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Is there a Calling on the Left?

By Prasanta Chakravarty

“जाड़ा आ रहा है. जाड़ा सबसे पहले विश्वविद्यालय में आता है.”

“Winter is nigh. Winter first arrives at the university. (Kashinath Singh)

The material nature of conflicts within the university spaces in India can be mapped in various ways – sociologically, ideologically and/or even contingently. But let me try and elaborate a historically charted moral vector that could decide at any given point of time the sway, pull, reach or eventual demise of student movements and determine their life outside of the academe. I shall speculate on a notion of calling and place its coordinates alongside the very notion of the university in contemporary India. Calling or vocation, words that usually take us to a theology of creative and redemptive work and belief whereby human beings are pulled or led by some irrational force towards some community cause or principle, has also been used as a sociological coefficient of moral and professional turmoil in the ascetic bourgeois mind by Max Weber[i]. I am however using calling as an intermediary factor whereby ethical-political agents are forced by historical conditions and sociological circumstances to act in a particular fashion. Such acts then may take the dimension of political-moral exemplars, by means of which a ripple effect might be created in order to foster conditions for socially transformative changes.

It is quite obvious that at this point of time, globe-trotting academics are quite stumped by the new value-laden nationalist-utilitarian programmes and policies of education in their respective home countries. Consequently, the very idea of the university in its European liberal format is under attack in large parts of the world. If we look closely though, we shall see that in India, the idea of a humanist university has always been an anomaly, only to be seen in certain metropolitan centres and that too, unevenly and sparsely distributed across some parts of the nation. Such universities are more like detached islands even in the cities where they are located, often only thinly connected to the organic realities of our changing times.

The other kind of university though, which is the norm, is rigidly hierarchical and marred daily by sociological inequities and terrain battles. As if such inequity is a way of life. Within these realities however, there is scope for some divergent political language and practice which one might explore. This other variety also does not and cannot consider itself to be outside of the locality, area or region to which it belongs. In other words, the second variety reserves possibilities of genuine political conflict where the corporative structure of the university must define itself always vis-a-vis the social and economic community of which it is but a part. The nature of the conflict within such universities in the Tier II towns of India has evolved considerably over the years.

It would be useful to trace two divergent but equally powerful models of activist calling in conceiving the university space in India. Within the scope of this brief survey, I would like to place one of the finest political novellas written in Hindi in the past few decades: Kashinath Singh’s अपना मोर्चा (2007)/Apna Morcha (Personal Front). Singh has been writing fiction consistently as a public intellectual for decades now. In his writings, we get a sense of the evolution of Banaras as a city in its literary and political contours. Apna Morcha, its plot unfolding within the context of the angrezi hatao bhasha andolan of the 1970s, however, is unique for two reasons: one, because it takes the Banaras Hindu University as its central focus, not as a gated space, but as a spatial architecture and a psychological metaphor standing in for the whole of eastern Uttar Pradesh. And two, the book shows the full and ferocious dynamics of both a rich idealism and a subdued, fractious violence that seethes within the irrational and disjunctive spaces of the Indian university system. Although this is a work of fiction, the documentary, realist style of the text demands from us several moral-philosophical responses about our simultaneous attachment to, and disjuncture from, the university as a space, placed firmly within the texture of the region and its culture. I shall focus only on one of these: the question of calling.

A Religious University is Born 

The Banaras Hindu University Act (Act XVI of 1915), approved in the Imperial Legislative Council, stipulated religious instruction and examination in the Hindu religion only. It further underlined that these would be compulsory for all Hindu students. It is a unique moment in modern Indian higher education, since prior to the creation of BHU, there had been no residential or teaching universities and no examinations in religious subjects used to be allowed.[ii] The universities in India were merely examining bodies. There was no student life or hostels, no playing grounds or religious scaffoldings or rituals heretofore. And there were no examinations in theology prior to this moment. The idea was that pious and learned Hindus would mould the character of the students as they were being moulded in the English universities which followed Cardinal Newman’s disciplinary lines. In practice, however, this move would help usher in a far more virulent strain of inductive piety for students who passed through its precincts. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, along with Annie Besant and Bhagwan Das, were instrumental in ushering in a fairly virulent form of nationalist education which at its core was not just revivalist in the ordinary sense of the term, but was asking to inculcate a kind of a calling among students that would make them deeply communal in spirit. Here is loyal Besant, in one of her numerous influential textbooks:

