By Meera Vishvanathan
Out of a single event, many webs of interpretation can be spun. Many issues were raised in the discussion following my article on the May Day concert in JNU. I can only try and address some of them. The intention here is not to provoke a new debate, but to provide a response that may help tie things together.
Unfortunately, in most instances, the debate was reduced to defining ‘freedom of expression’. Whereas, I meant to raise a larger set of questions about cultural politics. For this reason, I think it is important to address three issues we must consider in the long-term: the first relates to platforms and contexts; the second, to cultural symbols and forms of appropriation; and the third to censorship and freedom of expression.
If the argument seems to have become limited to JNU, then this has to do with the nature of the responses. But I write this in the hope that understanding one particular situation may help us understand these questions as a whole.
Of Platforms and Contexts
Let us begin with the event so as to put it behind us. I have been asked, ‘Does not JNUSU (or any organization or group) have a right to decide what is conveyed from their platform?’ Of course they do. Platforms have their significance and organizations have the right to determine their political and cultural orientation. Debates can happen only if differences in positions and distinctions in ideology are understood. I was not saying that anything can be said anywhere or that we must create some kind of intellectual free-for-all.
Nor is the crowd forced to accept what is thrust upon it. I will not argue for enforced decorum. For, from the intervention of crowds there often arises great and lasting political change. But the nature of this change depends on the political understanding of the crowd: it is what separates a riot from a revolution. And it is this political understanding (or the lack of it) that I was querying.
Nor should my arguments be read to infer that a GaneshVandana or any kind of vandana should be sung as a matter of practice every May Day. But supposing, as happened that day, on a platform that you have carefully constructed, on an occasion that means a great deal to you, someone comes and says or sings something that you not only find uncomfortable but also hate. How do you deal with this intrusion? Is your primary response, in fact your only response, to shut her up and forget about it? Is your understanding of May Day so brittle that a single wrong note must be silenced immediately? Is silencing something our only form of resistance? Whatever happened to disputation, argument, sarcasm, irony or debate?
Let me thank the person who put up Nagarjun’s poem entitled ‘Pita-putrasamvaad’ because it makes many points with a subtlety I am not capable of. But since we hold that Ganapati belongs to the Hindu right and is a brahmanical figure, Nagarjun made a grave error when he composed this poem! Should we not remove this poem or this poet from our tradition so we can have a truly ‘progressive’ politics? And further, since anything touched by the right-wing is reprehensible and our identities as an audience are so brittle, shall we also stop reading Namdeo Dhasal entirely and never cite him from a public forum?
If, instead of singing a Ganeshavandana, Tritha had sung the Purushasukta, my response would have been different. But the point is she sang what she sang, and responses are based on events and not on hypothetical situations. I have a problem when we begin to respond to every situation in the same way, and when for a whole variety of situations we begin to propose a set of standardized and even ‘final’ solutions.
Cultural Symbols and Forms of Appropriation
Frankly, I am baffled by how my arguments can be read as ‘romanticizing’ Ganapati because he was once a tribal god. Instead, what I was trying to point out was the complex process by which he was absorbed by brahmanism. If we understand this process, perhaps we will understand that the appropriation of Ganapati by the Hindu right in itself is not enough cause to silence a hymn devoted to him. This does not mean that we must glorify Ganapati, worship him or appropriate him for ourselves. But the process must be understood because figures whom we hold dear, such as Bhagat Singh, are similarly appropriated by the Hindutva right. This is not to equate Ganapati and Bhagat Singh because that would be ahistorical. But if you can’t tell the difference between a simile and an analogy, then I would suggest that you first check a dictionary.
A certain kind of cultural politics, espoused by anti-caste movements, has tried to reclaim icons appropriated by Brahmanism. Thus, Phule brilliantly read the Puranas to indicate a non-brahmanical substratum to Indian history. Attempts to reclaim Mahabali or Mahishasura draw from such an understanding. Ganapati also fits this paradigm, but since he was appropriated slightly earlier, he appears not as a vanquished symbol but a deity in his own right. So, when we oppose Ganapati but celebrate Mahishasura, we exhibit not only the poverty of our political imagination but also distort the innovativeness with which someone like Phule could reach out to the past.
In comparison, the left wants to uphold a definition of secularism where all religious symbols must be removed from public platforms. Fair enough. But the problem is, in India, if you reject everything touched by the taint of religion, what will be left is not a secular space but a sanitized one. So, in keeping with this argument, we removed the Ganapati hymn from our platform. Then surely we should also have stopped Laal’s rendition of Baba Farid? But have not many adivasis deified Birsa Munda? Is not Ambedkar a deity for many Dalits? Shall we remove all references to them as well? And is it just me or is this argument getting increasingly stupid?
