EPW article : JNU episode and the popular discourse on history

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Democracy and the Popular Discourse on History

Arup Baisya (swabhiman.ngo@gmail.com) is a social activist based in Silchar, Assam.
The people of India are disillusioned. The present phase of neo-liberal capitalism, and the changes that it spells, do not take into account the vertically and horizontally disintegrated working class and the structurally remodelled castes-communities. The Jawaharlal Nehru University debate around the constitutional right to speak only re-emphasises the fact that if we wish to stall the rise of fascism, the past needs to be reconstructed as a paradigm for the future.
The debate that revolved around the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president, and other student leaders on sedition charges raised more questions than answers. Though the central theme of this debate is the constitutional right to speak, the moot question is how the future of India, rooted in the present, articulates the past. Thus, the discourse on the history of the Indian past in popular political parlance gets constantly constructed and reconstructed with a vision to the future. This is bound to happen because the history of the Indian past, like the socio-historical past of mankind, is not fixed, one-dimensional and completely knowable for all.
Meaning of the Present
The aggressive state intervention to scuttle the effort of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students to open up a space for multiple voices, and the high-handed approach of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) bandwagon to muzzle alternative voices to their Hindutva-vadi nationalist narrative generated a vibrant debate within the educated class. But the reasoned argument, which is essential for safeguarding and promoting democracy, cannot be sustainable without linking it to the Indian past with a view to formulating a future plan of action. In this framework, the participation of the left in this debate fails to catch the imagination of the popular psyche and leaves the space open for obscurantist forces to take over. Whether the progressive or regressive characteristics of the Indian past will be reconstructed is squarely dependent on the future project envisioned in the present.
The meaning of the present is used as a key to unlock the meaning of the past leading to the present, which in its turn, unlocks formerly unidentified dimensions of the present leading to the future not in the form of rigid mechanical determinations but as anticipation of aims linked to a set of inner motivations. Thus, we are involved in a dialectic movement which leads from the present to the past and from the past to the future. In this movement the past is not somewhere there, in its remote finality and ‘closure,’ but right ‘here,’ ‘open’ and situated between the present and the future (Mészáros 2013: 68).
People are disillusioned with the present state of affairs. But there cannot be any change without a radical break from the present; without a structural discontinuity. Without a conscious desire for change, a discontinuity within the framework of structural continuity may be projected as a change to misguide the collective unconscious. On this count the RSS has a mission to change the state’s character based on religious nationalism within the crisis-ridden capitalist structure. Mutatis mutandis, the left appears to be playing within the same arena without having any alternative plan. The mainstream left nowadays claims its commitment to secure the idea of Akhand Bharat that negates the principle of the “right to self-determination.” Its selective opposition to the neo-liberal reform agenda does not entail an alternative vision for a future beyond neo-liberal capitalism. The undertaking of secularism, which is construed within the framework of truncated democracy and the societal imbalances caused by neo-liberal onslaught, is not qualitatively different from the secularism of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) variety, with which people are so disillusioned. Participating in the JNU debate, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) leader Sitaram Yechury expressed vainglory in his Rajya Sabha speech for upholding the concept of Akhand Bharat in his JNU days. It becomes difficult to assess whether it is a defensive stance or principled stand.
Future That Articulates the Past
The popular perception of our past is always based on a derivative discourse. One always looks back to his past to envision a future. The British introduced communal historiography in India. This historiography is a way of looking at the historical phenomenon through the lens of religion. The RSS has mastered the art of propagating our past derived with the instrument of religious doctrine for a future project of an authoritarian state. Their concept of an authoritarian state is projected as a mythical “Ramrajya,” a change based on the Hindu Yuga division of time for popular acceptance. This historiography catches the imagination of collective unconscious when the system itself is in deep crisis in absence of a popular discourse on historiography that envisions a future from a working class perspective.
It needs to be emphasised that today, for state-of-the-art historical understanding anywhere in the world where South Asia is being studied, the assumption of Savarkar or Golwlajar would appear so absurd as hardly worth refutation or debate. Irrespective of their other differences, historians of all trends, liberal, nationalist, the erstwhile ‘Cambridge’ school, Marxist of diverse kinds, late-subalterns, feminist, post-or anti-modernists—would all agree that the essentialised assumptions of Hindus and Muslims being homogeneous, continuous blocs across time and subcontinental space, with Muslims as a community ruling Hindus in the medieval centuries, are totally unacceptable (Sarkar 2004: 254).
