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Rejecting the ‘behalfism’ of the elites

Guru Prakash Paswan writes: They want to speak on behalf of subalterns. But why should they?

An event to which Paswan was invited on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti was cancelled by Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi.

Can the subaltern speak? This rhetorical question has dominated the hallowed precincts of academic institutions worldwide and especially in India, in the context of social justice movements in the last few decades. There are two prisms through which to look at this question — the subaltern and the right to speak. Socially marginalised communities like Dalits and extremely backward groups did not enjoy the means to articulate and express themselves because of historical reasons and systemic exclusion. Therefore, the politics of “behalfism” has captured a prominent place within the subaltern movement in academia. Sadly, the lack of representation of marginalised communities in universities, civil society and think tanks is a key reason that this “behalfism” is sustained.

Who has been speaking on behalf of the subalterns? Clearly, elites who belonged to socially-privileged communities and were close to the structures of power. They crafted a narrative in favour of the ruling class for a long time under the guise of giving voice to the silenced. They continue to maintain a robust grip over academic spheres and are unwilling to share the space of thought leadership with true subalterns. This came to light when an event to which I was invited on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti was cancelled by one of the premier institutions of higher education, Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi. The theme of the event was “Ambedkar beyond Constitution” and it was being organised by the SC-ST Cell of the college. I was informed only a day prior to the event that it was cancelled.

At a time when the nation is celebrating “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav”, an institution of eminence in the capital is forced to cancel an event at the behest of a student union. This is an assault on the idea of free speech and expression. The reason cited for the cancellation was my political affiliation: It was next to impossible for them to see a Dalit as the youngest-ever national spokesperson of the largest political party in the world to come and speak before them. The student body in this case is the SFI, the student wing of the CPM. This is the same CPI (M) that for the first time in its history, inducted a Dalit, Ramchandra Dome, to its politburo earlier this month. The insensitivity of the leftist intelligentsia towards the marginalised is not a recent development. In the ideal scenario, instead of de-platforming me, they would have called and exposed me in the course of the discussion. Rationality must be the hallmark of any institution and we must not allow our institutions to become echo chambers. We come from a culture that believes in letting noble thoughts come from all directions.

Ambedkar does not belong to any particular idea, ideology or institution. No one can claim to be the exclusive repository of his legacy. He belongs to every person who wants to develop a world based on inclusivity and empathy. A world that does not seek to advance on the premise of “othering”. LSR, in particular, is a crucible where the next generation of women leaders is taking shape. They will become policymakers, administrators, thinkers and activists of the future. To close them off from ideas coming from all directions is a disservice not only to the academic community but to the entire nation. The nearsighted political consideration of depriving one man of a stage is also an attempt to dilute the legacy of Ambedkar and the spirit of the Constitution.

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On November 25, 1949, Ambedkar gave three warnings as we began our collective journey as a constitutional democracy. His third warning on deepening constitutional values for realising a social democracy remains salient as liberty, equality and fraternity of those from marginalised communities continue to be at the mercy of intellectual elites. Regardless, they now stand exposed and I want to make it clear that I will continue to speak, write and articulate the assertions and aspirations of my community.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 20, 2022 under the title ‘Why I was cancelled’. The writer is assistant professor, Patna University and national spokesperson, BJP

First published on: 20-04-2022 at 03:59 IST
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