Reflections on JNU, India and Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf

The ongoing row at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) reminded me of the following statement by Vir Sanghvi: “the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense” (The same people? Surely not). I am not convinced of this claim and believe that the underlying social and attitudinal propensities in both countries (towards violence, religion, and nationalism, for example) remain fairly alike. It is only accidents of time and place that lead to seemingly differing outcomes in the emergent landscapes.

I explored this argument earlier in a couple of posts (How Not to Write History and Pakistanization of India?) and the response to the recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) strengthens my conviction further.

Despite its very different political trajectory, India is repeating the patterns observed in Pakistan albeit with a considerable lag in time. We have already seen the injection of religion in politics and now, apropos of JNU, we are seeing manifestations of hyper-nationalism and the use of student proxies of political parties to crush dissent and intimidate opposing voices in universities and courts.

The interesting question for an outsider is why this is happening in India today. The answer points to another one of the contingent events of history. It seems that with the election of Narendra Modi a number of factors have come together in India – the rule of a party with a foundational commitment to a conservative ideology that it believes needs to be universally imposed, a visceral dislike for dissent that it deems anti-national, and the undiluted power to attempt to enforce its preferences. These elements might have existed individually or in pairs before but have never come together as they have now with the outright mandate obtained by the BJP in 2014 that relieves it of the need to placate coalition partners.

In Pakistan, the commitment to a conservative ideology was present almost from the outset, the crackdown on dissenting voices followed soon after, but it was only with Zia ul Haq that the there was a long enough period of unchallenged authority to push the ideological agenda to the maximum and change the contours of society for the generations that followed.

In this context watching and hearing what is happening in India today is like replaying an old Pakistani movie. Consider the Home Minister – stating “If anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared,” attributing the incident to the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), and pressing for charges of sedition. Observe the violence in the premises of a court and the passive role of the police. Consider the sentiment of the MLA caught on video in an act of violence stating he would shoot protesters if he had a gun and articulating his understanding of patriotism: “As I was leaving the court I saw a man raising anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. I lost my cool, like any patriot, and asked him to shut up.” Add to that the government’s hastily passed mandate to hoist the national flag on a 207 feet mast in all central universities in order to better instill the spirit of nationalism in all who may pass thereunder. “Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice would have said.

Seventy years of very different political trajectories in the two countries seem to have yielded very little behavioral variation. To remove any lingering doubts tune in to the talk shows with their indignant anchors with flashing eyes and heaving chests and panelists flinging accusations and determined to prevent anyone from responding. Clearly both countries have yet to evolve to the state where the etiquette of debate precludes shouting. As for the JNU incident itself, going by Pakistani precedents, it would not be a surprise if it eventually transpires that the entire episode was planted and provoked in order to provide an excuse to crack down on those not towing the official line and to send a signal to dissenters in other universities.

Related to this incident, there is, of course, one obvious difference between India and Pakistan and that pertains to the size and scope of the resistance encountered by the state to the use of strong-arm tactics. Once again, this is a contingent outcome owing itself to the fact that an institution like JNU with its tradition of open discussion has survived through all these decades. Similar institutions in Pakistan had their freedoms curtailed and faculties emasculated much earlier leading to the critical loss of public space in which to challenge official dogma in relative safety. At this time it would be hard to imagine a sizable group of students in any public university in Pakistan sufficiently trained to interrogate the convictions and prejudices with which they entered the institution. That this was not always the case is exemplified by the role of students in ending the military rule of Ayub Khan in the 1960s.

This seems precisely the reason why JNU, the premier institution promoting an open investigation of history and politics in India, has been targeted. If the tide can be rolled back in JNU, India will be well on its way to catching up with Pakistan. One can deem it a tribute to JNU that three members of the student wing of the RSS at the university are reported to have resigned in protest against the response of the state. In support of the thesis advanced in this post they have expressed apprehension at the ‘Talibanization’ of India.

It is hard to avoid the impression that if the BJP had its way it would like nothing better than to crush JNU. In this endeavor it seems to have some popular support voiced by those who believe that an institution subsidized by taxpayer funds should not be allowed to question the actions of the state. Once again, this is an opinion shared with that of the majority in Pakistan. However, there does exist more resistance in civil society in India and, unlike Zia ul Haq, Narendra Modi has to go back to the electorate in a few years. What will happen in the interim is up for grabs and what will happen after the elections is unknown. With a little bit of luck it still remains possible for India to escape Pakistan’s fate although its government seems hell-bent on erasing all differences.