Despite this being the fact, the RSS variants of historical interpretation are catching the imagination of the people in this neo-liberal phase of capitalism. Here, we have a coincidence in time in the ideologies of globalisation and liberalisation with the spectacular advance of Hindutva which requires much further explication. The spectacular advance of Hindutva is inevitable if the assertion of the oppressed caste/class, and for that matter the working class assertion against neo-liberal capitalism, is not articulated with a future project.
Based on this assertion of the under-privileged in the present milieu of neoliberal policy regime, our historical past can only be articulated with a vision for future. Therein lies the real process for the development of ideological and material force to combat the religious bigotry and authoritarian rule. The mainstream left parties with a doctrinaire mindset believe that the working class is a tabula rasa and that they only internalise verbatim the content that the left ideologue preaches. This mindset makes them defensive and compels them to gesticulate within the dominant world view to suppress the future.
As early as the Bernstein Debate it was clear that the opportunists had to take their stand ‘firmly on the facts’ so as to be able to ignore the general trends or else to reduce them to the status of a subjective, ethical imperative (Lukacs 1993: 182).
Facts are to be judged in a social context; the static representation of the past in the Hindutva-vadi discourse must be contested with a future project that does not invent the past, but articulates it.
Democracy and Justice
One of the reasons behind the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to power in Delhi with an overwhelming majority in the midst of a countrywide Hindutva-vadi wave was the popularly perceived notion that the citizens would have the opportunity to participate in the governance and decision-making process. The vote base of a section of the oppressed castes/communities adhered to their mentor Lalu Prasad Yadav, despite all his misdeeds, because of his politics of instilling a sense of self-respect and empowerment in daily mundane affairs. But this perceived notion is not sustainable if it is not transcended and institutionalised.
The rapidly changing canvas of discontent against the backdrop of neo-liberal onslaught from the powers-that-be makes the terrain of political discourse complicated. The discourse on comparative advantage of dirigiste Nehruvian model and notional participatory democracy and justice cannot match the changing mental wavelength of the vertically and horizontally disintegrated working class and structurally remodelled castes–communities in the present phase of neo-liberal capitalism. In the context of the present, the past needs to be reconstructed as a project for the future.
B R Ambedkar, who chaired the drafting committee that collated the new Indian Constitution for adoption by the Constituent Assembly shortly after Indian independence in 1947, wrote fairly extensively on the relevance, if any, of India’s ancient experiences in local democracy for the design of a large democracy for the whole of India (Sen 2010: 330).
But the bourgeoisie has no democratic mission of its own to ensure justice and participation of all citizens in policymaking, because the sole driving force and the motive of capitalism rests on ensuring profit and accumulation. The concept of bourgeois democracy is an offshoot of a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the working class to guarantee the capitalist hegemonic structure. The constitutional democracy was articulated in the situation after Indian independence in 1947. It needs to be transcended and rearticulated against the backdrop of the here and the now, because the determination from the past and the anticipation of the future converges into the present. All of this comes to life in a synthetic unity of the dialectical totalisation in which subjectivity and objectivity are inextricably fused.
A totalitarian state is one that suppresses the interplay of state and society, extending the sphere of its exercise to the totality of collective life. This necessitates a vision of history that abuses and hates dissent. On the contrary, demand for democracy is carried or concealed by the idea of a new society, the elements of which are being formed at the very heart of contemporary society. The Hindutva-vadi forces intend to transmit the historical facts taken out of its context with a view to stereotype the name “Muslim” and for that purpose, education needs to be confined to the deductive logic of Brahminical texts. This self-destructive tendency can be combated only by the process of transmitting the universality of knowledge. It is not a conflict between your Hindutva-vadi Akhand Bharat versus our secular Akhand Bharat.
Amartya Sen in his book The Idea of Justice emphasised that the excellent record of Athenian democracy of electoral governance had no immediate impact in the countries to the west of Greece and Rome; rather Indian vis-à-vis the Asian cities had incorporated this democratic practice. He further opined that while Athens certainly had an excellent record in public discussion, open deliberations also flourished in several other civilisations like India. This civilisational trait of democracy finds its resonance in the post-independence constitutional democracy. This constitutional democracy was formulated by the bourgeois class to accommodate all diverse interests that were unleashed during the long-drawn out freedom struggle.
But now against the backdrop of a deep structural crisis of global capitalism, this bourgeois class is trying to roll back the provisions of constitutional democracy which has become anathema to the neo-liberal policy drive. So, the content of democracy needs to be reconstructed with a linkage to the past from a working class perspective. That demands inclusion of absolute right to dissent including the right to secede and a decentralisation of power to the fullest extent so that people can participate in the decision-making process. Furthermore, the neo-liberal policy doctrine should be opposed in letter and spirit along with an alternative economic policy framework.