Loyalty to the Head of State is equally insisted on in the Sastras.…Patriotism, the love of one’s country, and Public Spirit, caring for the nation more than one-self, are virtues that are so closely akin to loyalty that they should never be separated from it. King and country are the objects of true loyalty.[iii]

Annie Besant’s textbooks were used not only at BHU, but also in colleges in the Indian princely states of Kashmir, Mysore, Baroda, and Rajputana. It is in these kinds of universities where one must look for another kind of subterranean political conflict in India till this date. On the other side, Harcourt Butler, when introducing the Banaras Hindu University Bill in the Imperial Legislative Council of 22 March 1915, defended the introduction of religious instruction in the University and told the Viceroy, “I believe, my Lord, instruction in the truths of religions…will tend to produce men who, if they are true to their religion, will be true to their God, their king and their country.”[iv]

The point for the British was twofold: to get rid of any anarchist influence over the youth and also to thwart the proletarianization of the semi-educated young folk.

In 1938 Malaviya permitted the RSS to construct a two-room building on the Banaras Hindu University campus for carrying out its activities.

Conceptually, what we are witnessing here is a completely different model from the two prevailing ones available to us: the Humboldtian and the Newmanian – both of which are finally constructed over culturally and theologically Christian rational orders of instruction. Here, we are getting into a zone of radical, organized irrationality and piety that is exclusivist and yet formed on a basis of a unique calling that its founders strongly felt and its patrons and students responded to.

There are other roots to this kind of a virtue-moralist model of university. The ethical foundations of such a centre-right calling would be to seek a particularistic way of life, not just who gets to determine the range of pedagogic practice within the curriculum and the campus. Such a calling would stand against all value neutrality and inorganic individualism. 

Moral Calling of the Right: Unified Essence of the Absolute 

In his tract, ‘The University in the National-Socialist State’ of November 1933, Martin Heidegger begins by stating von Humboldt’s conception of the university that he wishes to overturn. This critique concerns not just the external relation of University to State but also the primacy of research in the modern ‘research university,’ as Heidegger had already made clear in ‘The University in the New Reich.’

No one had concerned himself with the university as community [Gemeinschaft]. Research got out of hand and concealed its uncertainty behind the idea of international scientific and scholarly progress. Teaching that had become aimless hid behind examination requirements.[v]

The foundational moral impulses are quite evident: a concern for the inner decline of the university, something that Humboldt or other idealists do not address. Heidegger wishes to highlight teaching, from where research shall develop (teaching-led-research), not the other way round. Second, he puts a premium on connecting the university space to, and placing it within, the community and a way of life. University was to be a place for renewal, a place that would bring us back into the heart of life, away from the alienating autonomy of Kantian disinterested research.

Heidegger’s concern is to trace the Geist or spirit of the university, rather than its ‘external institutions.’ For Heidegger, after the liberation from nature and dissolution of tradition in the eighteenth century,

…in the early nineteenth century German poets, thinkers and statesmen created a ‘new spiritual world in which the power [das Walten] of nature and the powers of history were thought and drawn together in the unified essence of the absolute.[vi]

For such an idea of a moral university to burgeon (quite distinct from the cultural bildung model of Humboldt; nor can this be a mere multiversity) one needed four cornerstones, each of them part of a centre-right calling, the collective force of which would be tremendous:

First, it had to be founded from scratch where the idea of tradition would be incorporated purely from a moral perspective.

Second, more important than organizational structures would be the kind of thinkers and teachers who taught there.

Third, the faculty of philosophy would be ‘the determining and pivotal centre’ of the university in the sense that there ought to be a ‘philosophical orientation’ towards ‘the inner context’ [innerer Zusammenhang] of all the domains of knowledge and of the methods [Verfahrungsweisen] proper to their elaboration.

Finally, the university was ‘expressly’ conceived as a means for the ‘awakening’ and ‘creative formation’ [schöpferische Ausgestaltung] of the German spirit.

