Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Right Wing Politics and attacks on Academic Freedom and Democratic Rights

Professor Sugata Marjit has written an article in the Times of India, attacking students' participation in politics. Having started with a disclaimer that since the issue is sub-judice it would not be right to comment about the specifics of the Jadavpur case, he goes on to make ample innuendos, and while the article heading talks about banning gheraos, in fact goes much further to demand: “first strategy will be to ban politics among the teachers, officials and non-teaching staff with exemplary punishment in case of violation”. (ToI, Sept. 27, 2014).

Professor Marjit has been quite well known as a right wing scholar, a supporter of all the standard neo-liberal positions, and given his stature (former Director, CSSSC, editor of academic journals, a wikipedia article on him which is basically his publication list), one of the more well known academic faces of the current Trinamul Congress regime in West Bengal. Having served as a chair of the State Higher Education Council, and having been in the search committee that created a short list of names for the next Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University, his involvement with West Bengal's academic politics is extensive. It is therefore interesting that this consummate politician wants a ban on politics – obviously because it is politics of the wrong kind. And is it not interesting, too, that while Marjit writes in sophisticated languages, the Trina Mul Chhatra Paridhad has actually demanded a ban on the Jadavpur University Teachers Association? Is it also not interesting that the JU administration has been issuing orders (later described as appeals) that appear as first steps in the direction of a show cause notice to the President and Secretary of the Jadavpur University Teachers' Association?

So it is necessary to go beyond the perfunctory disclaimers and read Professor Marjit's essay as an “intellectual” component of a multi-pronged war on democratic rights. With the subtlety of a rampaging hippo, the article is titled Gherao a criminal act, it should be banned. Professor Supriya Chaudhuri has responded to it in her own way. I differ from her in some respects. Professor Chaudhuri has begun by looking at the significant academic achievements of Jadavpur University, and wants her readers to understand that all this is under attack. I too have had a long association with this University (student 1976-1981, working at my PhD from 1982, a teacher since 1984 with experience of teaching in the Departments of History and Comparative Literature as well as the School of Women's Studies) and therefore feel proud of how JU students, scholars and faculty have achieved excellence. But I believe that the response to attacks on democratic rights must focus on the wider communities, and not on special cases. Marjit attacks JU, at times in a vicious and utterly unproved manner. But he uses the current JU agitation to launch an attack on academic freedom and democracy itself. The #hokkolorob movement has generated support and solidarity from across West Bengal, because people in educational institutions across the state have been under attack.

I would like to draw attention to the ease and complete lack of rationality of any kind other than rightwing politics that enables Professor Marjit to move from gherao as a specific weapon of struggle to the right to political agitation itself. I doubt people would think it an ad hominem if I reported that back in 1978, long before our learned doctor had picked up his degrees and obtained the position of Chairperson of the State Higher Education Council that he held for some time under the current dispensation, he had been a Chhatra Parishad candidate at Presidency College, where he was defeated by Supriyo Chatterjee contesting for the post of Union Secretary. So I submit that the antipathy to democracy has roots in the reality that open advocacy of far right elitist politics does not garner adequate support. But one would also be keen to know, whether it was in an introspective and autobiographical mode that Marjit wrote: “students are naturally vulnerable to political and under-the-table manipulations”.

Marjit goes on to make the following propositions:
a. Student politics is akin to herd behaviour.
b. JU students are substance abusers.
c. Teachers get paid by the government and therefore they must be banned from doing politics.

Substance Abusers as Agitators?

To take up the complete manufacture first – the issue of JU being a hotbed of substance abuse. I would advise all students (and indeed have always advised them), that when making sweeping claims, one needs to document one's assertions. Marjit simply says, “It is also well-known that various academic spots and surely the JU campus have become a hotbed of drug addicts”. Had someone made a similar accusation about, say, the West Bengal cabinet, they would have faced a lawsuit. So why should Marjit not face the same? How may cases of substance abuse have been registered against JU students over the last five years? By using terms like “well-known” and “surely”, Marjit gives an impression of confidence, when the truth is, he has absolutely no hard data. One is tempted to digress and re-tell a story about economists one heard many years back – an ancient box that could not be opened, was found in an Indus Valley site. The archaeologist talked about its dating, the art historian about the skills that had gone into its making, while the economist commented – assume the box is open. Marjit makes a slanderous comment, and urges us (not openly, but by implication) to look at his status, printed beneath the article, and assume that whatever he is saying must be true. In the last 38 years, I have seen some students who take alcohol, many more who smoke, some who use other substance – in JU, in Presidency, in St. Xaviers' College, in Scottish Church College where I taught for a while, as well as in other sections of the population. I have never found that it is monopolised by one institution, location, age, or any other category. Surely Marjit could have provided us with the data base. His failure to do so is evidence that he is presenting his readers with what may be called a falsifiction (fiction, uttered as if it is reality). And even if JU had indeed been haunted by substance abusers, can he show any logical link between that and the agitation? Suppose we found that in Stockholm the incidence of storks and the incidence of births had a correlation of almost 1. would he agree, without looking at anything else, that babies in Stockholm are delivered by storks?

