Prof Makarand Paranjape Responds To Maitreyee Shukla’s Open Letter

by Makarand Paranjape - Mar 31, 2016 08:32 PM +05:30 IST
Prof Makarand Paranjape Responds To Maitreyee Shukla’s Open LetterMakarand Paranjape
  • Ms Maitreyee Shukla, who appears to be prone to shooting off “Open Letters,” wrote one on 14 March 2016 against one of the professors at JNU, Dr Makarand R. Paranjape.

    Professor Paranjape refrained from issuing a rejoinder immediately for reasons he explains below, but when he did send it on 25 March 2016, let alone posting his response as fairness demands, he is yet to get a reply, even a word of acknowledgement from this avowedly Leftist portal.


I hesitated to respond to your “Open Letter” when two of our students were still in custody; I didn’t want to further escalate the war of words or, indeed, to be further misunderstood in my own village. Also, I wasn’t sure that it behooved me to joust with you verbally; after all, it is the privilege of the young to rebel, misunderstand, even to reject what their parents or teachers stand for.

Each generation, moreover, has a right to discover it’s own values and beliefs; why should you be denied yours? But now that both your comrades are out on bail, thanks to the very same judicial system that they so vociferously condemned, writing back to you might be less unbecoming.

I still might have refrained had it not been for the ominous warning at the end of your letter: “History will not forget that at this critical moment, you chose not to stand with it.” I wonder if you noticed how the dire threat of Judgement Day of the Semitic faiths now reappears in your missive in the garb of damnation at the dread hand of History.

But what makes you believe that a call to arms, or failing which, punishment in the form of some version of eternal damnation, in the name of History is any less dubious than in the name of a jealous and unforgiving God? Do you consider yourself so perfectly guilt-free, to continue in the same theological idiom, not just to cast the first stone, but also to be judge, jury, and executioner?

I don’t think “History,” in whose name you pretend to speak, gives you quite so much authority. Naiveté, yes! – that you may be entitled to being young and idealistic, but omniscience and omnipotence, no! – for that is reserved only for the Deity that is History, authorized in the name of another Father, whether it be Father Marx, Father Lenin, or Father Mao, as the case may be.

That is why you need seriously to consider whom you mean when you say, “Not one of your arguments hold ground when tested logically and factually.” Perhaps, your remark is far more auto-biographical, if not auto-referential, than you think or realize.

Passion, political romanticism, even commitment and fellow-feeling do not really in themselves make good arguments, nor do letting off steam, espousing “worthy” causes, or shooting off indignant “Open Letters” without thinking through your positions clearly or carefully.

Being a sociology student, I am sure you are familiar with Durkheim’s idea of the malaise of modernity, which produces free-floating and rootless individuals consequent on the breakdown of social and religious norms.

Hannah Arendt, another well-known European thinker, argues that without a sense of belonging and purpose, such individuals become vulnerable to manipulation by ideologies because these give them a “spurious sense of meaning.” I am concerned about how these vulnerable young women and men are being used by political parties for their own purposes. That, Maitreyee-ji, is what I meant; tell me if this is logically fallacious or without foundation.

Similarly, when you accused me of reducing “the entire student movement across India to an attempt to ‘manufacture discontent,’” you are obviously wrong. I said no such thing. In fact, when asked by FirstPost, “Who is manufacturing this discontent?” I replied, “One shouldn’t pinpoint anyone without concrete evidence.” So when you say that I brand the entire student movement as manufacturers of discontent, surely you have not understood me. The manufacturers of discontent may be forces far more sinister, using gullible, idealistic, and impressionable students for their own purposes.

Now let me come to some of your other strictures. You say pork is not banned, while beef is. This is not, strictly speaking, true. Even if not officially banned, is pork served in JNU hostels? Or for that matter in any university mess in India? This means that there is self-regulation, if not a ban. But what about Kashmir? Is pork sold or served there? Muhammad Zahid writing in Greater Kashmir on 29 December 2009 observes, “The recent move by Srinagar Municipal Committee regarding ban on products having suspicion that pig fat (lard) might have been used in their processing was welcome indeed. The intention was purely religious that could safely be extended into the realms of spirituality.