Collectively, these moral impulses would fuel a set of people who were driven by a far deeper and sinister cause than what Newman or the idealists could ever imagine. In a way, Heidegger’s calling was deeply Platonic: education (paideia) to both consists not in pouring knowledge into an empty vessel, but rather in turning the soul as a whole away from the sensible world towards truth, and in developing a pre-existing capacity or inner disposition for knowledge.[vii]

In a very different context but with a similar ardent drive, Madan Mohan Malaviya would carve out a moral spiritual space in Banaras. One is looking for transformation of a human existence itself into a communitarian Hindu way of life. Teaching will make us fully, authentically, what we potentially already are.

Such a transformative calling of the nation is married to a notion of an immediate political community of the local/parochial in Malaviya and the succeeding generations of caretakers of BHU. The closest one can come to this form of parochialism is Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of a collaborative and cooperative political community. In Chapter 10 of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, MacIntyre makes some ingenuous communitarian proposals for a radical restructuring of the contemporary university – a central emphasis being a deliberate strategy of parochializing higher education.[viii] He thinks that one can only achieve the universalist end via parochialist means. He sees, much like revanchist nationalists like Malaviya, this condition of radical diversity as disabling: as a form of moral “confusion” or moral “disorientation,” which in turn spills over into forms of disability in the political sphere as well. So, both argue for an immersion in our particularisms. It is a pre-liberal university that he is projecting: “[A] set of rival universities would result, each modeled on, but improving upon, its own best predecessor, the Thomist perhaps upon Paris in 1272, the genealogist upon Vincennes in 1968…. [W]hat I have imagined is after all in some ways nothing other than a twentieth-century version of the thirteenth-century university, especially the University of Paris, the university in which Augustinians and Aristotelians each conducted their own systematic enquiries while at the same time engaging in systematic controversy [with each other].” (TRV, 232-234).

One can characterize this broader view as follows: MacIntyre believes that it is the function of a culture to provide normative guidance about what to think and how to live. Different cultures may perform this function differently, but all real cultures, qua cultures, find some way to supply such normative guidance.

Precisely against this kind of a moral and particularistic density, one must place a speculative idea of a left calling. But if a conceptual version the Heideggerian-MacIntyreian revisionist ways of guiding the university lies at the heart of a university like BHU, what was behind the actual spatial topography of the university and what were the main trends of student involvement and politics in such places?

A Sacred Geography, Karmayoga and the Rumblings of a Political Space 

BHU was never a university. It always was a sacred topography. And a way of life. A mythic, but ever throbbing light of Hindu antiquity is most vividly displayed in the originary myth of the BHU campus centering on the Maharaja of Banaras and the university. According to local custom, a circumference called the Panchakroshi marks the boundaries of the sacred geography of the city. Since the site committee could argue that the proposed site was well within the boundaries of panchakroshi, the campus would indeed be sacred and consecrated automatically. It was also argued that Tulsidas had made a prophecy that Kashi would grow southwards, upstream, past the then boundary set by the Panchakroshi Road. The emblem of BHU chosen by the officials depicts the goddess of learning, Saraswati, as conferring the nectar of immortality while seated on her sacred vehicle, the hamsa (the swan), circumscribed by the sacred syllable Om. The motto under the emblem reads, ‘Vidya ya amritam asnute’ (one attains immortality through knowledge). Since Kashi was the city where death resides alongside life, it was argued that goddess Saraswati would help overcome death by imparting knowledge.

A myth also developed that the grounds of BHU was the gift of Maharaja Prabhu Narayan Singh of Banaras, the central Hindu figurehead of the area: that ‘poor brahman’ Malaviya begged for the land and the ‘righteous raja’ gifted it. According to records though, the land on which the University is built was acquired through imposition of a land acquisition order and against the protest of upper-caste bhumihar proprietors and tenants of the very valuable and fully cultivated land.[ix] Many tenants were disposed and rendered homeless. These kinds of stories help obfuscate the fact that the ruling authority was not the Maharaja, but the British Raj.

Soon the sacral markers of a Brahmanical calling were apparent in the day to day activities in the university. Sadachar had to be practiced within the campus. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating meat were forbidden at the University. There is a story, for example, that in 1916 at the first meeting of the University Court, where many pandits were present, the Pro-Vice Chancellor, Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior, was smoking a cigar. One of the pandits, Letin Shastri, stood up and said, “The chairman of this august meeting is smoking a cigar and insulting the members of the Court.” All the pandits walked out and did not return. The meeting could not continue until the Maharaja had disposed of his cigar and apologized to the members of the University Court for his act.

