Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, considered a Red bastion, has, of late, been in the cross hairs of the rightist reactionary forces that are part of the ruling party. The university administration has ordered video recording of all public functions and meetings organized by the students. Some student organizations see nothing wrong in the move while others see it as a violation of the right to freedom of expression and are opposing it. Anil Kumar, a sociologist, talks about one aspect of the controversy in this article. We would welcome articles throwing light on the other aspects. – Editor
One of the things that sets JNU apart from other universities of the country is the free democratic dialogue on its campus. Anyone can join this dialogue. It is not even necessary that one should be a student of the institution. This “social dialogue” keeps the university in touch with society and gives it a distinct character. It also allows any section of society to hold any intellectual event on the campus to establish a dialogue with its students. It is because of this that not only the country but even the world pays attention to the developments in JNU. The concerns of its students extend beyond the boundaries of the nation. They are also concerned about what is happening in other parts of the world. It is this “culture of social dialogue” that makes this university relevant and important.
Prof Y.J. Alagh, a former vice-chancellor (1992-97) of the university, quotes a scholar from Japan’s Nagoya University as having told him: “JNU hostels are more democratic than any society in the world. Every night, writers, leaders and former students who think differently are invited to speak on the current problems. A session ends only after a solution to the problem is found, ie the last question is answered.” Dr K.R. Narayan, known as the People’s President (1997-2002) was the VC of JNU (3 January 1979 to 14 October 1980). It would be interesting to know his views about JNU but this writer was unable to lay his hands on any such material.
A public meeting is the “public communications area” of the JNU – a public platform for debate, discussion, reflection, criticism, counter-criticism and dialogue. Public meetings are its cornerstone, its philosophy, its backbone.
A nuanced understanding of this culture is necessary. We cannot understand it by branding JNU as a den of leftists, Maoists or terrorists. The state is a player, an agency here. The state is born of society and is an integral part of society. JNU was born of the same society and is its inalienable part. Then, how can there be separate rules for JNU? And why should there be? All said and done, we will have to acknowledge that JNU has developed its own culture, which is different from society’s.
I was in a dilemma as to how to view the recent events and debates. I decided that if someone wants to become the ruler of the country, he should know how to think like a ruler. I have deliberately used the world “know how to think” in place of simply “think” because many people simply do not know how to think. Many people blindly oppose every decision, every move of the government – not because whatever the government does is wrong or they feel so or they are going to draw any benefit from it or they get a kick out of challenging the government but because some very shrewd person manages to convince them that they are doing something great by criticizing the government and that while doing so or seem to be doing so, they are or will be considered great progressives. This thought is drilled into their minds so that they never, ever think of becoming the ruler, never think like one, and never become part of the ruling class. If people’s heroes like Karpoori Thakur, Jagdev Prasad and Kanshi Ram had thought along these lines, they would have never become part of the ruling class.
I would like to dwell on this serious issue in the context of the thoughts and philosophy of German sociologist Jurgen Habermas; English philosopher, jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham; and French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Jurgen Habermas (born 1929) in his famous book The Theory of Communicative Action (1981, in two parts) says the character of a democratic a society or country is determined by whether dialogue takes place between its members or citizens and by the kind of dialogue. Are they free to openly express their views and to transmit them, to speak out and to communicate? If yes, what forms can these expressions take? Habermas uses the word “public sphere” in his book. He argues that public spheres are the identity of a modern state and a measure its development. He says that public spheres should be seen as a meeting point of democracy and politics where society itself builds consensus at the highest level. The more critical a society is, the more democratic it will be. Absence of criticism in a society shows that it is undemocratic.
In his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962), Habermas said that in Europe, the public sphere developed during the Renaissance. It developed along with trade, democracy, personal freedom and popular sovereignty. It was located between the people and the government and was the space where people critically analyzed and discussed public issues. This discussion was useful for the government too. Obviously, any sort of governmental control over public sphere would not only be a violation of democratic rights but would hamper the development of democracy and impede a healthy flow of thoughts. But the dialectic is that the government, besides other things, has to maintain the security and functionality of society. Which group the government sides with and how it deals with the others, and whose freedom it curtails to preserve the security and functionality of society, depends on its ideology. For example, it is for the government to decide whether it should arrest Prof B.P. Mahesh Chandra Guru for speaking against Ram or it should take action against his assailants to maintain the functionality of society. The government chose the option of arresting Guru. The seizure of the copies of October 2014 issue of FORWARD Press, filing of the case against its editors, and former human resource development minister Smriti Irani’s statement on Mahishasur and her other utterances and decisions should be seen in this context.
