So what actually happened at the LSE Student Union India Forum (Politics Discussion) on Sat 19 Mar 2016?
Was the JNU issue raised as advertised above? Short answer, no (until I impolitely interjected and forced the debate to answer the burning question of the moment). Here’s what happened:
I was in awe of the hallowed institution of the London School of Economics from the moment I entered it. It is the alma mater of my hero, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar; crusader for social justice and author of India’s constitution whose statue stands proudly in the heart of the LSE Old Building where this event took place. My Alma mater is UCL where I read Human Rights and currently the University of Law. How I wish I had an Ambedkar statue at those institutions to remind me daily that the one true intention of all educational establishments is to enrich human life for everyone and to make society fairer and equal.
The first rude awakening was when I saw the politics panelists at the event at LSE and no I wasn’t upset at seeing Sambit Patra’s name as the BJP representative despite his penchant for lying through his teeth at almost all TV debates I’ve seen. He’s the government spokesperson after all and when tasked with defending a fascist, nationalist, witch-hunting regime has no option but to lie I guess.
I wasn’t surprised at the Congress representative being Sachin Pilot who has the record of being India’s youngest MP, neither was I surprised at Manish Sisodia representing the AAP. What seemed missing was any representation from any left or Dalit groups. For instance a Kavita Krishnan-esque presence would’ve seemed imperative for this sort of debate given that the JNU standoff and Kanhaiya Kumar himself stems from left wing politics. Their slogan of Jai Bhim Lal Salaam is an ode to the Dalit and left wing movements respectively. Having a statue of Dalit liberator Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar barely 10 feet away and not having a single representative to speak on behalf of the teeming millions of outcastes under Hinduism’s caste system looked suspicious. There are a number of eloquent and intelligent speakers in contemporary India who speak on behalf of Dalits, indigenous people, Muslims, other persecuted minorities and indeed women who are accursed under the Hindu nationalist regime yet there was not a single representative from any of these marginalised sections.
Most unpleasantly, the debate was moderated by the misogynistic loud mouth Suhel Seth who showed his true colours by chanting ‘Bharat mata ki jay’ loudly and proudly while also mockingly saying ‘Bharat ammi ki jay’ to disparagingly humour dissenting Muslims. This one slogan has polarized the nation thanks to the RSS suggesting that people must be taught to chant this Hinduised ode to Mother India which indeed not just Muslims but also non-Hindu and non-religious people find unsavoury. It is a religiously loaded slogan and is being imposed as a sort of patriotic test upon minority groups who dissent from saying it. Love for one’s country can take many forms but the regime has narrowed it down to chanting this one slogan with anyone dissenting from chanting it being branded anti-national. This is of course unconstitutional as nowhere in India’s constitution does it say that you’re compelled to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai and indeed nowhere are you asked to prove your patriotism. If anyone had any doubts about the RSS and the BJP wanting to subvert Indian democracy and try turning it into a Hindu nation need only to follow the Bharat Mata Ki Jai controversy. A debate moderator chanting this slogan to mock those opposing it was when it all started going downhill for me as part of the audience.
My first outburst came when the moderator answered a question about the reservation or positive discrimination system in India. The question is an old sticking point for the ‘upper’ caste Indians who are not given a leg up in Indian educational establishments thanks to their privileged position in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Dalits, indigenous peoples and other ‘backward’ groups are given reservations to emerge from their historically condemned stations in society and indeed modern day slavery like conditions in which they still find themselves. A member of the audience complained about the ‘unfairness’ of the reservation system to which the moderator Suhel Seth shockingly remarked that he supported reservations but not in life-threatening professions.
Thus he alleged that reservation candidates were incompetent compared to their non-reservation peers and that for instance a doctor coming from one of the outcaste or indigenous communities would be putting your life in danger. I was so appalled at this argument that I stood up and shouted that any doctor or any professional for that matter passing out from any Indian university has to take the same exit exam irrespective of whether they came into the education system with relaxed entry requirements or not. Therefore the final product of all Indian educational establishments are equally competent and implying that reservation everywhere except life-threatening professions is okay is shockingly casteist and discriminatory.
How this individual was invited to moderate a debate on social inequality, which is at the core of the JNU standoff, is beyond me. The pervasiveness of this mindset and how normal it is to say something so shocking without anyone batting an eyelid was too much to bear for me making me stand up and shout that they all have to pass the same exit exams and are therefore equally competent. Instead of welcoming a dissenting point of view I was rudely asked to shut up and sit down and people wonder whether India is becoming increasingly intolerant. Well here’s your answer.
I decided to let this one go and bided my time to ask my real question as I thought I had bigger fish to fry even though for many this reservation comment itself would’ve been beyond the pale and people would’ve disallowed the debate to carry on particularly for whom reservation was the only way out of the cycle of caste and discrimination in the institutionally casteist Hindu society. Gauging that I wasn’t going to be shut up easily, the moderator Suhel Seth allowed me the next question in which I began by quoting Sambit Patra, the BJP representative who in his opening speech had said that he disliked the word ‘but’ for instance the media reporting that Modi received a rapturous welcome in the UK last year ‘but’… I was well placed to comment on what he meant by that ‘but’ because I was part of massive protests against the UK welcoming Modi to 10, Downing Street. The protest received massive media coverage and marred the welcome Modi was seeking even forcing him to answer difficult and blunt questions by British journalists in a Press Conference later such as: ‘India is becoming a more intolerant country, Why?’
