What’s Left of What’s Right? The Questions We Need to Learn to Ask


Photo courtesy of Stand with JNU Media Group

JNU, like every other university, is a place for learning. Unlike most other universities, however, every aspect of the university life here provides scope for learning—from the discussions in the hostel mess, to public meetings; from presidential elections to midnight perambulations. Rightly, or wrongly, JNU students, especially those from the humanities and social sciences, are taught to see the world textually. In my department, the Centre for English Studies, we are told to look at everything as if it was a text—whether it be the shirt our friend is wearing, or the political pamphlet he is handing out. Such an emphasis on the textual approach results in one very important corollary—that there is no sacred text, no text more important than any other. Or I should better express it as all texts are equally sacred and equally worthy of research and engagement. We can learn something valuable, not just from canonical works by a Shakespeare or a Tagore, but also from petitions and post-mortem reports.

That Professor Paranjape’s critical take on the Left in the conclusion of his lecture on nationalism elicited some negative responses from the audience present cannot be denied. The fact that most of the questions put to him were inane and quite obviously confrontative cannot also be doubted in the least. It must be stated that his lecture had done nothing more than put up the facts, regarding Stalinist Russia, and the tendency of Leftist movements to progress towards totalitarianism. While an argument can be countered or critiqued, one cannot simply argue with the facts. The tragedy of Indian political discourse is that facts are taken up to counter other facts. The silliness and futility of such an endeavour does not seem to strike most people, whether they be news anchors or politicians. In a university space, however, we do not have the luxury to be so wilfully obtuse. I am aware that the lecture has received its share of uncritical applause and critical disparagement. However there have been no attempts to learn from it, no attempt to use it as a foundation for bigger questions. As students we must first and foremost be prepared to learn from our teachers.

In his critique, Professor Paranjape characterised JNU as a “left hegemonic space”. His analysis of Tagore and Gandhi hinged on a method of reading called “diatopical hermeneutics” which, according to him, occupies the vantage points of two topoi, the inside and outside, in order to better assess a text. He pointed out that the Left has always been critical of the legitimacy of the Right, especially the BJP since it came to power. The Left’s argument was that the BJP only managed to garner 31% of the total vote share. In a similar way, Professor Paranjape put a question upon Kanhaiya Kumar’s legitimacy as President of JNUSU, since he had only received some 1000 votes in a university of 8000 students, of which perhaps 4000 voted. What must we learn from Professor Paranjape’s “diatopical” presentation of these facts? It is true that the JNU movement has raised questions about the legitimacy of the government, which is after all an elected government, no matter how many Fascistic tendencies it might have. Professor Paranjape took a different route, questioning the legitimacy of the Left inside campus. We must push on from both these sites of dissent, and raise a question which perhaps can only be raised in a university. We must raise the question of legitimacy as such. Professor Paranjape rightly characterized this desire for legitimacy as rooted in a type of thinking which is above all theological. In the older systems of monarchy and hereditary kingship, the monarch was legitimized by the transcendent divine Sovereign or God. In our modern system of democracy, the elected government is legitimized by the immanent sovereign, the People. The structure and logic of legitimacy is the same; both the Right and the Left appeal to the very same idea of the people to legitimize their drastically opposing politics. It is this logic of legitimacy which we must learn to question, following Professor Paranjape’s lead. From his concept of diatopical hermeneutics we can raise the question of two topoi, one outside, and one inside. We must learn to question not the simple binary of inside and outside, but rather address our question to the more complicated problem of the border between what is inside and what is outside. We must learn to ask who or what draws the boundary between the two topoi and hence simultaneously constructs them both; we must learn, from Professor Paranjape’s lecture, that the drawing of the boundary itself is in a way a decision that changes what is considered inside, and what is considered outside. Professor Paranjape has always reiterated that we must not do politics in the university space. This has been taken to be a negative proscription by many of his students. That is simply not the case­—when he says we must not do politics, when he says we must be independent scholars not toeing the party line, we must learn the crucial difference between politics and the political. The political transcends mere politics. Professor Paranjape’s work has its own definite political orientation, which is true of any major academic or scholar, but he himself remains unaffiliated to any party. In turn we must learn to dissociate the political from mere party politics; in short, from Professor Paranjape, we must learn to be at the same time, both independent as well as political.

