Three Questions to a JNU Professor

The disruptive nature of humanities and social science research may be the key to breaking fascist myths

LILA: How do we effectively resist and creatively correct the popular arguments against Advanced Studies institutions in the country – such as they are elitist institutions wasting tax payers’ money by doing ‘useless’ research/ that they breed anti-nationalism/that they must be converted into undergraduate tech-management institutions to democratise education….

Ayesha Kidwai: We live in a time when anti-intellectualism is the dominant political discourse – Modi, Trump, Erdogan, May, in fact everywhere in the world. This discourse has been made current not by activists who wish to reform discourses of privilege or pedantry, but by those with economic and political power built on a bedrock of injustice, exclusion, and xenophobia, in order to buttress their own privilege and power.

The way to counter this is to first of all reveal them for who they are, as well as their reasons for their shrill campaign against higher education – almost invariably, they speak for the restoration of an educational order marked by things people shouldn’t know, or what one is not allowed to say or think, i.e. one in which access to and the use of knowledge is strictly controlled.

The second initiative is one that academics must take – and we have been doing in JNU – to talk directly to the people and not treat them as consumers of knowledge. The Nationalism lectures that JNU Teacher’s Association organised via a Teach-In was one such attempt to show that research is meaningful to society as it explores both the faultiness in our society as well as the ideals that unify us.

The third is what everyone should do and talk about – see education as a transformative tool for future generations. Teachers that have not had the opportunity to engage in the construction of knowledge are not going to be able to encourage that in the youth.

LILA: How can advanced research in humanities and social sciences be a creative tool to build and strengthen a people’s movement against fascism? Do you propose some changes?

AK: Fascism, specially its aspect in daily cultural life, seeks to substitute what are many little ideas that form the mosaic of individual and group cultures, with an overarching single narrative (albeit with multiple facets), as Hannah Arendt pointed out to us decades ago. This formulation of a single narrative – whether it be of a glorious Hindu or Aryan age, the lapse from this because of invading Muslims or fractious Dalits, Bharat Mata or the Holy Cow, or one language, one nation – is predicated on the elision of the literally millions of other narratives and experiences. Research in the humanities and social sciences is profoundly disruptive, it shatters this myth into thousands of fragments, because it shows a mirror to these narratives. History has always done that – and hence the unreasoned but undyingly vicious attack on historians by the RSS and its progeny – literature and the arts do that that too – hence the attempts to punish writers who dissent. But so do economics and political science and sociology and linguistics, and virtually any field of study, because they proceed from the basic premise that the grand unities imagined by fascist fantasies need to be independently attested. Research allows these millions of little narratives to talk to each other and speak in unison against totalitarianism. The need of the hour is for this to become a social and political movement, to refuse to become a silenced people.

LILA: How can the study of linguistic histories bring about a genuine understanding in students towards appreciating the contemporary plurality of the country?

AK: For the 2011 Census, the raw returns of language names received 19,569 responses. These were then whittled down by the Census processes to 1,369 rationalised mother tongues and 1,474 ‘other’ mother tongues. These figures represent the state of our knowledge – we know something of the linguistic histories of the 1,369 but not of the 1,474, hence our Census denies them even the minimally factual status of a mother tongue. This needs to be addressed as the low prestige created by this othering puts smaller languages at risk of vanishing forever. But even just knowing the fact that people in this country still feel that nothing of nation, social harmony, rule of law, or religion is threatened by declaring their linguistic differences is something to celebrate. But these declarations of plurality are only possible in a nation that sees itself as plural – once that certainty begins to fray, the linguistic expression of diversity will diminish.

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