George Orwell once lamented that he “was forced to become a pamphleteer” by the times that he lived in. His happy place, to use the contemporary parlance, was gardening and writing novels. Orwell was much more than a pamphleteer. He was a chronicler of the evils of nationalism as well as one who understood its appeal. There are few Orwells among us. But our time, like his, is a moral test.
What is the metaphor, the analogy, that describes the masked men and women that rampaged across Jawaharlal Nehru University on the night of January 5? Were these stone-pelters (though given the size of their projectiles, perhaps rock throwers) and rod-using assaulters of students the great Indian Ku Klux Klan — they have it down pat, the masks and narrow majoritarianism? Or, perhaps, they are just “goons” or the “lumpen element” — those broad terms that can mean anyone, on a given day. And, since we dare not say the F-word or the N-word, can we call them Brownshirts, despite the decidedly saffron tint to their sloganeering? By the time of writing this, both the complicities that enabled the violence and the equivocations in its aftermath are well underway.
The Delhi Police, which reports to Home Minister Amit Shah, has not made a single arrest, nor taken into custody anyone connected to the violence. In fact, by all accounts, the mob moved with impunity through the campus even as the police stood at the gate. This, remember, is the same force that was loading up by the busloads peaceful protestors last month from anti-CAA-NRC demonstrations. Campus security is conspicuous by its absence, the university’s vice-chancellor deafening in his silence.
Now, the equivocations. BJP MP Meenakshi Leki managed to blame Left parties (even as the violence was underway) for “politicising students”, evoke the spectre of “Jamia students” on the JNU campus and took a swipe at Priyanka Gandhi. She went on to say that “if my kids were doing this (protesting, striking) they would get a tight one (presumably a slap) from me”. Shah has asked for a “report” on the matter from the Delhi Police — seen on video allegedly escorting weapon-wielding men and women from the campus.
It is not difficult to imagine what will follow. More voices from the BJP, the Union government and their loud sympathisers will try to present this as a clash between student groups; Urban Naxals will be brought up and a minor disagreement between students — an everyday part of campus life — will be used as a justification for creating terror in a place that dissents. And, given the love for “debate”, of pretending that there are two equal sides to every immorality, the discourse will move on as it always does. But it need not be so.
Something has changed in India over the last few months. In Delhi, those who watched the country change, lose its character have finally decided to show up for others. As with Jamia, so with JNU. Even before the police took action, well-meaning citizens and alumni of JNU showed up at the university. There, a young woman was first chased by men with rods — outside the gate on the road leading up to the campus. When she did make it, ABVP activists greeted her and others with slogans of “Jai Shri Ram”, “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” and “…Afzal (Guru) ki maut maroge”. When they spoke to these men, argued with them, they were told to get the men of their house. She, and others like her, were a symptom of their cowardice, “pallu ki aad mein anti-national” is how they were described.
The women engaged in the debate, pointed out that their agency was not circumscribed by men, and that’s a privilege that should be a right.
But this must be said to the men who chased the young women, those who assaulted JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh leaving her face battered and bleeding. And because in the times we live in, the dreaded first person must be employed — the political is as personal as it gets. The “men of the house” — for the children we may someday have, or just to assuage our conscience — will, at the very least, have to turn pamphleteers.
Beat that with a stick.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 7, 2020 under the title ‘After the sticks and stones’. Write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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