The Politics of Present

The evening of March 29: a group of students from the University of Hyderabad are gathered in front of the gate of Cherlapally Central Jail, eagerly awaiting the release of their fellow students and teachers.The latter had been arrested and jailed for a week now. Though a sessions court had already granted them bail the previous day, the public prosecutor and the judge averred thatthe release would be delayed, citing procedural matters. There are some anxious and silent moments, but once it becomes clear that their comrades are to be freed that very night, slogans start breaking the silence, and flags are unfurled into in the wind. I am standing outside the crowd and watching the colours of the flags: blue ones with Ambedkar (of the Ambedkar Students Association), two different Tri-colours (of the Student Islamic Organization and National Students Union), white flags with a red star (that of Student Federation of India). They hang in the air like strokes of paint, buffeted by the blowing wind and illuminated by the high intensity neon light from the jail. In the background of the clear blue sky, I feel that the patterns of coloursare changing. I am not sure whether I am seeing the fabric of the flags meld into each other, or ephemeral patterns, created by the rage, cheerfulness and anxiety of the moment, criss-crossing in air.

By 9.00 PM students and teachers are out of the jail, and pent-up emotions flow uncontrollably, as do high pitched slogans, tight embraces, and spirited speeches in front of the cameras that had been waiting from the morning for this moment. Soon, we are in a bus, making our way back to the University.Slogans continueto enchant the atmosphere. I can discern the rent the air in Telugu, English, and Hindi,some even in Spanish. They invoke BirsaMunda, Phule, Ambedkar, Kanshiram, Periyar, BhagatSingh, Phulan Devi, Marx, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh in all permutations and combinations, matching the rhymes and the rhythms ofthe slogans. So far, it is a picture of a grand alliance –the Amedkarites, the Leftists, the Islamisists, the Nationalists—focused on one particular objective and determined to travel together until that objective is achieved. The thundering welcome at the gate of the University by thousands of roaring students and the torch-light march that follows, scrambles the darkness in the university, reinforcing the above image. I am thrilled and hopeful but simultaneously a bit confused and puzzled. Is this a transient phenomenon which will pass after achieving a specific goal? What about the contradictions of ideologies and utopias?

The next day, an opportunity arises to talk with a friend—one of the professors in the University who actively worked towards the release of the students and faculty, one who has alsostood insupportof the students’ struggle from the beginning. During our conversation,he expresses similar confusions: what is ‘Bastar’ (the prime location of the Maoist movement) doing here in Hyderabad, brought here not by the Adivasis but by the upper caste, middle class revolutionaries? How far does an Ambedkarite who believes in constitutional politics travel along with the above revolutionaries? He wonders aloud whether this alliance is too thin and without depth. His thoughts add to my usual skepticism and confusion.

Later, I have a chance to witness the speeches made by the students who were arrested. They talk about their experience, about the politics in which they are now immersed. The speakers draw attention to the various political issues, from Kashmir and the North-East to caste violence all over the country. Among these, Shan Muhammad’s short speech rings out notes of clarity for me, opened theway to understanding what is different in this politics from that of traditional and discursive mainstream politics. Shan, drawing on Wittgenstein, points out: “the knowledge for the marginalized communities is doing, it is an activity.” Hearing this speech closely, I start recognizing a shift: from Lenin’s “What Is to be Done?” to Shan’s question of “What Are We Doing?” This move is underscored by references to the everyday appearance of Nation in the life of Kashmiris, people of the North Eastern states and Dalits and Muslims all over the country. How does one mark the specificities of this moment—the differences of this politics from the mainstream politics on the one hand, and, on the other hand, from the ‘localized’, issue-based politics? Here, we observe an intensification of a stream of a new kind of politics, in its form and practice. We may call this a‘politics ofthe present,’ marking adifference with the traditional model of ‘politics of the future.’ The new stream is not replacing the old one, but flows along with it: sometimes parallel, sometimes entangled, and sometimes in an opposite direction. Let me try to explain what I mean by ‘politics of present’ and ‘politics of future’ by mapping three aspects of the former in comparison with the latter.

