Here’s a rough theory about the Left and the Right.
The basic temperamental difference between the Left-inclined and Right-inclined electorate seems to boil down to their relationship with otherness and authority.
The Left tends to be inclusive of otherness. It thrives on diversity and churn; its ideal social structure is relatively flat and fluid. It understands the merits of intellectual critique and challenge to authority, because it understands the value of social, educational, artistic, and political innovation. Its vision of the future is of an increasingly equal society with increasing personal freedoms.
The Right tends to draw its sense of well-being from a firmer, more vertical social structure, in which there is a clear chain of command and in which everyone knows their place, and stays there.
It tends to view otherness with suspicion and/or fear. It defers to established hierarchies of power, wealth, religion, gender, caste, class, and age.
And since the law is Left-inclined and designed to safeguard the individual, the Right is more inclined to ignore it and dispense street justice.
Just bear that theory in mind.
JNU is only the newest battleground
The clusterfuck that is the current row over Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is not really about Kanhaiya Kumar’s alleged sedition. It is merely one episode in a colossal tussle between the Left and Right over a prize catch: education, the shaping of the future citizen.
And there is apparently no place too low to go in pursuit of that quest.
The Indian state has criminally neglected education for decades. Despite plenty of primary schools, a Right to Education Act, and all the right policy noises, our education system is abysmal. Schools are often just empty rooms; teachers are absent or barely more literate than their students; a lack of infrastructure—from toilets to educational materials—hinders both enrolment and learning outcomes. Kids suffer the same social discrimination inside classrooms as they do outside.
Higher education has gotten more attention, and islands of excellence such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and JNU regularly produce people who do India proud. But in general, the absolutely crucial role of education in nation-building has suffered from an inexplicable lack of political backing.
Today’s central government, for all its dull-witted devotion to Vedic flying machines and cow urine, is sharply cognizant of the power of the classroom. And it will do all it can to capture it and cast it in its image. The Sangh Parivar is very clear about what kind of Indians it wants in India, and much more driven and organised in the pursuit of that aim.
Want a Hindutva nation that purges itself of “westernised”, ”socialist” thinking? Catch ’em young and mould them.
Campuses are rich sources of leadership. You just have to take the campus as a place where people are exposed to new ideas and learn to think for themselves, and recast it as a boot camp. And if you can’t corral them into your way of thinking, intimidate them with the threat of violence.
The patriotism bogey
That project of re-educating India along Hindutva lines has been underway for much longer than two years. The RSS shakha is a potent classroom, and there are Hindu groups that enthusiastically train armies of children in the use of weapons and rhetoric to “fight ISIS” (read Muslims). This project has only picked up momentum since May 2014.
Narendra Modi’s right-leaning Hindutva government is deeply anti-intellectual, obscurantist, and regressive. Its ministers are comically incompetent, its public relations tone-deaf, and its instincts stone age.
Smriti Irani, India’s human resources development minister, wasn’t chosen for her progressive educational views. From the cultural chaperoning of Indian cinema-goers by the censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani to the ruckus at the Film and Television Institute of India over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan to the mess at JNU, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is going for the jugular of Indian education.
When, crying sedition, the home ministry waded into what should have been an internal university matter at JNU, it did so with naked strategy, wearing only a bikini of incompetence.
But however stupid and embarrassing this government may be, it is very good at replicating its thinking by stoking rage and hatred.
The BJP specialises in encouraging its Right-leaning supporters to use language badly—to kill nuance by balling words up into crude emotive landmines and tossing them into the middle of restive crowds. Think of all the words that have become radioactive in the last couple of years: jihad, beef, liberal, secular, socialist, terrorist, culture, sedition, anti-national.
Patriotism seems to be a site of particular anxiety for Hindutva. Perhaps their marginality during the freedom struggle, along with their role in the death of Mahatma Gandhi leads the Sangh Parivar and its supporters to now thump their chests so loudly today; maybe they feel they have a point to prove.
The BJP government’s response to the JNU agitation is typically wrong-headed: it has declared that it is henceforth mandatory for every central university to fly a giant flag on its campus.
A rational, lawful version of patriotism includes pointing out the rot in India, with a view to fixing it; it includes the space to not feel patriotic at all; includes the space, in fact, to be peacefully anti-national.
The right-leaning version of patriotism that is now being consolidated is more about closing ranks around the rot, and shooting the messenger. It is about blurring the difference between poor taste and illegality, and conflating conformity with acceptability. It is plain vigilantism.
What is new, though, is the growing openness and centrality of this attitude.
This week we saw lawyers and an MLA beat up students and journalists on the premises of a courtroom, while the police stood by and informed people that they could not be responsible for their safety. This happened in Delhi, whose police is under the direct control of the allegedly strong BJP government.
The footage, broadcast hundreds of times, was a beautiful distillation of the rot in the judiciary, the executive, and the police, of how unprofessional and brazenly contemptuous of the law we have become.
This is a right-wing speciality, but the Left must be credited with enabling that attitude. Despite making creditable progress of all kinds over the decades, the Left also allowed India and its institutions to become corrupted, rotten, and hollowed out. It said nothing, or too little, in the defence of its own ideals.
Now, when the fist of mob sentiment strikes against those institutions—courts, police, or executive—those sworn to uphold the rights of the individual and of dissent, often cave in and fall apart.
We’re in a war, make no mistake. The battlefield is not the border of India, but its schoolrooms and college campuses. The prize is not the integrity of India, but the integrity of Indians. It will be protracted, messy, and will probably see many more ugly skirmishes.
But here’s the lovely thing about this country: it’s not going anywhere. It’s nice that universities across India and across the world are reaching out to JNU in solidarity, pushing back against the assault on free thought. It’s nice that lots of articles and editorials are being written in defence of the students being hounded on the flimsiest grounds.
But the best, most inspired response to this staggering mess has come from within JNU itself. At the university, every evening for a week, teachers are holding teach-ins on the subject of nationalism.
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