No one studying ancient Indian history or Sanskrit texts can ignore the tremendous brutality of the varna–jati system. Granted, but at the same time you cannot attribute to entire periods of history only one text and only one character. To equate all Sanskrit texts with the Manusmriti is similar to saying that Golwalkar’s ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’ is the defining text written in English in the 20th century. A critical attitude to history requires that we engage both with the brahmanical past and those who dispute it. But the ‘critical attitude’ on display in our campus labels even a student who studies Sanskrit but does not vote for the ABVP and eats beef a ‘communal fascist’. Frankly, there are traditions of debate and disputation in Sanskrit that could teach the organized (and disorganized) left a great deal — if only they were prepared to listen.
When Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti at Mahad, I see it as a symbolic act of great force, a necessary act of violence if you will. But Ambedkar also sat and read the Manusmriti with a brahmana, and if I remember Eleanor Zelliot’s account correctly what were burnt were sections of the Manusmriti dealing with the oppression of the shudras. I don’t remember Ambedkar saying that we should not read the Manusmriti or burn the brahmana. This is why the act of burning the Manusmriti at Mahad is different, so fundamentally different, from the burning of books in Nazi Germany.
Censorship and Freedom of Expression
What I saw in JNU on the night of 1st May was an act of censorship. On this, I will stand my ground. If the audience had booed and the singer had stopped, that would be one thing. But the moment someone, anyone, leader or crowd gets up on stage and enforces silence, then it constitutes an act of censorship. The choices made and subsequently defended were made by one vocal minority that decided it could determine what could be heard and what could not without even the semblance of reasonable debate.
I have been told that since we were celebrating May Day whatever was sung should have been ‘appropriate’ for the occasion. Since it was a platform for progressive culture , Faiz and Habib Jalib were fine. But Ganapati was not part of ‘our’ culture, so Tritha had to go. Explain to me how this is different from a logic that says ‘Valentines day is not a part of our culture, so it must go’, ‘wearing jeans is not a part of our culture, so it must go’, ‘women visiting pubs is not part of our culture, so it must go’?
This is not to say that everyone has to adopt the same cultural symbols. Monocultures are undemocratic and dangerous. But if you think that in rejecting these symbols you can say “So-and-so offends me, so I have a right to silence her,” then I will say you have no such right. If you think you think you have this right, then the ABVP similarly has the right to force a ban on Ramanujan’s essay, certain Muslim clerics have a right to silence The Satanic Verses, and the Maharashtra police has the right to ban the Kabir Kala Manch and hound its activists. Fundamentally, if there is any difference between these positions it is only one of degree. The right to oppose something is not the right to silence it without any debate.
It also worries me when we begin to parrot the language of offense and blasphemy. Because these are not ‘new’ or ‘materialist’ or ‘secular’ or ‘Marxist’ categories. They do not constitute the ‘freedom of expression of the audience’ or the ‘right to dissent’. Rather, they are ideas rooted in hegemonic religions and replicate their structures of silencing dissent. Of late, in India what we have begun to see is the fragility of both secularism and freedom of expression as concepts because we have all begun to take and legitimize offense so easily.
The questions I raised were addressed to the university precisely because intolerance has been rising in campus spaces. To say that one should have the same expectations of a crowd at JNU as a crowd at a Bon Jovi concert or a bhajanmandli does great disservice to the university. Because I expect a university to be open to reflection and criticism and to have the generosity to at least consider different points of view.
There is a vitality to debates that is dying because we have steadily reduced ourselves to a series of assertions and positions. We have bracketed ourselves such that we only wish to hear people who say exactly what we want them to say. And above all, we have taken to bowing down to a culture of political correctness.
If someone says, ‘What you have said offends me’, we never say, ‘Let us discuss the basis for this offense and what has gone wrong.’ Instead, we take out an apology and say ‘Oh, forgive us, for we had no intention of offending you’. We silence the debate, brush it aside, and move forward. But the debate has not been addressed or resolved.
Perhaps what happened in JNU on the night of May Day was not as serious as ABVP’S enforced removal of the Ramanujan essay. But it was just one step away and that distresses me. Nothing I can say should or will stop JNU from raising its voice against the repression of struggles across this country. But I maintain that such acts reduce our moral authority to be the voice of such struggles. To say ‘Our language of politics is different from others’ is no defense. Small acts of intolerance are linked to larger ones.
As a historian, what the night of 1st May reaffirmed for me was the fact that the silences of our sources are as important as what they tell us. For, it is from the present that we reach out to the past. The past is not separate from us. The past is our contemporary. It lives among us, even the most ancient past. And though we find certain ideas inconvenient, though we might wish to oppose them, we cannot block them and neatly stash them away.
And so, I will sing the praise of inconvenient ideas, even if they have an elephant head and a large body. Not because I vest my faith in them. But because doubt is the first step towards querying false certainties.