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45 Responses to “Reflections on JNU, India and Pakistan”

  1. Sakuntala Says:

    Precisely. Well put. Sadly, if a journalist in India had articulated these sentiments, he/she would have been in trouble … , (and even to say so, is dangerous…..!!!)

  2. Dehlavi Says:

    Well written, Altaf!

  3. Vikram Says:

    ‘Dissent’ JNU style:

    Hinduism is a deeply hierarchical, oppressive religion. – Nivedita Menon (Professor at JNU)

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: Is Professor Menon entitled to her opinion? I am sure she has provided an argument in support and one can disagree with that argument at an intellectual level. Reducing the space for dissent doesn’t come across as a mature option.

      • Vikram Says:

        Surely, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But I seriously would like to know how many people who hold such opinions about Islam and Christianity are professors at premier universities.

        This is not about dissent, it is about narratives. Since ‘premier universities’ produce ‘truths’, and professors at these places have a degrading view of Hinduism, the default narrative automatically becomes one where Hindus have to be on the defensive.

        Universities are places where ‘truths’ are challenged, not where they are fossilized and used as political propaganda.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: If everyone is entitled to their opinions, Professor Menon is entitled to her’s and that should be the end of the matter.

          I am not sure why you wish to calibrate what opinions can be held at a premier university in India with what can be held at other universities. Is there some kind of a global norm for the opinions that can be held at universities? Is there a statement that spells out this norm?

          You state that premier universities produce ‘truths’ and also that they are places where ‘truths’ are challenged. Are both correct? If so, what is the problem with JNU challenging ‘truths’?

          In my view universities don’t produce ‘truths’. If that had been the case, universities like Oxford and Cambridge which have been in existence for over 1,000 years would have produced all the truths by now and would have been fossilized. But they continue to be lively places harboring people like Richard Dawkins.

          It is hard to conceive of ‘truths’ in the social sciences. New narratives arise all the time in society and universities are places where such narratives are examined and challenged – this is a continuous process. Consider all the new narratives that arose after 1857 or 1947.

          You seem to be ascribing the notion of ‘truth’ to the majority opinion at any time and considering anyone who challenges that to be anti-national. But what is the basis on which a majority opinion can be considered the ‘truth’? The majority of people considered the earth to be flat at one time. Did that make it the ‘truth’?

  4. Mani Says:

    This view about Hindu religion is widely shared by a large number of intellectuals including Ambedkar himself & EVK Periyar and others. Why do you think it is wrong for an academic to voice it?

    • Vikram Says:

      Mani, such views were grounded in colonial knowledge production. These constituted the Dumontian view of Hinduism and caste, which is no longer considered accurate by modern scholars like Nicolas Dirks and Susan Bayly.

      For a more (post) modern view, I would recommend Declan Quigley’s book whose analysis is based on the nature of agrarian production, rather than Brahminical musings:

      • Mani Says:

        Thanks for the book suggestion. I’ll try to get hold of it. But the larger point is not that I agree with Professor Menon’s views. But she has every right to voice it. I understand that you are coming from the view that Indian Academia is almost an exclusive leftist preserve and I tend to agree both in Social and economic terms. This needs to change, but not by repressing the left-wing academics / student activists but by promoting other points of view through intellectual engagement and encouragement of alternate views. The current government has every right to make appointments of eminent right wing scholars in state funded institutes. But so far they have managed to only appoint rank misfits like the guy in FTII, and Dinanath Bathra. The kind of juvenile statements that HRD minister makes also does not inspire confidence in even centrist citizens like me.

    • Vikram Says:

      Mani, you have mentioned Ambedkar’s views of Hinduism as ‘intellectual’ and widely accepted. I would point out here that his academic training was mainly in economics, and to a lesser extent in political science.

      Indeed, regarding his views on Islam, Khalid Anis Ansari, a research scholar with the University for Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, says that Ambedkar, who was no scholar of Islam, did have a problem with the sources he was referring to. “He was under the grip of Orientalist sources and relied on a particular kind of sources that spoke of a certain kind of Islam.”

      Why do you think Ambedkar’s views of Hinduism don’t suffer from the same limitations?

