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Radical groups do roost in Indian universities but government may have mishandled ‘sedition’ episode: JNU Professor Makarand R. Paranjape

In an exclusive interview to indiatvnews.com, Prof Paranjape discussed at length the root cause of the JNU controversy, including the slapping of sedition charges against JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar, followed by his subsequent arrest.
Raj Singh April 08, 2016 23:53 IST
Raj Singh

New Delhi: Professor Makarand R. Paranjape, poet and professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has emerged as an original and thoughtful commentator on contemporary affairs.

In an exclusive interview to indiatvnews.com, Prof Paranjape discussed at length the root cause of the JNU controversy, including the slapping of sedition charges against JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar, followed by his subsequent arrest.

Prof Paranjape agrees that a very disturbing trend of ‘ultra-Left’ elements joining hands with ‘separatist’ and ‘Jihadist’ forces is emerging in Indian universities including JNU, but he firmly believes that the Government and Delhi police probably mishandled the entire ‘Kanhaiya’ episode.

“By arresting Kanhaiya, too much prominence was given to something which could have been handled differently. A confrontationist situation was created, which gave a lot of bad publicity, both domestic and international, to the government. People wrote petitions from different parts of the world against the arrest of students. Haters of the present dispensation used the occasion to launch a frontal attack on the Modi sarkar. In newspapers and magazines across the world, critics of India got a chance to malign our country. Is this what this present government wanted? And what did they accomplish in return?” asks Prof Paranjape.

The JNU Professor cautions against branding JNU as the hotbed of radical groups because, according to him, it would not only be a factual error but a tactical mistake as well.

“After all, only a small portion of the students is really radical; but when the whole student or faculty body is tarnished, even those who are not deeply “anti-national” join the fringe to offer solidarity against state repression. What may work better, instead, is to separate or isolate the really dangerous elements from the majority,” Prof Paranjape points out.

Professor Paranjape agrees that that for decades, several prestigious Indian universities have been captured by the Left-liberal establishment. But this is also true of universities in other parts of the world.

“Perhaps, the present government wants to change this. The real question is what is the better and more effective long-term strategy? This requires a lot of thinking; it requires determination, clarity. Not knee jerk reactions to a particular situation. That will be counter-productive,” he said.

Interestingly, Prof Paranjape is of the opinion that during previous Governments such as the Congress-led UPA rule, the central government deliberately turned a blind eye to events similar to the one organised in JNU on February 9.

“Was it because of the political alignments that existed between the ruling party and its supporters in the Left? As a consequence of such historical political arrangements, certain political groups were allowed to flourish, even patronized, on campuses,”  Professor Paranjape added.

Here is the full text of the interview:

Q: First of all, what’s your perspective on the recent JNU controversy that began with the event organised to commemorate Afzal Guru’s death anniversary and subsequently led to the slapping of ‘sedition’ charges against Kanhaiya and his colleagues.

Prof Paranjape: The important thing to remember is that such events have been held in the past as well. In fact, for the last 3 years, events relating to Afzal Guru, Maqbool Bhat and other so-called “martyrs,” were held in JNU and other campuses. We need credible intelligence to find out who is really behind all of this because several such activities seem coordinated rather than random occurrences.

So, it was not as if it this was the first time. The difference, I suppose, is that we have a different central government, which has no interest in the Left’s support. Earlier, such events were overlooked, but not anymore.

It does appear that there are radical groups in India who are trying to exploit various forms of discontent and disaffection that exist in our society. By bring these malcontents together they are possibly trying to create a much bigger movement, to bring about a much wider radicalisation especially of the urban youth. Students are a vulnerable, almost “ideal” catchment area because they are idealistic, want to change the society, and contribute to the nation. These sentiments are sought to be captured or exploited by certain radical groups, who are trying to form nests in many Indian universities. You might even say they already have functioning cells in certain Indian universities, but we would need much more evidence before being sure.

