JNU and the need for a new politics beyond Left and Right

Where do you go politically if you are disgusted with what happened in JNU and Patiala House Court?

ByVikram Johri
JNU and the need for a new politics beyond Left and Right
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Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.

— John Berger in “G”. Also, the epigraph of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things

As we have this debate on freedom of speech, our forces are making sure we stay in position to keep debating.

— Mahendra Singh Dhoni, on Twitter on Sunday

One issue that I grappled with over the past few days, as I tried figuring out my stance on the JNU faceoff, is the issue of umbrella politics. My situation as a gay man puts me in the rather odd position of someone who often finds himself standing with the Left on social issues, even as my libertarianism makes me a natural ally of the Right on economic issues. However, JNU has exposed the fault lines of my erstwhile stable politics.

I have been turning Right politically for some time now. Last week I listened to a podcast by Eiynah, who runs the popular Twitter handle @NiceMangos, in which she spoke about the misogyny inherent in the niqaab and the problems with accommodation of eastern cultures when people from there try making a life in the West. I was especially taken with her claim that the minorities within the minorities often have it the worst. Eiynah explained that a culture of political correctness in the West occasioned due to historical guilt over colonialism and imperialism has engendered a situation where the gays, the women and other minorities within Islam are overlooked as the dominant liberal narrative tries to accommodate Muslims.

This happens, among other things, with the willingness of the West to allow the niqaab, an egregious sartorial custom, to flourish under the garb of religious freedom. Eiynah is of the view that a piece of attire that expects women to cover their faces in order that they may not arouse a man’s lust cannot be called a custom and let off under pleas of religious freedom. Some ideas are worth protecting no matter the society, and surely the offensiveness of the niqaab is one such. (Eiynah makes a distinction in this regard between the niqaab and the hijab. The latter piece of clothing in her opinion is politically neutral and purely aesthetic.)

This theme of accommodation, and how far societies go in order to achieve it, is an increasingly urgent issue of our times. Even in the JNU issue, the question is essentially one of making space for different shades of opinion. There is certainly an argument for allowing everything to be discussed and argued. I too have advocated in the past that a majoritarian politics is especially galling when it comes to minorities of one stripe or another.

However, as always context should matter. The slogans raised in JNU asking for India’s demise took things too far, in that they breached the limits of freedom of expression by couching their demands in language which looks to be an immediate incitement to violence. That by itself is problematic but there is another issue at stake, one that connects intimately with how one identifies politically. When we speak of umbrella politics, do we look at everything with the same eyes or is there a necessity for nuance even within, as it were, nuance?

Consider the beef controversy. When Bangalore held its gay pride march late last year, one of the placards held up by a gay man read: “Man lover and beef eater.” Some members of the community took issue with the conflating of two seemingly disparate issues, and while I would have disagreed with them in the past, this time I saw their point. The trouble, as I see it, is not beef eating per se but a deliberate attempt to mix issues when they need not be mixed, and in fact, would benefit from staying separate. One reason is simply to avoid diluting focus from the issue at hand. The other is to develop a capacity to look at things in isolation and thus benefit from the insights such a dispassionate analysis offers.

This is important because unlike the Right, which is often blamed for lacking a coherent ideological narrative, the situation on the Left hews to the other extreme. Every cause, every battle is subsumed under the larger whole in order that a perfect politics should develop. So, we see a rush among the Left-libs to appropriate entire edifices of discourse for reasons that are little more than an identification with one tiny nook in the ideological corner. From capitalism to environment, privacy in a tech-connected world to genetically-modified crops, there is a monolith intellectual structure already in place to which adherents must automatically sign up.

I pondered over these questions all of last week, as I struggled to articulate my distaste for what happened at JNU (as also for what happened to Kanhaiya later in the Patiala House Court) without coming across as a renegade to a beloved cause. I wondered if it was possible that there is a new politics that does not lend easily to labels of Left and Right and to which I might subscribe even if I am not aware of the fact.

When we discuss the Left and the Right, what is it that we are really discussing? My gayness has given me a vantage point from which to feel and also articulate difference. Due to this, I naturally gravitated towards a Left-leaning politics when I was growing up. To the young man, the Left’s activist, agitational spirit can be deeply endearing. Not only does it make him feel one with a larger cause, it also crystallises his most cherished hopes for himself.

Furthermore, I believed for a long time that the well spring of my creativity emerged from this instinct. This may have to do with my initiation into literature with stalwarts of the Left, like Munshi Premchand, a fervent critic of the zamindari system and of dowry, and Virginia Woolf, a champion of women rights and a zealous anti-war proponent.

