Fear and Loathing in Banaras Hindu University: Another Misdeed of Neoliberal Hindutva

Pavel Tomar
Civilization-mongers of India, superbly named so by Frederich Engels in an earlier time, are on public display again. In these “reflexive” postmodern times, they have presented their shameless acts at the altar of the bombarded university system in India, most recently in Banaras Hindu University. What happened at Banaras Hindu University campus in late September 2017 was therefore only an episode of the unending series. First, the girl victim  of molestation was brutally harassed at the hands of losers, which is reported to be a norm in Banaras and BHU (called as “Lanketing”, after the Lanka Police Station on the campus). Then the whole system shamed her by questioning the timing of her outing. When the protests turned into a larger movement, the VC termed it as political and brutally repressed it by resorting to lathicharge with the help of state administration led by a priest called Yogi Adityanath, famous for his anti-feminist jibes, apparently busy in welcoming his master the Prime Minister Modi on a visit to his constituency.

The BHU VC was right in asserting before the press that violence against women is prevalent all across India. Except that he was not supposed to make this a pretext of not only ensuring no action would be taken against the perpetrators, but also to violently diffuse the movement against harassment as “politics”. The implicit assumption of the VC was therefore that any raising of a complaint in the wake of the visit of the PM is “political”, hence insincere. What was troublesome for someone as deprived of dignity for human existence as the VC was the naming of the issue and voicing of dissent about it by the students Taking this logic further, he argued that even if a true incident of harassment would happen in such a context, it would be ipso facto false, because this would detract from the more important concern of welcoming the PM! It was this sophistry which put even the most shameless Sanghis to shame and the VC had to be turned into a scapegoat, because of his act of “overidentification”, of too closely aligning with the establishment when he was expected by the latter to not dragging higher authority into it.

Since, one of the first acts of patriarchal authority in any such matter of harassment is to repress the complaint and silence the complainant, the voicing of dissent by the complainant was itself heroic. As if that heroism was not enough, it was made grander by the fact that the protest movement evolved into a comprehensive critique of the larger malaise with the system, which seemingly seems beyond simple reforms. On the one hand, the public university is under constant attack by the rightwing in power, not only politically but also economically. Existing scholarships are revoked, and new ones are never announced. Not even a semblance of a justification is provided in what are now daily announcements of new destructive rules, from appointment of faculty to admission criteria, modes of admission, use of resources etc. While students at BHU are demanding for an anti-harassment committee like GSCASH in JNU, in JNU itself the GSCASH is dissolved by decree. It does not matter to the authority that such acts are a severe violation of the letter and spirit of existing regulations. On the other hand, almost all egalitarian movements are repressed by terming them as “anti-national”. Almost brazenly, across Indian university and college campuses, half the population has different rules to comply with, in clear violation of the provision of equality in the Indian Constitution. They have to follow curfew timings, apparently for their safety while everyone knows that the only safe time to be back to the hostel is at any time one can. What the allusion to the anti-nationalism of such egalitarian movement hides is in fact a veiled attempt at selling out the intellectual self-reliance of the country  and silencing of the left, dalit and feminists movement which is necessarily born out of intellectual churnings and research in higher education. In Kantian terms, the basic aim of the rightwing strategy is of turning public use of reason into a private use of reason, and a disciplining of women for their future role in shaping family, kinship and, therefore, country. Gender is therefore not just an intersectionality, but the key site of engendering this intersectionality.

Many in our country had high hopes (and good illusions) from the Nirbhaya movement, which are now dashed. To imagine such a movement achieving a high goal in the times of large-scale primary accumulation is itself utopian in the bad sense. There are those ‘leftists’ who consider raising issues of identity alone will help. What they miss out is not only how class is primary, but how the issues of identity that they raise in such situations as being intrinsically related to the overall structures of exploitation. Violence against women and dalits and other ‘excluded’ categories has been rising in exponential powers of the growth rate of economy. The same situation then gives a cyclical rise to the rightwing forces which pose themselves as harbingers of peace and respect, while undermining these stated goals not only subjectively (by themselves harassing women) but also objectively (by facilitating economic exploitation). The situation becomes a superego paradox: the more violence you have, the more modern technocratic and policing solutions are presented, the more policing solutions are implemented, the more violence ensues.

