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<nettime> Is India at an inflection point?
nettime's avid reader on Wed, 2 Mar 2016 19:17:24 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Is India at an inflection point?

Equating the students’ unrest in Jawaharlal Nehru University and
Hyderabad and Jadavpur Universities and in several of the Indian
Institutes of Technology with the Paris and Nanterre students’
uprising in 1968 may sound farfetched, but there are some eerie

M.K. Narayanan


Updated: February 29, 2016 03:40 IST

It is important to take the time out to address social cohesion and
sustain the social compact that India has striven to maintain since
Independence. Instead, the government’s use of the sedition law in JNU
has been a blunder, which is widening the gulf between different
segments of society.

The first two decades of the 21st century have witnessed a great deal
of unrest and turbulence in several countries across the globe,
notably in West Asia. India was spared the kind of protests that
marked the “Arab Awakening”, though it did confront a number of
disparate protests, which cumulatively reflected a high level of
discontent. Individual incidents had even then begun to spark off
violent reactions.

However, it is the metastasising nature of recent agitations and
protests, involving almost every segment of the population, students,
peasants and the disaffected — alongside the persistent provocation
from Pakistan — which is resulting in new paradigms of thought and
behaviour. Whether they relate to terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based
outfits such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiba,
agitations based on identity, ideology, idea-logy politics, human
values and dignity, or unstructured movements dictated by rage or
other considerations, they all involve a level of public mobilisation
and spectacle different from what had been seen in the past.

Need for new strategies

It is evident that we have entered a new era but are probably not yet
aware of its implications. They cannot, hence, be dealt with in the
same manner as in the past, or by employing antiquated methods and
resorting to shopworn rhetoric. Understanding the true meaning of
real-time information gleaned from “data-in-motion” (such as phone
calls or chat services) or from access to “data-at-rest” (text
messages and videos stored in computers and cell phones) is critically
important today.

For instance, almost fortnightly, or at shorter intervals,
Pakistan-based terrorist outfits are carrying out assaults with still
greater military precision than previously, inflicting greater
casualties among both civilians and armed force personnel, all the
while holding up the country to ridicule as the Indian Establishment
seeks opportunities to revive anti-terror talks. Gurdaspur, Pathankot
and now Pampore are hardly isolated incidents and reflect elements of
a grand strategy. Only the most myopic of leaders can fail to see the
writing on the wall and heed the message coming out of Pakistan. A
nation fully conversant with what is taking place can hardly be misled
into ignoring the truth and reality.

At another level, India is internally undergoing a baptism through
fire. This has been brought on by a conflict between extremes — the
politics of the Right Wing and the Left Wing; a confrontation between
anti-national and irredentist elements on the one hand, and so called
nationalist and identity-based groups on the other; and increasing
militancy on the part of the so-called excluded and marginalised
segments in pursuit of their rights. The “quota agitation” by the Jat
community in Haryana exemplifies the dangers inherent in the
increasing stratification of Indian society.

Following the Patidars in Gujarat and the Jats in Haryana, the
Marathas in Maharashtra and the Rajputs in Rajasthan are threatening
to agitate. In almost every State across the country, several among
the more “backward” are about to throw their hat into the ring seeking
among the Other Backward Class quotas. Finally the worst fears about
the end result of the Mandal Commission recommendations appear to be
coming true.

The Centre’s succumbing to the violence perpetuated by Haryana Jats
could not have come at a more inopportune moment. The ineptitude
displayed in handling the agitation, and the spectacle of the Centre
dispatching several Army columns to quell a law and order situation in
an hinterland State, tends to evoke comparisons with the “Arab Spring”.

Memories of 1968

The question as to whether India is today at an inflection point is,
however, more relevant in the context of the present unrest among
students of the nation’s prestigious universities. Equating the
students’ unrest in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad and
Jadavpur Universities and in several of the Indian Institutes of
Technology with the Paris and Nanterre students’ uprising in 1968 may
sound farfetched, but there are some eerie similarities. In both
cases, agitating students have used metaphors to demonstrate their
opposition to the existing order. Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh were
names chosen by the Paris and Nanterre students to ventilate their
anger against the Fifth Republic, knowing full well that it would
anger the authorities.

In current agitations across Indian universities, the names Afzal Guru
and Yakub Memon mean little to most students, but they are intended to
be symbols of opposition to the Establishment. Anti-national rhetoric
is often the fuel that feeds demonstrations against the existing order
of things. Today, the Left in India has no icon around whom they can
rally students. They have, hence, chosen to join forces with other
anti-Establishment groups, for whom the more outrageous the claim, the
more likely it is to rile those in authority. This has little to do
with “insiders” and “outsiders”.

Building a just society

It is vitally important for the authorities, hence, to discern the
real meaning behind many of the actions taking place in our
universities and avoid any overreaction. “Building a just society by
just means” — a quote from former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru —
has become crucially important in many campuses at this juncture.
Nothing could be more poignant in this respect than the tragic suicide
of Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad Central University PhD student, who in
his suicide note blamed his birth as “a fatal accident”. It gave an
impression of the prevalence of a “dark state” mindset among those who
exercise power and authority.

What cannot be ignored is that with ubiquitous access to
interconnected mobile devices and other advanced communication
systems, events are getting transformed in a way that could hardly be
envisaged even a couple of years ago. In this milieu, failure to
anticipate the intensity of anger that prevails on a particular
occasion, judge the unintended consequences of a growing groundswell
of protest against an incident that has captured public imagination
and recognise that the diffusion of power between the state on the one
hand, and people on the streets or students in campuses on the other,
has become far more consequential than at any time previously — and it
can have grave consequences.

What is tragic is that in an increasingly acrimonious and polarised
atmosphere, political elements of all hues are by their actions
further aggravating the situation. The public discourse has thus
become that much more acrimonious and polarised. The Prime Minister’s
statement about “conspiracies” directed against him and his government
hardly helps. It only brings back memories of other Indian Prime
Ministers placed in difficult situations coming up with similar
conspiracy theories. Employing the provision for sedition in JNU,
instead of taking time out to address social cohesion and sustain the
social compact that India has striven to maintain since Independence,
has been a blunder, widening the gulf between different segments of
society. What is most needed today is an activist state that is
focussed on preserving social cohesion and a sense of optimism to
protect and enlarge the dignity of every human.

At this critical juncture, it is unfortunate that the vice chancellors
of central universities have hardly covered themselves with glory.
Most universities today are guilty of the charge that they are out of
touch with Young India, even as student activism has reached a tipping
point. Vice chancellors find themselves inadequately equipped to
grapple with problems facing their universities such as social
exclusion, identity conflicts, the subaltern and minority syndrome,
unchecked dissent, etc. Most also lack the authority (and personality)
to not only deal with students’ protests, but even determine when to
call for outside support, including the police, before the situation
goes out of control.

Finally, what is least required at this moment is for students across
universities to be lectured on the virtues of nationalism from all and
sundry. What is specifically needed are methods to deal with the
current situation so as to prevent it from getting out of hand.
Leaving matters to be dealt with by the police after the horse has
bolted, and then blame the police for inadequacy is, however, neither
a method nor the means.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former
Governor of West Bengal.)

Keywords: JNU Row, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kanhaiya Kumar,
Jadavpur University

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