First, politics of future is a teleological politics. Its reference point is the utopia that is to be reached and realized in some time to come: socialism, development, sustainability and so on. Each political act in the present is imagined/claimedas a step towards this. In other words, the reference point is always the future. The acts in the present are evaluated either as a step forward or criticized as step backward or as a deviation from the correct path.   For clarifying this further, we can look into an example. From the 1950s to 1970s, the communist parties had intense argumentsamong themselvesabout participating in parliamentary politics. Even for the sections which argued for participation within elections and parliamentary processes (CPI and CPIM), their justification was not based on present exigencies like the importance of (at least) a formal democracy and a welfare state, but rather because they considered elections the most potent/powerful/effective events in organizing people for the future revolution. Parties like the Indian National Congress, whichproject development politics as their main agenda, justify their actions pointing towards the developed world which is the future of developing nations. In the teleology of developing to developed, the present and even the past already extend towards the future; a small section of the present is already overlapping with the future, heralding it. This does not mean that for a politics of the future actions in the present are not important.The point is rather about justifications of and claims about these actions.

The politics of present attempts to bring the past and future into the arena of the here and now. That is its reference point, and the movement of the present in time is a shift from one present to another. History is important, but it is accepted that the past is not something that has already happened, but something that is always changing according to the politics in the present. In this form of politics, thousand years of Brahamanical domination is evaluated in reference to the current casteist practices in the university. Nationalism is exposed not just because of its aberrations and deviations from any ideal, but for the mere impossibility of a Nation in the current caste-ridden society. In other words, what politics of present also does is to bring caste into the time of Nation. Caste is present not insome remote villages which are yet to be part of Nation, but at the nerve centers of Nation such as Universities.This is how I read the Facebook post which states that “at this moment Ambedkar would have said that the capital has moved from Delhi to Hyderabad.” And this is why it is not only a localized issue. It recognizes the structural powers but unlike in structuralism, power is not without a face, not hidden and not somewhere outside. The politics of present recognizes that structures exist and are revealed at the point of application of forces (“the here”),and only at moments of the application of these forces (“the now”). One of the names given to such forces is ‘everyday violence.’ In the categories of physics, one could explain this as a shift of focus from static power to dynamic forces. Power is not stored; it does not even exist without the continuous application of forces and exists only at the points and frontlines of application.

Second, the politics of future is a politics of subsuming ‘minor(ity)politics’ under grand agendas, i.e., under a politics of postponement. Here, I am not onlypointing towards the demand of sacrifice for greater goods, but rather, the postponement of what is even recognized as a genuine demand but which is subsumed underthat which is considered as a broader agenda. For the left, the caste issue, though recently recognized as important, can be—indeed, ought to be—subsumed under the larger project of fighting capitalism. For certain sections of Dalit groups, the Dalit women’sissue, while recognized as a crucial problematic, can be postponed or subsumed under the general struggle for the annihilation of caste. This demand for subsumption is prominent in mainstream politics and is not completely absent in the new form of politics.Even in the current struggles at the University of Hyderabad, there is a demand to postpone the gender questions at the current moment.

At the same time these claims are challenged from inside and outside by various minority groups with a demand of political action ‘now and here.’ The claim that the minority demands might create division within a group which is already marginalized is questioned by a proposition thatthe issues of the minority-within-a-minority cannot be postponed. The reasoning here is that the categories like Student, Dalit or Indian are not essential categories and hence it is difficult to prioritize the agendas exclusively based onany one of these categories. Rather, the claim is that the varied demands in the present create an intensified field of political opposition where even opposite ideologies can come together without postponing any individual agendas. In the current debates, this has already been recognized as an issue-based politics. While this may be one way to understand it, it is important to note that, even when different groups are in a common platform, the individual agendas are not postponed or subsumed under the larger issue at hand. In the case of University of Hyderabad and in Jawaharlal Nehru University, we could see a comparatively strong alliance between Ambedkarites, the mainstream left and Islamic politics at least in the current context. However, this does not compel the Ambedkar Students’ Association to postpone their criticism of castiesm among the left parties; similarly the Student Islamic Organisation, while fully participating in the struggle, did not wantthe problem of Islamophobia, even within the parties of alliance such as SFIto be subsumed/suppressed/marginalized. Hence, the alliance should be understood as a form of political practice which simultaneously forwards the particular (even diverging) agendas and at the same time intensifies itself at the overlapping areas of action. Once again, it should be noted that the demand for postponement has not disappeared altogether among these groups. The influence of politics of future is still strong, but it has been challenged from within and outside.

