JNU Debate: Makarand Paranjape vs Rajat Datta
by M Pramod Kumar on 13 Mar 2016 8 Comments

My first meeting with Prof Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University happened in February 2003 at the “National Seminar on Philosophy of Indian Nationalism & Value-Oriented Education” at the Jadavpur University campus in Kolkata. It is an amusing coincidence that both JNU and Jadavpur university students have been in the news over the past one month for what is being described as their ‘anti-national’ sloganeering and activities!


Prof Paranjape was then perceived to be a ‘moderate’ who was shy of taking an open stand on Hindutva, by some his senior colleagues from JNU who were also at the seminar to deliver talks on nationalism. Listening to this debate between the new ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ I wondered whether I was witnessing a repeat of the ideological tussle between the moderates and the extremists that I had read in my history lessons on India’s freedom struggle and the nationalist movement.


Ironically, this gentle professor and articulate ideologue of the ‘madhyama’ position is today being accused by the members of the left leaning JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) and JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) of being a sympathizer of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the centre, in their attempt to discredit his criticism of the leftist interpretation of the events which have unfolded since 9 February 2016.


 In doing so, the JNUSU and JNUTA have only ended up validating what Prof Paranjape said during his recent lecture at the JNU campus on “Uncivil wars: Tagore, Gandhi, JNU and What’s left of the Nation?


Prof Paranjape said: “When we (JNU) consider ourselves to be a democratic space we should also ask ourselves if this is entirely true. Isn’t it possible that this is a Left hegemonic space, where if you disagree you are silenced, you are boycotted, you are brow beaten, or ...” (at this point he was shouted down and JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid had to ask students to maintain order).


Prof Paranjape’s lecture was the 15th in the series of talks on Nationalism being delivered at the JNU campus. Dr Rohit, Assistant Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, announced on 15 February 2016 that JNU faculty members will take an hour and a half long lecture on Nationalism every day.


Extracts of Prof Paranjape’s lecture went viral on social media. Thanks to YouTube and Facebook, the whole country is watching this debate with keen interest as the very foundations of Indian Nationalism are being debated.


Prof Paranjape’s lecture was preceded by a campaign against him by JNUSU and JNUTA when newspapers reported some remarks he made at a talk at the Sahitya Akademi on 19 February (‘JNU?row: Afzal Guru event held under false pretext, says professor‘) where he said,  “I am a member of JNUTA. No resolution was passed condemning that misuse, that subterfuge which was used but there was a condemnation of the arrest of a student?”


Prof Rajat Datta of the Centre of Historical Studies posted an open letter against Prof Paranjape on the JNUTA group page titled  JNU Students And Free Speech: An Open Letter To Prof. Makarand Paranjape By Prof. Rajat Datta


Prof Paranjape responded in detail answering many serious accusations and calumny levelled against him in the open letter written by Prof Rajat Datta. The open letter in turn triggered a campaign of vilification against Prof Paranjape who was projected as the ‘enemy’ within JNU.


Prof Paranjape’s response is reproduced below in toto.  It is sad (and typical of the leftist intolerance of dissent) that neither the JNUTA group page nor the JNUSU students page on Facebook published Prof Paranjape’s response. 


As an independent observer of this debate from the campus of a private university far down in the South, I have a few questions to ask of Kanhaiya Kumar, members of the JNUSU and the JNUTA:


-        Prof Paranjape has been teaching at JNU since 1999, almost nearing two decades. Were the students of JNUSU and the faculty members not aware of his position on the nationalism debate which he has consistently maintained over the years? Having then invited him to speak on this issue, should they not have had the humility and the open-mindedness to listen to him fully without interrupting him and shouting him down?


-        The audience grilled Prof Paranjape with many loaded questions after the talk, demanding that he take a stand on issues ranging from Gandhi’s assassination to the violence at the Patiala House Court.  Why didn’t the members of JNUSU subject Prof Nivedita Menon to such rigorous interrogation when she made factually incorrect and provocative claims that ‘India is perceived as an imperialist state across the world because of its illegal occupation of Kashmir’? Does it not validate again what Prof Paranjape said in his talk that JNU is a “left-hegemonic space” where dissent is not encouraged?


I leave it to the readers to read Prof Paranjape’s response below and draw their own conclusions.


