Usually, I do not write such pieces. Despite being a research scholar, or perhaps because of it, I find writing to be a very painful process. At the same time, I also tell myself that there is so much being generated by the social media on every issue that it may be wiser on my part to refrain from adding to it. But with the recent events unfolding in JNU, it is becoming impossible to just stand by, watch, observe, and read all the talk and debates about our dhaba/hostel/class room discussions.
When the poster for the February 9 2015 event titled, "A Country Without a Post Office" was put up, I confess none of my friends expressed any kind of surprise, leave alone some sort of gut-wrenching response in defense of my country, as I am now expected to have by some media houses, BJP politicians and the ostensible tax-payers of India.
Why did not my stomach churn or my blood boil on seeing the poster? Why am I not outraged in the same manner as the Arnab Goswamis of India?
Simply because my university teaches me to think.
JNU is a politically vibrant space. This could be attributed to the pedagogic practice, ethos and structure of our classrooms. Contrary to popular perception of how we are only indoctrinated with Marxism, our classroom discussions and readings also focus on other thinkers and ideologies. For every discussion on Gandhi, we are also reading an Ambedkar, and with every Ambedkar essay, we have our Lohia in place. And if that is not enough, we have also read our share of Bhudev, Vivekananda and Savarkar , apart from dealing with feminist theory and methods.
What struck me as a young Masters student at JNU was that political discussions were not just limited to the post-dinner mess meetings and dhaba charchas, that the classroom was a demanding and grueling space in academic rigor through tutorial discussions and term papers. The pedagogic values that emphasize tutorial discussions and term papers over exams drilled something very fundamental into me, and that was to question and challenge anything and everything.
If I have to look back at some of the courses I did in my Masters years on Indian political thought and nationalism, I am pretty sure the entire curriculum would have been declared "seditious". The tutorial discussions required us to defend our arguments based on evidence, sources and citations, and not simply because of one's emotional beliefs or sensitivities. While an "opinion" was always welcome in the classroom, our engagements, counter-opinions and arguments had to be substantiated. Our teachers, friends and comrades made us "un-learn" a lot of things and helped us put them back together, but not without making us question monolithic structures- be it the nation or family or relationships. If anything, the university has made us refreshingly irreverent.
So it is precisely in this practice of doubting and questioning "truths" that we have also learnt to listen to other opinions, acknowledge that narratives are numerous, and struggles are multiple. Snuffing out alternative questions only reflects our own inability to formulate answers or pose counter-arguments. And because we are fully aware of this, it did not hurt us in our gut when we saw an event that that spoke of azaadi or asked if Afzal Guru's execution was correct.
The uniqueness of a university space lies in its shared sense of community, and an important part of this is to live and deal with differing opinions. This culture of dissent is what makes a university robust. Students and scholars may disagree with the position of the organizers of the event, but we also have to take cognizance of the fact that Umar Khalid and his comrades have consistently raised uncomfortable questions about Kashmir, the policies of the state, the assault on campus autonomy or questions of freedom with respect to women and gay rights.
If a bunch of slogans is what is constituting the biggest threat to our country, prompting us to impose sedition laws on our students, then it is evident that the state has no answer to the questions raised from the Sabarmati Dhaba. We do not, as a nation, seem to show this kind of vitriol and outrage when Rohith Vemula committed suicide or when the Chattisgrah government impinged on the forest rights of tribals to facilitate coal mining.
If today universities are in danger of become targets of state repression and the banishment of free thought, then we need to rally behind all our comrades and friends who are targets of a witch-hunt and a lynch mob. For they belong to that political culture that values dissent alongside fierce dialogue, which has ensured our often-taken-for-granted freedoms.
(Suchismita Chattopadhyay is a doctoral scholar at the Center of Political Studies, JNU.)
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