Read Also: Comparing Kanhaiya with Bhagat Singh is like comparing Nehru with Pol Pot, says BJP MP Tarun Vijay

Q: Arun Jaitley recently said that a very disturbing trend of ‘ultra-Left’ elements joining hands with Jihadist forces is emerging in Indian universities. Do you agree with that?

Prof Paranjape: There have been radical groups in the past that used certain political issues, for example, those concerning the tribals, the poor, and the underdeveloped sections of the society.

Now, I see two new trends. One is to connect with the ‘Jihadist’ groups and Kashmiri separatists on the one hand, and on the other to look for ways to use Dalit students as allies or shields.  

Q: What is the common cause between the ultra-Left and Jihadist elements?

Prof Paranjape: The common cause is to bring down the elected government of India. They use anti-state, anti-establishment, and anti-caste rhetoric to foment rebellion. Some of these groups have openly declared their intent to overthrow the government of India through armed rebellion. This is nothing new and is even declared in their literature and websites. Whoever helps or can find common cause with them in this larger objective they will collaborate with, be it Kashmiri separatists, ‘Jihadists,’ or, earlier, agitators for a separate Telangana.

Q: Do you agree with the viewpoint that JNU has become the hotbed of such radical groups?

Prof Paranjape:  JNU should not be homogenized or branded as the hotbed of radical groups. That would not only be a factual error but a tactical mistake as well. The fact is that, by and large, the ‘JNU Left’ is an established and an establishment left, with only a small fringe that is radical or Maoist.

By and large, JNU campus politics is dominated by the establishment left which means basically the student wings of CPI and CPI(M). SFI of CPI(M) used to be the dominant force; sometimes they collaborated with the CPI student wing, AISF.Kanhaiya Kumar, the present President of JNUSU belongs to AISF, the student wing of CPI. Then there is AISA of CPI(ML), which is a more radical group, and they have won some elections too.

Now let’s come to Umar Khalid, who was associated with DSU. DSU is a much more Left of Left, what you might call the ultra Left, but they have never really enjoyed widespread support. Umar Khalid, Anirban and some of these other students are breakaways of DSU. What is this DSU (Democratic Students Union)? It is hardly “democratic.” No wonder some of these students resigned en masse saying that they had no scope for freedom in DSU! But it’s important to understand the nature of DSU, which is an offshoot of CPI (Maoist). CPI (Maoist) is a banned organization in many states. It has gone underground, but kept some overground fronts, which keep changing their faces because all of them are not legal entities. I am not an expert in these matters, but it won’t be exaggeration to call them the “enemies of the state” because we know that they or others like them are killing people including security personnel in Dantewada and other places.

To return to JNU, I don’t think these radical groups have the centre stage. Yes, they captured quite a bit turf in the past in other places, such Osmania University, in Hyderabad. Even there, what happened that they started spearheading the Telangana movement. These groups always ride piggyback on certain other movements happening in the society.

Now, whether or not it collaborates with more radical groups, whether or not it allows them to flourish or function under its umbrella, these are different issues, the JNU establishment Left is not characterised by the same kind of extreme anti-state, anti-India, anti-constitutional activism.

On February 9, only a very small group of radical and separatist elements, led by Umar and some of his friends, participated in the programme. The number was quite small. Even in the past, whenever they had organised such events, the attendance was always rather paltry.

What happened was that after Kanhaiya’s arrest, a very large section of students got involved in this because they saw it as an attack on JNU.

So, we must separate not only these groups but also the different steps or phases of what happened.

Those who want to understand what happened in JNU must recognise that the event that triggered it all did not have widespread attendance or support, but subsequently the arrest of Kanhaiya resulted in bringing together a large section of the students and faculty, though even this much-vaunted unity is questionable. But the reaction of the Government gathered a large section of campus community in favour of the call to freedom, democracy,dissent, and so on. Now that’s not the same as support for DSU or its activity.