Habermas can help us contextualize Smriti Irani’s statements in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on Mahishasur, BJP’s Gau Mata politics, the terror unleashed by Ram Bhaktas or other politics of deception. In his book, Habermas also talks of the “bourgeois public sphere”. He says it is the united front of some people who present themselves as the public, ie they are not the public but pose as such. I would like to add to it that it presents itself as the voice of the people and the bearer of their thoughts. Habermas argues that the basic premise of the public sphere is that the people should decide government actions and policies and only the government that pays heed to the public sphere is a valid government. The “bourgeoisie public sphere” creates artificial popular opinions at the behest of the government. The formulations of Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), the propaganda minister of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), can help us understand this concept better. That is why Jiraud Hosur (born 1983) believes that by exploring the opportunities available to and the capacity of the citizens of the country to participate in intellectual debates one can tell how democratic a government is.
But one basic question is how man – a biological animal – becomes a social human being. Socialization brings about this change. This is a lifelong process, which needs surveillance, incentives and provisions for punishment.
Society takes the aid of socialization to maintain order and balance. It also uses surveillance, incentives and punishment. But wielding the stick frequently is neither useful nor practical nor proper. Society uses surveillance to prevent crimes and to save itself from meting out punishments too frequently. But the problem is that while surveillance protects you from crime, it also curtails your freedom. That is precisely why surveillance is questioned and resented. It tends to restrict freedom.
Famous psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) says that man is anti-social by nature. He divided the human psyche into three parts – Id, Ego and Superego. A man is born with basic instincts called Id and everything he does is with selfish motives. Socialization leads to the development of Superego, ie critical and moralizing factor. Ego is the realistic part that mediates between the desires of Id and moralizing influence of Superego.
Freud postulates that a man commits crime when his Ego overrides his Superego or if his Superego has developed wrongly and/or in the company of wrong people. Sometimes, a person commits crime to punish another. Society has the provision of punishing a person committing a crime. Social control, surveillance and a carrot-and-stick policy are used to socialize a person. A person is rewarded for a good deed and punished for a wrong one so that he and others become aware of what is right and what is wrong.
Every society tries to prevent crimes – to catch a crime in the works and reform the person concerned. For this, every society develops a system of surveillance. In some cases, this surveillance system is very stringent and in other cases, it exists only on paper. A very stringent and intrusive surveillance system comes in the way of the smooth functioning of society because it stops a person from airing his grievances and venting his anger. This may lead to either that person turning into a mental wreck or the society being wrecked by unrest and even revolt. To my mind, the present-day France is an excellent example of this syndrome. On the other hand, even if the surveillance system exists only on paper, no person can be sure that he is not under surveillance. Everyone feels or is under the illusion that he is being watched and therefore he behaves in accordance with the social norms. We can understand this phenomenon by watching the different behaviours of people at bus stands and metro stations in Delhi. While people spit openly at bus stands, they do not do so at metro stations because they know that CCTV cameras are installed there and they are under surveillance.
English philosopher, jurist and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1747-1832) was the first to propound a theory of surveillance for prison inmates. He proposed a “panoptical” model for prisons. Later, French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) expanded on this concept in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). His theory has its own limitations and critiques, but this is not the place to go into them.
Now, we will try to understand the latest circular of JNU in the light of the above theories.
There is nothing in the circular – issued in August 2016 – to invite such hullaballoo. The circular says that a programme will be allowed to be held on the JNU premises if the following conditions are acceptable to the organizers: 1) The JNU administration will record the proceedings of the programme. 2) Security personnel will be present at the programme. 3) The names, institutions, telephone numbers and email IDs of the people invited to the programme will be provided to the administration in advance. 4) The security personnel will have the right to check IDs. 5) After the programme, details of the participants will be provided to the Dean’s office. Of these, two provisions – recording of programmes and allowing security personnel to check IDs – are new.
It is important to note that all programmes that students organize on the JNU campus are public programmes, which are open to all. Then, what difference does it make if the administration records the proceedings of the programmes? Most of the organizers themselves upload recordings of their programmes on YouTube. In fact, the students should demand that the administration broadcast the programmes live so that the country and the world can know what is happening in the university.
The JNU administration has taken this decision in view of the rise of extreme Left on the JNU campus and growing left-wing terrorism in the country. Instead of using the freedom available to them for taking up a positive cause or for launching new discourse, some people misused it to shout slogans calling for India’s ruin. Outsiders were raising these slogans in the context of Kashmir. They were free to say what they wanted on JNU campus but if you ruin India, where will you live? India is home to you, me and all of us. The government and the administration apart, as a member of our home, that is India, isn’t it our duty to rein in such people? The new circular of the administration is the fallout of these developments. This is Bentham and Foucault’s “panoptic” surveillance model, which gives freedom to everyone while keeping everyone under the illusion that they are under surveillance. But no one can be under the illusion or be sure that they are not under surveillance.