Please notice the language: even products having a suspicion of lard are banned, to speak of pork in all its various forms. But does this mean you should organize pork parties in Srinagar or even in JNU hostels? If you heard my interview properly, I clearly said that we should not do so because it offends the sensibilities of some of our fellow-citizens.

My argument against “beef festivals” is similar. The intent behind them appears to be mischievous and provocative, given that this is an intensely divisive issue, not only in today’s India but for hundreds of years. From the Buddha to Gandhi, several great Indians have taken a stand against the slaughter of animals. Guess who wrote the following words to whom:

The realm of Hindustan is full of diverse creeds. Praise be to God, the Righteous, the Glorious, the Highest, that He had granted unto you the Empire of it. It is but proper that you, with heart cleansed of all religious bigotry, should dispense justice according to the tenets of each community. And in particular refrain from the sacrifice of cow, for that way lies the conquest of the hearts of the people of Hindustan; and the subjects of the realm will, through royal favour, be devoted to you.

This was not some Hindutvavadi, but none other than Babur, India’s first Moghul emperor, writing his secret vasiyat nama to his son, Humayun in 1529. He had already issued a decree against cow slaughter in 1526.

In Independent India, from the directive principles of the Constitution right up to recent legislations, the state has discouraged the slaughter of cows. In all but eight states of the Indian Union, it is a cognizable offence. Yet, as I understand it, the law does not criminalise the consumption of beef by individuals. This is a humane provision that protects eating preferences.

Those who want cow slaughter to be legalized ought, in a democracy, try to change the law. They can lobby legislators, conduct a public campaign to convince Indians that beef-eating is desirable, and eventually, they might succeed. But is that what they wish to do?

Instead, they want to offend the sensibilities of those who find cow slaughter and beef eating abhorrent. The objection is to such politics, targeted at certain sections of the populace, with the view to fragment and divide society. If your beef-campaigners respect the Constitution of India and the law of the land, then they would not try to hold beef festivals, regardless of their private beliefs on the matter. Instead, their aim is to offend, provoke, and attack those who are against cow slaughter.

Now who are their targets? Mostly, Hindus: so the object is to offend them, foment hatred and unrest. This is what I object to. Aren’t Hindu-phobia and Hindu-bashing also undesirable, even if camouflaged behind politically (in)correct jargon?

The issue of the worship of Mahishasur is similar. As long as such worship is not intended to give offence but expresses alternate traditions, it is not objectionable. But when it is combined with the abuse of Goddess Durga, then it is bound to create hatred and divide society.

I agree that sex workers should be treated with dignity, but what is the evidence that the Goddess was one? Aren’t epithets synonymous with sex worker used to abuse and defame women? Don’t we stand up against such sexist insults? Don’t we consider them examples of the indignities that women suffer? Wouldn’t you be hurt and offended if members of your own family – let alone yourself – were so labeled? Wouldn’t you consider that to be in extremely poor taste, if not outright offensive? If so, would you blame devotees of Goddess Durga for being outraged at her being tagged with such a marker?

Political correctness, I am afraid, cannot mask wicked and harmful intent; it is the latter which is objectionable, not the former.

Let me come next to the similarly contentious issue of caste. I don’t believe that I have analysed or commented on the saddening suicide of Rohit Vemula, so why have you dragged me into a controversy, imputing all kinds of motives to me? The suicide of any young person in this country is a cause of great concern and introspection, but what we have here is an attempt to capitalize on it.

Again, I was referring primarily to political parities and leaders, who scrambled to take advantage of the situation. Instead of dousing the flames, several interested parties added fuel to the fire of caste hatred. This is what I find appalling.

