Skip to content

When Caliban Meets Binayak Sen: Academic Activism & a Materialist Praxis

By Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha

“My sense of the political stems from the malnourished bodies of my tribal patients” – Binayak Sen in The Times of India 

Many have wondered why Arundhati Roy ended up being a one novel wonder. And we hear some of our learned colleagues suggest that her talents dried up after she received the Booker and that explains her rush to social activism. One does not know how to react to such bizarre remarks. One thing is for sure: such observations are hegemonic in nature and they testify to the extent of depoliticization that the academia in India has experienced.

Academic corridors in the Humanities and Social Sciences in India (I would restrict my discussion only to the Indian scenario) are largely abuzz with fashionable theoretic jargons and specialized intellectual lingo, supplemented with truck loads of empirical data. But when it comes to our daily intercourse with the ground reality, the academy, barring few institutions, largely draw a flack. The mere syllabification of socio-political or cultural theories has robbed the academy of its original critical agenda and consequently, Foucault and Derrida have been reduced to mere names in institutional domains where academics flaunt their familiarity with countless theoretic terminologies. And, yet, they turn a blind eye to the concrete issues of contemporary reality. Unless and until the academy is embedded in the hurly burly of life or, to borrow from Edward Said, unless our discursive practices are worlded, we run the risk of collectively colluding with the forces of hegemony. I would argue that the university as an institution of liberal thought and activism in India has failed today, and it has failed miserably.

The present contribution seeks to engage with the issue of academic activism in the Indian context and I would do that by referring to a host of empirical frames concerning various new social movements in India, centering around issues like state absolutism, corporate capital, SEZ, forceful eviction, tribal rights, Maoist violence, lack of governance, civil society, the challenges of nationalism and popular sovereignty, etc. The question is: What kind of epistemic reformulation and intellectual praxis have the university in India generated among the budding scholars? Has the University only ended up in cushioning and making dissent and radical thinking an academic concern?

Post-globalization pedagogic practices in India collude with the ideologies of corporate globalization and hasten the demise of the critical rage potential. A re-radicalized, re-rooted/re-routed intellectual agenda of resistance can be articulated through radical academic activism and pedagogic reformulation. Theory has to be re-embedded to new localized praxis of resistance. Our existing pedagogic practices in the Indian/Third World context have always been shaped by the residual impacts of Euro-centric trends. Within the Indian academic hierarchy, the governing mechanisms have lionized a few elite metropolitan institutions populated by cognoscenti. This has resulted in the consistent marginalization of the fringe/suburban academies.

Unless the academy engages with the ground issues in its pedagogical framework, we are bound to have a group of zombies as academic output. Issues of insurgency, terrorism, farmer`s suicide, state totalitarianism, poverty, etc. cannot be isolated from the educational and literary discursive practices. Semi-defunct theoretical terms such as ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘decolonisation’ can get reenergized only through local and immediate socio-political references of coercion and exploitation. Caliban can surely identify a few fellow sufferers among the tribal dissidents of Dantewada and Prospero`s colonial tyranny can have a  local and contemporary replica in the state-corporate plunder of Schedule Five tribal lands in central India. The syllabi needs to be relocated in the din and dust of praxis to forge new pedagogic strategies and new theoretical optics vis-à-vis the changing patterns of life situations in today`s neo-colonial world. It calls for a new form of academic activism and critical intellectual accountability to resuscitate the avant garde agenda of resistance. 

In the post-Tahrir Square, post Occupy Wall Street/Global Meltdown times, a new domain of academic radicalism should emanate from a direct and constant academic engagement with issues of immediate importance. To cite one example, instead of deliberating on the increasing numbers of Framer’s suicide every year for their failure to repay loans – loans that were forced on them as food and other agricultural subsidies came to a halt in India under the IMF and WTO induced market oriented economic policies – as a valid neo-colonial phenomena, Indian academics continue to swear by the same old hackneyed depoliticized theoretical staff of hybridity, liminality, and borderlessness.

The white colonizers are gone but the native comprador class, aided by state policies of unbounded laissez faire and emboldened with the unbridled march of globalization, has benefited from the state sponsored neo-colonialism or state cannibalism that devours the dispossessed sections of its own populace.  What should be the role of academia in fashioning a counter-narrative to such neo-colonial coordinates? Should it continue to pursue purist textual pleasure and engage in an aesthetic form of cultural politics at the cost of radical praxis?

Comprador Academy in a Broken Republic

The academy was supposed to be the harbinger of avant garde movements to initiate radical subversion but most academic seminars in the Humanities in India (largely sponsored by the University Grants Commission) engage with safe and fashionable issues of identity, nationalism, queer theory, gender, etc. ignoring in the process, burning ground realities of immense socio-political import. This is not to suggest that we must downplay important issues such as gender in academic discussion but the fact remains that the overall intellectual climate is largely informed by fashionable trends in intellectual corridors which has little impact on the lifeworld.

The drooping future of critique and the prevalent depoliticized intellectual bankruptcy in the university campus can be salvaged only through a genuinely committed inter-disciplinary praxis incorporating untouched areas of contemporary socio-economic and socio-political debates such as mal-nourishment (42% of Indian children are under-weight – a ‘national shame’ according to the Prime Minister ), definition of poverty line, SEZ, eviction of slum dwellers and tribal population in the name of development, Maoism, Dalitization of politics, etc for a possible and resurgent anti-neocolonial trajectory.

Talking to reporters, Dr. Binayak Sen, the noted human rights activist once said that his political sense of deprivation grew out of the mal-nourished bodies of his tribal patients in Chhattisgarh. Following Dr. Sen, one may hope that a renewed and re-radicalized postcolonial or anti-neocolonial agenda can be sustained by our regular embeddedness to the immediate praxis of exploitation.

Any talk of praxis and academic engagement in the Indian context may begin with Arundhati Roy’s new book, Broken Republic (2011) that articulates issues of rampant state coercion, state corporatism, and the consequent ultra Left dissidence. Reading Roy, one may assume that while the poor indigenous people are being plundered by big corporate houses in the name of development, the Indian academia, salubriously ensconced in air-conditioned seminar rooms, is merely deliberating on mindless intellectual fads of multiculturalism and hybridity. The UGC is pumping crores of tax payer’s money to organize seminars every year. Any seminar on postcolonialism or contemporary literature and culture that remains indifferent to ground realities of local domination and political dissent is a mockery of genuine scholarship.

[Dr. Anindya Purakayastha was formerly Assistant Professor in English inCentral University of Orissa, Koraput in India. Currently he teaches in the Department of English in Sidho Kanho Birsha University in Purulia, West Bengal, India. His Ph.D. dissertation submitted to IIT Kharagpur, India was on Restructuring Postmodern Theory and Postcolonial Politics in the Post 9/11 Scenario.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: