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The Independent Intellectual?: A Response to Professor Makarand Paranjape’s Lecture on Nationalism

By Debaditya Bhattacharya

I too am a student of literature. And for a little less than eight years I happened to be at the same university that Professor Makarand Paranjape, in his teach-in lecture on March 7, termed as a “left hegemonic space”. I am not repulsed by his sweeping statement about the nature of “left dictatorial practices” in JNU, nor by his attempt to equate the many shades of communist political practice in India with a “Stalinist position” – not because they are historically untrue (which they are!), but because they come from a hegemonic consensus about the ‘legitimacy’ of an elected ruling-party. Such hegemonic insistence on electoral ‘legitimacy’ as morally disallowing critique or dissent against those in power exactly runs counter to what Professor Paranjape began with – a need for an alternative hermeneutics of mediality. His call for an acknowledgment of the incompleteness of every ideological position is precisely what he ended up violating through a “reductive formulation” (to use his own phrase) about the default ‘legitimacy’ of elected governments. The need for dialogue that he presumes as the fundamental principle of intermedial hermeneutics is finally closed off, if one were to begin by taking for granted the unconditional authorization of the state to act on behalf of all people at all times. The other name for what Professor Paranjape posits and sanctions as an “alternative performative” to “left hegemonic practices” in JNU is fascism. It is the same ‘will to totality’ which Paranjape began by denouncing in every culture or ideology that seemed to animate his concluding question: “why is it so difficult to accept the legitimacy of the elected government in India?”

I think it’s time for an answer. And this piece is precisely an attempt towards it. It needs to be emphatically maintained that to accept the legitimacy of the democratically elected government does not translate into an uncritical acquiescence to its policies and actions. And more significantly, to question this acceptance is fundamentally a right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution vide Article 19 (1) – and protected by the law, following the Supreme Court judgment in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962) which explicitly states that “criticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression”. So, the basic technical flaw in Professor Paranjape’s rather self-defeating argument lies in the very constitutional basis of democracy – where the right to question the legitimacy of electoral mandates does not derive from what he calls the “theological authorization” of communist ideology, but in the civil rights and liberties assured to a critical citizenry of India.

Following Professor Paranjape’s lecture, some acquaintances have argued that he alerted us to the excesses of ideology. Unfortunately enough, the many internal contradictions within Paranjape’s own lecture make it seem no freer of those excesses than he accuses his polemical-political opponents with. While the ‘totalism’ of legitimacy he claims at the end towards every ‘government established by law’ punctures the diatopical hermeneutic mode, to assume that there can be no legitimate ‘outside’ to the numerical consensus of majoritarian democracy further makes such mediality impossible. Citing Portuguese scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Professor Paranjape introduced his hermeneutic premise as an alternative mode of engagement – thus “placing oneself simultaneously inside and outside what one critiques”. Strikingly, he concludes his rhetorical exercise by annulling the possibility-cum-legitimacy of an ‘outside’ to ruling-party ideology and state power in the numerical terms of a ‘minority opinion’. Does the numerical unpopularity of an opinion discredit the constitutional validity [read: legitimacy] of it? – one needs to ask Professor Paranjape. By that logic, Paranjape understands democratic consensus as validated only by the force of populism – which are the exact terms of the Hindu Right imaginary of the ‘nation’.

The not-so-accidental coincidence of Paranjape’s theoretical sophistication with the characteristically fascist delegitimation of dissent does more than is apparent. First, it blasts the myth he propounds about the importance of “independent intellectuals” today – by proving that this ‘independence’ is merely the sanction of the powers that be. It is an illusion advertised by the Foucauldian power/knowledge nexus in the garb of truth – and we really didn’t need a Paranjape to see through its machinations. On that note and as an aside, Professor Paranjape remarked that the “independent intellectual” requires to invert Gramsci’s dichotomous distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectuals. At this moment, it is important to remind Professor Paranjape of Gramsci’s exact words from his Prison Notebooks:

“Since [the] various categories of traditional intellectuals experience through an ‘esprit de corps’ their uninterrupted historical continuity and their special qualification, they thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group…The whole of idealist philosophy can easily be connected with this position assumed by the social complex of intellectuals and can be defined as the expression of that social utopia by which the intellectuals think of themselves as “independent”, autonomous, endowed with a character of their own, etc.” (p. 114, 1989)

One wonders how the ‘independent intellectual’ in Makarand Paranjape would intend an inversion of the same “social utopia” that he unassumingly embraces. Is a mere proclamation of non-affiliation to the ‘dominant social group’ (or, party) a sure evidence of exemption from hegemonic forms of ruling-party consensus? Insofar as Paranjape’s arguments explicitly go on to vindicate the latter, one is left with more than a gnawing suspicion about the mystic appeal of ‘independence’. Notwithstanding Paranjape’s tenuous dismissal of Gramsci while vindicating the exact terms of his analysis, it is important to note that his non-partisan ‘independence’ unwittingly speaks the language of power. Furthermore, he repeatedly goes on to assert – both in this lecture and in a subsequent interview hosted by NewsD – that the voice of activism in JNU typifies a “negative politics” which is not just anti-establishment but basically anti-everything. He rues the lack of any ‘saakaaratmak’ (affirmative) voice in student politics, where instead of the servility of “gratitude”, he sees the paying state as being heaped with “accusation upon accusation”.

There are several ethical-political problems at stake here. [A wonderfully pointed open letter by Maitreyee Shukla raises the most pertinent questions about this interview, which you may read here.] In demanding ‘gratitude’ of students by way of an acquiescing submission to the state, not only does Paranjape disqualify the same idea of criticality that he laced his 7 March lecture with, but he also likens a constitutional commitment to social spending as a magnanimous gesture of charity on the part of the state. Public institutions – Professor Paranjape must be cautioned in his delirious moments of neoliberal frenzy – do not run on the charity of elected leaders who must therefore be ingratiated through ‘manufactured consent’. On the contrary, the beneficiaries of a public-funded education are as much the ones subsidising it – and this dual policy-commitment of ‘quality-cum-access’ through state institutions is part of the very design of the Indian Constitution. Professor Paranjape, in falsely making a ‘hermeneutics of generosity’ (whatever that means!) a clear excuse for manufacturing consent-as-gratitude, is belying the very ‘socialist’ character of the Constitution. The necessary precondition for gratitude is a social-economic relationship of hierarchy naturalised as moral benevolence of the state. In this, it is doubly reactionary: first, by perpetuating systemic inequities as the ground for charity and, second, by transforming an arbitrary claim to dominance into a gesture of moral righteousness. Professor Paranjape’s ethic of generosity-as-gratitude towards the state is at heart a shameless call to status quoism.

A little bit of Derridean reasoning would have also awakened Paranjape to the fact that a politics of disagreement (in being “anti-this and anti-that”) does not translate into “negative politics”. That’s not only a gross theoretical oversight for a teacher of literature, but also a fundamental misrecognition of the idea of the political. Dissent or difference, far from being the mark of negativity, is the foundational affirmative condition of a democracy to come. It is the eternal affirmative, the unconditional realm of possibility and the only hope of a time of justice. To insert a division into the ‘common’ of commonsense (the mask of ideology) is a moment of dissensus (as Ranciere calls it!), and an immanent affirmation of democracy. Such acts of dissensus are what can effectively challenge the fantasy of totality within every culture/ideology, and thus make possible Paranjape’s own professed commitment to a diatopical hermeneutics. It seems but all too visible by now that Professor Paranjape’s hermeneutic model of diatopicality was based on both a methodological disingenuousness as well as an ideological fallacy. The myth of independence, however liberating it sounds, is not a position immune to ideology – but is rather, as Gramsci forewarned, one of the many illusions produced by hegemony as its own natural(izing) logic.

