Glimpses of History and Teasers of the Future: An Interview with Anirban Bhattacharya
By Malavika Binny & Tintu K J
Anirban Bhattacharya, the soft spoken student leader who was under arrest, along with Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar, is arguably the most articulate among the three with a rare depth of understanding of Left politics. It was Anirban’s presence that was instrumental in wrecking the narrative that the government was trying to weave out in branding JNU as an anti-national hub. He is intensely self-critical and has clarity of thought which is refreshingly new among young leaders. Most of all, what struck us, while we were interviewing him in his hostel room on campus, was his humility and the warmth of the genuineness of his character. Excerpts from a conversation with Anirban:
Malavika Binny & Tintu KJ: I think you have been asked about your views on nationalism umpteen times. So let us slightly modify the question and ask you – what do you think is wrong with the BJP/RSS/Hindutva version of nationalism?
Anirban Bhattacharya: I think, it’s not just about the BJP andRSS; there is a majoritarian sense of nationalism that has kind of subsumed all other ideas regarding nationalism right since the late 19th century. Back then, there was the Ambedkarite idea of nationalism, there was Periyar’s idea of nationalism, there was Bhagat Singh’s idea of nationalism, there was Subhash Chandra Bose’s idea of nationalism. But, what had become the predominant version of nationalism amongst the masses is the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan idea of nationalism – that had its impact on the nature and extent of our democracy.
I need not reiterate that I have no sympathies with the AIMIM, but the point over here is that what Asaduddin Owaisi said is actually something that completely stands true. He said, “Iam willing to say Hindustan Zindabad but I will not say Bharat Mata ki Jai”and that is absolutely fine as per Indian democracy which is constitutional democracy. As we have seen that there is a certain brand of nationalism that has been pushed… I mean making a Muslim constable parade in the streets by forcing him to shout Jai Bhawani is the brand of nationalism that is taking root today. It is happening much more aggressively today. It is precisely because of this…when in a country like ours, when Babari Masjid was demolished, even in the court Ram Lalla is considered as the petitioner. These things are only possible when it has become very deeply ingrained in your minds to the extent that even a chief minister of a state says that in madrasas, Muslim fundamentalists are being trained. That is the level to which it has been indoctrinated in our minds and probably in the electoral equations, since majoritarianism plays a major role; everyone had to pay lip service to this brand of nationalism. Today, all our resources has been sold away; all our natural resources, our land, everything has been sold away and all these things are celebrated in the name of sovereignty. One or two trucks get inside some boundary near Arunachal Pradesh from China and the entire country is on the prime time media. But, our entire economy has been ravaged by China and they are even sending you Ganesha idols, which are made in China. Whatever you want, they will sell it to you. If you want Ganesha, they sell it to you, if you want nice smart phones with tri-colour on it, they will sell it to you. And all this is celebrated in the name of nationalism. What kind of nationalism is this when the sovereignty of the country is given away? In this brand of nationalism, we see that there is no actual difference (between the Congress and the BJP). Sardar Vallabhai Patel, a Congress figure who supposedly united the country, ‘the Iron Man of India’, becomes the biggest role model for the RSS-BJP government – which shows that the kind of nationalism that the ‘tryst with destiny’ that had happened, and with that tryst, the kind of nationalism that became acceptable and which is promoted with might and power by Vallabhai Patel and today by Modi is similar. It seems to be a great coming together and that is how a Congress personality becomes the biggest role model for the BJP and the tallest statue of the world is being built in China by Jiangxi is of him. All of this… the Make in India campaign…, it does not make any sense, in the name of nationalism, you and the Congress come together and you have the figure called Vallabhai Patel and you have to make the tallest statue in the world and you make it in China and call it Make in India. This is complete absurdity and there is a deeper sense of crisis that the country is going through.
Nationalism comes for free; jingoism comes for free to take the attention of the people away. Because to build canals you have to spend money, to give mid-day meal you have to spend money. You have to address the fact that 60,000 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra, you have to invest. But, you are not bothered about these. Nationalism and jingoism come for free. When you do that (rake up debates of nationalism and jingoism), even the frustrated people, even the families of those people who are suffering, think that ‘haan desh ki khilaf to nahi ja sakta’ (one should not go against the nation). So, that is the paradox or the rather unfortunate definition of nationalism that has prevailed.
The issues in JNU and HCU are just glimpses of larger issues; in today’s age, there are bigger issues that we need to address – the manner in which Jagdalpur Legal Aid has been attacked and the manner in which several journalists are attacked, and there is a massive onslaught that the government is preparing for in Bastar, in Chhattisgarh – the aim being that you have to give up mineral resources and you have to clear the ground for that and if there are people, adivasis resisting, fighting for land, livelihood and dignity, then they would be crushed. The fact is that this happened during the time of the Congress. The most oppressed people in this country, the adivasis, the most deprived, one of the poorest, have today been branded (by Manmohan Singh’s government) as the biggest threat to investment and industrial atmosphere of this country. So, all these are things done in the name of nationalism. The BJP is pursuing the same scheme far more aggressively.