  5. Kabir Altaf Mir Says:

    What is happening in India today is not unique to India. We have seen this happen many times before when right-wing dispensations come into power and decide that all left-wing dissent must be crushed. This is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany and close to home what happened in General Zia’s Pakistan. What is heartening is the vigorous resistance that we can see in India. More than 10,000 people came on the street recently in support of JNU, armed only with the tricolor and roses which they handed out to those who would attack them. The students at Jadavpur University in Calcutta are standing in solidarity with JNU and with the people of Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland. Brave journalists all over the country are writing about creeping fascism under the BJP-RSS sarkar. All this resistance shows that there is still hope that India will not become a “Hindu Rashtra” and will remain what Nehru intended it to be: a secular, socialist democratic state.

    • Vikram Says:

      Where were these ‘10000 people of resistance’ when Kashmiri Hindus were thrown out of their homes by those whose punishments they are protesting today ? Why instead of solidarity do they only get contempt and sneers that they somehow left their homes and their lands as stooges of the Indian state ?

      “Economist and member of Niti Aayog Bibek Debroy had recounted recently how renowned Columbia University trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati was forced out of Delhi School of Economics in the 1950s. As Sanyal writes, “The Left dominance over the intellectual establishment has its roots in the systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ of all non-Left thinkers since the 1950s…the result of the systematic cleansing was that there were no non-Left academics remaining in the social sciences field in India by the early 1990s.” Sanyal closes his article by saying that “there needs to be a wider national debate about bringing greater plurality of thought in India’s intellectual establishment”.

      The intolerance of the Left is nothing new. Such is the hypocrisy of those who wail about freedom of expression that while JNU’s student activists demand tolerance when they call for more individuals like convicted terrorist Mohammed Afzal to emerge from every home—something eminent jurist and former attorney general Soli Sorabjee said would qualify as “incitement” and “was not a borderline case” under current Indian law—the supposedly open-minded and freedom-loving student community railed against Baba Ramdev when he was to address a gathering at the JNU campus.”

      • Kabir Altaf Mir Says:

        What happened to the Kashmiri Pandits was a tragedy. But so is what is continuing to happen to Kashmiri Muslims.

        However, that is not really that relevant to the incident at JNU. The police coming on campus and arresting students for chanting slogans (however offensive the slogans may be) is indefensible. Having an accused beaten up in court under the eyes of the police is indefensible. Attacking women journalists and threatening to rape them is indefensible. I watched a program on Indian TV the other day where an eminent lawyer stated that the Indian Supreme Court had ruled that slogans in themselves do not constitute sedition. This was in a case where after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination people had shouted “Raj karaga Khalsa” and “Khalistan zindabad”. If that is not sedition, neither is what happened at JNU. In any case, it is deeply ironic that a law that the British used against Indian nationalists is now being used by so-called “nationalists” against “anti-nationals”. If this is not fascism, I don’t know what else to call it.

    • Vikram Says:

      And please stop hiding behind the Zia bogey. Zia was a nobody when the Pakistani army committed the genocide of Bengalis.

      Time magazine reported that “The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Muslim military’s hatred.”

      Even before this in 1964 there was a massacre of Bengali Hindus where Ayub Khan told the Hindus that he isnt responsible for what happens to them.

  6. Kabir Altaf Mir Says:

    I’m a bit confused as to why the actions of Pakistani military dictators are being used to make excuses for the actions of India’s democratically elected dispensation. No one elected Ayub or Zia or even Musharraf. Those who disagreed with what was happening in East Pakistan had no influence on events. Neither were we the ones telling Musharraf to go into Kargil. Dictators do what they want. That’s the definition of dictatorship. The people of India elected Prime Minister Modi and the BJP. As far as I know, they did not elect the RSS. Is it your contention that the BJP and the RSS are the same thing?

    I am not really interested in engaging in a typical Indian vs. Pakistani “tu tu main main” so this is it from my side.

  7. Vikram Says:

    Equating the protests against JNU’s appropriation of dissent and the capture of state institutions by practitioners of a certain ideology with the blatant thuggery of the lawyers is simply dishonest. I dont agree with most of Baba Ramdev says, but how can a group of people disallow him from speaking at a university, and then turn around and say that they are defenders of free speech ? Is this not a version of the same thuggery that the lawyers displayed ?

    People here are arguing that one should respond to the bigotry of people like Nivedita Menon with intellectual debate. But how will that debate ensue if the halls of Indian academia are dominated by people who share and subscribe to her views ? And when someone presents a counter view, we have Dipankar Gupta telling us proudly that JNU students wont let them stand.