Response to Professor Rajat Datta’s “JNU Students And Free Speech: An Open Letter To Prof. Makarand Paranjape”


4 March 2016

Dear Professor Datta,


Not being active on social media, I was taken aback to find myself the subject of a campaign of vilification following your “Open Letter” of 2 March 2016. That you had done me the honour of writing an “Open Letter” was in itself unexpected; the reactions that followed, however, dismayed and hurt me. A small portion of what I said at the Festival of Letters of the Sahitya Akademi was reported, but your reaction to it, circulated instantly in various forums, brought me notoriety in our own little village of JNU where I was quickly branded as “the internal enemy.”


That your “Open Letter” was also posted on the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) Facebook page was even more worrisome. By whose design or authorization did this happen? Did the Executive or GBM approve? I have written to the President and Secretary of JNUTA to find out, but have received no reply thus far. Paradoxically and regretfully, this almost proves the central thesis that I was trying to make in my talk in a panel on “Freedom of Speech” on 19 February 2016 at the Sahitya Akademi: those who project themselves as the champions of democracy are quite as intolerant of dissent as those they condemn. Hence, this is not a battle between those who uphold the freedom of speech and those who seek to muzzle it, but between two opposing and politically charged factions, an “Open Letter” being one of the weapons in the arsenal to interrogate opponents, in addition to branding, boycott, bullying, and browbeating.


Your first charge in your “Open Letter” is that no “false pretexts or subterfuge were involved” in the seeking of permission for the event on 9 February 2016, during which a breakaway faction of Democratic Students Union took out a rally for a convicted and executed “terrorist,” accusing the Indian state and judiciary of having committed a judicial murder, and supporting the secession of Kashmir from the Indian union. “You are free,” you say, “to criticize this event and its organizers, but ‘false pretexts’ and ‘subterfuge’ are unfortunately equally false accusations.” In support of your contention, you quote from the poster announcing the event: “‘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.’”  You thus accuse me of falsehood and distortion.


But surely, Sir, you have made a fundamental error in confusing or conflating two different documents in your line of argument, which I did not expect of you as a historian. I nowhere referred to the poster in my remarks; I was speaking of the reported requisition seeking permission from the office of the Dean of Students, wherein the event was billed merely as a poetry reading, with an expected audience of seven. The “false pretexts” and “subterfuge” were in this requisition, not in the posters that followed.


Indeed, if you had cared to detail the exact sequence of events, which again might be expected of you as a historian, it was when the said posters appeared that the administration possibly got wind of the real intent of the organisers and withdrew permission. But flouting the withdrawal, the organisers went ahead, which led to protests by another group of students leading to the unfortunate subsequent events. Without understanding my line of argument, you misrepresented, worse, accused me of lack of honesty. But as you are my respected colleague, I shall refrain from casting aspersions on your motives.


Your second accusation is that I “maligned” the JNUTA three days after it passed a resolution that it “stands by the Constitution of India.” You accuse me of distrusting my colleagues and garnering some quick publicity from external platforms. Allow me to disabuse you on both counts. The latter first for as a historian, you will admit that context is sometimes as important as the text. I was, as I mentioned earlier, already an invited speaker at the Sahitya Akademi’s Annual Festival of Letters. My talk was on “India’s Intolerance Wars.”


I had no intention of referring to JNU had not the fateful events following 9th February 2016 engulfed us. It was widely expected of me to comment on the JNU imbroglio, since it had been in the news continuously from then to the day of my talk on the 19 February 2016. No wonder, after I spoke, I was literally mobbed; so many said that I had shown remarkable courage in speaking up; not one of them accused me of bad faith or seeking publicity. Unfortunately, the only part of my talk that was reported was pertaining to JNU; everything else was ignored. I had called for a way to reconcile the antinomies of our times; that would be the work of sahitya or literature in our times. None of this let alone the rest of my talk was reported; indeed, on my part, I had no idea that the Press was even present there.


