Through this brief venture of mine, I would like to address a crucial issue that covers one of the most significant problems of contemporary student politics in India. Given the kind of political climate we are encountering these days, student politics in India is perhaps the only domain of political optimism that we can look forward to today. But are all forms of existing student mobilisations sacrosanct? Of course not. It is beclouded with so many problems inside and out. Even the students believing in the progressive left ideologies are dispersed along nuanced ideological differences. The issue I am going to address in this article, however, is the lopsided direction that has mired student politics and how it now runs the risk of diverting into non-productive outcomes as its energies are misplaced and wrongly channelized. The phenomenon that triggered me to write this piece is the latest symposium in Jadavpur University that was arranged by a study circle group of some of my friends to celebrate the 50th year of Naxalbari movement.
Imagine you are a dalitised Muslim wo/man from a village (whose name even the google map cannot track) belonging from the non-creamy layer of the status quo of a feudal, capitalist, (pseudo)democracy under the present regime with all its saffron agenda. Further, imagine that all your life you have studied in institutions located in rural or semi-urban areas where rarely any kind of academic gesture out of the classroom was encouraged and most of the faculty used to love to rush home as soon as the classes were over. Now there is a token of surprise added to this series of images I am going to offer.
Imagine you, with the encouragement and moral support of one of those rarest of faculty in your semi-urban/semi-rural institution and your lifelong struggle, make it to some reputed research institute located in a proper city. This is a city where most of the students hail from upper-caste, upper-class, extremely privileged backgrounds. This new phase of your life is the life of sheer excitement – the excitement of (un)learning and (de)constructing a lot of things. This is the time when you come into direct contact with an urban, elite climate where ideologies fly with the smoke of expensive ganja rolls and post-trip Old Monk hangovers. Interestingly, this is the kind of climate you feel seduced by at times, and at times of epiphanic confrontations, you get so disgusted by the same.
However, the real problem arises when you feel that the way most of the people over here are interpreting theories and politics has nothing to do with the aspirations and anxieties of yours. Mind you, you are someone whose father out there in the village has taken a farmer-loan and is spending it on your research-expenses instead, so that you can afford the course (yes, you, the poor fellow, being a non-JRF, NET qualified, research scholar do not get any fellowship). These people around you speak and act in certain ways and congratulations, you have, by now, found out a pattern to it! It gives you the impression as if they dwell in some tightly safeguarded castle or flap their wings from some seventh sky of privileges and talk theory and do praxis. On the contrary, you have multiple points of marginalisation attached to your existence – your religion, your caste profile, your class status, your gender, your sexuality (my goodness! In case you happen to not subscribe to the heteronormative profiling of your gender) etc. Therefore, you always feel that you are absent there in the way most of the people around you pack their notions of politics. You feel more surprised when you witness that they do so in your name and claim to represent you and pose to be your empathiser/(saviour?).
Nonetheless, you know very well that there is an entire spectrum of ideologies into play – from ultra-left to ultra-right. Or let’s say from green via blue, red to saffron. By now, you have understood all of them are problematic in some way or the other. Whereas the very ideological premise of some are problematic, some are difficult to get convinced with simply because they lack proper implementation of their ideological, theoretical agenda on the grassroots. But as we know, politics thrives on the dialectical play of various points of conflicts. Now if we particularly talk about student politics, we have to acknowledge, given the fact that so many different political groups exist, there should always be scope for everybody to democratically deliberate their beliefs and visions. A progressive politics is always supposed to engage with the counter-poliltics in a democratic way only without discarding the other. And why should this process take place in a completely democratic way – it is because in this entire process of engagement only, you get to learn which particular ideological stand you are most intimate with. You also learn how to revisit your fascination with particular ideologies and deconstruct your views if need be.
But what if you feel that a particular section of people so (over)confident with their particular way of doing politics or resisting it have sacralised their views in ways that they think, is beyond revision! What if they hamper and dismiss the very process you were thinking you will learn from! What if they start thinking that they have developed their “nuanced critique” of everything and will act that way only pre-empting your scope for engagement! It might be true that since most of these people possess different forms of capital- economic, social, institutional, cultural, caste, religious etc. their acquaintance with Kant, Hegel, Foucault, Derrida, Marx, Deleuze, Harry Potter, Shin Chan and Game of Thrones have started earlier than yours. But does that legitimise anyway their right to pre-empt yours to witness, understand, engage with and shape your ways of politics! I am appalled at having witnessed how some handful of elites lead student politics in a particular way. What guarantee is there that their thinking and conceptualisation of politics is not a luxurious intellectual adventure which they can afford? Does this politics of theirs shape taking into consideration the concerns of the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable? If yes, how come it is most of the time some upper caste, upper class, savarna, heterosexual males only who dictate or react to the course of action as per their caprice? Interestingly, however, they are not the ones who would be harmed if anything goes wrong, simply because they have proper academic and career related backup plans (credit goes to their nepotist channels), mostly in some far removed foreign universities of some super rich first world developed countries.