It is true that most of the discourses in JNU are positive and path-breaking. But see through the eyes of the government and the administration and you will realize that this circular is in the interest of the nation and the university. If I or any person reading this article was the vice-chancellor of the university and was mandated with the responsibility of managing the affairs of the institution, what else could I or they have done to ensure that such incidents did not take place and if they did, those responsible identified? If you are holding a public function, what is the problem in giving the names, phone numbers and email IDs of the participants? In any case, names and affiliations were required to be submitted earlier, too. If you are not indulging in any extremist, terrorist, divisive or anti-social activities, how does it matter if your programme is being recorded? The recording will serve only one purpose. The university administration will have a record of who said what. Then, isn’t is true that nowadays, almost everyone carries a smartphone in their pocket and many people record proceedings of the programmes they attend and some upload the recordings on Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites. When you take out a procession or organize a sit-in, the police of the area concerned do record your activities. This is in the interest of both the police and you. To my mind, only those associated with extreme left, Maoists or those involved in disruptive activities, would have problems with this measure.
To just illustrate, when I was associated with the All India Backward Students’ Federation (AIBSF), it used to organize Mahishasur Martyrdom/Remembrance Day on the JNU campus. After 2014, the BJP-RSS could spread disinformation about us and our activities in society and even in Parliament because we did not possess recordings of our programmes. Had we recorded the proceedings of the programmes, could Smriti Irani have waved a pamphlet in Parliament in February 2016 and falsely claimed that we issued it? If we were in the position to tell people what we actually said or did, could the issue have been sensationalized the way it was? If we could have proved our point, people would have stood by us. Instead, what happened was that even those we were fighting for turned against us. We had to work hard to undo the damage. Now, it will become the legal responsibility of the JNU administration to make the recordings of a programme available in case of any controversy. BASO organized a discussion on the assault on Dalits at Una, Gujarat, and the subsequent Dalit agitation at Lohit Hostel, JNU, on 20 August 2016. Among others, Jignesh, the leader of this agitation, and journalist Anil Chamadia attended the programme. I was also there. No one checked my ID and the JNU administration wasn’t recording the programme. Those who were recording the programme were doing so to upload it on YouTube.
It can be argued that even if the administration did not check the IDs or record the programme, it was authorized to use these “weapons”. But when you are organizing a public function, how can you object to its recording? The JNU administration is not mounting any stealth operation; it is keeping a record of your activities for the coming generations. We are unaware of the views of Chandrashekhar, alias Chandu, the revolutionary students’ union leader of JNU, on many a topic because recordings of his speeches are not available.
I agree with Jiraud Hosur. The dearth or plenteousness of opportunities available to and the capacity of the citizens of the country to participate in intellectual debates are a measure of how democratic a government is. This circular is also not against Jurgen Habermas’s theory of Communication and Democracy, and it is not part of the “bourgeois public sphere”. It is in keeping with the panoptic model of Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault and is necessary to maintain order in society.
As I had clarified at the beginning, if we are to become rulers, we should know how to think like rulers. Before writing this article, I had decided that I will think like a ruler.
Can the JNU administration now prevent debate on an issue by denying permission to hold a public function centred on it? This should not be done in a democratic set-up and the circular mentions nothing of the kind. But the option of denying permission was available earlier too, though it was never exercised. If the JNU administration denies permission to hold a programme on, say, cultural identity or Mahishasur, the top functionaries of the university and its highest body – the Executive Council – will have some explaining to do: Who gave the university the right to decide what is worth debating and what is not, especially, when universities are meant to be centres of debate and discussion?
On World Women’s Day (8 March 2016), Jatin Gaurayya, the vice-president of the ABVP unit of JNU, wanted to burn copies of the Manusmriti because it is anti-women. The administration allowed him to do so but withdrew the permission an hour before the programme. Still, Jatin Gaurayya went ahead and under his leadership, students associated with the ABVP and other organizations active on the campus, besides students with no political affiliation, joined the event. I was one of them. The JNU administration sent notices to all the participants. Our response was that the administration couldn’t control or decide the topics of debate. Ultimately, no one was penalized.
I do not believe in thinking like terrorists, Maoists and anti-government elements. I believe in thinking like the government, so that we can run governments in the future. Those who brainwash the deprived, the exploited and the ignored sections into turning them against the government, have an agenda. They do not want intellectuals to rise up from these classes – intellectuals who can help run the government. We should think in terms of governing the country in the future and should learn to think like governments.
The politics of those opposing the circular is similar to the BJP’s politics of deception on the on the issue of Gau Mata and Ram. Notwithstanding all the shortcomings, flaws and problems of the Indian democratic system, what is that they want to say in public programmes in JNU and why do they worry that they will not be allowed to say it? What do they want to say that they do not want to be recorded? If you want to operate so secretively, what kind of a public organization are you? If you are so obsessed with secrecy, you may demand tomorrow that no person carrying a mobile be allowed to attend your programmes because these days, almost all mobiles have the facility of recording video and audio.
It is thus clear that the circular is not against the culture of free, democratic debates in JNU. It is only against anarchists, Maoists, terrorists and saboteurs.