Let me now address the first part of your second accusation. The JNUTA resolution that you cite does not specifically condemn the Afzal Guru event. My objection was that the JNUTA approach was one-sided. In the correspondence that followed between various faculty members, some had made a demand for such an explicit condemnation, but their demand had not been acceded to by JNUTA. Instead, some of these dissenting faculty members had been vilified. These unseemly attacks had distressed me, but I did not allude to them in my talk. I only said that the false pretexts under which the 9 February event had been held had not been condemned by my association. You may or may not know this but I had explicitly written the JNUTA President about this on that very day, 19 Feb 2016. I requested some points in my letter be tabled in the GBM, which did not happen. I append my letter below, as it is:


19 February 2016


The President, JNUTA




I’m so sorry to have to miss the important meeting tomorrow because of a prior commitment; I am to leave early in the morning for Shillong for a conference. But I do wish to table three items for everyone’s consideration, even as we try to safeguard the reputation, autonomy, and sanctity of JNU, as well as protect its students and teachers from state repression.


1) I would like to move a resolution to condemn the commemoration of Afzal Guru under the false pretexts of holding a poetry reading -- or to support such a motion in case it has already been tabled in an earlier meeting, but not acted upon. I have formed the opinion, after talking to colleagues, that many share this view. Furthermore, I think the hijacking of JNU for the agenda of separatists is something that many colleagues do not wish to countenance, let alone abet. It would be a perverse kind of logic to argue that in the name of democracy we support those who launched an attack on democracy (the Indian Parliament). Similarly, why would a teacher of JNU let her university, expressly formed with a view to promote “national integration,” be turned into a site of national disintegration by a few mischievous elements?


2) This is indeed a time for unity among the JNU teachers and students, but how is unity to be achieved? Surely not by silencing and browbeating those who disagree with the dominant voice on the campus? It was shocking and offensive for a very senior Professor and Dean to pull rank and bully a colleague in his attempt to silence her. Another colleague said words to the effect that she was out of her mind. Doesn’t this really smack of a “witch hunt,” both deeply distasteful and sexist? Thankfully, the colleague who made the latter remarks has apologised, but the former very senior colleague seems unrepentant. Let us not resort to name-calling those we disagree with or try to bully them into silence or submission. Surely, that is not democratic either.


What we need is a hermeneutics of trust and generosity, not of suspicion or hostility. If we cannot accomplish this in our own campus or put our own house in order so to speak, what right do we have to preach to others about the virtues of tolerance?


3) I am afraid the battle that we are in the midst of is not one between tolerance and intolerance. Instead, I see it as uncivil strife between two or more types of intolerance. We are in the midst of competitive and escalating intolerances, which can be diffused not by attacking each other, but by mutual understanding, harmony, and fellow-feeling, even if these may be on the basis of a common minimum programme. Else, I am afraid, we may be facing the prospect of a deep rift, if not a split, in our own ranks.


Finally, to your third issue about “de-politicisation” of students. The issue, to my mind, is not of de-politicisation, which seems so remote a possibility in JNU, but of the quality and content of this politics that we so vaunt to ourselves and to the world. Are we never to do some honest soul-searching and self-interrogation about how seldom it amounts to anything more than repetitive, intellectually deficient shibboleths, anti-state, anti-establishment, anti-majority, anti-this-or-that sloganeering, peppered with factual inaccuracies, distortions, and hate-speech? Of course, in my talk I only said that politics at the expense of studies would harm the long-term interests of most students, except the “cadres,” who would be patronized and taken care of.


Isn’t a call to reorient our students toward academics therefore necessary to re-intellectualise and safeguard our academic ecosystem? You claim that “this is precisely the advice RSS has been giving in its shakhas all these years.” Since I don’t attend RSS shakhas, I wouldn’t know; but perhaps you do, since you speak with such authority about what is said there “all these years.” Don’t worry: even if you do frequent RSS shakhas, I for one, shall not start treating you as an “untouchable.” I believe that talking and listening to all sections of our ideologically and socially diverse country is one of the demands of our times, especially if we wish not to escalate the uncivil strife that engulfs us. Ironically, this morning’s papers quote the recently released JNUSU President condemning outright the 9 February 2016 event: now that he has reversed his stand so diametrically and drastically, what will you say of his intentions and integrity?


Frankly speaking, Sir, I have doubts about the utility of our exchange, which has already been too time and energy-guzzling for one who still wishes to read, write, think – and, yes, teach our wonderfully curious and inspiring students. I am sure that it is the latter who constitute one important reason that makes JNU so worthwhile for each of us who are its faculty members.


Yours sincerely,

Makarand R. Paranjape

Professor of English, JNU


(M. Pramod Kumar, is Asst. Professor, Dept of Cultural Education, Amrita University, Coimbatore)

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