Dastan-e-Absence

Many authors have written about JNU as a critical and self-reflective space, a space that derives intellectual meanings out of debates and discussion, acknowledgement and engagement with various thoughts across the colour spectrum. However, now that the President of the JNUSU has been released on bail, and through unrelenting national, transnational and international solidarities, a broader consensus against Hindutva is emerging, it is time to ask if this movement led by JNU can integrate – not co-opt – the plurality of metaphors that constitute various nationalisms or alternative visions. This is an important question, and a historic responsibility, that has been offered to JNU.

On February 18, under physical and ideological attack from all regressive sections and from the common sense that reins society at large, JNU gave a call for a solidarity march. Thousands of people participated, including most of the student body and faculty from JNU, in spite of the threat of physical violence. The solidarity that was displayed that day was reassuring as it showed that an emotional and political camaraderie could be forged between the progressive sections of society. However, it also made us cognizant of the contestations that could emerge as this movement reached out across sections of society, that is, how was this movement to be articulated? On the 18th, as our (very packed) bus from JNU to Mandi House halted in traffic, two students standing next me pointed towards some daily wage workers sitting in a park and sharing lunch, and rather absurdly declared these men to be Sanghis and started shouting slogans against the Sangh addressed towards these workers. Their reaction caught many off-guard and after interrupting them and pointing out that these were our real allies, it made me realize that, as people shouted slogans like ‘Stand with JNU’ and ‘We are JNU’, as the left parties walked under the tricolour, had many of us at JNU replicated a nationalism from another – equally uncritical and apparently static? What is JNU? What are we asking people to stand for? Is the debate about freedom of expression – what if the slogans were given? Or is it about limits of freedom of expression, that is, whether the slogans were given or not? The acceptance of the metaphor of the tricolour as a yardstick for measuring the love you have for your people, has been both claustrophobic and a defensive strategy, whereas, this contingent situation necessitates the need to walk under and celebrate left-progressive banners. We have to claim the space that rightfully belongs to us.

Should the debate on freedom of expression be located in this dichotomous fracture between the Sangh and the progressive sections, another kind of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’? Should it be located in the differences between various nationalisms, notions of national interest, territoriality, citizenship, democracy and federalism? Or should it be located in the freedom to articulate pro-people and pro-margins, without the fear of offending the dominant common sense?

The fact that the left with is potent alternative vision of internationalism has shied away from bringing up Kashmir is disconcerting. Barring periodic references to the opportunistic alliance between PDP and BJP, Kashmir has been audibly absent. The event that sparked this movement was named after the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s powerful poem and a larger poetry collection by the same title, The Country Without A Post office. But while we ask for sedition charges to be dropped against JNU students, where is our voice in defence of Professor Geelani? Or where is our criticism of the political opportunism and profiteering behind the militarisation of Kashmir; why this silence over state-sponsored violence in Kashmir? As we co-opt the Azaadi slogan so nonchalantly from the Kashmiris, should we not reclaim the freedom to discuss Azaadi within and from the Indian Republic? By not addressing Kashmir we only reaffirm the fallacious argument that talking about Kashmir and Kashmiris amounts to disrespecting the Indian soldiers serving there.

Following the politically motivated and undemocratic crackdown in JNU, it has also become a trend where most left-progressive leaders, barring a few, have distanced themselves from ‘certain slogans’ and have called for ‘due process’ to be initiated. But would it not have been more pro-people had we as a movement asserted the right to debate any issue, including self-determination? In the balance between tactics and principled ethical positions, realpolitik characterised by oppressive structural imperatives might gain.

While we remain silent on Kashmir, the left-progressive platform that JNU is offering to this movement, gave Pappu Yadav the space to express solidarity. This is an important development in the debates – more vibrant and inclusive – around the freedom of expression, which are taking place in the JNU campus. The broader understanding reached was that JNU offers a democratic solidarity platform to anyone who supports our struggle. So if Rahul Gandhi can be allowed to share this platform, why not Mr. Yadav? However, just because Mr. Gandhi spoke, should Mr. Tytler be allowed next time? Or will the left differentiate between those who massacre religious minorities and those who do not?

The initial days of the movement were both spontaneous and amorphous. There was police presence in the campus, surveillance against teachers and students, a nationwide right-wing mobilisation against JNU, student leaders had gone in hiding and the JNUTA had come forth to lead this movement – that is, protect their students and the institution – against all odds. However, as the movement matures now, it is articulating clear demands that include revoking suspensions of student leaders in the JNU campus and dropping of sedition charges against the JNU students, initiating caste-based educational reforms, and scrapping of colonial provisions like the Sedition Law at the national level. This is a platform that is articulating purportedly progressive politics. Hence, while we believe in the right of Mr. Yadav to express himself, this is a platform for groups and individuals who would stand with peoples’ politics, which by definition is the politics of the dispossessed, the marginalised and the forgotten. This struggle will not end soon and it is important that the symbols, slogans, metaphors and future direction of this movement are decided as an unabashed assertion of left-progressive politics and not based on defensive tactics that borrow from established political imaginaries.

JNU is a space that allows for the existence of fractures and all shades of politics. This movement holds a lot of potential, as it has already compelled many people to think and take positions against the decisions and policies of the present government. Now it is important to use this platform to discuss Kashmir and to start a real debate on nationalism and freedom of expression, in addition to questions of access and privatization of education (Occupy UGC), caste in higher education (Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder) and repealing of draconian laws like sedition, AFSPA et al.

First published in in countercurrents on 05.03.2016

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Khatija Khader Written by:

Khatija Khader is a PhD Candidate at International Politics Division Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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