If the objective of DSU or other more radical groups was to bring a clash between the Government of India, which is an elected government irrespective of whether anyone likes it or not, and the entire JNU community then they succeeded to a great extent. Instead of targeting smaller radical group, which both the university administrations as well as the government agencies were possibly investigating, the whole of the university got implicated.
Q: Are you suggesting that Delhi Police played into the hands of people like Umar Khalid and that arresting Kanhaiya and then applying sedition charges was a mistake?
Prof Paranjape:  I’m suggesting that this situation was probably mishandled. I am not privy to the thinking of the Delhi Police or the Government; I don’t know what the strategy or thinking was and how they coordinated these matters. But from both the outcome and consequences, it does seem that the handling could have been better.

In retrospect, even if the Government wanted to send a message that JNU is no longer sacred space as the ‘golden temple’ of the Left, even if they wanted to send such message, it was done in a clumsy and counterproductive way.

By arresting Kanhaiya, too much prominence was given to something which could have been tackled differently. A confrontationist situation was created and this gave a lot of bad publicity to the government. Famous people took to writing petitions from different parts of the world. Critics of India got the opportunity to call the government authoritarian. In newspapers and magazines across the world, they got an opportunity to malign our country. Is this what was wanted? Is this what the government wished? And if they did not want this, then the situation could have been tackled differently.

Umar and Anirban, who were affiliated to DSU, were clubbed with Kanhaiya, who never questioned the legitimacy of the Indian state or the constitution. Umar and Anirban had to be released because under Indian law, if you accuse two people of the same crime, if you release one then the other one has also to be released. If they had differentiated the charge sheets, may be they could have separated the more radical elements from the more mainstream elements. You will recall that after coming out of jail, Kanhaiya said that he wants freedom not from India but within India to prove that he was not seditionist. Perhaps, the more radical elements would not concur.

Q: You say that the situation could have been handled differently. What, according to you, would have been the right way to handle it?

Prof Paranjape:  I feel we must make carful distinctions rather than clubbing everyone together. For example, there is a position which says that I don’t support Kashmiri separatism but I respect the rights of Kashmiri separatists to use the Indian democratic space to make their viewpoint heard.

It’s a different matter to say, ‘Bharat ke tukde honge’ or‘Kitne Afzal maroge...Har ghar se Afzal nikalenge.’ Those slogans may be considered seditious. Even Soli Sorabji said that shouting such slogans with the view to inciting violence and creating disaffection against the state constitutes sedition under the Indian Penal Code. We may not like these laws but these laws exist.

But these are two different positions. In JNU, by and large, people would say that if you have an open debate on certain issues, that’s all right; everyone has a right to their opinions. But would the JNU community endorse rabidly “anti-national” activities? I don’t think so.

One of the problems with Feb 9 event was that under false pretext a commemoration rally was organised to glorify those who attacked Indian democracy. I don’t think many JNU-ites would have approved.

But when Kanhaiya was arrested, that was a different matter. After all, his position was not the same as that of Umar or Anirban.

By arresting him, the whole issue got transformed into the right to dissent, university autonomy, and so on. The crux of the matter is how the event got framed and disseminated subsequent to the initial Afzal Guru event.

Yes, it could have been handled differently. How? Well, there is a JNU rulebook. There are Proctoral committees and other university systems to monitor, regulate, and recommend disciplinary action against those who break the rules. Indeed, the university administration did appoint a high-level committee to look into the event; this committee has found some of the participants in the 9 February and subsequent events guilty and recommended action. What was the need to send police into the campus, slap sedition charges, imprison three students, and so on? Was it only a symbolic or token gesture? But we should not speculate; the matter is still pending for final resolution in the courts.

Q: You said the government got bad publicity across the world by arresting Kanhaiya. Was this fear of getting bad press the reason why previous governments did not take action against them despite such provocation? There is a viewpoint that the inaction on part of previous governments further encouraged such elements.

Prof Paranjape:  May be. But I believe if the previous governments did not take any action then the reasons may have been different, having to do with the political alignments between the ruling party and their supporters in the Left. And because of that certain institutions and certain political groups of students and faculty were allowed to flourish, even patronised.

Q: Are you saying that the Congress turned a blind eye to such provocations deliberately?