Malaviya persuaded a majority of the members to accept the authority of the Manusmriti and effectively barred all non-Brahmans, including Annie Besant and Bhagwan Das, from teaching in the College of Theology. When Radhakrishnan, the then VC, wanted both genders and all castes to study in BHU, Malaviya opposed it.[x] The campus temple and rituals surrounding it became a focal point of the campus. Soon religion and patriotism powered themselves to become the most significant symbol of calling within the campus: the ascetic ideals of karmayoga. The guru and his selfless ideals would ignite a deep spirit of an anti-colonial, centre-right force in the whole ambience of university life. Outwardly no religion was prioritized but it is obvious that indoctrination was happening in a much more amorphous fashion by means of igniting a disciplinary moral force among the youth.

For the students, the campus was the universe. Indeed, the university residences were quite grand and austere at the same time. It must be admitted that the University created a living environment that did not segregate students according to status. The religion, caste, and wealth of the families of students were not a factor in determining where a student resided. Fees were considerably lower. But morally things were worked out: students were expected to maintain chaste and upright brahmachari lifestyles, and avoid bad habits such as drinking and smoking. Derogatory remarks and ‘loose talk’ were considered inappropriate in the hostels. A number of religious kathas were held on campus, especially during popular celebrations of Krishnajanmashtami and Basant Panchami. There were many service societies. Physical activities of the students were an essential part of the karmayoga. But in the debating societies, there were some discussions on socialism along with fascism even at this early stage.

It is during the 1920s that M.N. Roy was actively recruiting and dispatching emissaries to all over India in order to spread communist thought. At this early stage, Ghulam Hussain tried to form an All India Communist organization. Roy himself trained Shaukat Usmani (who was a Khilafat pilgrim) in Tashkent and upon Usmani’s return to India in 1922, he turned instrumental in giving shape and direction to communist thought and practice in Banaras and Kanpur, until he was arrested in 1923. When the Government of India banned the Communist Party, BHU’s communist students met secretly on the rooftop terrace under the Hindu temple spire of their College. They decided that though party activity was illegal, discussing and teaching Marxist theory was not:

There were communist boys from Bombay in BHU. We would sit up under the mandir on the roof in secret and discuss Marxist theories because they were illegal. I told them we had to make propaganda. They said, ‘No, you will get us in trouble.’ I said, ‘No, the Marxist party is illegal but Marxist thought is not illegal.’ I posted a notice that I was holding a class in the common room. One hundred people came. Some left, but soon many people from north and south (like Rajesh Rao) became communists. No one objected. I was thought to be Malaviya’s favourite boy.[xi]

Though Malaviya was against student activism, BHU was never apolitical.[xii] Many jumped into the Gandhian and other swadeshi movements, in spite of the overall loyalist-spiritual ways of the university. Even the conservative ambience of the women’s college within the campus was fired by nationalist struggles. The quest for an identity passed through the paths of a high moral nationalist calling. 

The Other kind of Calling: Apna Morcha and Bhasha Andolan 

Though socialist thoughts were part of the city and the university for a long time even within such an ascetic morass, it really blossomed during the Lohiaite movement and the communist heydays after independence. The politics of Eastern UP was changing in the 1960s through the 1980s. BHU was not exempt from that change.

There were some sturdy left-of-centre leaders in the vicinity. In BHU, under the leadership of Debabrata Majumdar, the late 1960s was an electrifying place. Upper caste politics and class antagonism were met with severe challenge from within the campus which, as we have seen, was an extension of the city itself and the region too. Among the communists, Satya Narayan Singh, Sarjoo Pandey, Raj Kishore, Rustam Saitin, Deena Nath Singh Yadav and Udal made for a formidable and powerful left presence in the past. Land redistribution programmes were undertaken and the restive students were trying to burst forth into something new and idealistic which was in distinct disjuncture with the older generation of denizens of the city. Chandauli had a tried and tested history of struggle. In Chakia (Chandauli), landless agricultural labourers and adivasis grabbed the land of Maharaja of Kashi. At one point, people seized more than 600 bighas in Musha Khan, Barat farm, and Shadapur. It was a bloody battle. The poorest Musharas and Kols fought bitterly for the last two decades in order to retain their land. As late as in 2005, in Shadapur, the royal family tried to evict the poorest of the poor and forcibly ran tractors in the 200 bighas possessed by the peasants. In a remarkable resistance that ensued, Ganga Devi and Triloki laid down their lives. Varieties of social democratic politics retain their own important trajectory along with communism in that area.