The crisis in Hyderabad was many years in the making, with earlier flare-ups. I taught at the University of Hyderabad so can speak from personal experience. From the mid to late 1980s, the dominant line of “negative” politics was of local, which then meant Telugu, not just mulki or Telangani vs. non-local. I joined the HCU straight after my PhD in the USA, committed to serving my own country and society.

But what did I find? Bullies made up of so-called “locals” trying to influence decision making at every level, including recruitment, promotions, and important appointments. They had many ways of browbeating and neutralizing their perceived opponents, the “outsiders” who were to be put in their place. Such was the politics at a “central” university.

But soon there was another, even more dangerous, overlay of caste that overran regional parochialism. Unlike at JNU, there was no minimum cut-off for most subjects in the HCU entrance exams. The result was that in some disciplines, a person could get single digit marks, even theoretically a zero, but still be admitted, if a seat in a particular category remained vacant.

Once admitted, however, these educationally as well as socially disadvantaged students found themselves adrift. The institutional mechanisms to bring them up to par were inadequate. I have myself guided and trained some of them, so know how hard both the teacher and the student had to work.

Oftentimes that hard work was simply not put in. Instead, some of these students joined radical groups, which claimed to champion their rights, but also ending up targeting those who didn’t want to “cooperate” with their demands. Imagine that you were a teacher at such an institution with a name such as “Shukla.” You might find yourself doubly vulnerable as an outsider, a savarna with a hated Brahmin surname. You might be accused of being casteist if you didn’t pass a student whose performance on your exam was dismal. You might be accused of ruining his or her career if you refused to ensure that the student got the grade that was considered the minimum eligibility requirement to appear for the MPhil or NET exam.

To my recollection, none of these radical groups organized teach-ins, or coaching classes for their juniors, nor did they ever emphasize the intense hard work and wide reading required to do well in academics. Think of the message being sent out: to do well, you don’t have to study hard or learn real skills; instead, you need to belong to a particular community or caste, then join groups that would protect or promote your interests.

Even if things had stopped there, many would have considered it merely business as usual. But, no, the campus soon became a battleground of vicious and divisive caste hatred, with socially disadvantaged students being mobilized for other causes than social justice.

You may recall before the tragic incident that you referred to, an event commemorating “martyred” Kashmiri separatists was organized, which brought HCU to a standstill. It is this kind of divisive and destructive politics that I have spoken out against. Only to attack the Government is to turn a blind eye to what is happening in our own backyards.

Now to your last point about taxes, middle-classes, and the “laughable” comparison of JNU to IITs and IIMs. Once again, you have failed to go beyond your prejudices, which makes you unable to understand my point. I merely said that middle class, taxpaying citizens ask why should they subsidise “anti-nationalism.” I didn’t say they were right or wrong, only that you can’t blame them for thinking this way. After all, less than 3% of the population pays income taxes in India as opposed to about 45% in a country like the U.S.

Now, why should these Indians face only ridicule and demonization in return? Shouldn’t their concerns be respected? Along with income tax, an education cess is also levied. Why is it ridiculous to ask if that cess goes to paying for education or politicking and sloganeering at publicly funded campuses where academic standards are dubious, if not declining? I did not mean or suggest that middleclass taxpayers had special claims on the state; on the contrary, India belongs to all of us.

Anyone who participates in the organized economy does, as you rightly pointed out, contribute to the state exchequer. But does this mean that you castigate the middle classes for their values when they resist doling out unconditional support to causes that seem invalid to them?

That is why to offer dissent in the name of the poorest of the poor is bad logic and even worse ethics on the part of essentially middleclass students. This is merely to appropriate someone else’s victimhood for your own, some would say parasitical, privileges. These poorest of the poor, if you care to ask them, would be the first to urge you not to squander the opportunities of higher education, to study first and politic later. I have myself heard so many daily-wage earners, domestic help, and other marginal members of the JNU community complain, “In logon ko padhayi chhod kar aur sab karne hai; unke maa-baap par kay beetati hogi? Bachhon ko itni door padhane ke liye bhej rahen hain ki hangama karne ke liye?