Having said all this, let me clarify that at times I have felt present student politics leading to nowhere. It is diverting from the most crucial concerns of the time. Precisely that is why progressive student movements in India, despite having fascinating potential, have failed. Let us briefly refer to the incident that took place on 20th of July, 2017 in Jadavpur University, the hub of much talked about movements like that of hokkolorob. A study circle called ‘Historical Materialists’ had arranged for a symposium in order to celebrate the 50th year of the revolutionary Naxalbari movement – a landmark phenomenon in the political history of West Bengal as well as the world. Eminent speakers like Ranabir Samaddar were invited there along with the singer, songwriter and political activist Kabir Suman. Since the event looked promising, I was looking forward to it for a while. I also informed my friends about the event. They responded with promptness saying that they will come and attend it. All of them just like me, hail from rural areas of the state and study in institutions outside Kolkata. By virtue of being located outside the orbit of Kolkata, they seldom get chances to physically witness eminent speakers as such. Thanks to the Kolkata-concentrated (obsessed!), bhadrolok academic fraternity.
Therefore, despite the rain, they paid extra charges to autos and made sure that they reach the rail station at 3 am. So that they could take the train with no chance of having a seat, reach Kolkata on time and attend the program. Positively they did so. We all met, sat together and were enjoying the talk. We were taking notes, framing our critical points on the topics the speakers were talking on and occasionally whispering in each other’s ears our potential questions. Whereas some presentations fascinated us, some, we felt, could have been a bit more insightful. Nonetheless, we were appreciating the talks. Thus went the pre-lunch session. We were just out to have lunch and suddenly a group of people appeared forcefully pushing into our hands some handwritten, photocopied pages of a Bengali poem (well, I doubt, if I can call it that though). With one quick look we understood, it was some polemical writing with a lot of slangs pointed at Kabir Suman and the Chief Minister of the state. By now the seminar premises has been flooded with an unruly crowd and everybody started pushing everybody. I saw somebody from the crowds dressed as a purohit having the stuff necessary for pujo rituals along with a caricatured photo of the C.M. He suddenly occupied the central stage and sat flatly on the floor. What I understood was that he wanted to protest against Kabir Suman and his “problematic” politics etc. It goes without saying that this suddenly designed chaos disrupted the entire seminar making people yell and push each other. We were stupefied.
Now a single phenomenon like this makes me contemplate a lot of things. It leaves open a lot of questions in my mind. First of all, it reflects what is wrong with student politics at large. It also reflects what happens when a polemically over-charged section of people turns into a mob. Yes, it disrupts an otherwise peaceful (and helpful to many) event. That is exactly what the right wing does whenever it does not like something or has a problem with. It creates chaos and shuts the opposition down by not giving it any chance to talk and therefore engage in a meaningful dialogue. However, I do not know these people, or their political ideologies. Whatever that maybe, the question is how can you disrupt an event even temporarily? Although the event was later resumed with half-enthusiasm and Suman spoke with a discouraged spirit, by then my friends had left as they had a train to catch. They came here spending a lot of extra money (which might have covered two months of their tiffin expenses), energy and time. They wanted to listen to Suman and engage with him in a frank dialogue in their own way where they could ask their questions in mind.
Indeed, they had questions in mind. They needed this much-needed exposure, this platform. But they missed the chance, as somebody else from the secured and highly privileged niche of the society appeared with his esoteric sense of politics, art, aesthetics and resistance. This is what always happens. A subaltern can never adequately participate in and contribute to a discourse in her own way because someone else occupies the space already snatching away all the limelight. Because somebody else imposes his rules and sets the grammar not leaving any scope for the rest. Looking at the sad and disappointed faces of my friends I was compelled to wonder what was it? What was it that just happened? People came from far removed corners of rural areas outside Kolkata into the academic heartland of the state only to witness some sort of mockery! Yes, this a kind of mockery where a small elite section of people think they would use their silent bodies to register their mode of symbolic protest but their obscure performativity ends up actually doing the opposite.
Here the body that is a privileged body actually intruded and made a lot of noise and disrupted a peaceful event temporarily. That is, it superseded the other sober bodies and gentle voices. It was nothing but a misplaced show of energy, power and privilege. It caused an unnecessary interruption and a lot of wastage. Let me ask, who will take the responsibility of this loss of my friends’ money, energy, time, and most importantly their right to participate in an academic discourse? Do the mockers take the responsibility of their “protest” when it ends up disrupting a peaceful, academic symposium that was talking about serious issues like Naxalbari? I heard the purohit protester self-acquitting himself saying that he did not intend the chaos or something like that. But then did they not know how such things that involve a lot of drama may turn out?
