March 27, 2016

“Assault on Thought”: Public Symposium

Shatam Ray

On March 20th, 2016 SAHMAT organized a Public Symposiumthemed “The Assault on Thought” at the Constitution Club, Vitthalbhai Patel House in New Delhi.TheSymposium was organized close on the heels of the systematic attacks on public universities across the country and the brazen acts of intimidation that the government (and its lackeys) is engaged in over the past few months. Specifically, the recent turn of events in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University provided the backdrop to the conversations that was being organized. Moreover, an attempt was made to move the discussion out of the environs of JNU campus and give it a different location and audience. And then there was the surprise of meeting and listening to Kanhaiya Kumar in a more intimate and smaller setting than most of us have been used to. The thing that was perhaps, the most remarkable of all was the canny choice of red and blue drapes that adorned the backdrop and the stage for the event. The unlettered cloth in their immediate juxtaposition served to speak to the audience in the most unambiguous way. On the wall a series of pictures were being projected, on a loop of which the image of two older men sitting on the footpath with a red CITU flag stood out. The two men with their clear identity as trade union activists was an appropriate reminder that the struggles in JNU cannot be seen as “students-centric” or about the autonomy of the university. This movement is a far ranging one and carries implications for the right to struggle and dissent in other spaces, including the factory. The workers in the picture that came up alongside the images of students and professors from Delhi also reminded us of the cross-class and caste nature of this present conjuncture. More on that below. Ram Rahman, noted photographer started off the proceedings with a brief description of the genesis of SAHMAT and the culture of protest that it holds so close to its identity. He recalled how he was about the same age when SAHMAT was established as the dissenting young voices from HCU and JNU are today. The convention was presided over by ProfessorPrabhatPatnaik, who gave a brief introductory remark. Patnaik talked about how a metaphysical or an abstract notion of nation is intrinsic to the fascist tendencies gaining ascendency in their particular context. This idea of a nation, he said , received its precise contours not a priori but often on the basis of the strands of opposition that the fascist forces encountered. However, while nationalism was the legitimizing trope for these forces, by curtailing the spaces of thought what these forces ended up doing was perpetuate the role of USA as the global hegemone as more and more thinking people would take flight to the universities there. The first speaker of the day was Ajay Patnaik, President Jawaharlal Nehru University Teacher’s Association (JNUTA). JNUTA and Patnaik have earned a lot of admiration for their steadfast support to the JNUSU and the way in which they have been able to sustain the movement against many odds. Patnaik was keen on discussing what he thought was the reason for this attack on JNU. He underscored that “humanism” was at the very core of JNU philosophy and that it manifests itself in its progressive admission policy or the kind of relief work that it undertakes in different parts of the country. Patnaik also went on to list how dramatic the demographic transition has been on the JNU campus due to its “deprivation points” admission policy whereby women scholars constitute the majority while over two-thirds of the students belong to the more backward regions of the country. Prof NanditaNarain, President Delhi University Teacher’s Association (DUTA) was the next speaker. She began by congratulating the JNUTA for its heroic role in the struggle while at the same time highlighting the challenges that the teachers and students confront at the Delhi University. She was quick to explicate further on the point made by Moderator, PrabhatPatnaik and showed how the struggle against communal-fascism (a formulation that was coined to specifically identify the strand of right wing movements represented by the Hindu RSS) cannot be divorced from the struggle against neo-liberalism. The twin struggle against communal-fascism and neo-liberalism was a recurring theme of the afternoon though the differences in how this idea was being deployed were discernible too. Narain passionately outlined how the lobotomizing of the student, the veritable assault on thought, should not be seen as a preserve of the present government but was put in motion by the neo-liberal policies of the earlier period. ChanderUday Singh, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court spoke about the redundancy of the Sedition Law and asked the audience to realize that the recent spate of judgment(s) was upending the slew of progressive judgments of the decade beginning towards the end of 1970s that gave far less scope for the abuse of the sedition law. He discussed Article 19(1) and (2) which outlines the fundamental rights and the reasonable restrictions on it on exceptional grounds. He even noted the irony of denying freedom to young students for over three weeks in each instance in the name of upholding and preserving freedom. Rohit Azad, Assistant Professor at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU concentrated on the need for the Left to review its own limitations and the theoretical premise with which it approaches people. The last speaker for the day was Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU President and the man in the eye of the storm. Kumar was astute to note the audience he was addressing was markedly different from the one that he was asked to address on a routine basis and he presented his ideas accordingly. He spent most of the time lamenting the internal frictions and mutual suspicion which the broader Left movements continue to suffer from. He remarked on his own failings as a left activist too saying, that the signs of something sinister was always there for some to see but those on the left failed to unite against the challenge posed by the right wing forces. As is his wont, he presented most of his insights as his personal experiences in his time as a student activist. He said that the new wave of Jai Bhim- Lal Salaam is not a matter of political expediency but rather the political reality in which the democratic, left movement finds itself. Kumar was precise and articulate in his understanding of the larger repercussion of the JNU struggle and did not shy away from complimenting the DUTA for the militant struggle it had been waging in a far more repressive university. The session concluded with willing members of the audience coming up to the podium to present their thoughts. Ram Rahman thanked everyone who attended the session and hoped that the young take the lead against the new waves of communal onslaughts in the country.