The leftist students must philosophically champion the ideal of ‘freedom’ as becoming central to their resistance politics. It can’t be limited to mere chanting of Azaadi slogans, but should have complete understanding of the ‘realm of necessity’ (external forces that exist independently of human being’s will or desire) and command them towards a ‘realm of freedom.’ In terms of politics, this reinforces the need for a revitalised radicalism which will bring the project of liberation of Indian people to the centre of activism. This radicalism cannot gain control unless it is fully informed about the ‘realm of necessity’ or the forces governing the masses in order to actually determine it, writes Debapriya Shome.
Student movements have, in the past few years progressed, in identifying the immediate threat of neoliberal Hindutva fascism and have also worked to organise the student community as a force to be reckoned with. University spaces such as JNU, JMI, HCU, JU have become key sites of resistance to the onslaught of Hindutva aggression. Left Student politics, particularly in the post-Kanhaiya moment (2016), has become associated with flamboyant sloganeering, catchy phrase-speaking, and counter-intuitive reasoning. It is not to say that these components were missing before Kanhaiya Kumar delivered his famous speech, but if one closely looks at the impact that moment had — one would see that the great media attention provided the push for an overall ripple effect in society.
The Indian society has become more receptive to the left in a way that bourgeois political analysts would call this an ‘expansion of left space.’ Myths, such as, the left was suffering from an “age” problem, that the young people had long deserted them, were shattered all of a sudden, as a new batch of young people emerged who could speak in the language of their times. Media and the middle-class who woke up to this reality were elated by it. And as it seems, even the parliamentary Communist Parties are no less euphoric with this phenomenon. The recent elections in Bihar & Bengal show a flurry of JNU, JU-like young activists becoming the face of the left in state elections.
It is against this backdrop that one needs to ask a few basic questions about what this resistance is leading to, and whether this resistance is succeeding in creating an alternative political project. To begin with, it is appreciable that these university-based student movements could transform themselves into social movements, such as that one saw in the Citizenship movement of 2019, where the students played a major role in organising the masses and most importantly, in constructing the narrative of the movement.
The Citizenship movement is very important in the discourse of contemporary students’ resistance due to two reasons. One, because it shows, the students could break away from the university-centric politics to the task of organising. And, do so on a fundamental political question, which in turn also affirms the fact that the students still form the heart of our civil society. Secondly, because the unprecedented way in which the masses participated, especially Muslim minorities, who have been invisiblised in the Indian polity, reflects the potency of the student movement in truly nurturing the seeds of democracy.
But it is equally disheartening, if I may say, that the student movement has failed to propose an alternative political project as opposed to the project of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ except projecting an inclusive constitutional orde, unchallenging the core structural foundations of the ‘present’ system. A counter-argument to this assertion would be that it is not the role of the student movement to organise a political project, as they are not a class-based consolidation. And rather only a vanguard organisation can fulfil such a task. But if one looks back in the history of our country — the role that the students played in the heydays of anti-colonial movements, during the Naxalbari movement or even in its aftermath in building an alternative political project, as opposed to the ‘dominant’- the ‘normal’-the ‘accepted,’ clearly nullifies contentions that the students are only a passive ‘bunch of potatoes,’ primarily dependent upon a ‘larger’ vanguardist project.
It is important for us to remind ourselves again that fascism builds itself through popular mobilisation. And this popular mobilisation is nothing but a reciprocation of the ‘positive’ project fascism offers to society. The Hindu masses are attracted to the idea of ‘Hindu Rashtra,’ where all contradictions, insecurities shall cease to exist, that were apparently brought about by the ‘Muslim invaders’ in the medieval period. Fascism tells them that once ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is established, the golden age of Hindu life (though there was none as such) would return, and they would live blissfully then.