It is this new (and later ongoing) language and force of political calling that has been magnificently captured by Kashinath Singh’s docu-fictive novella, Apna Morcha.[xiii] Undoubtedly, this is one of the finest of campus narratives. Right at the outset, we see that the faculty in BHU are oblivious to the fact that campuses around the nation and the other parts of the world are boiling. It is evident that they are cut off from the concerns of young minds. It also becomes clear quite early that the campus is rife with a mixed climate – ennui, anger, hope, and the deepest alienation, which is looking for an idealist calling, a way of expression. But more than the ignition, the direction of this cauldron of passion is anticipated. The reason for this angry subterranean flow is what the professor-narrator tries to delve into but is unable to fathom:  Why, how, and what do the youth get angry at? Can their frustrations be channelized into a purified calling of a new kind or will such tremendous amount of energy be dissipated? Are the students angry at being taught asocial irrelevancies in classrooms?

They curse whatever they see around them – plough, bull, hay, buffalo, sun, sister, cow, bells, gamchha, winter, summer, tree, swing, cloud, daughter, daughter-in-law, son – each and every relationship seems bereft of meaning. And the student-teacher relationship is not anymore that of human beings but that of books and answer-scripts. There are several exits to this predicament. One is oblivion – there are many students who continue with their rote learning and mofussil sense of fashion and spend endless hours knitting woolen sweaters. But the other is the more dangerous way for students. With an astounding sense of realism, Singh shows us how in any students’ political movement or uprising there are pragmatic groupuscules, which play a suave mercenary role, foremost in their own minds. When one is seeking meaning in life, there is a crossroad – either you choose a calling which is invariably an ethical political move or you choose this:

लोग कुछ सुगबुगा रहे हैं इधर! वे कुछ करना चाहते हैं और क्या कर बैठेंगे – इसे हम में और उनमें भी कोई नहीं जानता. यह जरूर है कि वे कोई भी चीज जमीन से नहीं शुरू करेंगे  क्योंकि खुद उनके पाँव जमीन से शुरू नहीं हैं. इतना ही नहीं, वे विद्रोह और लालच दोनों को साथ लेकर चलते हैं. विद्रोह की यह लालच देखो, कब टूटती हैं! अब ऐसे मौकों पर तुम्हे क्या करना चाहिए, यह खुद निर्णय करो. बीड़ी पीते हो?

(Some people are rather agitated in these parts! They want to jump into something and what they will finally end up doing is anybody’s guess; neither do they have any clear idea nor do we. It is obvious though that these people shall not initiate anything from the ground up, since they are themselves never grounded. Not only that, such people carry along insurgency and greed simultaneously with them. Let us see at what point this avarice for insurgency comes to an end! During these occasions, you have to take a call on your own about what is to be done. Come, have a biri?)

There is a time to choose one’s calling and a time to slip up with false moves. Insurgency is an intuitive move, a moral force. This is the voice of the most powerful choric conscience in the narrative – Jwan. He is conceived by Singh as an outsider and marginal figure who is assessing the fortunes of student politics and the whole socio-political scenario of his region at that point of time.

The whole of BHU’s administration and faculty are non-committal and pragmatic, the usual scenario on campuses till date. Such is the level of cynicism that it is admitted by Jwan that one can only see fear, manners, and humility in the poor student. The rest are completely oblivious to anything that is beyond their immediate interest.

We gradually realize that the anger and rage of the students are directed via the concerns of the bhasha andolan, a movement to oust English and English education. Jwan keeps at his choric role: well, one can understand that English is the imperialists’ voice but what about my own mother tongue? What have the agitators done with their own language? How much of this idealism is opportunistic or unworked? Pray, who is the enemy in this struggle – are we ending up fighting our own?

