Today, We Students Are The Opposition: Anirban Bhattacharya

NEW DELHI: The title of this event ‘Jashn-e-Azaadi’ (festival of freedom) alludes to the rhythmic chanting of the slogan for Azaadi that has become the anthem for the Stand with JNU movement – not just in JNU, or in Delhi, but across India and the world. The Administration Block rechristened Azaadi Square or Freedom Square certainly became the centre of the carnival of freedom. This slogan in fact defined in many ways the fundamental tenets of the movement: freedom of expression, freedom from fear, freedom or autonomy of an university, freedom from the doctrine of Hindutva, freedom from Brahmanism, freedom form oppression, as also the declaration of freedom against fascism.

Undeterred in the face of a most malicious witch hunt and reign of terror, the struggle of the democratic forces within JNU and the solidarity from without transformed the lives of thousands. As Lenin said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” And much of this was articulated through the slogans for Azaadi. But while Azaadi defined one end of the spectrum, the other slogan that has been posed as its counter in this country-wide debate is of course Bharat Maata Ki Jai. As students of history, we know how every slogan has its roots in history, how each of them acquire certain meanings, they travel in time and space and are used to articulate a particular vision at a particular time. It might be a good occasion to unpack and contrast these two slogans and the ideas they propagate.

The idea of ‘nation’ , contrary to populist notions, is a product of history. Its not a preordained entity existing from time immemorial. The colonial experience, the sketchy boundaries that the British Raj drew for itself by the late 19th century became the basis for the imagination of an incipient nation. In the last two decades of the 19th century, in the midst of the Hindi-Urdu controversy, the gau-mata or gauraksha movements, music before mosque and such issues – the Indian nationalism that took stronger roots in public imagination was that of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. Inspired by a play by Kiran Chandra Bannerjee, Bhārat Māta (1873) or Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Anandamath (1882) this idea of nationalism soon acquired an anthropomorphic shape in the form of the Bharat Maata that subsequently were popularised through calendars, posters and so on. What was common in all these representations was the fact that Bharat Maata is depicted as a Hindu goddess and is supposed to express universal Hinduism and nationhood.

This Bharat Maata as popularised by the RSS is a close approximation of Durga or Maata Shera Waali – fair-skinned, clad with jewellery, her flag reaching up to Afghanistan, her saree fluttering up to north-east stretching up to Myanmar, her crown approximating Kashmir and her feet till the tip of Kanyakumari. And of course the lion. This or any other version of the Bharat Maata has the commonalities of they representing a dominant caste, Vedic Hindu divinity, with a certain bourgeois respectability (read Karen Gabriel). In short, in Bharat Mata we have a Vedic, Aryanized, Brahmanical, possibly North Indian, dominant caste, wealthy even regal, Hindu figure with whom the Dalits, the tribals, the Muslims, the Christians, the Sikhs, or even the poor could not have identified. Over the course of the early twentieth century, this is the brand of nationalism that prevailed over any other. Hasrat Mohani’s Inquilab Zindabad, adopted first by Bhagat Singh and his comrades and then by a wide spectrum of freedom fighters, and the Jai Hind of Bose and the INA somehow were subsumed or superseded by this particularly majoritarian imagery of Bharat Maata. The closing time in Tihar at 6pm every evening is for instance marked with three salutations of Bharat Maata Ki Jai and one salutation of Jai Hind. And it is precisely this imagery or vision of a Hindu India as espoused most avowedly by the RSS that Ambedkar identified as the biggest threat to democracy. He said, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.” Irrespective of the kind of nationalism, he envisioned, or for that matter even Periyar or Bose envisioned, despite the particular notion of India encapsulated in the Constitution, it was ultimately the saffron and thoroughly brahmanical brand of nationalism that came to dominate the minds and limbs of the state apparatus no matter which shade ruled at the centre.