It is not that I agree entirely with such a view, but please don’t be under the illusion that the real subalterns of our society consider you either their representatives or champions.

To that extent, the comparison with IITs or IIMs is not laughable. These institutions also give research degrees, such as PhDs, even in Humanities and Social Sciences. Do you know that more often than not, their theses are far better than ours? That is because these schools are run more professionally, with greater academic accountability, and a better work culture.

In fact, the world over no university is respected or renowned without high academic standards, regardless of its degree of political engagement. The latter is in addition to, not a substitute for, the former. As to what you call “non-NET fellowships,” may I ask why you call them “fellowships” when they are given automatically to all students admitted to MPhil and PhD in central universities? And fees? Why call them fees when they seem to have no correlation to any economic factor, let alone the actual costs of education, seemingly frozen forever, neither going up with inflation or expenses to keep the university going? Why not just make JNU fee-free, scrapping them altogether, doing away with this pretense?

Best not to discuss these issues here, lest we betray the “poorest of the poor” deprived even of an opportunity to go to college or university? Don’t they need “fellowships” much more than most of us? What happened to Louis Blanc’s famous slogan De chacun selon ses facultés, à chacun selon ses besoins popularized by Marx as “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” which is one reason that the middle-classes pay income taxes in the first place. Surely, by the same logic, many JNU students can afford to pay much more, indeed have paid ten times as much each month not only in school and college fees, but also in coaching classes to clear the JNU entrance tests. These same JNU students spend more for a single dinner at our own local 24x7 eatery than their monthly fees or hostel dues. So why should one size fit all when it comes to JNU?

Let me end by referring to your Postscript, in which you clarify that your “Open Letter” is not meant to bully me. I agree; I don’t feel bullied by you. But I do feel “othered.” You address me as an individual, but refer to yourself as “we.” I take it that it’s not the royal pronoun, but the presumed unity of purpose and ideology among those you stand with. You consider me ranged against this collective as this single individual, alone, isolated, and worthy of being chastised in your “Open Letter.”

Lest you persist in thinking so, let me remind you that in my very first intervention on the JNU crisis at the Sahitya Akademi on 19 February 2016, I clearly regretted the arrest of our students. In my Nationalism teach-in I started by saying that I stood for the autonomy of educational institutions and for statutory institutions both within and outside universities. In all my statements since, I have always spoken for due process, democratic norms, and the rule of law. When a well-known TV anchor asked why legal proceedings should not be initiated against an “anti-national colleague,” I stated that I would never support calls for such witch hunts, least of all against my own colleagues, even if I believed them to be wrong and disagreed with them. I am quite opposed to authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies, whatever their political colour, as I am to a democratic state repressing its own citizens.

Don’t you think we need to redraw the boundaries of “we”? Tell me who is the real “enemy” of JNU and India and who the real “friend”? The path of the unthinking rabble-rousers in JNU will lead to our ruin unless, of course, you believe it is only a pretend-politics. In contrast, my path will, I am convinced, improve, if not save JNU, by reducing divisiveness, discovering a new political idiom, and reinvigorating our academic ecosystem.

In this regard, am glad you mentioned Gandhi because he is at the very centre or heart of the “we,” of the nation and society that we are trying to build, foster, nurture, and protect. He said, “it will be your duty to tell the revolutionaries and everybody else that the freedom they want, or they think they want, is not to be obtained by killing people or doing violence, but by setting themselves right, and by becoming and remaining truly Indian.” Don’t you think this applies as much to all of us as to the so-called revolutionaries in our midst? Why not try to set ourselves right before attacking others?

There are millions in India who work harder than most of us in JNU; they do so, moreover, with fewer rewards or benefits. It is such people who make this country viable, not the agitators and naysayers, who sow division and discord amongst us for their own selfish and cynical political and pecuniary interests. Maitreyeeji, don’t you think it is the latter that history will not forgive?

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