    Imagine the same words being uttered by a professor in a Pakistani university. Given the situation of Hindus in Pakistan, would you still defend his or her right to free speech the way you are right now ?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: The following thoughts come to mind:

      1. In what way has JNU appropriated dissent? Is JNU forbidding dissent anywhere else? Anyone who wants to dissent should be free to dissent – I believe that is what JNU stands for. How is that helped by crushing dissent at JNU? What you seem to be suggesting is simply a visceral dislike for dissent – that there should be no dissent anywhere. If not, could you spell out what kind of dissent is acceptable to you?

      2. What is the basis for claiming that state institutions are captured by practitioners of a certain ideology? How many state institutions are there in India? How do you define their capture?

      3. Arguing against someone speaking at a university is not the same thuggery as the lawyers displayed. The lawyers used violence which is a big difference. Questioning the credentials of a speaker is an intellectual challenge which is permissible. Baba Ramdev is not an academic and therefore it is quite legitimate to question his credentials to speak at a university. The decision may be in his favor but that is the right procedure. Similarly, Baba Ramdev might question the appropriateness of Professor Menon from speaking at his ashram. There are democratic and civil ways of resolving such disagreements which were not adhered to by the lawyers.

      4. You should be cautious in using the term ‘bigotry.’ Bigotry relates to “intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.” There is no evidence that Professor Menon is intolerant of opinions that differ from hers. However, you are clearly intolerant of Professor Menon’s views simply because they differ from yours. According to the definition you are the one guilty of bigotry. And as Mani mentioned, if Professor Menon is bigoted because of the opinion she holds, you would have to label Dr. Ambedkar as much more bigoted. Do you do so? If not, why not?

      5. What is the evidence that the halls of Indian academia are dominated by people who share Professor Menon’s views? JNU is known as an island in India. Can you produce a list of the heads of departments of, say, Sociology, in all the universities in India and show by reference to their writings that they share Professor Menon’s views? And, if they do, would it not show that such views have intellectual credibility although they may be different from yours?

      6. Why is Pakistan a benchmark for what should be acceptable at JNU? Why not select North Korea as your benchmark in order to strengthen the case for shutting down JNU?

      • Vikram Says:

        1. JNU has made a claim to stand for free speech. The question then arises why they were silent when Kamlesh Tiwari was put in jail under the National Security Act, and 10,000 people marched asking for his head to be cut off. Where were the JNU 10,00 then ? Why were they silent when Shirin Dalvi was made to suffer terrible consequences for just publishing a cartoon ?

        I would have no problem with this if JNU was a private school or institution. But it is a publicly funded university that claims to stand for free speech, and given the above realities I find this claim hypocritical.

        2. Please read this:

        3. The difference here is only in the nature of violence. The university establishment deployed structural violence to deny Ramdev the right to speak. This is akin to saying that if tomorrow the Indian government denies a particular religion the right to make religious schools, that is not violence because no physical violence was used.

        Note that universities typically have plenty of non-academic speakers.

        4. I repeat again that I have no problem with Dr. Menon having the opinion she does and voicing it. But I do have a right to question how my tax payer money is used.

        And Ambedkar’s views of both Hinduism and Islam are deeply problematic in my opinion, but thats a separate discussion.

        5. See 2 above.

        6. That wasnt really what I was trying to say. My point was that the reason one might not be very perturbed by Menon’s views would be that Hindus are thought of being dominant in India. However if you change the scenario the real impact of the words become clear.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:


          1. I am not aware of these specific incidents. Someone from JNU will have to provide an answer. However, I am not sympathetic to this line of defense. No institution is under obligation to take up every cause in the world or even the country. JNU was not set up as a watchdog for free speech. It is an educational institutional and its student body is entitled to pick whatever issue it decides to in a democratic manner. Nor is the distinction between private and public meaningful. Do governments expect every public sector institution to be loyal even when their actions are questionable? Do the poor who cannot afford private education not have the right to dissent?

          2. I am not sure what credibility this author has. He makes a sweeping assertion that “The Left dominance over the intellectual establishment has its roots in the systematic “ethnic cleansing” of all non-Left thinkers since the 1950s.” Did the non-Left thinkers just play dead or roll over and die? This does not substitute for the hard evidence needed to substantiate your assertion.