MB & TKJ: Over the past two years, universities have become the avenues of protest. Kanhaiya had mentioned that it is the space of the university that will give birth to the revolution because now, owing to the decentralized structure of production, it is only in the universities that you have people living in close proximity with each other, engaging in similar pursuits and maybe facing the same problems. Do you share the same views?
AB: The point is that there is a connection. There is a connection in the manner in which things are happening. Of course, it is not a coincidence, there is wide spread resistance across the universities of the country. But, as we were saying, we have to connect, we are saying Stand with JNU, Stand with HCU and so on and also if we say JNU stands with HCU and vice versa, but if we cannot connect JNU and HCU with Dadri or JNU and HCU with Bastar and so on, if these things don’t come together, things will become rather difficult. But, there are connections we seek to make and which we have been making. But, there is still some more ground to cover.
One thing is for sure, it is these connections that are in fact threatening the state. The question is that – why did Rohit become the biggest threat to the government? Because he was not just raising Dalit issues, that is still permissible; certainly radical Ambedkarism is something that is not allowed. But, once Rohith (as per ruling class language) extended his limits and went up to support Muzaffarnagar Baki Hain, when he started speaking against Yakub Memon’s hanging, there he was making connections with the other oppressed minorities, he was making connections with the Muslims. Once that happened, he became the biggest threat. So, it is the connections that the state is wary of. It is precisely because of this, that the Rohit issue happened… the entire chain of nationalism versus anti-nationalism started from there – he was immediately branded as an anti-national. And the same thing happened in JNU. It is obvious that they are scared of these connections and it is these connections that we have to make.
While making these connections, it is very apparent that the binary of Hindu-Muslim has been there (in the past); it is not satisfying the needs of the state to the fullest extent as they had now. Probably, they need to extent the boundaries of Hindu versus Muslim. In the national/anti-national binary, it is the same thing, because Muslims by virtue of them being Muslims are anti-national. But, not just Muslims, some others are anti-national, too. So turning this Hindu-Muslim binary into a national/anti-national binary actually gives them much more scope to add some others as well; others who might not be Muslim, but can be deemed as anti-national. All those people speaking up against the Operation Green Hunt or elsewhere or a Prof. Saibaba or anyone else can be an anti-national. Umar Khalid is certainly an antinational because he is Khalid, but Bhattacharya could also be an anti-national. In this way, they can take away the voice of those who stand for people’s issues.
So, this expansion is required for the range of programme that they seek to unleash. Recently IIT’s fees have been increased from 90,000 to 2 lac rupees, Non-NET scholarships have disappeared from the prospectus, but these things are not being noticed. But, the fight against privatisation will not be like the fight against communalism, it is a fight against neo-imperialism and privatisation. So, these checks cannot be kept only in the Hindu-Muslim binary.
MB & TKJ: In JNU, our academics is informed by our politics, could you share your academic interests with us?
AB: As you know, as activists we always struggle with academics and activism. And most of the time, our academics take the brunt of our activism. But, certainly it is a fact that the topic that we choose, the kind of work that we do, what interests us, the direction of our research is, to a large extent, guided by our politics. And our research is also very autobiographical in a sense. I was born in north Bengal. I have worked for my M.Phil. and PhD on the plantation labour, tea gardens in north Bengal – Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. So, it is basically a workers’ history. It is an area which has not been looked into, because it does not fall within the framework of an idealized factory. Particularly a kind of worker who is facing starvation death, who is facing immense amount of hardships not just now, but that has been the case throughout history. How do we understand the working class? What is the condition of the working class? It is primarily an adivasi working class which came from Jharkhand. What was this region before tea came in? What happened to the region after the coming of the tea and so on? These are the questions that I am basically trying to look at. Of course, you are right; our research is also related with our political concerns.
MB & TKJ: While we are very happy that all three of you, Kanhaiya, Umar and yourself as well as Prof. Geelani and Prof. Saibaba have been released on bail, the larger agenda of the protests – the scrapping of the sedition laws, the questioning of the legitimacy of capital punishment in a democracy and the fight against the witch-hunting of Muslims and other minorities in this nation – are still at large. How do we go about bringing these questions back to the limelight?
AB: Certainly for us, it is very important as politically conscious activists, how to read this movement. This movement is not about three people who were arrested, several people witch-hunted – then they got bail – and then, they came back and the movement is over! We have to certainly understand that this particular movement, the last one and half months, actually gives us a taste of how bad things are going to be in the days to come and the years to come. These are trailers or rather teasers. Actually it shows you what can be done. If people felt that with JNU things will get over, they were wrong! I think it was taught to HCU that JNU was a trailer. So, I feel that the coming days are going to be very difficult and the coming years are going to be very difficult. The attack is going to be much uglier. In the midst of all of this, the students’ scholarships disappear, they pass a resolution on the deprivation point without a JNU Executive Council meeting, and changes are being brought in. It is a sort of trickling in…that is the strategy – surveillance measures are being brought in using these events as a pretext.