हम से जो भी टकराएगा, चूर चूर हो जायेगा. क्या मतलब है इस ‘जो’ का?

(‘The one who shall cross swords with me will break apart.’ What does this ‘the one who’ mean in this slogan?)

And yet the power of youth is galvanizing; it fulfills a strange moral force. One fateful day  in the narrative, there is a fatal police crackdown and we take unforeseen turns (based on actual events on November 29, 1967); the collective power of the boys in the march are described as an advancing tidal wave, as a dense jungle in which every viewer would like to merge. This is a fearless, clear sighted, dreaming band of human beings, as straight and direct, as good and naïve in their conviction as one can imagine. We feel the power of a calling that will be able to take on the whole weight of the centre-right and colonial tradition of BHU and its surroundings. The whole region seems to be suffused in the light of a rare conviction that is material and yet a matter of giving in to some extraordinary form of calling, a response to a new movement, a new time in the making.

And yet every moment of hope and newness hides within it despair, and vice versa. There is always a fear that the category of ‘student’ and the category of ‘people’ would be forever marked by a chasm since the students may not be there for people who could be by their side at this point of time, and while the ordinary people who could have been part of the whole movement worry about this unstable sociological category called ‘students’. But all doubt is again cleared when one of the most silent backbenchers among the students takes the mike and utters these words:

आप कहते हो — भाषा? भाषा मेरे लिए वह नहीं है जो आपके लिए है. हमारे पिछले अनुभब मुझे यह कहने के लिए बाध्य करते हैं कि भाषा का अर्थ हिंदी या अंग्रेजी नहीं है. भाषा का अर्थ है जीने की पद्धति, जीने का ढंग. भाषा यानि जनतंत्र की भाषा, जनतांत्रिक अधिकारों की भाषा, आज़ादी और सुखी ज़िन्दगी के हक़ की भाषा. हम जीने के इस तौर-तरीके के लिए लड़ रहे हैं.… अपनी भाषा को अधिक से अधिक हमलावर बनना होगा.

(What do you say – language? Language to me is not what it is to you. My earlier experience compels me to declare that the meaning of language is not English or Hindi. Language means a procedure of life, a style of living. Language, as in the language of democracy, the language of democratic rights and the language of freedom, the right to spend a happy life. We are fighting for such a way and style of living…. [O]ne must make one’s language more and more lashing, assailing.)

This is a moment of absolute clarity, when we know we are watching a politically committed and mature viewpoint which has the capability to carry the mass along with it. It is at this moment of synapse that one realizes that the university space and the social space are singing in unison, tuned to the same frequency. Howsoever brutal the authorities might be, eventually a material idea of calling shall carry the day. This is uttered in the spirit of Ram Manohar Lohia who had a deep respect for English as a language and culture, but wanted to resurrect the pride in regional languages so that the inferiority complex attached to them within each one of us gets decimated once and for all. He used to talk about the soul of each language. In Banaras (around 1967-68) Debabrata Majumdar was at the forefront of the movement and for a long time he had to go underground owing to police and administrative crackdown on the students of BHU. By December 1967, Indira Gandhi made an assurance in the Parliament that the main concerns of the bhasha andolankaris would be given due cognizance.

No wonder then that the novella, after showing us the nadir of abjectness and humiliation through which the teachers and student community are paraded, ends with this line of material hope:

यह जरूर है की तुम्हारे पास राइफल है लेकिन…में मुस्कुराता हूँ और अपनी जेब से एक कोरा पन्ना निकालता हूँ, ‘ मेरा मोर्चा यह है.’ यह कागज़ जिस पर मैं तुम-जैसों को तो क्या, अपने और अपनों को भी माफ़ करना नहीं जानता.

(It is a fact that you are carrying a rifle…I smile and take out a blank sheet from the pocket: ‘This is my front.’ This piece of paper will never ever allow me to forgive you since in this piece of paper I cannot even forgive my own self.) 

Moral Economy of the Left 

Marxism, Georges Sorel argues in his La Decomposition du Marxisme, is in fact three things: a set of dogmas, canon of historical interpretation and a heroic social myth meant to promote working-class education and strength. The dogmas, Sorel thought, were absurd; the canon could be very useful; the myth was to be judged in terms of its effectiveness, not of its truth. It is significant to rekindle the social myth, the messianic faith of a future state of equity with the growing prestige of objective empirical science, the belief in a just community and fellowship worked out from within inescapable processes of ever-increasing post-industrialization precarity.