Professor Paranjape had begun his lecture with a quote from John Gallagher: “Revolutions devour their children, nationalism eats its parents”. The question to be asked, at this critical juncture, is not whether it is better to be a revolutionary or a nationalist, or whether it is better to commit infanticide or parricide. The facts are that Kanhaiya Kumar was critical of the government in power; Professor Paranjape was critical of the hegemony of the Left inside campus. While on the surface these two critiques seem opposing and contradictory, what we must learn is to be able to combine them both to raise a question which is of the utmost importance to us now. Bringing them together would mean a critique which questions not just the authorities, not just the powerful, but power as such, each and every form of power that is used to dominate the helpless, and silence the weak.Such a task would mean being more than just critical of those currently in power, whether inside campus or outside. What the nation really needs to learn, from the gist of both Kanhaiya’s speech and Professor Paranjape’s lecture, is that if JNU is standing united today, it is in its spirited critique of the very idea of hegemony. In our political systems, the figures of authority, or hegemons may come and go, but hegemonies always remain. It is the latter’s constant presence and recurrence that the nation, as a whole, must learn to question.

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is pursuing his MPhil from the Centre of English Studies at JNU. The views expressed are personal. 



Categories: Opinion

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7 replies »

  1. I agree with the author that leftist leaders ask inane questions; even Chaman Lal’s suggestion that Paranjape should have denounced Hitler as much as he denounced Stalin reveals a hesitancy of the parliamentary left in India to confront facts about the red terror. Also, the author elegantly explains what Paranjape’s intention, “to question not the simple binary of inside and outside, but rather address our question to the more complicated problem of the border between what is inside and what is outside”. But this seems to suggest that that the location of a middle ground is the solution to social conflict, that simply by questioning binaries/boundaries, one can resolve the ineluctable conflict between Dalit and Brahmin (this point found mention in the Q&A session). Also, Paranjape’s assertion that every text contains its own critique subverts the critique provided by other texts/traditions. If you wish to critique the Manusmriti, will you look at the Manusmriti itself for clues????? Paranjape laughably conflates ‘bali’ (sacrifice) and the treacherous defeat of King Bali by Vishnu. The author of this article does not address these evasions Paranjape made.


  2. Hey. Thanks for pointing out the fact that leftist leaders on campus ask ridiculously inane questions. Also, Chaman Lal’s suggestion that Paranjape ought to denounce Hitler as much as he denounced Stalin was obnoxious and reveals a hesitancy of the parliamentary left in India to hear facts about red terror.

    To return to the lecture which Paranjape gave. As he elegantly and somewhat fatuously said, there should be a middle ground “to question not the simple binary of inside and outside, but rather address our question to the more complicated problem of the border between what is inside and what is outside” as you write. Paranjape seems to suggest that by locating ths middle ground, all our problems of social conflict will disappear (NB. His emphasis on looking at the Brahmin-Dalit binary diatopically). As much as I disparage the leftist leaders of bullying Paranjape to “clarify his position”, I believe that there is no middle ground the construction of which can simple erase problematic binaries and resolve ineluctable conflict. Also, Paranjape’s suggestion that Brahmanical texts themselves provide the potential to critique them is simply an obtuse way of subverting any critique that comes from a radically different text/tradition. Lastly, Paranjape’s conflation of ‘bali’ (sacrifice) and the treacherous defeat of King Bali by Vishnu quite laughable. I wish you had addressed these “facts”, too, instead of merely proposing “As students we must first and foremost be prepared to learn from our teachers.”


    • That there are elisions and evasions in Professor Paranjape’s lecture is a fact which I don’t think anyone can reasonably deny. There are many people in this university who are more capable than me at addressing that issue. Your own argument is perfectly valid in that regard. However I do believe that you are making a minor error in imagining that my article is merely an attempt at elaborating and enlarging the gist of Professor Paranjape’s lecture. The questions I am attempting to raise, and the conclusions I hope to arrive at, are of my own formulation. Rather than basing my speculations on thin air, I endeavoured to read the lecture as a text upon which I could organically develop my case. As to your point concerning my mere proposition, I believe that one can learn even from those whom one disagrees with. In any case, thank you for reading and taking the time out to comment.


  3. Thank you for writing this! It was disturbing to see the students act like our parliamentarians. However, I think you are somewhat dismissive of the importance of facts. After all, opinions can be anything – liberal or misogynist or casteist. Facts help debunk them. Of the archive must be interrogated, but not to point where it becomes an exercise in endless wordplay.


  4. Thoughtful, analytical and critical. The critical analysis of Prof Pranjape’s lecture has been taken to a level that comes closer to philosophical thought and appeals to the critical faculty present in ordinary minds. Politics has merged into the academic and thoughtful into the sublime.