Prof Paranjape:  Possibly. By the same logic, the present government may have a different strategy. Since the Left is not aligned to them, they lose nothing by moving against them.

The real question is what is the better and more effective long-term strategy to change the ecosystem of Indian campuses? That requires a lot of thinking; it requires determination, clarity. Not knee-jerk reactions to a particular situation, which prove to be counter-productive. We have go into the roots of how radicalism spreads. What are its patronage networks? What are the ways in which the hegemonic Left reproduces itself.  We know how powerful the state is, how resourceful. Many such organizations, groups, and ideologies are patronised by the government and its agencies.  If you pull the plug, many of these things will stop on their own.

Q: Dr Subramanian Swamy has termed JNU as den of anti-nationals. He went to the extent of terming some of the latter as terrorists. How would you react to that?
Prof Paranjape:  Dr Subramanian Swamy is a very smart person; besides, he is a strategic thinker. If he said such things, he must have had his reasons.  He has a viewpoint and he has the right to it. But is it factually true? If you ask me, I think it is an exaggeration. The word ‘den’ is also interesting. In a whole university, there may be one or two such “den” of “anti-nationals.” But that does not make the whole university so.

Q: There is a perception in the ruling dispensation that its political opponents especially those with Leftist ideology are not able to come to terms with the fact that Modi government has taken over the reins of power. And because they lost 2014 general elections, they are now trying to attack government by inciting unrest in university campuses.

Prof Paranjape:  Yes, there is a lot of envy. They are using JNU to attack the government,but that’s the name of the game? A political party in the opposition will attack the government.  And if students can be used for this purpose, why will they not take advantage of the situation?

As a teacher, I don’t want students to be misused or exploited by political parties, whether of the right or Left. But student politics has been invaded by party politics for a long time. Students should be studying but in Indian universities, it would appear that studies are not taken seriously enough; sometimes they come last. Of course, students can’t be considered entirely naïve or gullible; they actively join parties, participate in politics, often with the view of real gains. They themselves mislead or misuse one another, in the name of some cause or the other. But if an atmosphere is created where students are expected to study, held accountable and rewarded for doing so, as it is in any good university abroad, things would change.

Q: Some people say that too much of politics is going on in government universities. Instead of focussing on studies, students are indulging in party politics.

Prof Paranjape:  That’s what I’m saying too, but where and when did the politicisation start? It started long back. It’s not yesterday’s invention. For decades, right from the time of Nurul Hasan’s term as the Education Minister, it would seem as if Indian higher education was given over to the Left to run. When the Left was supporting UPA-I, they were given a free run. After they broke with the Congress over the Indo-US nuclear deal, their leverage decreased, but did not altogether end.  They could still put their people in strategic positions. So, this politicisation of higher education, a dangerous and harmful trend, has been going on for a long time.

Many Indian universities, where education is bankrolled by the taxpayers, where there is hardly any academic accountability, where hostel rooms are cheap, the food subsidised, have become the refuge of all kinds of elements. Everybody knows that. How do you stop that? And it has been done. In BHU, AMU, and many other universities, police have indeed moved in and cleaned up the campuses of goondas and criminal groups.

But JNU is not like these places. It is a university where the teachers of the future are trained. A good deal of real academics, debate, dialogue, and, yes, dissent takes place here. You can’t bulldoze or smash up a place like this. That would be a great tragedy.

Instead, you have to gradually change the culture, gradually apply better academic standards and best practices. You have to stop five-six people in a room, you have to discourage people stretching their PhDs, or staying on beyond their Ph.D.s for 5, 10 years, you have to restore academic accountability, you have to end pernicious systems of patronage without replacing them with other, worse systems, and so on…this requires political will, but more importantly, wisdom too. Heavy-handed, clumsy, and ill-thought out or hasty interventions will simply not work; worse, they will spoil whatever is good about JNU. And there is a lot that is good. JNU is a place of creative possibilities. It is a place where human potential can flower. We should never forget that. We should work to improve JNU, not to destroy it. In that sense, I too stand with JNU.