There were certain other conceptual miscalculations and legal-technical aporias that marred Professor Paranjape’s lecture. Towards the end of his ‘alternative performative’, he asked his student-audience: “when you say that we will overthrow the elected government, where do you derive your legitimacy from?” Three things beg clarification here. First, to “overthrow the elected government” is not the same as overthrowing the state – and the former accurately derives its legitimacy from the principle of electoral democracy. It needs no other sanction. Second, to question the legitimacy of state policy or an elected government does not automatically translate into an act of overthrowing the state. Third, even if an overthrow of the state is verbally-rhetorically advocated through what he calls “empty sloganeering and tired shibboleths”, that does not in itself constitute a crime without a necessary recourse to violence. This has been adequately maintained in the SC judgment in the case of State of Bihar vs Shailabala (1952) – whereas in the cases of Binayak Sen (2011) and Shyam Balakrishnan (2015), courts have argued that a mere belief in or advocacy of insurrectionary or revolutionary ideologies cannot be considered proof of criminal culpability.

At this moment, it would do us well to enter into Professor Paranjape’s reading of Tagore and Gandhi as demonstrative of his proposed hermeneutical model. He urges a diatopical engagement with the complexity of their careers and oeuvres, as the only means to resist a ‘reductive essentialism’ that is all too easy and common these days. That’s an important point, one would say – but only if Professor Paranjape himself were to live by it! In the name of a hermeneutic strategy that resolutely stands against the tendency towards simplification and essentialization, what Paranjape performs is a grossly selective and often speculative textual reading. He counters the popular perception of Tagore as an “anti-nationalist” through a passing reference to Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s recent EPW piece (titled ‘Antinomies of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore’, Vol. LI No. 6, pp. 39-45). It is true that Bhattacharya historicises Tagore’s approach to nationalism as evolving through definite – and often contradictory – phases from the 1890s till his last public speech in 1941. Paranjape uses two ‘political’ novels (though he initially names three) written by Tagore – namely, Gora (1907-1908) and Ghare Baire (1915-1916) – to finally concur with E.P. Thompson’s contention in the ‘Introduction’ to Tagore’s 1917 lectures on nationalism that: “for nationalism we might often read ‘imperialism’”. Ironically, what Paranjape’s own English-language scholarship on Tagore misses in this insistence on the bard’s figural understanding of the ‘nation’ as a European imperial legacy (and having little to do with his distrust of embedded forms of injustice within Indian ‘tradition’) is precisely the historical dimension. Both the novels that Paranjape takes up for analysis follow Tagore’s massive disillusionment with the terroristic modes of Hindu revivalism in the Swadeshi movement, and represent a period when the bard had decidedly moved away from an earlier pre-Swadeshi championing of India’s civilizational syncretism. The period 1907-1916 that marks the limits of Paranjape’s analytical field is distinctively the period when Tagore shifts the focus of his political critique inwards and simultaneously questions the forms of social ostracism underwritten within ‘Indian’ civilization as well as the nationalist exploitation of casteist-communal biases to imaginatively reconstruct a patriotic theology. This is the time, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya confirms in his piece as well, when Tagore abandons a mere conceptual identification of the ‘nation’ as colonial import and talks of it as typifying a certain “attitude of mind” that goes with an “aggressively emphatic politics” (EPW, p. 43) – as much to be found in India and its own pre-colonial civilizational systems of social value. Paranjape’s selectiveness of reading and sources is apparent in that he cites Bhattacharya’s reflections on Thompson with regard to anti-imperialism, but shirks away from referring to very next source that Bhattacharya mobilizes in explaining Thompson – that is, Tagore’s letter to his friend William Rothenstein (1917). It is here that Tagore defines ‘imperialism’ as being independent of the European context, and as a mode of politics that he could abundantly see around.