If this was one aspect of the contradiction, then there were plenty of its derivatives. In fact Ambedkar himself said while introducing the Constitution that, “We are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.” The aim, objective and vision of every democratic voice in this country is to address this contradiction – to fill this widening gap. But the same contradiction in fact still remains. Today those who are selling off the country’s resources at the cost of waging a war on the adivasis in the name of Operation Green Hunt; privatising health, education and allowing MNCs to bypass even the laws of the land in SEZs are calling themselves the defenders of the country’s sovereignty. Those who are mutilating the constitutionally espoused value of secularism by spreading communal venom dedicated to an idea of Hindutva are swearing by the Constitution and calling others “anti-national”. Those who have buried the idea of socialism through their pursuance of a brazenly neo-liberal regime since 1991 are said to be upholding the constitution. The paradox that Ambedkar pointed towards in fact still exists. Today those who are more forthright, more sincere about the constitutionally guaranteed rights, today those who are more closer to the people of “We the People”, are being branded as “anti-national”, “seditious” and “enemies of the state”. Whereas those who might just swear by a book or chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai are immediately certified as the most “nationalist” of the lot.
This brings us to the other slogan – our slogan of Azaadi. This slogan also has its own telling tale. Unlike many who think that the Azaadi slogan originates in its present form in Kashmir, then they would be mistaken. Interestingly, the chant originated as a feminist assertion against patriarchy. It was evolved and popularised by well-known feminist Kamla Bhasin in the women’s movement all over south Asia in early 1990s. Of course it came into prominence yet again in the streets of Kashmir in the summer of 2010 as the valley erupted with the young stone pelters facing the army and the chants for Azaadi reverberating through the valley reaching up to Delhi. It was picked up and adopted adeptly and creatively by JNU students during the 16th December 2012 movement demanding freedom for women. And from thereon by February 2016 it became the popular Azaadi anthem against brahmanical hindutva fascists forces. But while today we are fighting for and celebrating the Azaadi to debate, discuss and advocate any opinion or issue – from nationalism to caste to gender to development – we, however, still seem to be wary of one issue. As Perry Anderson says, in the descending order of “permissibles” in this ‘democracy’ one that probably ranks the lowest, and one that amounts to heresy is to speak of Kashmir.
In the year 325 Emperor Constantine I convened the first ecumenical council of Chriestondom. As Galeano puts it, after much deliberation this council ruled that the word “heresy”, from the Greek “hairesis”, which means “choice”, from then on would mean “error”. So, when we say that both India & Pakistan should give primacy to the “choice” of the people of Kashmir, we commit “heresy”. When we say that instead of the LoC or the AFSPA, or the “strategic” landmass, – it should be the the people who should be kept at the center by both India and Pakistan to arrive at a resolution, we commit “heresy”. When we remind the people that our own first PM Nehru had in the UN promised the people of Kashmir this “choice” through a plebiscite followed by years of betrayal and AFSPA to curb the same “choice”, we commit “heresy”. The Himalayan human cost of this bleeding issue has already taken the lives of four million Kashmiris as per modest Indian estimates. The figure is more than double if higher estimates were to be believed. Today, after decades of conflict and deathly “peace” Kashmir still simmers with the living memory of thousands of disappeared, with the haunts of hundreds of unidentified mass-graves, rapes, tortures and fake encounters. Nehru said, “We have gambled at the international stage on Kashmir, and we cannot afford to lose. At the moment we are there at the point of a bayonet. Till things improve, democracy and morality can wait.” Seven decades have passed, democracy and morality still waits outside the doors of AFSPA.
Ambedkar – whom the so called nationalists are eager to appropriate and whom they celebrate as the maker of the Constitution, in his resignation speech made it clear that he wishes that a plebiscite be held at the earliest in Kashmir and that he was against the allocation of over half the budget to the armed forces to be stationed in Kashmir. What would we call Ambedkar then? “Anti-national”? “Seditious”?
Gandhi, in his meeting with a Naga delegation in 1947 said, “You can be independent. You are safe as far as India is concerned. India has shed her blood for freedom. Is she going to deprive others of their freedom? Personally, I believe you all belong to me (sic), to India. But if you say you don’t, no one can force you.” What do we call such a thought? “Seditious”?
The people sitting in this hall may differ from me, even vehemently so. They may have a different resolution in mind. We may argue fiercely. Many of us here may differ on several counts with Prof. Bipan Chandra’s positions (for instance, on reservation). But in academic spaces at least we must fight together to defend the right to have opinions, debate, discuss and differ on issues ranging from caste discrimination, gender to working class to the right to self determination. Because, as someone said, “speech is really free, only when it hurts”. Even taking the K-word – Kashmir should not immediately be called “seditious”. For us such should be the extent of Azaadi.After all, “we differ, therefore we are”.
Rohith Vemula in HCU was demanding Azaadi from brahmanism, from communal fascism for which he had to pay with his life. It only strengthened the struggle. Today, as the VC in HCU has been reinstated, the teachers and students who were protesting in indignation and outrage were brutally lathi-charged and arrested. Even this shall not arrest Azaadi. The fight of the Dalits, Adivasis for land, livelihood and dignity is also for their Azaadi. Women and other oppressed genders today are fighting for their own right to self-determination or Azaadi. The workers fighting for their right to unionize or the farmers of Vidarbha also have their idea of Azaadi. But if we are to expand the horizons of Azaadi and defend our gains at the time of ascending fascism, we must forge an unity in struggle. Because, even today if we remain divided into red, blue and green and so on, – fascism will ensure that tomorrow none survives. Maintaining our ideological differences – our colours, sharpening our tools of criticism and self-criticism, we must shun the path of sectarianism and build genuine unity of the oppressed against the combined assault of the brahmanical Hindutva fascist forces and the forces of big capital. From FTII to IIT Madras, from Allahabad to Jadavpur, from HCU to JNU it is this unity that we ought to build. Because, today, we students are the opposition.
(This is the text of the paper presented at ‘Many Meanings of Azaadi’ session in JNU on 28th March, 2016).