I pointed out to Sambit Patra that this ‘but’ word was the very definition of dissent as whatever follows this word is critical in a democracy as it is the voice of disagreement. Irritation at this word is quite telling of the Modi regime’s approach to dissenters so I wasn’t surprised by Patra’s irritation. My question was simple: ‘Why are you creating this binary in India wherein anyone that doesn’t agree with your Hindu supremacist view is labeled anti-national?’Suhel Seth paraphrased my question and put it to Sambit asking whether the BJP were like the Klu Klux Klan and indeed found dissenting voices anti-national. I actually liked Suhel Seth’s reference to the KKK as the lynching of 2 cattle traders this week by vigilante Hindu supremacist ‘Cow protection Squads’ who lynch Muslim drivers with impunity by accusing them of driving the cows to slaughter has dominated the news. Here’s a photo of the lynching.
Patra fumbled for an answer and referencing the JNU incident said that anti-national slogans were raised at JNU. I couldn’t believe my ears as the videos apparently showing the JNU students raising anti-national slogans were found to be doctored and the students released on bail. In fact, the videos were discovered to have been doctored by none other than Smriti Irani’s aide. Smriti Irani is the minister of Human Resource Development in Modi’s Government who was instrumental in orchestrating the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad. Rohith’s death kicked off the JNU row when students demanded justice for Rohith and protested against his institutional murder. Rohith was compelled to commit suicide after severe caste discrimination, being expelled from university on to the streets and whose fellowship was stopped.
The JNU agitations led to subsequent arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and other JNU students under the sedition law. So Patra answering my question with a narrow reference to JNU and relying on what has now been proven to be doctored videos as evidence was so shocking to me that I screamed the obvious: that the videos were doctored. At this point Suhel Seth was fuming not because of Patra’s lies but at my audacity to catch Patra out. He admonished me for my 2nd interjection, the first being my opposition to him insulting ‘incompetent’ reservation students who shouldn’t be hired in life-saving occupations. I wasn’t shaken by any of this as it goes without saying that my current discipline of study and generally the practice of law are all about intellectual confrontation and disagreement.
What dismayed me was that I was the only one in the mainly jingoistic right-wing audience to dissent from what sounded like a Hindu nationalist RSS conclave. The Congress finally came to my aid when Sachin Pilot agreed with me that there is a worrying trend in the country where just one flavour of Hinduism was being bandied around as the official one and that patriotism was being equated with Hindu nationalism and everyone was being subjected to this new patriotic/Hindu nationalist test. Sachin Pilot did receive my applause till my hands went red and I heard a few other feeble claps from the few moderate hands in the audience.
However, the overall mood in the room was almost a show of strength from the Hindu right wing to Britain suggesting everyone loves Modi and how the high-profile LSE event went without any opposition. The exclusion of any member of the left parties on the panel and the appointing of Suhel Seth as moderator seems almost too contrived to be coincidental. An institution that counts India’s founding father Dr. Ambedkar amongst its glorious alumni was shockingly bereft of anyone representing views of the millions of downtrodden that oppose Hindu nationalistic views. It’s not that such representatives are unavailable, but by selectively choosing Hindutva propagandists and excluding the voices of dissent on a panel, which was supposed to debate dissent, is in my opinion deliberate and not merely an oversight. The JNU mention in the Facebook invitation was used to merely spice it up but appointing Suhel Seth as moderator and exluding the left/Ambedkarite voices paved the way for Hindu Nationalism propaganda to be broadcast uninterrupted throughout Britain and the world. I am glad to have put a spanner in their works and stood for the voice of truth and the disaffected.
India is a country with perhaps the most diverse citizens in the world. Its not just difference of language or cuisine that’s diverse but also inter alia religious and political viewpoints. Defining patriotism through a Hindu lens through slogans like Bharat Mata Ki Jai is a telltale sign of either impending genocide of those who won’t chant this slogan or fascistic rule of Hindutva ideology over the rest or both. India is slowly starting to resemble Hitler’s Nazism as equating Hindu nationalism with patriotism is drawing up clear binaries. This is eroding the scope for rejecting the hyper nationalism of the Hindu fanatics and simply choosing to love’s one’s country on one’s own terms without involving religion.
I recall an Oscar Wilde quote ‘Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious’, which sums up the present Indian situation quite well but perhaps with a much more sinister twist by the added vice of religious fervour added to the mix. Fortunately this attempt by Hindu supremacists to eyewash the world of their true intentions is being exposed. Not just by NGOs or the United Nations or international civil society but also from within the country itself for instance in JNU, in the University of Hyderabad and several other bastions of Ambedkarite thought.
When I emerged from the lecture theatre at LSE and saw the statue of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar beaming proudly at me, I no longer felt like a single voice opposing a fascist Hindu supremacist ideology. A billion people of India will make a billion interjections to Hindu supremacists as Ambedkarism takes hold across the nation as we’re seeing happening.