised me the most is when I read that Many JNU Leftists haven’t even read Marx, let alone Engels, Lenin, Trotsky or Mao. (Hell, even I have read Marx!! If you mention Bukharin or Plekhanov, they blink as if they have been caught on the wrong foot. As to critics of communism, from Koestler to Solzhenitsyn, Polanyi to Dikötter, these names have never been heard of. In all my years at JNU I never once found a Leftist student read or discuss, let alone bother to engage with a classic exposé such as The Black Book of Communism—Crimes, Terror, Repression.
Matters came to a head in 2016, after the rally in support of Afzal Guru. Masked outsiders made their first appearance on campus. ‘Tukde tukde’ and ‘azadi’ slogans were chanted. Mattresses were spread across ‘Freedom Square’, as the administration building came to be rechristened. Students shacked up around the Pink Palace. The intent was plain and simple—to create a nationwide student movement against the Modi sarkar. Guru had received a death sentence after having been convicted of conspiring to attack the Indian parliament in 2001. After all appeals, including a mercy petition to the President of India, had been rejected, he was hanged to death on 9 February 2013. His death anniversary was sought to be commemorated by Kashmiri separatist students and their supporters in various campuses of Indian universities, JNU being at the forefront. The JNU protest march was led by Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, who belonged to a breakaway faction of the ultra-Left, Maoist Democratic Students Union (DSU). Perhaps the most viciously dangerous and damaging slogan raised was ‘Bharat tere tukde honge, Inshallah, Inshallah. Acedemic Activities came to a total standstill. In all their slogans and bill boards and fights for justice, Predictably, there was no mention of how the Kashmiri Hindus, mostly Brahmins, were driven out of the state. Weren’t they Kashmiris too? The author discussed the Afzal guru trial and all the riots in great detail. Year after year, protests and commemorations of ‘such enemies of India’ were not uncommon in JNU. This included annual marches and morchas against the hangings of Guru and Bhat. What was different now was that the government at the Centre had changed in 2014. A new prime minister, Narendra Modi, heading a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was at the helm of affairs. In JNU, too, we had a new VC, M. Jagadesh Kumar, who had assumed office in January 2016. The earlier VCs had looked the other way, tolerating such campaigns as examples of free speech, the JNU administration was now much more vigilant. The ABVP cadres were also more active and vociferous on campus. They would not take insults to ‘Bharat Mata’ lying down.
The author was a part of a series of lectures in a Teach-In called,”What the Nation Really Needs to Know”, which is now a book published by HarperCollins, 2017. His lecture was criticized by several others as he was one of the few was not from their school of thought. His lecture is called, “India’s Uncivil Wars: Tagore, Gandhi and whats “left” of this nation”. It talks about Tagore, and his thoughts on Nationalism among other things and of Gandhi’s ideology and whats “Left” of the nation. On one side of the nationalism debate we have Tagore and Gandhi. Both have been universally recognized as key figures in the making of modern India. On the other side, we have what’s left of the nation. What does that mean? Left, here, is obviously a pun. It refers, first of all, to the Left as an ideology. But also to what remains of the nation. The implication is that by the time the Left is done with the nation, there would be very little left of it. Because the Left doesn’t, ostensibly, believe in the nation. Certainly, not of the Indian nation. They Think, that India is a multinational country, which may as well become many nations. That way the revolution would be easier to provoke. There’s very little left of the Left itself. They’ve lost ground everywhere. Their ideas of history and, also of economics, don’t work. There is, of course, China, the behemoth and hyperpower. But it is not communist in the traditional sense. Only political power vests firmly in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But they are very much a part of global capitalism. In fact, they wish to present themselves as an alternate system to democracy.
The next chapters talk about the present times from the authors perspective and how he sees things and responds to the several open letters written against him, which very defamatory and discreditory attempts against the author. Further the author writes about events post the 2016 riots. The disappearance of two students, and the politics around that. The author ends the book by talking higher thyan the JNU crisis and about the entire higher education crisis in our country and what can be done to improve standards and quality of such institutions.
I personally highly resonated with the author and his thoughts on several issues. I also did not on some points and have pointed them out. All in all a very thought provoking book.
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