Secondly, one may have political and ideological differences with Kabir Suman but we have to understand why was he invited? To preach politics? To propagate TMC agenda? No, he was asked simply to give a talk on the revolutionary poet, activist Samar Sen with whom he had personal correspondence. I am not a diehard fan of Suman neither of TMC. I agree that he may be problematic on so many grounds. But there was ample scope to ask him questions and engage with him in a frank debate. But what did we do instead? We embarrassed, harassed and provoked him to react in a certain way which was, I guess, the purpose of the provocateurs. Suman ended up chanting “Mamata Banerjee zindabad”. The action and reaction of both the provocateurs and the provoked were somehow so identical as if they were mirroring each other. What is more ironical is that all of it was happening in front of our eyes having Naxalbari celebration as its backdrop. Politics has come to this- where people do not listen to each other but provoke and react.
I wonder what can be shallower ! More elitist! More savarna! More condescending! How can one section of people show off more grossly the kind of privileges they have which can hijack an entire room and do such drama in front of a hostage audience! Could some dalit, Adivasi, or Muslim student from underprivileged background dare to do the same? Had s/he done so, I speculate, how would have the audience reacted!
Thirdly, given the kind of political climate we are living in where a right- wing populist politics is taking over every state, should we not think of a left-wing populist political imaginary where students can play an immensely important part! For that to happen students have to form an intra-group solidarity with each other. Instead of criticising each other over every single issue they have to take each other into confidence. But here one particular section of students vandalised another’s event making only each other weaker. They marred each other’s confidence too.
Fourth and lastly, if I take the concern of my article into a bit more intimate domain of institutionalised party politics, it raises some more serious concerns from my side. As we all know, we have a very communal-minded party at the centre for whom minority witch-hunting is the trump card for winning and renewing the wins during elections. Now if we look at the political landscape of our state, we will see that the right wingers have already entered the state and trying to poison the masses, mobilising it along communal lines. The latest engineered riots of basirhat, Baduria reinforced our fears. Such incidents make us, the most disadvantaged minorities of the state, more apprehensive about its malicious designs at large.
In such circumstances, if we look at the opposition parties in Bengal we would understand how weak they are. 34 years of the not-so-fantastic regime of a traditional Left party has left the minorities of the state to grow more minoritised. Consult Sachar committee reports. Not that so much has changed. A post-Sachar evolution Kundu committee report does not have much optimism to offer either. All that said, at least in the state, Muslims have some amount of confidence in the government. It is because the govt. has initiated some welfare schemes to heal the undernourished – which has ironically given rise to the constructed myth of “Muslim appeasement”. However, do I then mean that this government is beyond criticism? Let me answer with an emphatic, bold ‘NO’. No government is beyond criticism. The beauty of democracy lies in its ethos for embracing dissent. But then again would not we think of our more immediate concerns, would not we pick our battles and act sensibly? No person nor any political agenda is sacrosanct. But we have to be pragmatic and make our negotiations carefully at times in order to destroy the most malicious in the first place. We have to be very careful and see to it that in the wake of our uncontrollable criticism, whether a larger coalition is getting hampered. Arrogance in politics is harmful. No theoretical, politico- ideological position is foundational. In fact, romantic fascination with any of them actually may lead to essentialisation of the same and alienate the believer from others. There is a constant need to revisit one’s politics and make sure that it is not losing the much needed eclectic approach most appropriate for a specific spatio-temporal setting.
I wonder whether there is an ever-growing gulf between an “aestheticized” way of doing politics by some people who can afford so within the comfortable boundaries of their institutional premises and the politics of the most vulnerable, the most subalternised. We are aware how even the most persuasive ideologies like that of the Left might fail simply because they distanced themselves from the aspirations and anxieties of the masses. We live in a fascist era which trumpets the success-story of right wingers world-wide. If we look carefully we will notice, they, the right wingers have built up collective consensus over so many issues and very clear about what to achieve and how to achieve it. But how come we who fall under the spectrum of so called ideological Left seem to have distances of some light-years among us! It is time we think before we act and not recommit the errors. In times like this we need to actually think more. Therefore, let us open ourselves up a bit more, listen to the polyphony calmly, and think. Sometimes it is more important to give the opposition a patient hearing, engage in with the person in a democratic way that does not pre-empt other’s scope to do so. Sometimes you have to make sure your kolorob (noise) is not outscreaming someone else’s rob (voice).
Nasima Islam is an MPhil research scholar from Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). Her present research interests are subaltern articulation, Muslim feminism, minority insecurity, and a radical democratic project.