Any question of ethics that is not grounded in material relations and forces of production would tend to be individualistic and sentimental. Any idea of a utopian leap of faith in a future equitable society that would see itself as countering the powerful Heideggerian-MacIntyreian model of higher education most certainly must not only shun calling as a way to ossify one’s timeless communal existence but also such traditional moral words like ‘justice’, ‘right’, ‘duty’, and so on. “It is striking, nevertheless, that much of Marx’s writings, for example the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, The Communist Manifesto, even Capital and the Grundrisse, sound very much like moral tracts — or at least significant parts of them do — even though little ‘moral language’ appears in them. Thus, though Marx does on occasion use the words ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ etc., his main words, his central categories of criticism of bourgeois society are quite different. They include the following: ‘human,’ ‘inhuman,’ ‘exploitation,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘slavery,’ ‘dependence,’ ‘subjugation,’ ‘imperfection,’ ‘defect,’ ‘brutalization,’ ‘venality,’ ‘corruption,’ ‘prostitution,’ ‘money-relation,’ ‘self-interest,’ ‘despotism,’ ‘repulsiveness,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘impotent,’ ‘involuntary,’ and so on.”[xiv]

If one is to rekindle the sense of calling in actual left practice, which is an essential requirement in wresting the moral power away from the centre-right forces in the ongoing student movements in some universities in our nation, then one must once again have a belief in the associative form of life that is transformative in the first place from within, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

BHU has not been exempt from the structural changes that big public universities in the nation have undergone since the 1990s. In the case of BHU, unlike more visibly liberal places which are detached from the warp and weft of the nation, we know that the trajectory itself has been a deeply communitarian one. The whole Lohiaite socialist vision of the 1970s harboured a tremendous amount of moral force apart from the real work that was done for social justice. Today the polarization is happening on other grounds. Havan paths and Golwalkar jayantis are back in a way that has always been part of a certain culture within BHU, right from its inception. To have a concerted voice of the left means to revive local programmes. But there is scant freedom at the local level owing to the bureaucratization of the organized left in the whole of Eastern UP. The caste question, which was simply overlooked by the official left meant that, gradually but surely, issues of dignity and equity arrived as more important social questions than economy pure and simple.

In recent times we have noticed quite a few incidents of mercenary nationalist hooliganism in BHU, including that of an ongoing kidnapping and molestation charge against a BHU employee and his associates. Sandip Pandey, Magsaysay awardee, was removed from IIT-BHU where he was serving as a guest lecturer, supposedly owing to his radical leanings and activities. The Badri Narayan episode was a sort of continuation of similar kinds of intolerance. But this second case also showed some kind of resistance to these new communal onslaughts within the university space. But it is the demand of a 24 hour cyber library within BHU which has actually galvanized a broad spectrum of socialist opposition to the status quoist arguments. Now, on the one hand, this is an ongoing event-to-event platform demanding a certain kind of quality within the knowledge-based university, and yet on the other hand it has been able to get crucial support from the intelligentsia and cultural activists of the city and the region. So far, we have seen it as an oppositional framework to fascism but going along with the logic of the developmental university. These contingent pockets of opposition to a way of life may only lead to longer ethics of social change if it can be distinguished from an ethics of duty. An ethics of duty is actually a mere formalization of obligations into legal codes. Calling then turns into a law, requiring or forbidding certain actions. Conceptually, an ethics of duty is linked with capitalism. A radical idea of calling cannot be a set of ideals that people aspire to, but rather must be a rejection of all illusory forms of existence and a facing of society and its institutions in its full materiality.

