In praise of disobedience: Towards a politics of praxis in JNU today

Soumick De, Prashant Kumar

Soumick De sumbmitted his PhD last year at School of Arts and Aesthetic. His work remained concentrated over theatre and performance studies. His PhD title is “Pedagogy, perversion and the comic- a survey of the concept of theatre in the christian middle ages”.

Prashant Kumar is currently PhD 3rd year student at Centre for Historical Studies at School of Social Sciences. His works remained concentrated around the intellectual histories of the concepts of “labour”, “political economy” and “poverty” particularly during colonial India. His PhD tiltle is “Tracing the figure of the Poor in colonial, nationalist and post-colonial discourses”. He is one of the nine students who have been suspended by JNU Administration for protesting outside 26th Dec 2016 Academic Council for the causes of Social Justice and a just and equitable admission policy.

The Problem:

The current movement and its political context

The ongoing movement in JNU against the suspension of nine students by the administration following a protest on 26th Dec 2016 outside Academic Council meeting raises some very complex questions regarding the current political situation in JNU. The protest on 26th Dec 2016, at the JNU convention centre where the Part B of the academic Council meeting was taking place (the Academic Council meeting started on 23rd Dec and was adjourned after the conclusion of Part A of the meeting), was primarily over the demand that the weightage of the viva voce for the admission to MPhil/PhD be reduced from 30 to 10-15, minority deprivation point be implemented and the proposal for fee hike be rolled back. The students who were leading the protest outside 26th Dec Academic Council demanded that the discussion of Part B of the Academic Council be postponed or stopped and Part A be reconvened again because anti-students measures were taken in Part A. The JNUSU was informed about the protest but they refused to acknowledge the demands of protesting students and the pressing concerns they were raising. Protesting students tried communicating to AC meeting but the repeated request of communication to AC meeting rejected and AC refused to listen to the demands following which students entered the premises of Convention Centre where AC meeting was going on in one of the many Auditoriums and raised slogans. The next day JNU administration suspended 9 students belonging to marginalised section (SC, ST, OBC and Minority) alleging false charges of “disrupting AC meeting” and “resorting to means of violence”.

But perhaps the most interesting development in the aftermath of the suspension has been the role of the JNUSU and the nature of their political (in)action. It is true that the protest on 26th Dec was a response against the administration’s growing fascistic and authoritarian approach to curtail all questions of social justice and equality. However it was equally an intervention into the atmosphere of sterility and political inaction which the current JNUSU has managed to produce within JNU since its election. Their irresponsibility towards the struggling students of JNU reached a new height that day when they completely disassociated themselves from the protest. However things are no longer the same. Once the students were suspended and the issue gained the political momentum, the union jumped knee deep into the struggle. But let us not fool ourselves that the extent of their involvement reach higher than their knees.

One is perhaps reminded of those brilliant lines of the French poet Rimbaux “Life is the farce we are all forced to endure” when we try to fathom the role of JNUSU in the current struggle. Only ‘life’ has to be more specifically qualified as the ‘political life’ in the campus. And the farce enacted not only by the administration as many please to believe but by our very own elected students union also. We are not going to enumerate and catalogue this as the latest in a long line of examples of the inability of a ‘left alliance’ union to translate their so called left politics of resistance into any viable political action. Rather let us try to understand this episode in context of the growing disenchantment of political thinking among ourselves as a whole. There is no doubt that the failure of the JNUSU to lead students against obvious forms of social injustice and repression by actually dissociating themselves from such protest is an act of betrayal of the student movement. But why would any progressive political organization shy away from political action or merely act when they can gain something organizationally and not ideologically? Their absence and dissociation from the inaugural protest and their subsequent efforts to use the issue for their own strategic advantage has to be understood not merely as part of their limited capacity to only think of their own petty agendas. Neither are they because of the clichéd ideologies of the left without an iota of political imagination. The inability of JNUSU to act has to be seen as part of a more general inability to analyze the political nature of the situations. It is our contention that JNUSU is more and more becoming symptomatic of our incapacity to assess the political and repressive nature of certain situations. The most obvious example in the recent past has been the inability of the JNUSU to immediately assess the violence against Najeeb on the basis of its political and communal signification, trying to settle it rather at a more subjective level of a personal scuffle.