It is important to note here, that the student movement which is opposing this project showcases its pusillanimity, when it opines for a fairy-tale constitutional order which is but never possible. Dr Ambedkar was prescient in his opinion during the adoption of the constitution when he said: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.’’ And if these contradictions were not resolved, political democracy would blow up. We are living in times, when perhaps such tension can be witnessed, when the society is on the verge of tearing apart, with the unthinkable inequality that neoliberalism has festered in this country. And the ruling classes are no longer ready to withstand any bourgeois concessions in the fear of an upcoming calamity, and a complete fascistic re-organisation of society is intended. Hence, in the long run, taking refuge behind the constitution alone would not serve the anti-fascist students’ movement, as the increasing fascization of society continues.
Anti-fascist student politics is a broad assemblage and a variety of groups fit in, which means, there are cleavages, within which a minority cluster would compose left radical politics. In such a context, as one can see, left radical imaginations have failed to hegemonize the anti-fascist space in India. It is not just because of the left groups aligning with parliamentary parties occupying the university spaces, but also due to the failure of left radicals to clearly define what implements the radicalism of its times, and in dealing with key questions that history has placed before itself.
Moreover, radicalism has become fuzzy in the age of information warfare. It can bear different meanings for different constituencies and groups, and as a result, there is no consensus amongst the left radical student activists in regards to what constitutes radicalism. This is more so because fascism thrives through the instrumentalisation of social media and electronic media. These machinations of fascism are directly visible to the forces opposing it, hence, continuous creation and dissemination of counter-narratives become an immediate necessity. As a consequence, the continuous pressure of building counter-narratives fractures our sense of time, distorts it, thus giving birth to a convoluted political subjectivity. Also, the task of engaging fascism at the level of immanent contradictions of history gets obfuscated.
For the time being, it is important to recognise the need for developing a radical position. By radicalism, what I mean, is specifically putting the question of superseding the present order and burying the old regressive forces that are dominating all aspects of our social relations of existence. Though leftist organisations of various hues are all aiming for such goals, honest introspection will tell us, this is not the dominant characteristic of today’s activism.
Rather, the tiny section of students who still claim to be upholding this tradition, are fragmented and a clueless lot. In the absence of an international communist centre and the unravelling of new realities which is starkly distinct from the 70s and 80s, their continuous parroting of received thought is becoming detrimental to all creative political developments.
However, a commendable quality of the radical students, is their ability to continue the tradition of bringing students closer to the basic classes. Even though they are small in numbers and are divided into various competing groups, this quality makes them the core subjective force amongst the students for any transformative project in the future. And history is testimony to the fact that students in our country have successfully built alliances with the peasantry and working class to subdue counter-productive classes on many occasions.
But as one can see, there is a lack of engagement from the radical section to deal with key issues with all the complexities it entails. For example, if one takes note of the movements that took place since the 2008 global financial crisis, a lot of new threads are transpiring unknown to our shared wisdom. While it is true that massive demonstrations have rocked the world, sometimes turning quite militant, but it has also not led to the formation of a vanguard leadership, which would strive for a revolutionary social transformation. These demonstrations have introduced new radical subjectivities where the masses envelop themselves in spontaneous collective performances. It is not that demonstrations have not been performative historically. But with the hegemonizing digital space and the change of camera’s social nature, where it is no more an intrusive object, a possible shift can be observed. Against this background, how are the end and means constructed, and in what ways collective performances are navigated? These questions are central to our discerning the events of Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter or for that matter, the eventful Twitter Storms.
If radicalism is to dominate the flair of students’ resistance again, it must ascertain itself in the changing political landscape. The rise of fascism will qualitatively change the way ruling classes rule the demography. Again, the changing form of political expression globally holds at its core the real challenges of ‘spontaneity’ and ‘organising’ — the knowledge without which any revolutionary development will remain handicapped. An essential task of radicalism is not just to ‘act’ but also to take a moment to ‘think,’ as in how history is unravelling. The students will have to take up this task as they have the strength to receive and process new ideas/thoughts. The execution of this endeavour will significantly decide ‘anti-fascist resistance’ and the possibilities it garners.