          3. This is a strange claim because you can call anything ‘structural’ violence and use it to excuse real violence. After all capitalism itself can be termed structural violence. Would that claim justify random killing? Universities do entertain non-academic speakers but by invitation. No academic or non-academic individual is entitled to drop in uninvited and address an audience. If the university did not invite Ramdev, it was within its rights. People may not agree with that decision but it cannot be termed structural violence which justifies the kind of conduct displayed by the lawyers. If the Indian government did what you mention, it might be a violation of the Constitution or some other law and would be legally challenged on those grounds. It would not justify street violence.

          4. I am not sure how you would like your tax money to be used? Would you like it to be used to disallow certain types of opinions from public sector institutions? On Ambedkar, it is fine to consider his views problematic but should they have been prevented from being voiced? Isn’t there an intellectual way to deal with views that one considers problematic? Why the impulse to stifle?

          5. This is very flimsy grounds to hang your argument on. This can only be resolved with evidence. Someone should do a survey.

          6. You seem to be quite perturbed by Professor Menon’s views even though they are about a majority. What is the real impact of the words?

          • Vikram Says:

            “You seem to be quite perturbed by Professor Menon’s views even though they are about a majority. What is the real impact of the words?”

            I remember someone arguing that humiliation is a powerful motivator …


          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vikram: I am sorry I did not realize you were responding to a sense of humiliation. Generally, one does not attribute humiliation to views expressed by academics in universities. Universities are designed as safe places where people can express unpopular views. One agrees or disagrees with the views and debates them at an intellectual level. This is a culture that has to evolve. The alternative is to shut down universities or transform them into ones similar to those that exist in North Korea.

          • Vikram Says:

            Perhaps this comment of mine that I made at another blog would communicate my view better. The post there was in context of Sheldon Pollock leading a Sanskrit digitization effort and a petition going around to have him removed.


            “I do broadly agree with your comments here. The petition managers are the ones who come off as biased, and simply unhappy with Pollock’s appointment.

            But there is a broader phenomena at work here that should be pointed out. Let me try and illustrate it via a personal anecdote. A Korean post-doc recently joined our lab, and one day we just started talking about Indian cities. I pointed out to him that many Indian cities are named after Hindu goddesses, Delhi after Dhillika, Patna after Patni, Chandigarh after Chandi and so on. His first words after he heard ‘Hindu’ were, “isnt Hinduism about a strict hierarchy” and so on. Indeed, Wendy Doniger, the target of many Hindutvavadis ire has herself remarked how frustrated she is with the fact that after every lecture she gives on Hinduism, the first question she is asked is “What about the caste system ?”.

            As more and more Indians interact with the outside world, they have come across the rather unsettling fact that most of the world associates Hinduism with the caste system and hierarchy. It doesnt help that most of the Indians talking to the world are urban, upper caste Hindus who havent really experienced caste as a social phenomena.

            The idea of Hinduism as a justification of caste system, was an oriental view, conditioned strongly by colonial exigencies. It is totally called the ‘Dumontian view’ and has largely been rejected in the light of newer, post-colonial theories such as the ‘Hocartian view’. But a large section of academia, especially left-leaning and those associated with neo-Ambedkarian groups have stuck with the Dumontian view, either out of ignorance or political convenience.

            This has made a very large number of urban, English speaking Hindus extremely distrustful of academia. A case in point is the controversy regarding Durga and Mahishasura. The hyperbolic sections of academia and neo-Ambedkarites portray the various versions of the story in a highly racialized and inflammatory manner. This view challenges their notions,

            But it has to be done in anonymity, so far ….”

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vikram: From reading this I get the impression that you are unsettled by the impression of outsiders that Hinduism is a hierarchical religion. You believe this ‘Dumontian view’ was propagated by the colonists for their purposes while the truth is otherwise as established by the ‘Hocartian view.’ It seems to me that this is an academic debate and there are enough scholars who are not ignorant or politically motivated for there to be some direction to the discussion. I am not familiar with either view so cannot say more.

            I do note your remark that “It doesn’t help that most of the Indians talking to the world are urban, upper caste Hindus who haven’t really experienced caste as a social phenomena.” This implies that there are others who have experienced caste as a social phenomenon and their views should also carry weight. This seems like the difference in opinion in the US as to whether it is or not a racist society.