German Experience and Indian Fascism
After careful discussion of social origin, educational background, income differentials, organisational experience, and status consciousness, J Kocka concludes that American white-collar workers showed a much lower propensity to see themselves as a distinct class or status group superior and hostile to the working class. So while the white-collar workers turned to the Nazis in large numbers, their American counterparts joined manual workers in support of the New Deal (Dobkowski and Wallimann 1989: 75).
In addition to that, the fragmentation of the petty bourgeoisie and workers was influenced by religious and ethnic differences in Germany, the interventionist state emphasised the collar line and legally cemented the lines of differentiation, and a stratified educational system was put in place to restrict the mobility between manual and non-manual jobs. In Germany, the political culture was deficit of some essential ingredients of a modern bourgeois or civil society that was closely but inversely related to the strength of Germany’s pre-industrial and pre-bourgeois traditions. In the case of white-collar workers this created a much-ready support for the fascists.
Both Germany and Italy were societies experiencing accelerated capitalist transformation, through which entire regions were being visibly converted from a predominantly rural to a urban environment. The pace of social change outstripped the adaptive capabilities of the existing political institutions. In a situation of widespread political uncertainty, the existing political bloc of industrial, agrarian, and military–bureaucratic class took recourse to a new kind of radical nationalism, which stressed the primacy of national allegiances and priorities normally with heavily imperialist or social–imperialist inflection over everything else. The attraction of radical nationalism may be grasped partly from the ideology itself, which was self-confident, optimistic, and reaffirming. It contained an aggressive belief in the authenticity of German national mission, in the unifying potential of nationalist panacea, and in the popular resonance of the national idea for the struggle against the left. Radical nationalism was a vision of the future, not of the past. The dramatic conjuncture of war and revolution between 1914 and 1923 produced a crisis, which brought domestic unity, foreign mission, and territorial integrity of the nation into question. It was thus able to achieve popular appeal.
Though in many ways present-day India resembles the German phenomena, there are new criteria too. Not only is capitalism in deep crisis, the neo-liberal policy drive has also failed to mitigate this crisis situation. After the post-independence period of uneven and combined development process, and especially after the neo-liberal policy drive, the relation of production has undergone a drastic change. The pressure group of organised labour in the public sector has been dismantled to a large extent due to privatisation and contracualisation. The rapid urbanisation and conversion of the rural masses into wage labour has also reconstructed the caste/class dynamics. Now unorganised urban and rural labour constitutes the largest chunk of the workforce. The pursuit of a neo-liberal jobless growth model has led to increased and growing unemployment. In the absence of a left agenda to address the contested terrain of popular democratic aspirations, this working class is amenable to fall prey to the most telling political intervention of fascist right.
The Alternative
The proponents of liberal secular democracy are advocating Keynesian economy, but they are confining themselves only within the demand management instead of dwelling on the most radical aspect of Keynesian economy. Keynes foresaw a stage when fiscal and monetary stimuli alone would not suffice to increase investment sufficiently:
Then a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment will prove the only means of securing an approximation to full employment; though this need not exclude all manners of compromises and of devices by which public authority will co-operate with private initiative (Desai 2013: 60).
With the legitimacy of left politics at its nadir, a new institutional democracy reconstructing the civilisational democratic practices and an alternative economy challenging the neo-liberal policy needs to be projected from a working class perspective to address the popular democratic aspirations. The rise of fascism can only be stalled by an oppositional unity based on this premise. The UPA variant of a rainbow coalition of all oppositional forces conceptualised within the framework of neo-liberal policy may not be able to stop the fascist juggernaut once and for all.
Desai, Radhika (2013): Geopolitical Economy, After US Hegemony, Globalisation and Empire, London: Pluto Press.
Dobkowski, Michael N and Isidor Wallimann (ed) (1989): Radical Perspectives on the Rise of Fascism in Germany, 1919–1945, Kolkata: Cornerstone Publications.
Lukacs, Georg (1993): History and Class Consciousness, New Delhi: Rupa.
Mészáros, István (2013): The Work of SartreSearch for Freedom and the Challenge of History, New Delhi: Aakar Books.
Sarkar, Sumit (2004): Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History, New Delhi: Permanent Black.
Sen, Amartya (2010): The Idea of Justice, New Delhi: Penguin Books.


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