Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Whither academic freedom?
Meera Visvanathan is a former member of JNU students’ Union and a Ph D scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Apoorvanand’s article published online on Kafila had the courage to say in print things that I, as a student of JNU, had so far only said in private. Such acts of outspokenness are important for the conversations they set up. They allow me to believe that the space of democracy is available, at least intellectually, even as it retreats everywhere else.
I too stood among the crowd at the Parthasarathy Rocks in JNU on the night of 1st May as we waited to hear the Pakistani band Laal. Before Laal rose up to sing, we were introduced to a young singer, Tritha, who was to sing three compositions. The first two were clearly classically inspired, but did not have a form that the audience could fit words to. As she began the third composition, singing Vakratunda, Mahakaya…… in what was clearly a hymn to Ganapati, an uproar broke out among the crowd. Tritha, however, continued to sing with her eyes closed. I watched in horror as the President of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) walked on stage, the image magnified by the huge screen set up for the audience, and asked Tritha to stop her song. The reasons for such an act were not discussed. One must assume that a hymn to Ganapati was considered ‘inappropriate’ for May Day Celebrations. On the big screen, I watched the singer’s face fall as Laal took the stage to much applause.
Vakratunda, Mahakaaya… I cannot remember what the rest of the hymn was because I was not allowed to hear it. Somewhere, a few lines later, the chant began Ganapati Ganapati… Based on my limited knowledge of Sanskrit, Vakratunda, Mahakaaya translates as ‘of curved trunk, of great body’. Just look at these epithets: can we imagine them being used for any archetypal brahmanical God? Can they be used for Rama smiling sweetly on Ramanand Sagar’s serial and presiding over the blood of riots? As for ‘Ganapati’ which provoked such an uproar: the term means ‘lord of a gana’ where gana is usually translated as a political group, sometimes even a military one. The same etymology holds true for ‘Ganesha’. That is why, comrades on the left, even the General Secretary of the CPI(Maoist) can go by the name Ganapathy and no one has got up to ask him to change it.
Historians will tell you that in origin, Ganapati was a yaksha, a tribal or folk god of great powers. Over time, as brahmanical religion entered village and tribal societies, he was absorbed into the Hindu pantheon. This process was not unique: it occurred for any number of local cults, images and themes across history. True, the figure of Ganapati himself tells us little about the people of the past. But we cannot always reach out to the ancient past with an ease that is possible for more recent events. And even if narratives of appropriation are complex, they need not take away from points of origin. To use a contemporary analogy: Does the fact that Bhagat Singh is appropriated by the Hindu-right detract from the fact that he was a Marxist? Does the mere image of Che Guevara occurring on vodka bottles or mass produced on t-shirts allow us to ignore his iconic status as a revolutionary? Cultural symbols are usually more complex than the ways in which they are packaged and made available to us.
What happened in JNU on the night of May 1st was an act of unbelieveable intolerance. It was marked by the peculiar combination of ignorance and populism that drives censorship. But worse still, is the fact that such intolerance is being justified in discussions subsequent to the event. Clearly, people did not come to the concert expecting to hear a hymn to Ganapati. But perhaps the situation could have been dealt with by allowing the singer to finish her song and then taking the mike to offer a critique? Surely we should be able to deal with ‘uncomfortable’ situations with some amount of political maturity and grace? Such an action goes beyond the unhappiness it causes an individual artist or member of the audience. It ties up to larger questions of how we view our histories and what worth we assign to freedom of expression.
Of course, we seem to have agreed that there are limits to the freedom of expression. But surely these limits are meant to be ‘reasonable’. Would singing a hymn to Ganapati on May Day have led to a carnage? Did it amount to hate-speech? If not, why shut it up instead of dealing with it in the terms of democratic debate? Small acts of silencing pave the way for larger ones. If JNUSU can use its position of privilege to act so summarily, then it erodes its moral authority to speak out against censorship. Next time you raise your voice in support of M.F. Husain or the struggling people of Kudankulam and Nonadanga, the chorus will be muted because you too have shown your ability to suppress something that isn’t ‘convenient’ for you. Next time you speak out against the moral policing of the ABVP, your voice will be muted because you too once abrogated to yourself the role of a ‘custodian of culture’. It is just one step away from the idiocy that says ‘he break my nation, I break his head.’
Stranger still was the fact that night we were able to accept disco versions of Pakistani poets we revere, but that tolerance died suddenly when faced with a Sanskrit hymn. True, certain languages are used by political and cultural elites to undertake acts of violence and bolster hierarchy. But they are also often used to articulate a politics of dissent. English, for instance, has been used to justify the worst possible racist and imperialist excesses. But does that mean that we will cease to read anything written in English? Most of the standardized bhasha languages of today’s India grew and spread at the cost of local and tribal languages. But does that mean we will exorcise them from our psyche? Nor is the knowledge of Sanskit opposed in any way to a left-democratic consciousness. D.D. Kosambi was one of the greatest Marxist minds of India, and yet he spent years of his life studying, editing and translating Sanskrit texts! To put it simply, it is not Sanskrit that must be opposed. Rather, it is the people who use Sanskrit (or any language, for that matter) to bolster caste hierarchies and brahmanical patriarchy.
And in the end, perhaps, what we need to reflect upon are the absences of our cultural politics. To the fact that we have reduced ourselves to canonizing certain texts and figures at the cost of others. To the fact that our involvement in cultural politics is often no more than a blur of slogan shouting. It shows not only an ignorance of history, but a hollowness to our political selves.
Of late, the university is a space where debates on censorship are becoming more potent. We have seen how difficult it is to even raise the debate on the removal of AFSPA or go through with a screening of Jashn-e-Azaadi. How the most terrible forms of discrimination are experienced by Dalit students, forcing them sometimes to commit suicide. How the legitimate demand to be allowed to eat beef or pork on campus is meant by sexist and casteist violence and abuse. But we of the left, progressive, democratic, feminist, anti-caste spectrum cannot replicate such forms of silencing, on however small or big a scale, because it takes away from our larger struggles and demeans them.
I too have been on occasion a member of the JNUSU Council so I know how difficult it can be to take decisions on the spur of the moment. But political decisions cannot and should not be based on the ‘mood’ of a crowd. They have to be handled in terms of democratic reasoning and civil debate. I would not expect a union that has known the inconvenience of speaking truth to power, that was forcibly shut down for three years in the name of the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations to suddenly abrogate to itself the privilege of deciding which voices can be heard and which cannot, which songs can be sung and which cannot.
But it is not JNUSU that is at fault so much as the larger university community. I do not expect such acts of silencing from a university, particularly not from JNU.