“We Think That What is Politically Correct or Acceptable is also Automatically, Academically So”: In Conversation with Prof Paranjape


    In the ongoing lecture series on Nationalism, taking place at the Freedom Square; the one lecture that has spread like wildfire and initiated new round of inquiry, debate and approach was the 15th lecture delivered by Prof Makarand R. Paranjape from the Centre for English Studies, School of Language, JNU. Critiquing JNU as a “Left-hegemonic space”, his voice has emerged as the lone, independent voice expressing dissent against the dominant campus culture and offering a critical perspective on the ongoing movement in JNU as well.

     Keen to uncover more about this dissenting voice, The Informer tried to catch up with Prof Paranjape after his lecture and know more about his views. He agreed to give an interview via email, and has graciously answered all our questions. Here are his responses (as received on 14 March 2016):

(The abbreviations ‘TI’ and ‘PP’ refer to The Informer and Prof Paranjape respectively.)

TI: Do you identify with any particular political leaning in the Left-Right spectrum?

PP: If the key word here is identify, not really. I would like to retain my svaraj, which is so hard-won. But you see how tricky such questions, or for that matter, answers are? The moment I say svaraj (note the spelling, which is different from Gandhi’s, and which I have explained in my writings), I am sure to be branded. So, rather than merely asking flatly what someone’s “political leaning” is, shouldn’t we also ask what such questions serve to accomplish? Isn’t our much-vaunted political discourse mostly the compulsion to name, then try to shame, those we disagree with? Hence, aren’t such questions worth pursuing only if we are prepared to go beyond their reductive and instrumental logic?

TI: This campus is believed to be liberal and free, how free is this campus in your opinion? (Here “free” is in the sense that it provides space for opinions of different kinds across the spectrum.)

PP: Believed by whom? It is precisely those who are “left-hegemonic,” even undemocratic, that portray their political activities as “liberal and free.” Oftentimes, doesn’t the latter serve, very conveniently, as the mask of the former? Why take such self-absolving markers at face value? Remember how wonderfully high-sounding self-portrayals have served to cloak the misdeeds of many a pontiff and potentate in the past.

     Shouldn’t we ask why any university campus in a democratic society should be anything other than “liberal and free”? Why should we congratulate ourselves for being so? Or give credit to a particular ideology? It is almost as if our Left hegemons are boasting, “Look, we control this space, but we also allow you to exist here!” Are we to subsist here upon someone’s sufferance or by our own rights?

TI: What in your opinion are the shortcomings of the left ideologies in the campus? Do you believe that Right representation on Campus has shortcomings as well?

PP: Ideologies, by definition, are incomplete, including this view itself when it is used ideologically.

     Just because someone critiques the Left doesn’t mean that she endorses the Right.

    Indeed, part of the trouble with the latter in JNU is that women students seem to hate them. Is it because they are not perceived as “cool,” or in other words, bourgeois enough? Their accents, apparel, or actions are, apparently, not attractive. Perhaps, they don’t come from the “right” schools and colleges. They are also perceived as being awkward, if not backward, when it comes to gender justice or LGBT rights. If they are unpopular because they are not “classy” enough while the Left thrives because it is bourgeois, wouldn’t that be quite ironic?

TI: Do you think classrooms provide enough space for non-leftist political views?

PP: Shouldn’t our classrooms not be used cynically and instrumentally to promote our ideologies? Shouldn’t that be one space that is exempt from politicking and propaganda? As if propagating our ideologies so compulsively outside weren’t “bad” enough. Shouldn’t we be concerned about how ideologies block creative thinking, how they suppress human instincts?

TI: In your personal experience, what have you seen happening with people, either your colleagues or students who don’t subscribe to the more dominant left ideology on campus? Have they experienced ostracism in any form?

PP: One student was quoted as saying it is either the “left-way” or “no-way.” Some may call this an exaggeration, but it does seem apt to those who feel left out.

TI: You have been in this campus for quite a long time, how do you think the tolerance level for various ideologies has changed in the campus, was it more tolerant towards non-leftist views previously or was it the same?

PP: Over the years I think that the level of debate and discourse may have deteriorated; we have more sloganeering now, it would seem. But the bluster, self-righteousness, even complacency, of the Left – perhaps, these have endured unchallenged more or less.

TI: In your experience, have you seen your Left-leaning colleagues trying to propagate their ideology in class? If yes, what is your view on it?

PP: I can’t say, since I’ve rarely attended the classes of my colleagues; students would be in a better position to answer. But it does seem pretty obvious how insidiously certain ideologies have captured most curricular, co-curricular, as well as extra-curricular spaces on campus or how persistent the networks of research supervision, hiring, and patronage are.

TI: In the recent open letter you have been accused of saying that in universities students should study instead of engaging in politics. What is your view on student politics? This kind of politically charged atmosphere is quite unique to JNU, is it a healthy atmosphere for the students for their overall development as human beings?

PP: “Politically engaged” is a label which leaves out the question of what the nature, quality, and outcome of such an engagement [is]. To be well-read, critically alive, aware, thinking, dialoguing and learning from different positions and persons – I think that would not only be politically engaged, but also in a healthy way. No doubt, we have some of this at JNU; despite so much party politics, even within a particular political grouping I have found that individuals do not think programmatically. But the other side is also all too obvious: lack of ideas being covered up by disinformation, indoctrination, branding, boycott, bullying, and so on…

     All this while, look at what is happening to academics. Try to read our term papers, MPhil proposal and PhD synopses, let alone submitted theses and dissertations. How many of these are well-researched, properly substantiated, even minimally proof-read? How often is the work produced by JNU students well-argued, elegantly written, and genuinely substantive? Producing valid or new knowledge is a far cry; here many have trouble writing even a few paragraphs of cogent and lucid prose. Yes, it is another matter that those unfamiliar even with the so-called foundational texts in their disciplines are wont glibly to mouth the “latest” jargon derived, oftentimes, from second or third-hand sources.
Is our student politics ever concerned over such matters? How much struggle it would take really to rectify this situation, but that is not the struggle we talk about. Shouldn’t doing justice to our studies be one of our primary responsibilities? But that does not seem to be “justice” we agitate for.
Here, we have the frequent confusion of categories, so typical of us: we think that what is politically correct or acceptable is also automatically, academically so. The prevalent culture of laziness, self-indulgence, and laxity, whether in thinking, reading, or writing, is seldom questioned or critiqued. Even political processions, as you know, do not begin till late in the day. Attendance at any academic event on campus is very thin at 9:00 am, but swells as you get closer lunch. As far as academics is concerned, hasn’t JNU become the refuge of users and losers?

     If I tend to be too harshly self-critical it is because I so care about JNU. Because we also have such good students, who manage to keep the flag of academic excellence flying high, despite all the odds. To them I offer my “lal salaam.” I would like such students to feel empowered, recognized, and valued; I would like their numbers to grow. But how often do they feel out of place and irrelevant! Don’t they leave JNU to go abroad at the first opportunity? Is this all that we are good at – exporting our best, pampering the rest?

     Instead of being “world-beaters” we are content to remain the “also-rans.” If so, then behind the mask of excellence what we have nurtured, even enshrined, is an academic ecosystem of mediocrity and negligence, legitimated by the convenient carapace of political activism. If everyone is happy with the state of affairs, who am I to raise my lone voice in complaint?

Photo Courtesy: Political Mirror