            This also reminds me of the endless discussion on whether Islam is a religion of peace or of violence that unsettles some Muslims. The well-known French scholar Olivier Roy has argued that such a question should not be addressed via an analysis of scriptural texts but only through studying the lived reality of Muslims. I found it intriguing to find yesterday an examination of the texts by the well-known American writer Gary Wills:

  8. Kabir Altaf Mir Says:

    Professor Menon may have said things that lack nuance and are offensive to some. But Arnab Goswami and Subramanium Swamy also say plenty of things that lack nuance and are generally considered offensive. They don’t even pretend to adhere to the standards of academic debate.

    Regarding the behavior of the “lawyers”, the fundamental question is the acceptability or lack thereof of violence, especially when it comes from those who are supposed to uphold justice. As for not allowing right-wing people to speak, that is wrong and should be condemned. Freedom of speech applies to everyone, even those we dislike.

  9. Reflections on India, JNU and Pakistan: Anjum Altaf | Kafila Says:

    […] Below are excerpts, the entire article can be read at TheSouthAsianIdea Weblog. […]

  10. Vikram Says:

    The starting point of the discussion was the inference made from the recent happenings at JNU, wherein you had made the conclusion that the hooliganism showed by the lawyers and the repression showed by the government carry a broader portent.

    Let us compare two sequences of events:
    1) An event is held at a university which calls for the destruction of India and the killing of Indians.
    2) The state responds by arresting and charging a number of people it thinks are associated with this act.
    3) When the accused are brought before the court, thuggish individuals attack the accused and are later themselves charged with assault.
    4) The matter of whether the accused event organizers and lawyers are guilty is before the court.

    1) An individual associated with a right wing group criticizes the founder of a religion.
    2) Thousands of followers of that religion march demanding he be killed.
    3) The individual is arrested and has the most severe criminal act applied to him.
    4) Accused is now in jail, with open death threats if he comes out.

    Which sequence do you think bodes worse for Indian democracy ?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: Both are bad but in relative terms the first is worse in my opinion.

      People marching in the streets for this or that demand and intimidating others has been the norm in India for a long time. However, the state entering a university breaks a new barrier.

      • Vikram Says:

        Kanhaiya Kumar is out and making speeches to packed crowds.

        Kamlesh Tiwari is still in jail.

        • Kabir Altaf Mir Says:

          You are comparing apples to oranges. One person is a student leader who is fighting for progressive politics. The other person is a right-wing fanatic who made disgusting remarks regarding the sexuality of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him)–remarks that are offensive to 15% of India’s population. You do Kanhaiya a great disservice to compare him to someone who is responsible for hate speech.

          Kanhaiya was released on bail through a legal process. The same legal process should operate in the Tiwari case and the courts should decide how to handle it. If one case was mishandled, there is no reason why the other one should be mishandled as well.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: I am not familiar with the case of Kamlesh Tiwari. Why is he being kept in jail?

  11. Kabir Altaf Mir Says:

    Kanhaiya Kumar is an extremely impressive young man. Even after spending three weeks in jail, he is not deterred and is still fighting for justice for the deprived and for minorities. His interviews and speeches post-release clearly demonstrate his faith in the Indian Constitution and his understanding that nationalism cannot be equated to chanting “vande mataram” and donning the RSS uniform. It is ironic that in its attempt to crush left-wing dissent, the Modi regime has instead created a new hero for millions.

    If Pakistan had a student leader of Kanhiya’s caliber, we would be in a very different place right now. He is truly India’s pride.

  12. Vikram Says:

    The article you linked to is paywalled, it looks interesting and I will try and access it when I am on a university computer.

    Regarding Dumontian and Hocartian views of caste, these terms are well established in academia. I am reading Declan Quigley’s work on caste, and can contribute a summary of his argument if that will be helpful.

    Regarding your points on comparing caste and race. There certainly are very strong parallels. After all, race was a construction to ensure certain groups are deprived of rights and can be made to work at low or no wages, and under complete compulsion. In other words, it was a slavery legitimizing ideology. Casteism has similar goals, ensuring that farm laborers and those who work in ‘polluting jobs’ remain unfree.

    The point of contention here though is whether casteism is some inherent and fundamental feature of Hinduism. And the argument here is that caste systems are a generalized feature of feudal, agrarian societies and dominant ideologies contain justifications and oppositions to it.

