At this Moment, Solidarity is an Imperative, not a Choice

Featured image by Tanushree Bhasin

One of the most unfortunate denouements of the currently unfolding assault on India’s public university system is the HCU contra JNU framing of student politics. As an alumnus of JNU with close friends from HCU, I find this baffling. Not for sentimental reasons, or from a position of hurt. But, politically. Not only does this framing flatten out an immensely complex and contested terrain of politics, it also undermines an effective political response in an exigent situation.

Scanning social media and talking to friends, I find one charge against JNU repeated often: while it is expressed variously, with different attributes, the essence of the charge is ‘exceptionalism,’ both structural and articulate. Now, exceptionalisms are always problematic, indicative of arrogant solipsism, be that of the American, Bengali Bhadralok, or the JNU kind. They should all be scrutinized and criticized vigorously. With respect to JNU, the question needs to be raised: how, in a nation of more than a billion people, one university has come to exert such massive centripetal force on the country’s professoriate and intellectual talent, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences? It is necessary to ask why it receives greater government endowment than all other central and state universities. The structuration that makes JNU the cynosure of media attention needs to be laid bare. Other critical questions, too, can well be raised, and they indeed have been, perhaps with gusto than ever before, in the past few months.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In the political present, when systematic efforts are afoot, through the state apparatus and ideologically driven vigilante action, to frontally assault any and all kinds of progressive spaces and ideas, including anti-caste ones, the notion that sidelining JNU, withholding solidarity, will magically clear the space for a more urgent anti-caste politics borders on the naïve.[/pullquote]

Of these, one line of critique strikes at the core of what makes JNU exceptional—its identity, both ascribed and voluntary, of being the preeminent institutional redoubt of Marxist student politics in contemporary India. This critique, which also enlivens the JNU vs HCU antagonism, emanates from the non-Marxist Left, from intellectuals and activists involved with anti-caste, Dalit-Bahujan rights and assertion movements. Many of them have/had institutional affiliation with HCU, or are allied to the causes and issues that have historically animated student politics there. The contention is: being home to the first explicitly Ambedkarite student platform and subsequent mobilizations where the caste question has been at the forefront, HCU is on the right side of history. Student politics there correctly recognizes caste as the primary contradiction of Indian society that needs to be dismantled for any hope of an egalitarian India to come to fruition. JNU, on the other hand, is still stuck with the old Left pieties of class and the nation, where the caste question remains at best unresolved and, at worst, reproductive of extant hierarchies. Hence, the “Jai Bhim, Laal Salaam” slogan that rent the air during the recent movement in JNU is an act of appropriation rather than solidarity. Because solidarity is not a given. It has to be actively earned. And since caste is ultimately relegated to the domain of second-order ‘identity politics’ by Marxists, appending the signature salute of Ambekarites to their own is more an empty gesture, rather than an expression of substantive solidarity. Therefore, hyping JNU as the flagbearer of progressive students politics on Indian university campuses, whether by the media or by media-enabled self-proclamations, undermines the intensification of anti-caste mobilization that has had HCU as its nerve center, especially after Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As the philosopher Walter Benjamin noted, in a context not entirely dissimilar to one we are living through, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”[/pullquote]

Notwithstanding the problematic generalizations involved in painting entire campuses Ambedkarite (HCU) or Marxist (JNU), and the equally problematic staging of these two tendencies as entirely mutually exclusive, what is clear is that we are witnessing a defining struggle for hegemony in progressive student politics in India. JNU and HCU are merely its simplifying labels. One hopes that the sublation of the ongoing JNU-HCU dialectic will usher in a more robust (student) politics that will have caste as its primary target while retaining what is still valuable in the Marxist Left.

That said, what is absolutely baffling is the reading of the political conjuncture emanating out of HCU and allied intellectuals/activists. In this reading, JNU qua Left is identified as the main enemy, the cardinal target that needs to be subjugated, for forging a pan-Indian anti-caste mobilization among students, activists, and beyond. Now, even if every single critique laid at the door of JNU and the Left is true, and quite a bit of it is, this line of analysis and action is self-defeating for progressive student politics. In the political present, when systematic efforts are afoot, through the state apparatus and ideologically driven vigilante action, to frontally assault any and all kinds of progressive spaces and ideas, including anti-caste ones, the notion that sidelining JNU, withholding solidarity, will magically clear the space for a more urgent anti-caste politics borders on the naïve.

If effective politics rests, in part, on the ability to correctly read the ‘moment’ in which politics is practiced, and in calibrating political practice accordingly, then we do not have the luxury at this moment to deliberate the condition of possibility for ‘solidarity.’ This does not mean papering over political difference, even incommensurate ones. Conceptually, difference is a necessary condition for solidarity. Without difference, there would be no desire or need for solidarity in the first place. Solidarity, therefore, is always provisional, issue-predicated. And given the issues staring Indian student politics in the face at this moment, solidarity is an imperative, not a choice. For, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin noted, in a context not entirely dissimilar to one we are living through, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” Rest assured, the casteist Hindu Right and the merit-wielding technocrats will not care whether the dead came draped in red or blue.

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Sharmadip Basu Written by:

Sharmadip Basu is a generalist who currently fashions himself as a historian of modern South Asia. While a keen observer of politics, his scholarly interest lies in studying the entanglements of music and modernity in the colonial context. He is an ex-Organizing Committee member of the New York-based South Asia Solidarity Initiative. Having previously taught at Syracuse University and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he is at present Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Studies at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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