In retrospection, modern Indian history seems not to have begun with the coming of European powers for the search of tropical products and for colonisation, rather it begins with a full native endorsement of the “Eurocentric” discourse of science and reason, and the founding of political movement of emancipation towards the late nineteenth century, which were incidentally coterminous with the religious revivalist movements, of which the Sangh Parivar is a product. Ambedkar, Periyar, Phule, every anti-caste thinker emphasized intersectionality avant la lettre: how the genesis of caste is linked to the problem of controlled reproduction (“surplus” men and women), and how it is a crude division both of labour and labourers. It appears as if this multiple  “intersectionality”, if one calls it, of neoliberal accumulation and Brahminical ideology is what has given birth to many tragedies of the counter-revolutionary Modi regime. 

Walter Benjamin wrote how each document of civilization was at the same time a document of barbarism. This fully applies to the NDA government. They talk of a history of a civilisation, while stripping history of the dimension of time. They make a dalit the President of India, while beating up dalits in Una and elsewhere, or driving them to suicide as in Hyderabad. They call for everybody’s development, while infants die in hundreds for the lack of basic medical stuff in their hospitals. Elsewhere, they launch bullet trains for the elites. They preach about empowering women, launching them into high profile ministries, while brutally ignoring rural schoolgirls sitting on an indefinite fast for upgrading their schools to higher level so that they do not have to drop out of the fear of harassment at the hands of local boys (Rewari, Haryana). They are the obverse of a multitude of products available in the market today which are deprived of their harmful “side-effects”: sugar free sugar, butter without fat, beer without alcohol, war without war (“surgical strike”, “fake” encounters ), politics without politics (“patriotism”, erasure of difference as such), “empowerment” (who needs this term?) without empowerment, delivering a knowledge economy while dismantling the public university, banning documentaries about horrific rapes which abuse the nation while glorifying it with sharing porn on whatsapp etc. Except that they are hard-boiled neoliberals, for whom “trickle-down” theory holds as close to the heart as their penchant for the search of lost times of Manusmriti. The Janus called Sangh Parivar today faces both sides of the present: to the modernisation of market on the one hand, and to the revanchiste re-enactment of the lost golden time where society was organized as per the soft fascist doctrines of Brahminical ideology. While capitalist accumulation affects those most who are already struggling for survival, and those at the lowest steps of the social ladder, the task of the Brahminical ladder-makers is to deprive them from even voicing their suffering.

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The basic aim of the left in these times should not only be speaking up and organizing new movements, it should also involve shaming of those in authorities, or as Karl Marx put it, shame must be made more shameless by publicizing it.  In Truffaut’s film Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel with the same title, there are allusions of similar environment as in India today. The government of this dystopian future, which is now the Indian government, has appointed a special squad for ‘burning books’, with the aim of eradicating all critical thinking. The hero somehow senses something wrong with it, and this takes him to join a collective whose job is to keep books alive by remembering them with heart. Not surprisingly this group aims to be genderless utopia, where humans are reduced to a text and the names of the texts defy gender distinctions: “Pride and Prejudice being ‘male’; the Memoirs of Saint-Simon ‘female’ (Clarisse); Sartre’s The Jewish Question and Plato’s Republic ‘female’; Alice in Wonderland ‘male’; and Alice through the Looking-Glass ‘female’”. If anything, when not only sites of critical learning and thinking are under attack, but when gender is turned as a prime weapon of disciplining, we need an actualization of this genderless utopia more than ever today.

The Author is a Ph.D. scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.