    Consider for example Jews in 19th century Iran,
    “They are obliged to live in a separate part of town…; for they are considered as unclean creatures… Under the pretext of their being unclean, they are treated with the greatest severity and should they enter a street, inhabited by Mussulmans, they are pelted by the boys and mobs with stones and dirt… For the same reason, they are prohibited to go out when it rains; for it is said the rain would wash dirt off them, which would sully the feet of the Mussulmans… If a Jew is recognized as such in the streets, he is subjected to the greatest insults. The passers-by spit in his face, and sometimes beat him… unmercifully… If a Jew enters a shop for anything, he is forbidden to inspect the goods… Should his hand incautiously touch the goods, he must take them at any price the seller chooses to ask for them… Sometimes the Persians intrude into the dwellings of the Jews and take possession of whatever please them. Should the owner make the least opposition in defense of his property, he incurs the danger of atoning for it with his life… If… a Jew shows himself in the street during the three days of the Katel (Muharram)…, he is sure to be murdered.”
    – Bernard Lewis. The Jews of Islam.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: As I mentioned I am not familiar with the Dumontian and Hocartian positions. It would be excellent if you can contribute a summary of Quigley’s work which can be posted on the blog for discussion.

      Without knowing this literature the question that comes to mind about caste systems being a generalized feature of feudal and agrarian societies is the following. Classic feudalism existed in Europe for some centuries but one doesn’t read much of the existence of a caste system there. There were certainly occupational guilds but that would be the closest equivalent. Similarly, there were agrarian societies in Africa which had slavery but not caste. In any case, the persistence of caste well into the 21st century is not known elsewhere.

      Your example of the treatment of Jews is probably correct but it doesn’t support your argument. The oppression of one religion by another is well known but caste is a structural feature within a religion. The terrible treatment of Jews in 20th century Europe does not imply that caste exists within Christianity. Nor can local incidents be extrapolated to yield religion-wide conclusions. For example, there were many places in the Islamic world (e.g., Spain) where Jews were not treated as they were in Iran. In fact, both Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain by Christians.

      • Vikram Says:

        “The oppression of one religion by another is well known but caste is a structural feature within a religion.”

        On further reflection, one could argue that the oppression of one religion by another is a structural feature of Abrahamic religions. The link between Christianity and slavery has been seen in various Christian societies.

        The Quran allows enslavement of non-Muslims, although it does encourage manumission. The treatment of Jews in Iran can be seen as an outcome of these precepts, and parallels exist such as Alevis in Syria.

        Note that historians also attribute to the establishment of Muslim-led kingdoms in India, an increase in slavery and slave trade, after it had virtually disappeared in the middle ages.

        “Slavery as a predominant social institution emerged from the 8th century onwards in India, particularly after the 11th century, as part of systematic dethesaurization (plunder) and enslavement of infidels, along with the use of slaves in armies for conquest. For each conquest, the religious law on khums incentivized and distributed 80% of the plunder and slaves to the soldiers, while requiring 20% of the captured wealth and slaves be transferred to the Caliph and sponsoring Islamic state.” – Andre Wink

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: It is not clear to me how the oppression of one religion by another is related to slavery.

  13. Vikram Says:

    “caste is a structural feature within a religion”

    No serious scholar of Hinduism today will agree with this statement.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: Could you please explain why?

      • Vikram Says:

        In Indian tradition possessing caste or jati/biradari is a statement of citizenship, and group membership than location in a fixed hierarchy. This is seen in the modern context as the prevalence of various caste organizations within and outside India, and politicization along those lines.

        This notion of jati is often mixed up with the theoretical construct of varna, which is commented upon by all major Hindu traditions, and other Indian religions. Indeed, Eleanor Nesbitt in summarizing the reflections by the Sikh gurus on ‘Varan’ says,
        “A Sikh should be a Brahmin in piety, a Kshatriya in defense of truth and the oppressed, a Vaishya in business acumen and hard work, and a Shudra in serving humanity.”

        The Mahabharata and the various Dharmashastras have their own commentaries, but these are again on varna, not jati.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: Within the concept of citizenship in our times, the stress is on the equality of citizenship. All citizens aim to be equal in the social sense. If not, there is a tension whatever the name we give it. If caste ascribed equal citizenship it is not clear why Dr. Ambedkar would have asked for its annihilation. If, on the other hand, it ascribed unequal citizenship there has to be some justification that people can accept.

          • Vikram Says:

            Caste ascribes equal membership within a caste group, irrespective of economic standing. This excerpt (slightly trimmed) from a recent paper on Jats in Western UP illustrates how this equality among Jats is institutionalized via the khaps. Other castes have similar mechanisms, for example, Jeff Witsoe has documented similar phenomena among Rajputs in Bihar, and later Yadavs as well.