Professor Paranjape contends soon after about Tagore’s creative intention that “the figures who represent the passion of politics, passion even of nationalism and the passion actually of revolution are considered and seen to be extremely dubious figures”. To reduce Tagore’s critique of Hindu revivalist jingoism and its penchant for embodying the nation as Mother Goddess into merely ‘passionate politics’ or “the passion actually of revolution” seems almost like an indictment of communist ideology – and Paranjape’s strategic invocation of Lukacs’ much-critiqued review right after is precisely calculated to that end. Nothing, however, can be farther from the truth. Notwithstanding the tenuousness of Lukacs’ argument about Ghare Baire, Tagore’s barbs are directed not at some textbook understanding of revolutionary politics but very specifically at the Hindu nationalist cause. Tagore’s problems with the communal undertones of bourgeois nationalism rather stem from the latter’s disconnect with the oppressed and exploited classes and castes – especially the Muslim and Namashudra peasants in the Bengal countryside. To gloss over the class-caste character of Tagore’s critique (and thus figures like Panchu and Harish Kundu in Ghare Baire) in the effigy of a ‘politics of passion’ is nothing but an ideologically motivated reading – a practice that stands at great odds with Paranjape’s professed diatopicality.

It is here that Paranjape’s citation of Lukacs gives us the excuse to enter into the question of factual accuracy. While repeatedly urging us to be sure of the facts we use to build up an argument, the professor unwittingly falls prey to the dangers he himself outlines. I have already maintained my vehement difference of opinion with Lukacs’ reading ofGhare Baire, but Professor Paranjape ends up claiming that the Marxist critic bases his argument on a “factual error”. While Lukacs titles his 1922 review as “Tagore’s Gandhi Novel” and debatably argues that Sandip is a “contemptible caricature of Gandhi”, Paranjape points out that the Hungarian philosopher is ‘obviously mistaken’, because “the novel was written before Tagore met Gandhi in 1915”. Interestingly, it is Professor Paranjape who is factually wrong here, while Lukacs might only be thematically deluded. To cite file sources from Tagore’s manuscripts at Rabindra Tirtha, it is historically documented that Gandhi and Tagore met for the first time on March 6, 1915 at Shantiniketan – while Tagore begins composing Ghare Baire only a month later, in the early weeks of April 1915. The first instalment of the novel was subsequently published in the Baishakh edition, 1915 of Sabuj Patra.

To quickly end with Professor Paranjape’s take on Gandhi and his interpretation of swaraj, one would do well to resist a commonsensical (and often reductive) translation of the term as ‘self-restraint’. However, this is exactly what Paranjape does – and in doing so, urges his audience in the form of a moral sermon to inculcate the Gandhian principles ofahimsa and satyagraha. Making a moral lexicon out of the Gandhian instrument of swaraj is where it runs the risk of being turned into strategies of raid-governance and mohalla vigilantism. An individualist ethic of self-control or a civic template of local self-governance can never be adequate to the spirit of Hind Swaraj. Gandhi’s text, contrary to Paranjape’s insistence, is a debate on the proper nature of political rule – the ‘swa’ of ‘raj’. As scholars like Ajay Skaria have pointed out, ‘swaraj’ is more than and beyond the rule of the self, and it in fact poses a more fundamental question about the self of rule. It is in this context that Gandhi’s trenchant critique of parliamentary democracy can be sought to be understood, as incapable of delivering politics unto a ‘thekaana’ (finality). Interestingly, what Gandhi does in the text of Hind Swaraj is to question the legitimacy of the very form of the state – something that Professor Paranjape’s hermeneutic model ironically ends up warning us against.

Swaraj demands us to perennially question the legitimacy of rule, rather than simply act as subjects of self-discipline. And that is where, contra Professor Paranjape, the true task of intermediality lies. Every demand forazaadi is an equal act of questioning the true nature (‘swa’) of rule and how far our ‘legitimate’ elected governments have moved away from it.

Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches literature in a Calcutta University college. He has completed his doctorate from the Centre for English Studies, JNU. Makarand Paranjape has been his teacher through a couple of courses, though his personal impressions about Professor Paranjape have nothing to do with this piece. The spirit of an engaged debate – even with one’s teachers – is what the ‘left hegemonic space’ of JNU has taught him.

This article first appeared on Cafe Dissensus Everyday.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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