The analysis:

a. The recent historical context: the two axis and the common desire

If we are to agree that there is a growing incapacity on part of the so called political leaders to assess political situations as repressive and authoritarian which demands immediate political action then we have to also ask ourselves what is the reason for this lack of political judgment? What has been the nature of the relation of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (which we pride ourselves as a seat of dissent and not a seat of power) with that of actually existing institutional power? This brings us to the larger question as to what has been the essential logic of JNU politics in at least the last decade or so? During the last two decades at least after the fall of the soviet union and the collapse of actually existing socialism, JNU students movement has prided itself on its general Marxist orientation and a socialist vision of the world. Of course with the rise of a globalised and neo-liberal capitalist economy and a certain parliamentarian democratic ethos which perfectly fits the model of such capitalist development, JNU students movement like many other isolated and localized moments around the world has become more and more alienated from any real experience of not only a politics of resistance but a politics for a new vision of the world outside its immediate and localized situation. What has been the nature of this immediate situation within JNU politics? This immediate situation has been determined by a correct way of thinking Marxist politics and a style of Marxist political discourse which operated at two levels. A Left politics against social and political exploitation which we can call its objective axis. And a struggle against personal and more individualized forms of repression something akin to a struggle for individual and personal freedom against psychic repression which we can call its subjective axis. The political discourse of the students’ movement in JNU can be argued to be a function of these two axes. However behind this subject-object dialectic the other more profound dialectic of a utopian theoretical vision of the world and its concrete realization into historical practice seems to have been replaced by a pure force of desire whose reality lay in itself. In other words, in absence of any actual historical support of the desire for emancipatory politics this desire itself became the concrete reality of JNU students’ politics. To put it simply the logic of a left emancipatory politics within JNU over the last decade or so has been driven by an indomitable desire for an immaculate idea of another world – a new emancipated world which is more equal, more just than this world. What JNU students’ politics has exemplified in a world fast depleting itself of radical political ideas is not another new and emancipatory idea but rather the tremendous desire for such an idea. The dominancy of the left till now in the campus should not be seen as the perpetuation of a universal political truth even when it has failed elsewhere but rather the desire for a emancipatory political idea which might take other expressions. The left parties which had constituted the major political forces in the campus had till now been able to mediate and represent this desire in one way or the other, to their own advantage, thereby controlling its force of deployment within the political domain.

b. The objective axis and its current state: sad militancy

But whenever this desire for an idea of left politics has confronted an ideological crisis (be that a local one like that of inviting Nestle to open a stall in 2005 or a national one like that of Singur and Nandigram in 2007) there has been a tremendous response against any so called left pragmatism which sought to resolve it. In both the cases SFI tried to defend itself through a sterile logic of pragmatism and the ‘concrete’ and practical difficulties of democratic revolution in a capitalist world like that of industrialization and inflow of capital. The students’ movement in JNU have always rejected such pragmatic response and upheld a more idealized and perhaps romanticized idea of a utopian revolutionary politics. Rather than pointing to the value of truth of a correct understanding of Marxism these internal fractures in the recent history of JNU politics — breaches internal to the so called dominant left discourse — are symptomatic. They are indices pointing to the force of desire which could not be accommodated by the representative logic of the left parties at the time. Today the situation has somewhat changed. There are no major left student organizations competing against each other. The so called major left (SFI-AISA) organizations have formed alliances which can perhaps be better explained by a certain political oligarchy of the left within the campus. Even the small-fringe left organizations displays no radically different vision of politics let alone practice such as politics. This left political oligarchy is floundering in their attempts to represent or mediate the desire for any kind of radical and emancipatory politics thereby becoming “sad militants”. Those who in the name of preserving the purity of a democratic order of political revolution have already become “bureaucrats of the revolution and civil servants of Truth”, who pass their time in pedantic public talks and mechanical protest marches. This is what has become of the objective axis of our current political scene.

c. The subjective axis and its recent fate: little fascism

On the other hand at a more subjective level we are more and more participating in logics of power and governance. We show our I-cards at the slightest possible provocation by the guards validating our belonging to the institute. Our style of life, our freedom to eat and drink and fall in love and make friends across gender, race, community with individuals belonging or not belonging to JNU are slowly being curtailed or coming under surveillance. Eating places are being closed after 11 in the name of security. CCTV’s are being installed at strategic positions. Small kiosks like the magazine shop at Ganga bus stand are being arbitrarily closed without a single whisper of resistance. In the name of security people are harassed and fined if they loiter around at night and do not have JNU I cards. And over time we have let these happen. We have given our acquiescence or even participated in some or many of them so that our personal freedom could be curtailed or limited. Along with the rise of a new form of historical and democratic fascism to which we are witness at a global and national scale (Trump and Modi) we are also part of these many little fascisms. These are little fascisms that have been creeping into our lives within campus imperceptibly. They have reached our heads and they are already within us dominating our behaviors, choices and our desires, urging us to love the very thing that dominates us. And so finally the space for our protest for objective political reasons which is equally a place for us to congregate subjectively as free individuals is being taken away from us. The importance of Freedom Square (JNU Ad Block was renamed as Freedom Square while the students’ movement was going on in the wake of 9 Feb incident) is not that it is merely a space for students’ movement within campus. It has the unique logic of being the site where the objective and subjective axes of JNU students’ politics coincide. It is the crossroad of our desire to think of another emancipated world. Above all else it is that desire which is forced to be caged, if not eliminated, controlled if not completely prohibited. The inability of the JNUSU to analyze and resist this move is perhaps not simply their political unintelligence but our (and here we mean all of us including the authors of this article) desire to embrace power, the little fascism which is ingrained in us all. Ultimately “How does one keep from being fascist, even (or perhaps especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant”?