There is not a day that passes when we do not hear of dalits being killed or beaten or Muslim cattle-traders being hanged or killed…So, these one and half months can only be seen as a glimpse of how bad things can be. But, on the other side, what is hopeful is that this one and half months have also shown again, a glimpse of the possibilities, that there is a possibility of forging a non-sectarian unity in struggle. And here it has to be said very categorically that this unity is not an electoral unity. Electoral unity may come and go and what happens is that in electoral unity, at the end of the day, we are not able to challenge the social base or we are not able to democratise the social base so that we can make forces like ABVP and RSS irrelevant. Today, what is the situation? People who should be with us, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the workers, even a large section of the dalits, where do we find them? We find them with the RSS. Why so? Because Brahmanism and Hindutva have strong social roots. Only electoral alignments are not going to work and last five, six or seven years have shown that it is not helpful. There needs to be a larger democratisation, there needs to be a real change at the level of social transformation.
We say that the annihilation of the caste is not possible without revolutionary social transformation and revolutionary social transformation is not possible without the annihilation of the caste. If we don’t go with the aim of social transformation, if we don’t go with the aim of democratisation, then we will always find those who should be with us are with them (Hindutva forces). So, this kind of unity needs to be achieved in struggles, a non-sectarian unity which is against fascism, against Hindutva and against Brahmanism need to be achieved through struggle. I think a glimpse of that, of the possibilities that there are, has also been shown by our struggles despite our differences. I think there is quite a lot of ground to cover even to have that unity in place. Out of compulsion we came together. Necessity of time has given us all this unity. But, I think, there is still ground to be covered, to actually have that kind of aunity. But, opportunities have been shown; thanks to Modi, we have had this opportunity.
MB & TKJ: When we talk about the lack of social transformation or the lack of addressing social transformation, is it because of a certain disengagement of the Left with issues such as that of gender and caste?
AB: True. See as we were saying that there are lacunae in any shade that we can pick up right now. But, if you are Marxist, if you are Leftist…as a Left activist, first of all we are trained to look into ourselves. Self-criticism is a very important aspect of Marxism itself. So, before pointing fingers at anyone else we should first point our fingers to ourselves. And I think certainly, it is a fact that an understanding, which ranges from pathetic to very shaky, on caste and gender has remained. When we speak of the Left in this country, we speak of several shades; so many Left organisations, so many left parties and so many shades of it. We can divide them for convenience’s sake as parliamentary trend and non-parliamentary trend. And, if you ask me personally, I have much hope from and for the non-parliamentary trend which is because it primarily relies on people’s struggles than electoral equations. That is precisely why I see much more hope in addressing these issues, showing that leadership, of forging a unity among all those who are fighting against fascist forces in this country.
Back to the question of caste and gender, the Left, the various shades of the Left, are struggling with these issues in totality, some more than others. On the question of caste, some leaders have left the movement. Certainly on the question of caste, there has been a churning and there has been a certain questioning and engagement, which is a good sign, but I think in terms of gender, we are lagging behind. There is still a lot of ground to cover.
MB & TKJ: While the JNU movement was in full steam, there was a lot of emphasis on JNU culture and why we need to preserve it. What, according to you, is JNU culture?
AB: One element that I would strongly identify with JNU culture is that of conversation. When we were in custody, we tried to take a little bit of JNU along with us. There was an interesting incident which happened. There was a constable who asked us – “the rest of it is fine, you have your political position, that’s fine; but how would you defend something like 3000 condoms on campus?” And I said, “I don’t know about 3000 condoms, let’s keep that aside. But the government spends crores of rupees on ads and campaigns to spread awareness on the use of condoms. So either you should ask the government to stop such anti-national advertisements or you should stop accusing youth of being anti-national when they practice safe sex.” The constable agreed that it made sense.
The thing about JNU is that we love to differ over here and we can forge unities in spite of our differences. The culture of JNU is to learn how to differ with respect. By differ, I mean we learn to question. If you never question, you will never learn to differ and you will end up conforming. From our teachers, from our classrooms, from our comrades, from our adversaries, we learn to differ. JNU teaches us not to conform.
Photo-credit: Keisha Kashyap
Malavika Binny is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. She specializes in Ancient History and her research interests include, gender, caste, histories of science, medical traditions and architecture. She has published articles in national and international academic and non-academic journals and loves walking barefoot in the rain.
Tintu K Joseph is an Assistant Professor at Kuriakose Elias College in Kerala. He is also a PhD candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. He is interested in the themes of religion and society, identities, state formation and queer studies. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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