Another vital force influencing students’ resistance and channelizing anti-fascist discontent is identity movements. The rise of ‘identity’ as a category of analysis in academia has spilled over into the domain of activism in the Third World countries — of which India is no exception. The mention of the Third World is important because it was in the universities of the First World, where identitarian consciousness first manifested itself in progressive movements. This was in rupture, from the 1968 consciousness which swept the global student community, with strong currents of working-class internationalism. As the ’68 moment subsided, along with it the working-class movements also took a backseat. The immediate ascriptive identities became the vantage point of organising dissent against ‘authority’. Thus, forming a new relation between ‘power’ and ‘struggle’. This phenomenon which initiated itself in the 80s, was in strong concurrence with the academic project — of theorising new categories of analysis against the total collapse of Socialist states. Clearly, as the Communist project faced setback, ‘class struggle’ as the motive force of history became popularised as being parochial.
In the case of India, the phenomenon has been two-fold — one is in the immediate aftermath of reforms in the Indian economy of which Mandal agitation would be the biggest example, and, the other far more recent trend which is mostly university or academia-centric in its everyday manifestations.
This new trend within academia-media-activism has been functional in politically challenging the dominant way in which progressive student politics, associated with the left, has historically functioned. In doing so, it exposed many aspects of power and oppression which was not politically articulated before.
And the leftist student movement across all streams, has to shoulder the blame for not addressing many of these questions in time. However, at the same time, there has been an insincere attack on the very leftist project and the universalism it entails. In the name of arguing from various sectional standpoints, there have been unhindered attempts to completely replace the idea of working-class solidarity with concepts of high-theory allyship.
The student community in the name of rejecting frugal lifestyle, (thought to be an integral element of the “ascetic modality” of the left) has adopted the standards set by neoliberalism. This can be traced as a contribution of the identity movement. Interestingly, this nouveau culture enunciated itself as ‘self-care’ and ‘self-enjoyment’ became fashionable, and in certain cases, were even touted as political. These words were popularised by identity theorists and neoliberalism, as an ideology, and material way of living, has been quick to weaponize these. The ‘rule’ of consumption as an incessant need is no more an impediment to freedom but a liberating pointer of well-being.
But the fact that there has not been an equally appropriate response from the leftist student camp, shows that there is an ongoing crisis within the movement. A crisis in thought and action prevails. Unless these questions are resolved at both the levels of intellectual discourse and political struggle, leftist students will face a slow but steady erosion of their core politics. Also, the resistance in the face of fascist attack would be weakened if politically, culturally, and socially it fails to re-member the old resilience it had.
The question of identity is also philosophically challenging, as the idea of the ‘self’ and ‘community’ takes centre-stage with all the relations that prevail in a broad matrix of other varying ‘selves’ and ‘communities.’ While the political expression takes the form of ‘representation’ and ‘rights’, what is central to it is the question of autonomy. Autonomy, as in how much a political subject can attain the capability, to decide for itself in a world ruled by bigger and greater forces. It is not in the sense of ascertaining the limits of autonomy in such a world, but putting it as a vassal for bargaining with the greater forces that rule.
The leftist students can only counter this trend if philosophically they champion the ideal of ‘freedom’ as becoming central to their resistance. It is not limited to mere chanting of Azaadi slogans, but having complete understanding of the ‘realm of necessity’ (external forces that exist independently of human being’s will or desire) and commanding them towards a ‘realm of freedom.’ In terms of politics, this reinforces the need for a revitalised radicalism which will bring the project of liberation of Indian people to the centre of activism. But as aforementioned, this radicalism cannot gain control unless it is fully informed about the ‘realm of necessity’ or the forces governing the masses in order to actually determine it.
With an unwavering hope that the students will stand up to the task, let us conclude, by borrowing from The Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’’
Debapriya Shome is a postgraduate student in the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University.