Third and finally, in the politics of the present, contradictions arenot necessarily considered in terms of an opposition. In the usual framework of the politics of future, there is always a demand for resolving contradictions. This is because in its linear movement, divergence or multi-directional trajectoriescannot be imagined as part of its core political project. The movements are either forward or backward. There could be parallel paths but there are only two directions. On the contrary, the politics of the present does not imagine the space of politics as a limited and bounded entity, but infinite and expanding. The opening up of the virtual space has a crucial role in creating this conception. Here, contradictions within need not be necessarily resolved but could be accommodated or even multiplied. If we understand contradictions as productive, it would be easierto understand the solidarities and the alliances in the student politics. This solidarity needs to be read not just as coalition politics. For example, Ambedkar Student Association itself should be understood as solidarity with differences. Unlike many other students’ associations which are formed as student wings of political parties, ASA, which initially represented mainly one Dalit caste group, has become a political platform of Ambedkarites and anti-caste activists, which is not exemptfrom contradictory perspectives. In short, the politics of present has a created a space where differences are not always dichotomous or oppositional.

If contradictions are considered constructive, how do we understand ‘crisis’ in the politics of present? The crisis here is less ideological; it is more about the constraints on charging the political field continuously, with infinite creative energy. In other words, the intensification in the field (which need not necessarily be equivalent to success) is possible only through creative actions, which I explain as the combination of spontaneity and rationalization. Any rarefaction in this combination might create a crisis.

In the student movements in the University of Hyderabad against the institutional murder of RohitVemula, in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru University where students are protesting against the sedition charges slapped on the students, inthe Kiss of Love protest in different places in India, we can identify a form of political practice that adumbrate apolitics of the present. The recent protest of textile workers in Bangalore further amplify this claim of a new form of politics through the spontaneity, collective leadership and creative modes of protest. We can also see the mainstream political parties attempting to translate these politics into the categories which are familiar to them, which are located in the politics of future. Conversely, we can also observe that the politics of the present has influenced the language of the mainstream, and, hence, the politics of future itself is transforming.

To end, the usual caveats apply—always; that is why they are usual! These two forms of politics are not always opposites, not always separable, and the politics of present is not a completely new phenomenon. In fact, the new form has already existed in ‘practical politics.’ But they were never self-recognized or claimed by the actors nor used in the domain of evaluation-justification-validation. For example, during elections, the parties in the government attempt to showcase their current achievements, which may be considered a claim in the present.   But again, no party can claim that the new government will just repeat / maintain what the earlier government has already achieved. There is always more in the future and it is the future they try to sell or offer. On the other hand the new politics demands that future should be brought to the present and declare that waiting is not an acceptable mode of being any more. In short, the new form is about intensifying particular kinds of claims and justifications which is different from the above mentioned politics of future. Again, it can be understood neither as localized politics nor as state-centric politics. It moves through different time-spaces and addresses multiple audiences. The politics of future models itself on the selling of insurance policies. The agent will convince you that the future should be protected even at the cost of your death in the present. It demands that the resources should be made available for the future generation even if you have no access to it in the present. From the viewpoint of politics of the present, the future generation will need to recognize their own present and continue the struggles then.The present generation strives for liberty and equality for themselves in their own life time. And a livable present is a more assured offer than a better future.


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Sunandan Written by:

Assistant Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore

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