            “The powerful position of the Jats vis-à-vis land, agricultural assets, occupation and education is further enhanced by the khap-based high-level solidarity among them. The khap is one of the most significant traditional institutions that unites the Jats into a highly integrated caste group. Though the khaps differ in terms of size, they are equal in their standing because the ‘Jats prize the ethic of equality above all else, it is not possible to pull rank among them’ (Gupta 1997: 42). The principle of bhaichara (brotherhood) is the essence of the khap system and it guides its various spheres of activity. For example, it makes equal division of land among the thoks (lineages) mandatory (Baden-Powell 1892: 131–33). Besides, ‘the land, whether ancestral or acquired, cannot be alienated outside the thok’ (Pradhan 1966: 35–36). It allows everyone within the khap to participate in its affairs as equals.

            To quote Gupta, ‘It is interesting to note that the farmers of west UP seem to relish the fabled bhaichara ethos even today. The bhaichara wherever it existed, signalled an egalitarian social structure and an extended kin networks of equals’ (1997: 42; see also Madsen 1991). It functions, as Schapera writes, towards ‘the establishment and maintenance of internal co-operation and external independence’ (1956: 218). The khap fulfils its objective by controlling the normative behaviour of the villagers under its jurisdiction through both positive and negative sanctions.

            The institution of khap overrules whatever economic disparities exist among the Jats. There are no ‘high’ and ‘low’ Jats; the more affluent among them do not treat their poorer caste fellows with derision. The tradition of hookah (smoking pipe) sharing is the best signifier of unity and equality among the Jats. The common hookah which is swung around on a pivot and placed in the centre of gathering of Jat males for their sharing demonstrates their caste-based egalitarian character. They share the hookah among themselves and never extend this courtesy to other castes including Muley (Muslim) Jats. Jat women follow their male counterparts and smoke kalai (a smaller version of hookah) within their home.

            The Jats have easily translated their social solidarity into a politically mobilised and unified caste group which has enabled them to acquire high-level social capital that added enormously to their powerful standing in the villages.”

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vikram: Can this argument be critiqued or is it fool-proof?

  14. Vikram Says:

    The argument constitutes the best explanation for India’s politics, and the state of governance and human development there.

    We have very often debated in this blog, the reasons for India’s appalling human development indicators, and official apathy to the misery of the population. Very often this has been attributed to ‘elite distance’ or ‘lack of sensitivity’. That might be true, but it doesnt really explain the situation on the ground.

    The central issue is how people are politicized. This shapes their political participation and mobilization, and indeed their very understanding of the state. And the argument above makes it clear that politicization in India has been heavily conditioned by identity, overwhelmingly caste. It has been remarked often that India never had a social revolution, and this argument makes it clear how that lack of revolution manifests in its politics.

    Because there was no social revolution, old caste institutions like khaps and ‘samaj’, continued to govern peoples understanding of community. Note that these institutions themselves were formed as the Mughal state collapsed and the colonial state entrenched itself.

    So the absence of social equality had less to do with other castes deferring to Brahmins politically (which they never really have done), but to their caste ‘elders’. Intersect this with two key instrumental factors, control of land and reservation in government jobs, and the argument for caste based mobilization becomes a matter of interest, and not just identity.

    This explains why we have thousands of young Jat men mobilizing (in unfortunately violent ways) for reservations, but you would see barely a whimper for better schools and infrastructure.

  15. Vikram Says:

    “the left-leaning champions of free speech who protested against governments’ alleged crackdown on JNU following anti-national protests orchestrated by ultra-left-wing student-turned-political-activists including Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid remain silent.”

    Btw, Kamlesh Tiwari is still in jail.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: This kind of argument is very common but I am not convinced of its validity. One can’t expect anyone to comment on every single thing that is happening at any time in the world. What is relevant is whether the critique of any particular event has merit or not. The crackdown on JNU was problematic even if liberals stay silent on everything else. Similarly, the arrest of the blogger in Bangladesh is problematic even if no one else stands up in his support. What we can do is ask ourselves the question: Do we support what happened in JNU or what happened to the blogger? We should not draw attention away from the gravity of an event by casting doubts on the integrity of other people. Liberals are hypocrites. So what? Does it validate the intervention at JNU or the arrest of the blogger?

      I can recommend a recent article that should provide material to think on this issue:

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