University beyond the ‘Nation’

“Given the impossibility of the nation-form as an enabling political arrangement of our times- after all, we have experimented with it for over two centuries- the work of imagination and the work of politics need to seek newer, pluralistic and enabling forms of politics beyond the nation-form. The thought of Tagore and Periyar offers us at least two premises to re-imagine politics beyond the nation-form. First, politics has to be a perennial contestation of different forms of power by acknowledging and addressing difference as the fundamental reality of the social. Second, a politics beyond the nation has to be based on a de-territorialised imagination that surpasses the territorial parochialism of the nation-form and embraces the world as a terrain of possibilities, alliances and constraintsMSS Pandian, “Nation Impossible”

The university and the nation are antithetical entities. Historically speaking, the idea of the university emerged much before the emergence of the idea of the nation-form. Nalanda, Takshila, Oxford and Cambridge were places long before nation states got crystallised. The university as a space transcends the parochialism of the nation form, namely its homogeneity and its territorial fixity. Universities on the contrary are spaces where divergent ideas emerge out. Since ideas don’t emerge out in a social vacuum, it becomes important to realise that these contending ideas are differing world views of different individuals or social groups within the university space.

We in the university are introduced to a large corpus of theoretical and academic literature, which makes us re-think and question the category of the “nation-form”. From Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities to Partha Chatterjee’s Nation and its Fragments we have seen a numerous set of creative ways to rethink and question the concept of “nation” and “nationalism”. It is not in a haste that we have taken up such questions. For a post-colonial nation state like India, which has spent almost seven decades in to its search for a nation, this is rather a late realisation. India is a state which is still searching for its nation and is in clear contradiction with many sub-nationalities which are vehemently searching for their states. Kashmir is definitely a point in case.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The way the University space was thought of in monarchical medieval Britain can be completely different to how it was conceptualised in the post-colonial Nehruvian socialist India[/pullquote]
The abstract conceptualisation of the “nation” has also to a large extent overlooked the concrete and substantial aspect of it, the people. There can be no nation without people who in turn form it. If we sensitise the concept of the nation to such a degree, then there is no denying to the fact that people in this geographical entity called India are not a homogenous group. Our rethinking of the nation has to spur out from this substantial heterogenic culture and community. A rethinking on the notion of “difference” is a great step in this direction. If the Indian state starts to “talk” and “dialogue” with these “differences”, rather than “oppressing” and “suppressing” them to forge “flawed unities”, it would not be able to take this journey forward smoothly. All consensus are derived on “differential sacrifices” which essentially implies that consensus are “suffocating” conclusions where differences have been clearly not been allowed to be brought on board.

“The Idea of a University” may come up at different points of time in history from different social groups who form the ruling classes of the time. It is also not necessary that universities always were the product of the “benevolence” of the ruling classes. The way the University space was thought of in monarchical medieval Britain can be completely different to how it was conceptualised in the post-colonial Nehruvian socialist India. Both the above Ideas are by far completely different from the “University of Ideas”. The “University of Ideas” is a horizon-less entity which is based on doubt and questioning. The questioning of many pre given ideas may lead to the creation of newer and newer horizons which may take us to no culmination point. Life is antithetical to fixity. It goes on, changes, transforms and brings up newer questions to the fore every day. Transcending the parochial understanding of the “nation form” is a necessary step to move ahead, both in our personal lives and also in the life of the “nation”.

The category of the nation as rightly pointed out by Pandian is insufficient to imagine newer and pluralistic ways of doing politics. Even in academics, the students of International Relations may find nation-states as useful categories as per the realist understanding of the world system. But this has also been questioned heavily both by the idealist and the critical school theorists. We in social science deal with more intricate categories which enhances our understanding of the social reality. Therefore, caste, class, gender, community, region and language have complicated our understanding of history, politics, society, art and literature. It is the University which has opened up these frontiers and thus this space has to be thoroughly defended.

The current dispensation, as has been largely argued, is one of the most anti-intellectual governments in the history of the post-colonial India. The reason why universities are on their target is clear from the fact that post-Mandal, universities in India saw a large influx of students from the traditionally marginalised caste and class groups. Newer forms of politics be it Ambedkarite or Bahujan have started to negotiate for political space in campuses. The traditional left are also facing difficult questions both in their ideology and their ranks. This plurality or messiness, both in politics and in the larger social life, has seriously undermined the homogenised world-view of the Hindu-right as all illusions of “unity” have come crumbling down.

Ideationally speaking, the conceptual notion of the nation cannot subsume the university space though it may try hard in the name of “nation-making”. This anomaly of the “spilling out”, of the university outside the confines of the nation form is useful in understanding intellectual progress, the expansion of Knowledge and the expansion of human empathy outside the “nationalities” we have been branded with from our births. Going beyond the argument of the role of university in nation making, we can think of the role of university in redeeming humanitarian conceptions of living and being in the world as “different” beings. This transcendence has also to challenge the notion of an essential “humanism” and understand it in more fragmented and nuanced forms. Being in the university is not being in the parochial confines of the “nation” form. Being in the university is to think and dream of radical and emancipatory possibilities of a future free from suffocating boundaries and consensus realising well that this will lead to create recurring possibility for “newness”. The youth of this country are waiting to be heralded in this new era of “freshness” and “newness”.

The writer is indebted to late Prof. MSS Pandian in shaping up these ideas, both inside and outside the classrooms in JNU.


Pandian, MSS (2009): “Nation Impossible”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 10, Mar 7-13, pp 65-69.


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Ganesh Gupta Written by:

The writer is a research scholar of Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

One Comment

    April 9, 2016

    True and balanced thought based on humanity rather than part of distracting. This is possible if knowledge reaches to saturation level. I appreciate and curious to become a good thinker like you sir. It open my mind to be liberal.

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