JNU Students And Free Speech: An Open Letter To Prof. Makarand Paranjape By Prof. Rajat Datta

Dear Prof. Paranjpe,

I am taking the liberty of writing this open letter to you on the JNUTA group page and on my Facebook page because of some comments you’ve reportedly made on the recent unfortunate events in JNU. I am referring to the report of the Hindustan Times (HT) of February 19, 2016. I’m also pasting the link so that all of us know exactly what I’m referring to.

I apologise for not having written earlier; but I only saw this news item yesterday and decided to write to you immediately. Better late than never, isn’t it?

You raise three important issues, and these constitute the crux of this open letter to you.

First, you charge the students of having organized the program of February 9 on `false pretexts’ and a `subterfuge’; an ostensible `poetry reading session’ which was turned into `commemoration of Afzal Guru’.

I wonder if you recall the poster which was put up as an invitation for the event. Under the banner headlines `A Country Without a Post Office’, the poster unequivocally stated that the program was “Against the Brahmanical `collective conscience’. `Against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat!’, and `in solidarity with the struggle of the Kashmiri people for their democratic rights to self-determination’. In case you have doubts about these citations, a copy of the poster is also attached.

You are free to criticize this event and its organizers, but `false pretexts’ and `subterfuge’ are unfortunately equally false accusations. In my mind there’s no ambiguity about the linguistic or semantic intent of the event organizers. Please also note the fact that the administration first gave, and then withdrew permission a few minutes before the program was to start, should also tell you that no `false pretexts’ or `subterfuge’ were involved. The administration’s intentions stand exposed and are of no concern to me here; but as a colleague the least I expected from you was an honest appraisal of events.

On the question of a `cultural event’, I don’t need to tell a professor of English that culture is a malleable term which lends itself to a myriad, even political, interpretations and nuances. A cultural event can quickly metamorphose into a political one depending on the kind of sentiments in a specific location.

Let me hasten to add that I am in no way commenting on or justifying what allegedly happened there. I was in Chennai on the 9th and got to know of this event upon my return. In any case, the so-called evidence of what has largely been a trial by a virulently biased media is rapidly turning out to be false and manipulated. Nevertheless, you are still welcome to your opinions. I am just pointing out some basic factual, conceptual and interpretative differences I have with your unfortunate remarks made about JNU students in a public forum.

The second issue you raise is of your disappointment, that the JNUTA, of which you are a member, passed `no resolution condemning that misuse’. Once again I leave the choice of words to your better judgment, but `condemning the misuse’ would have amounted to prima facie accepting that (1) so-called `anti-national’ slogans were actually shouted there, and that too by our students; and (2) the steps taken by the administration without due process to let the police inside the campus was justified.

However, allow me to draw your attention to the first few lines of the JNUTA resolution of 16 February 2016. It reads as follows:

`The JNUTA GBM notes that while the University community has repeatedly reiterated that it stands by the Constitution of India and the values enshrined therein and stands opposed to those who are against the country, the malicious slander and intimidation campaign against JNU and what it stands for is being sought to be raised to an even higher pitch even as the University Administration continues to fail in its responsibility to defend JNU and its autonomy and to ensure the safety and security of the members of the University community’.

Shouldn’t you have at least checked with the JNUTA before maligning the Association publicly three days after the resolution had been adopted in the GBM? What did you expect teachers to do in a situation when the entire university was under attack? Did you want them to go out and do some cultural cleansing to seek retribution for the `subterfuge’ of students in order to prove their nationalism to the present political dispensation?

Have you even taken the trouble to attend even a single JNUTA GBM, now or earlier? Have you even once taken the podium to place your opinions among your colleagues for a discussion? Have you even once tried to convince your colleagues to take a harder line on the event because you think the nation wants to know? Or is it that you distrust your colleagues and place greater faith in external platforms to get some quick publicity?

Is this what makes you a public intellectual?

Now I come to the third issue raised by you. I’m struck by your ideas about how students should stick to their studies and not enter politics. The report quotes your following sage advice to them. `Have you you come to JNU to do politics or to study because in the end you will be neither here nor there’. This is really impressive, and I believe this is precisely the advice RSS has been giving in its shakhas all these years.

Depoliticize students, but be subversively political yourself. That’s the new way forward, isn’t it? And if you can’t depoliticize, then destroy. I’m afraid that’s the cultural project of this new dispensation?

Are they your mentors too, Prof. Paranjpe?

With best wishes,
Your sincerely,
Professor Rajat Datta
Centre for Historical Studies


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