Paulo Freire, in his Pedagogy of Commitment, has talked about the educative situation, a ripe, opportune moment and condition where there is a possibility of genuinely taking a leap of faith through pedagogic practices and political innovations.[xv] That leap is necessary since ideas have simply dried up while conceiving university spaces as part of a larger socius and conversely, conceiving the society as being nurtured through a committed, creative, and critical training that only a certain kind of education can provide. What Apna Morcha shows us vividly and imaginatively is what Freire had proposed about the politicalness of education. There is no shortcut to the power of a singular commitment. It is the very nature of the educative practice that leads the educator to be political in that sense, Freire had said:

As an educator, I am not political because I want to be, but rather because my condition as educator so imposes. Politicalness is, thus, inherent to the educative practice. That means that, as a teacher, I must have my own and clear political choices, my dreams…. Politicalness reveals two other characteristics of the educative situation. It reveals that, in the educative practice, aesthetics and ethics go hand in hand. The educative practice is beautiful, as is the formation of culture, the development of a free individual. At the same time, such an aesthetic is ethical, for it deals with morality. (21)xv

This very spirit inheres within it the second kind of calling that I have been referring to – a calling that must arise on the left bank of history. We are all agog with anticipation.

Photo: The Siasat Daily

[i] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (London: Routledge, 1905/2001). See also, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)Cotton Mather, A Christian at His Calling (1701) and Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843).

[ii] Previous to the foundation of BHU, the existing universities in India offered a strictly western and secular education. The British established the first three universities of India— Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras—in 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny. As suggested by the Educational Despatch of 1854 (a declaration of the British government for the purpose of higher education in India), the three Indian universities were created for ‘the diffusion of the improved arts, science, philosophy and literature of Europe; in short of European knowledge.’ See Despatch of 1854, Selections from Educational Records, Part 2 1840–1859, compiled by J. A. Richey (Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing, India, 1922), p. 366.

[iii] Besant, Annie. Elementary Textbook, p. 118; Besant argues that a fixed caste system was the chief cause of the instability of Indian society in Ancient Ideals in Modern Life, 2nd ed. (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1925), p. 67.

[iv] Dar, S.L. and S. Somaskandan, History of Banaras Hindu University. (Varanasi: Banaras Hindu University Press, 1966) p. 282.

[v] Heidegger, Martin. Gesamtausgabe, vol. 16, 762. For an English translation of ‘Die Universitätim Neuen Reich’, see The Heidegger Controversy, edited by Richard Wolin (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 43–5 (this passage is at 44). See also A. Milchman and A. Rosenberg, ‘Martin Heidegger and the University as a Site for the Transformation of Human Existence’, The Review of Politics, 59(1997), 75–96; and I. Thomson, Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[vi] Sinclair, Mark. (2013) “Heidegger, Von Humboldt and the Idea of the University,” Intellectual History Review, 23:4, 499-515. See also, Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars, Protocols-Conversations-Letters, translated by F. Mayr and R. Askay (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001).

[vii] Plato, Republic VII, 521c. For a more detailed discussion of Heidegger’s inheritance of Plato’s pedagogy, see Thomson, Heidegger on Ontotheology, 155–65.

[viii] MacIntyre, Alasdair. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) and God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition (London: Continuum, 2009). This theme is also pursued in MacIntyre,The Idea of an Educated Public” in Education and Values: The Richard Peters Lectures, ed. Graham Haydon (London: Institute of Education, University of London, 1987), pp. 15-36. See also, Ronald Beiner, “The Parochial and the Universal, MacIntyre’s Idea of the University,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 2: 169-182, 2013.

[ix] Reynold, Leah. A Hindu Education: Early Years of the Banaras Hindu University (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

[x] Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. East and West: Some Reflections (New York: Harper and Bros. 1956).

[xi] Saitin, Rustam. Interview, Banaras, September 1997. Quoted in Leah Reynold, A Hindu Education.

[xii] See, ‘Banaras Hindu University Satyagrahis’, Hindu Herald, Lahore, 9 August, 1930, Education File, UP State Archives, Lucknow.

[xiii] Singh, Kashinath. Apna Morcha (Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 2007). A comparable account to Apna Morcha in Hindi literature, on campus activities, is Manohar Shyam Joshi’s memoirs about Lucknow University.

[xiv] Brenkart, George. G. Marx’s Ethic of Freedom (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983). See also, Howard Selsam, Socialism and Ethics. (New York: International Publishers, 1945) and Eugene Kamenka, The Ethical Foundations of Marxism. (Connecticut: Praeger, 1962).

[xv] Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of Commitment (Bounder & London: Paradigm Publishers, 2014).

Prasanta Chakravarty
edits the web-journal, Humanities Underground. He also teaches English Literature at Delhi University.


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

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