Not just me. Because of the lazy bigotry of some against homosexuals, and because of the political leanings of these loose cannons, the narrative in the popular imagination gives easily to such divisions. There are of course a host of other items on the reactionary agenda that are worth criticising. From women rights to caste privilege, the fringe within the Right has never covered itself in glory.

But the basic proposition of the Right, of a world that works as it is, is not entirely without merit. After all, love, an emotion that I would have intimately connected with my politics at one time, tends us towards conservatism, in that we wish to protect and nurture, rather than question, when we are in love. Whether this idea manifests itself in continuing with traditions only because they are traditions is moot. All societies evolve with time as the nature of what is right and wrong changes. To not see this, ideologically, has been the fallacy of the Right, and it must correct it.

On the other hand, the Left is as guilty of sins of omission and commission. It has sought to encompass all elements under a winner-takes-all model of political one-upmanship. It has spoken for the underdog but its understanding of the nature of that beast has been blinkered.

This has resulted, in the latest historical iteration, in its unwillingness to intellectually counter the threat of Islamist terror. The trouble with the Left is that its best ideas emerge from a place of deep empathy, but it is like the ostrich in the sand that refuses to face harsh reality. It has failed to acknowledge the changing nature of threats even as it has stuck to old battles. (Not to mention its incapacity to fully acknowledge the serial failures it wrought in Communist societies.) It is also guilty of glaring hypocrisies when its remit has been breached. Its ideals have very narrow channels to find their way, and anyone who does not follow the party line is immediately excommunicated.

With JNU, the issue goes deeper than at first seems. On one level, it must be asked why the media got so worked up about an issue that was clearly bordering on the bizarre. We live in a neighbourhood where democracy is a joke. Sure, India should aim for a different ideal since it is a democracy but acknowledging that should not blind us to the reality around us. To claim that free speech is threatened in this country when secular bloggers are being butchered in Bangladesh is to be insincere at best.

There are other issues. Kanhaiya was manhandled inside court premises due to his alleged support for anti-national remarks. We now know that he did not make those remarks but suppose he had. What does it mean to say what Umar Khalid said? How do we as a society frame a response? I ask this not from a law-and-order perspective, according to which Kanhaiya’s tormentors of course deserve strict punishment, but from an intellectual viewpoint.

Due to Pakistan’s proxy war and the Indian army’s heavy presence in Kashmir, secession in that state is a very real threat. It is customary for the Left to argue that Kashmiris have a right to self-determination (and indeed from a purely theoretical viewpoint it can pass for a – that word again — noble idea) but in the world beyond the confines of university, this noble idea means little.

Is the freedom of expression to voice support for Kashmiri separatism more important than a respect for India’s sovereignty at a time when the country faces grave dangers externally and internally? Are calls for secession merely anti-national, whatever that loaded word means, or are they, more perniciously, tone-deaf in refusing to understand the complex nature of the nation state and the realities of realpolitik?

On the one hand, Kanhaiya was manhandled, and on the other, we have the Indian state lose men and material in guarding its borders. If we are to measure stakes, and this is an entirely subjective exercise governed by our politics, what we should really ask is what matters more in the final scheme of things. What counts for more in outlining our conception of India or — that more popular expression — the idea of India? We may arrive at different answers, but this is the debate we should be having.

I repeat that I am not justifying what happened after the February 9 events in JNU. I am merely suggesting that things be looked at in context and that every action, howsoever unlawful, be run through the prism of germaneness. This applies as much to the original events as to the subsequent ramifications. We cannot claim allegiance to the all-embracing rubric of law to elide fundamental questions about right and wrong. This is especially so because right and wrong themselves are subjective, slippery entities, borne of our collective and non-collective understanding of what it is that an individual stands for, what is his place in society, what is a nation, and so on.

I return to my earlier question: how does one locate one’s politics? What if you are gay and women rights-supporting but believe that the human agency attributable to climate change is exaggerated? What if you are anti-caste privilege and anti-Islamism? What if you are pro-capitalism but anti-crony capitalism? What if you are anti-Hindutva and pro-freedom of speech but believe that speech has its limits and that Islamist terror is a greater threat to mankind than Zionism and Hindu nationalism? What if you hold the view that some fundamental beliefs, such as the equality of man with man and of man with woman, are beyond question, and that they must not be subjected to race-to-the-bottom derivativeness emerging out of the political nature of a society or the West’s historical wrongs, or under the guise of minority appeasement dressed as protection?

Where do you go politically, if you are that person? These are the real questions that the JNU standoff should occasion. Perhaps stories ought to be told as if they are the only one, perhaps there should be less hankering for intersectionality, since no one world view captures the entire truth. Beyond love and youth and idealism, there are many strands of that evasive thing battling for recognition.

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