Democracy, and the Right to Political Space

So we move on to the more substantial issue – democracy and the right to politics. Marjit is effectively pushing a line that people have only one political right – to periodically take part in elections. Once a government is put in place, all political rights pass to it. This was also the argument of Partha Chatterjee, the Education Minister, who said that students cannot choose who will be the Vice Chancellor. The students were of course not demanding the right to select the VC. They had been demanding the right to assert that someone who sees students as slaves to be roughed up cannot be a VC. Behind this lies extremely divergent conceptions of democracy.

Democracy was created in ancient Greece – in the city-state of Athens. It had major limitations – slaves (of both the sexes) and all women, were deprived of political, and even most civil rights. But what was significant about ancient democracy was that those who were considered citizens did not simply cast their votes and push off to watch the tragedies of Aeschylus being performed. Law making, execution of decisions, and judicial functions, all saw a wide range of public participation. Laws could only be passed by the Popular Assembly, which met at least 40 days in a year, with a quorum of 6000. Drafts of laws could be proposed by anyone at Assembly meetings, or at meetings of the Boule or Council of 500 by members of the Council. Trials were heard by dikasteries (the dikasts were both judge and jury) of between 200 and 1000 persons. All this was in a place where the size of the citizen population was 30,000 or perhaps a little more. Right-wing historians and philosophers, ever since Plato, have condemned this democracy. And they too have talked about herd mentality. Yet it must be understood that this democracy, once created by a revolution (508), was strong enough to survive for nearly two centuries, till an immensely more powerful Macedon defeated Athens. It is the student movement, which started in late August, took on mass dimensions from the second week of September, and has been based on sustained democratic general body meetings since then, that exemplifies real democratic practices as well as an understanding of what democracy means in theory. The movement has received support from students outside Jadavpur, and in an absolutely correct widening, the students have insisted that such so-called outsiders must be allowed their voices. 

In modern times, liberalism resisted democracy. John Locke was absolutely clear on this issue – only those who owned property, those who did not sell their labour power, were to be considered politically fully authorised. Even so, they were to create the government. Thereafter unless government violated its pact with the propertied, it alone acted. When votes had to be given to the poor, as in the USA after independence, democracy was radically redefined, so that casting one's vote periodically seemed to be the be-all and end-all. It is this, highly watered down “democracy” that Marjit or Chatterjee favour. What the JU students movement has shown is something that major social upheavals over the last few centuries have repeatedly done – namely, breaking the barriers between the representers and the represented, creating new structures of democracy. There have been mass meetings, called General Body meetings – GBs by the separate faculty, GBs of the entire student community of JU, and yes, conventions that have allowed the so-called bohiragotos to come and speak as well.


Before going on to Marjit's strictures about teachers, I would also like to address the question of gherao. All political battles are, at one level, attempts by opposed or differing groups to gather power, use power. It would certainly be more humane if one could exchange opinions and take decisions. But if one ignores the facts in the name of not discussing a sub-judice matter, and then makes sweeping comments about criminal actions and the need to ban them, then one is also playing politics – of a dirty kind.

So let us again recapitulate some events. A young woman alleged she had been sexually harassed. She went to the Vice Chancellor to complain. According to her version, the University response was tardy. She also claimed improper behaviour by certain members of the Internal complaints Committee. These were matters that the University administration, led by the VC, should have sorted out very quickly. When a student agitation began to form, they were alternately ignored and threatened. Marjit sweeps the events under the carpet with a misleading comment about how a mob mentality led students to demand that the same person should lodge a complaint, investigate, and punish the “guilty”. The use of the quotation marks round the word 'guilty' suggests Marjit opines there was no sexual harassment at all.

Then, a month ago, on the night of 16-17 September, the gherao did develop. There have been dozens of gheraos. Without looking at the specific context in which a gherao has developed, without looking at the demands, a how far students had attempted sincere negotiations and other forms of agitations, to simply make a sweeping comment that gheraos are criminal actions show that one is taking a formal stance,but hardly one that investigates social realities. For about 150 hours before this, students had been on a peaceful sit-in. There had been ample opportunity to call them in and negotiate. Has the VC produced even the merest shred of evidence that he tried to do so?

During my brief stint as a member of the JU EC, I was among the EC members once gherao-ed – by the TMCP. The then VC, Souvik Bhattacharyya, took the position that he was willing to talk with anyone who was his student, regardless of party colour, or even regardless of whether they were official leaders of the Union, but he would not talk with Professor Shonku. The gherao petered out with no further consequence and no further agitation, because it had no significant base among the students. The current agitation is going on even after one month, and despite the vacation in between. I do not believe that any agitation should begin with a gherao. Nor do I believe that even if there is a mass support, a gherao, for any demand, is necessarily right. Yes, there can be mob violence. But that is why it is necessary to look at what the JU students were demanding and how they were behaving. They were demanding, for example, a reconstitution of the ICC. If their specific demand was wrong, one could have explained to them where they were wrong in law, and sought to come to an agreement. They were demanding prompt action from the University. If today there is some police action, why did it require a march by anything between 50,000 to 1,00,000 people on the streets of Kolkata and a province, country and world-wide solidarity action before the police finally did something, whatever ? Anyone reading Avishek De Biswas' article in Ebela, or the FETSU's very first statement on Facebook, would have known that students took quite a careful position. FETSU, for example, wanted proper investigation. By quoting truncated passages, one newspaper has even managed to portray the FETSU as pro-sexual harassment. So when students did come out in a gherao this time, it was after exploring other avenues over a long period of time and meeting with total opposition from the VC.

