“Touched by a nation”: what I learnt as a JNU student in this row

Shamla Mustaffa

ShamlaShamla Mustaffa Mohamed is a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Among the scores of slogans and catch-phrases that have been coming out of the ongoing resistance in JNU against the fascist onslaught of political dissent, three of them seemed to resonate so powerfully in my head: “Touched by a nation”, “We speak truth to power” and “We will penetrate the finite with the infinite”. All three of them came from three senior professors, who have been active since the past few days, among those re-assuring and mobilizing the students, teachers, workers, the general public and themselves about how the battle really is between democracy and despotism. This is also a battle from independence to freedom and equality through social justice. It is a battle towards a new collective conscience.
“Touched by a nation”

When Dr. Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, JNU) briefed the gathering assembled (in solidarity with the struggle for the right to dissent; in these dark days you need to be clear which side of the divide you are on) in front of the Administrative Block (JNU) about the events that unfolded inside and outside the Patiala Court in Delhi on February 15 before what was supposed to be comrade Kanhaiya’s first hearing, she mentioned how the women among the many faculty members, students and media persons were sexually harassed saying, “We got touched by a nation, so to speak”. Even while we admire the clever humour of the speaker or get enraged by the gendered nature of the society we are all a part of, there seems to be a clarion call lying within it – to defy the idea of a misogynist and patriarchal nation that is being thrust upon us.

The ever-increasing questions on gender and sexuality, agency and consent, in the
country and around the world testify to the growing need to significantly sew the fabric of mass movements across societies with the spools of gender justice. That they are whipping our dream of a socialist democratic republic India with the honour of ‘Bharat Ma’ is proof enough of the fascist idea of a nation. The process of ‘mothering’ after all, could very-well be a differently spelt process of ‘othering’ or exclusion, and thus creating a nation where heterosexuality is a ‘natural’ tendency with clearly defined gender roles or ‘labour’.

To locate this within the particular question of the people of Kashmir (a question that seems to have ‘touched’ the ‘nationalism’ of the bhakts), the struggle for the right to their self-determination seems to be a question of ‘honour’. The state or the geography or the vegetation or the kahwa – everything except the people and their rights – seem to embody their concept of a virgin, the self-determination of who might tear apart the gentle hymen that the brothers and the fathers of the ‘nation’ have carefully safeguarded. That the women, girls and young boys are bestially raped, sexually assaulted and mercilessly murdered in the region to uphold the draconian AFSPA in the name of ‘national integration’ for safeguarding the ‘honour’ of ‘Bharat Maa’ only reinstate the foundationally flawed structure of ‘nation’ that we are daring to resist. So, in other words, it is pertinent that we realize we cannot shy away from taking political positions on the questions of self-determination even while we struggle for the right to dissent. It is important that we understand that for the people of Kashmir, especially for those born in the 90’s, the image of India has been ‘men in uniform’. So our protest cannot be reduced to ‘I was not one of the organizers of the programme’ or ‘I did not raise any slogans’ or to bizarre questions like ‘Why don’t you arrest those Kashmiris who made a huddle in the middle?’ The events that unfolded on the night of February 9, 2016 did not erupt out of nowhere. It is very much a part of the history of the oppressed masses in this country that have been fighting against state repression.

“We speak truth to power”

Following Dr. Kidwai was Dr. Nivedita Menon’s fiery speech about why the present government and their allies are attacking universities across the country: because “we speak truth to power”. As rightly put in her article,

“Students and young people have been at the forefront of protests across the country for some time now, even before the Modi regime came to power, against land acquisition by relentlessly neo-liberal regimes, corruption, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, homophobic politics, cutbacks in education budgets, anti-worker policies and rampant caste-based discrimination.”

So in campuses like Jadavpur University, University of Hyderabad, FTII, JNU and many others that have been the breeding ground of “anti-nationals” who question anti-people policies and authoritarianism, tyrannical crack-down and framing followed by the witch-hunt of individuals become necessary to veil the politics of lies and deceit. And to term such acts of the state as politically stupid and intellectually empty would be a grave mistake on our part. In one of German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s early essays “The Life of Students”, he throws light on the special relationship between student life and the modern state. Shedding light on the poverty of students under capitalism, Benjamin argues for a university space that creates “a community of learning, as opposed to a body of officials and academically qualified people”. Benjamin seems to have heard the current JNU VC’s ‘appeal’ asking the campus to resume academic activity while he penned this essay a century ago. The division of the people as ‘nationals’ and ‘anti-nationals’, therefore, needs to be countered as the most vicious and politically motivated state propaganda. For this, we ought to do what we’re challenged not to do: continuously speak truth to power and not dissociate academic activity from social reality.

“We will penetrate the finite with the infinite”

Dr. Soumyabrata Choudury, addressing the same gathering that had been growing in number with each passing moment, seems to have provided one of the strongest slogans for the ongoing struggle: “We will penetrate the finite with the infinite”. Though heavily dependent on which side of the collective we choose to build our conscience upon, this slogan carries in it the histories of the struggles gone past and the victories of those to come. Our ongoing struggle thus, is not just about saving JNU or other university campuses, it will be a direct disruption of or intervention into the oppressive history with our immeasurable possibilities.

  • disqalt

    Great article. But please check whether “learnt” needs to be changed to “learned” in the headline.