What is to be done?: A two pronged strategy in a state of crisis

The question remains “What is to be done?” We do not have an easy or a readymade answer for that. But this much is certain that we have to somehow make our desire for political thinking be re-deployed into the political domain, perhaps this time without the mediation of any party. We have to think of a connection between this desire for politics and real political action without retreating into such forms of representation like AISA, SFI or even JNUSU.

The events of 26th December and the ongoing movement testify to the fact that the desire for emancipatory politics can be translated into concrete political action without such quasi-institutional structure like the current students union. We have to remember that in its essence the JNUSU is nothing but the expression of the students’ desire for political dissent. Till now it has been recognized as the most organized and consistent voice of the students to express their desire for an emancipatory politics. In other words the JNUSU has essentially always stood for an organized politics of anarchy. Here anarchy is definitely not to seen as irresponsible and disruptive actions by a few unthinking adventurist individuals. On the contrary an-archy has to be seen literally as anti-arche .The Greek word arche from which anarchy is a negative derivation means not only ‘source’ or the ‘first principle’ which is self evident and needs no explanation but also the power and authority which is derived in the name of being original or self evident. In other words arche is that originary power which has become a norm in a field of knowledge. Anarchy from this perspective is always an organized and thought out action which is anti-normative. It is the organized pursuit of a politics against all attempts to normalize social injustice, inequality and student un-freedom. Normalization of these inconsistencies has been the single agenda of this fascist administration. It wants to unleash a state where exceptions to ideas of social justice, freedom and equality become normalized and therefore become the norm. JNUSU is supposed to fight against such efforts to produce a normative logic by upsetting all efforts to normalize. Instead the continuous attempts of the current JNUSU has been to do nothing but act mechanically and repeatedly in order to return the campus to normalcy. To that extent, in the historical and political reality in which the JNUSU is functioning today, their action seem to be the farcical repetition of the JNU administrations infinitely more dangerous and insidious plan to unleash new tragedies in the life of free thinking students. Marx’s words that history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce can be seen being played out even in this model polity called JNU.

However the ongoing movement is perhaps a third possibility of a politics of affirmation, a politics of praxis and not a politics of outcome. The later, practiced by the JNUSU for a long time has been determined by what it has achieved and countered by the opposition in terms of what it has failed to achieve. This discourse of a politics of outcome has set the tone for our politics such that we always think in terms of what we have achieved, what has been the product of our struggle. Before the election the (JNUSU) conveners’ report which enumerates the achievement of the outgoing union testifies to this type of political thinking. But a politics of praxis is self-evident, its achievement is the very nature of the political action in which we are engaged. It is a politics of affirmation which testifies to the fact that students can organize themselves and think of emancipatory and radical politics outside the aegis of so called established organizations. They can constitute and organize themselves on basis of situations, coming together and then dispersing but nevertheless coming up with political tactics and strategies which are not irrational or disruptive but rather thought out and effective. This kind of a politics of praxis can be our only collective and objective response to the repressive and unjust norms which are forced upon us by this fascist administration through an imposed state of normalcy.

While at a more subjective and individual level we have to disobey all efforts to curtail our freedom. If somebody interrogates us in the name of security, if couples are asked to show their ID cards or any such situation arises we should refuse to comply. We should improvise, agitate but let us not subjectively comply to the dictums of these little fascisms at the least, unknowingly, we ourselves turn into little fascists. We have to echo with the fictitious and immortal character created by the American writer Herman Melville named Bartleby who said to his violently normative world “I would prefer not to”.

This has to be a two pronged struggle encompassing the majority of the student community and the most obvious acts of social and political injustice like the viva-voce reduction which is at the heart of the ongoing movement. At the same time this upsurge of political praxis has to translate into micro-political practice of disobedience reaching the most banal practices of our everyday lives.






    It should be remembered that the strength of the rulers and fascist right-wing organisation lies in the ‘ weakness’ of the left and democratic forces and their inability to come together. The students Unions of JNU must realise the concrete situation present at the time and form a formidable force to counter authoritarianism .