Ban all Campus Politics?

So why are we supposed to ban all politics? Marjit provides no rational (or even irrational) argument about why student politics should be banned. He makes sounds about how herd mentality is the cause of wars, riots and economic crises. Oh really? I will come back to this. But why does he want the ban?

Here is the passage from Marjit: “Academic institutions are only for academic activities. First strategy will be to ban politics among the teachers, officials and non-teaching staff with exemplary punishment in case of violation.

They accept public money and must not indulge in political activities on the campus. Students are not public servants, but to make sure that the willing students are allowed to attend lectures and those inside or outside the campus who physically and through campaign prevent such action must be apprehended and prosecuted. "Gherao" by any group must be identified as a criminal act. These are necessary steps to make ourselves civilized and care for public money and society at large. This wish list is so politically incorrect that it must be pursued at all costs”.

Note the construction of sentences. He calls for a ban on all politics by paid employees. Now, what is politics? If we are talking about parties, historically, universities have provided freedom of thought and expression, and all party viewpoints have been expressed. So is it because Marjit's party is totally marginalised, despite the thunderings of so many Vice Chancellors, that ban is now seen as necessary? Second, while governments pay the money for our salaries, we are not defined as public servants. Third, of course, is so what even if we were? It is a hang over of the colonial era, when people who drew salaries from the colonial government were not allowed to express themselves politically. We are given a set of instructions here, not any argument about WHY they are necessary.

Academic spaces are for academic work, says the professor. So what does academic work mean? Would we teach Socrates, or the French Revolution to the students, and tell them, but do understand, all this is purely hypothetical. You may not question received wisdom like Socrates, for that would be politics. You may not demand equal rights, for that would be politics.

Leaving such things aside, for I suspect that anyone capable of writing the passage I have quoted will not have the capacity to understand the interconnections I am trying to make, let me move down to concrete issues. The academic excellence of institutions depend on autonomy of teachers, scholars, and students. Ever since the TMC government started passing new University Acts and the like, these have been curtailed in a number of ways. In the very specific case of Jadavpur University, the JUTA is engaged in compiling a White Paper, showing how the current VC has harmed the academic work in JU by unwarranted interference, some using the law, some going beyond what the law permits. By the strictures of Marjit, such an act of JUTA is politics, not academics, and so we will perhaps see one more missive from the Registrar to the President and Secretary of JUTA.

Then there is the sentence about students. I quote it again. “Students are not public servants, but to make sure that the willing students are allowed to attend lectures and those inside or outside the campus who physically and through campaign prevent such action must be apprehended and prosecuted”.

Willing students – yes? Who are they? Where are the willing students who were prevented? If Marjit, writing on 27 September, had even one concrete case, he would have documented it. The absence of documentation is evidence that all talk about stopping willing students is a bunch of lies.

Moreover, Marjit wants action not only against those who physically prevent “willing students” but also those who campaign. In other words, any poster, calling for a complete strike, can be treated as proof, and the person writing, or putting up the poster, can be punished – including if such persons were acting outside the campus. With such rapidity and skilled (!!) writing does our professor move from the campus to the entire province. Even Mussolini would have found little to quibble with Marjitian democracy after this.

A few more comments on herds and history:

I want to remark briefly on the ig-nobel award winning discovery of professor Marjit. He tells his readers, “there has been considerable research on this topic” [herd behaviour]. We learn that herd behaviour is the root cause of “riot, financial crisis, war”. Oh, wow!!. Where are the citations? 

Having taught History, including histories of wars, revolutions, crises, between 1982 and 2009, I never came across these researches, and would have benefited. There have been massive studies on the causes of wars, both fundamental causes and immediate ones, and “herd behaviour” figures in marginally. Personally, I have taught Thucydides for a quarter cetury, along with commentators on Thucydides, and did not find this explanation figuring. Among other examples, one can talk of William Mulligan's 2010 book on The Origins of the First World War, which looks at historiographic debates. Ernest Mandel's book, The Meaning of the Second World War, presents a wide-ranging summary. The same author wrote The Second Slump, dealing with the crisis of 1974. One could read, agree, disagree, argue, with them. But one would not find the simple explanation that herd behaviour was at the base. 

So the claims of scholarship through the author identification at the bottom of Marjit's essay only serve to assist the presentation of false claims to buttress ultra-reactionary conclusions. And yes, we know all too well the means by which they can be pursued. Students are being called a herd, so that mass action, the exemplary democratic means employed, can be portrayed as manipulations by alleged outsiders, supposed party interests. This must be known for what it is – a deep right wing attack on democracy.