On False Prophets and Free Speech Among Students

"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

—George Orwell

I have always believed that we, as social animals, need to follow certain people from amongst us. The division of labor has been an essential characteristic of our ever-evolving economic system. The same characteristic has ensured that discussions on politics and other aspects of our society remain limited to a small part of people’s lives. It is this limitation brought forth by the economic structure of our society that necessitated the work done by the intellectuals. This small minority of educated and informed people also had access to various sources of information and resources, which further helped them in their inquiry. A vast majority of the people — busy in their day to day lives and devoid of any means of knowledge — relied on these intellectuals for knowledge and awareness. They popularized the ideas of liberty and freedom, which ultimately led to revolutions, overthrowing dictatorships, and establishing democracies in many parts of the world. These intellectuals gave fresh air to the public discourse which was being suffocated by the forces of organized religion and autocratic rulers of that time. Every revolution and every movement had free-thinking intellectuals who often led the public thought and made people aware of the exploitation they were facing.

The times have changed, and knowledge is accessible to more people now. Prominent among them are us - the students. A lot has been written about how students are the flag bearers of justice and how they have always stood with what is moral and right. They have also been credited with revolutions and movements, which changed the course of history. But is our current public discourse free enough to start a revolution or bring about any positive change? If not, then how have our intellectuals and public figures influenced it.

Nowadays, information reaches a large number of people through retweets, shares, and WhatsApp forwards. Many of us who possess these modern means of communication are expected to be well aware of the realities of our society and rightly so. Considering all these things, our understanding of the systematic oppression of the current regime should have been better. In the last 6 years, students across India should have agreed on at least a couple of more issues other than the #ScrapOBE movement. However, we have failed to put up a united front against some of the major injustices happening in India.

It is not just the students, but a large number of the people have either supported the atrocities by this government or they have remained silent. One of the reasons for this blunted response is how our intellectuals and public figures have chosen to present history and politics before the people.

In August 2018, noted historian Ramachandra Guha wrote a column about three deceased politicians, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Guha wrote that Vajpayee and his Jan Sangh/BJP was “in favor of a nationalism inflected by what they saw as Hindu ideas.” Towards the end of his column, Guha argues that the Republic of India needs leaders like Vajpayee in the 21st century who are “democrats” and “patriots.”

Vajpayee’s role in Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent riots — in which thousands of people were killed — is not lost on any of us. A day before the demolition, Vajpayee in his speech to the Kar Sevaks talked about “leveling the ground” at Ayodhya. The late BJP stalwart was strongly indicted by the Liberhan Commision which was constituted to look into the demolition of Babri. To overlook such an important fact about Vajpayee and call him patriotic should not have been ignored.

We have to be mindful of such instances when public intellectuals seek subtle ways of normalizing people with a violent and a communal past. Guha has repeatedly praised Vajpayee for many of his supposed virtues including “humanity” and “gentleness.” However, thousands of victims of the post-Babri riots and their families would beg to differ with him.

Many acclaimed academicians have often tried to mould the public opinion on behalf of the government. From Japan to the east to America in the west, countries across the world have adopted affirmative action in their policies and rules. Reservation, which is also an example of affirmative action, was rightly adopted by India for the so called “lower castes.” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a prominent academician and the former vice-chancellor of Ashoka University has often spoken in ways that seek to downplay the role of caste in Indian society. In 2006, he wrote an article titled “Reservation: An upper-caste assumption that marginalized communities can never make it”. Mehta starts by blaming politics for the curse of reservation and eventually argues that the political leaders of the so called “lower castes” never wanted their constituents to transcend their identity. He attempts to villainize the identity politics that became necessary when these people were discriminated against because of their identity. The status quo that existed in terms of the caste representation post-independence continues even today. Every survey supports the fact that the representation of the marginalized castes in public and private institutions is grossly disproportionate.

Therefore, it has always been a matter of survival for these people to fight on behalf of their identity. It is not equally easy for everyone to lose their identity and adopt a new one.

The noted academician repeatedly talks about merit without mentioning the systemic oppression these groups have suffered at the hands of the system. Sermonizing about meritocracy without mentioning equality and justice is akin to supporting a ruthless exclusive system that has historically discriminated against these people.

In another article, Mehta claimed that Kashmiris had a death wish and that everyone in Kashmir is feeding off each other. According to him, young men and children in Kashmir are also a part of this murderous food chain. He sketched a wrongful picture of Kashmir where there are no victims, but everyone is a criminal. As students, whose primary goal is to study and inquire, shouldn’t we expect our academics to be less obscure about such issues? If there is oppression in Kashmir, then why use euphemisms to talk about it? Mehta only seems to be interested in the safety of the “Kashmiri voters.” He only questions the lack of security for the voters who can strengthen the system and make it look more democratic. Mehta does not seem to be bothered by Kashmiris who exist outside this phrase.

If someone claims to be a liberal or a democrat, then we must hold him accountable on the standards of the liberal theory and the principles of democracy. Otherwise, what is the point of us studying these ideas and theories in our classrooms. Every silence and every utterance must count.

Many public figures and intellectuals — who are regarded highly by a large section of our society including the students — often side with the state and relinquish their responsibilities. They also take a majoritarian stand to woo their audience and in doing so, they betray the very principles they claim to fight for. What is more disheartening is that many students idolize politicians who speak fluent English and use incomprehensible vocabulary. However, the same people falter when they are expected to speak up against the blatant sexism of the Hindu priesthood. Is this what Shashi Tharoor meant when he called for a “liberal party headed by centrist professionals”? Since when did centrism become a virtue. Isn’t it just a euphemism for majoritarianism?

It is imperative for students to follow intellectuals, thinkers, and writers who are at the apex of our public discourse. Many of them provide a guiding light to us and force us to think and start discussions on various issues. However, bhakti of any sort is blind to logic and reason. Questioning them and holding them accountable for their actions is incumbent upon us. It is the least students like us — who have seen the worst of this world of politics — must do. We also owe it to our society to effectively project the reality without any distortion. Many students, poets as well as writers were recently jailed for doing exactly that. With their scholarship and toil, they filled a vacuum in the public discourse and that is what has upset this government. More than the open hate-mongers which the BJP has to offer, we must be aware of the false prophets who claim to be our allies but support the ruling dispensation in many subtle ways. We must not allow anyone to lay boundaries around our discourse, corrupt it and obscure the ugly realities of the state as well as its leaders.

Follow Shehlat Maknoon Wani on twitter @maknoonwani