Open Essay

The Petition Raj of Leftist Intellectuals

Tabish Khair has just published The New Xenophobia (Oxford University Press, 2016)
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JNU and other fallacies of professional dissenters

ON THURSDAY, 4 March, released on bail after an unnecessary arrest, JNU Students’ Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar returned to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and gave a speech that has since invigorated leftists and liberals all over India. Though I consider myself left-leaning, I have to spoil the party: I am impressed by young Kumar, but I remain sceptical of many leftist positions in India, especially in metropolitan circles. 

So much so that just a couple of weeks ago, I had refused to sign a petition, circulated by left-leaning and liberal academics based in Europe: it was a condemnation of what was then being done by the police, authorities and some Hindutva sympathisers in the wake of the JNU controversy, including Kumar’s arrest on sedition charges. Not that I thought that the authorities and extreme Hindutva supporters were free of blame. Far from it. Like most Indians (including at least some who had voted BJP), I was shocked by what happened in JNU in February, and the way some people associated with the BJP as well as the police handled the situation.

I cannot downplay the degree to which the JNU event and its treatment disturbed me: the ineptitude (or was it political slant?) of the police force, the hasty recourse to a colonial law by a government which makes a lot of noise about being ‘anti-colonial’, the jingoism and attacks on protestors, the inability of even lawyers to remember that a person is always presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law, and evidence of a cynical bid to manufacture ‘evidence’ against Kumar. It was a long and disturbing list. Any person who believes in Indian democracy would have been disturbed by these developments. I was. 

And yet I refused to sign that condemnatory petition floated by some leftist friends, because I felt—I still do—that it focused on only one half of the story.

My refusal was partly because of a petition I had signed, without reading it carefully, some years ago. For me, it had been an appeal to secular and democratic forces in India to present a constructive, united front, keeping in mind that just a 30 per cent vote had given the BJP a two-thirds majority in Parliament. But the petition appeared, at least in some readings, as an appeal to prevent the formation of the current BJP Government at the centre. I immediately withdrew from that petition. I had no doubt about it: the Modi-led BJP had won, and it deserved to form the next national Government.

There seemed to me, then, something fuzzy in a section of leftist thinking in India. Surely, no matter how opposed one was to the BJP, one had to accept a democratic verdict? How could one reasonably appeal to keep out of power a party that had won a fair and democratic election?


 There was something fuzzy in a section of leftist thinking in India. Surely, no matter how opposed one was to the BJP, one had to accept a democratic verdict? 

Around the same time, some leftists and liberals in the West tried to get Western governments to stop the entry of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Western lands, on the grounds that he was ‘implicated’ in the Gujarat riots. I found this disturbing too. One can have different opinions on the Gujarat riots, but the fact remains that neither Modi nor any of his associates has ever been convicted in a court of law. Hence, whatever one’s private opinion, it cannot be made the basis for a public demand—and that too when the person has been democratically elected to lead the nation. 

I had similar reservations about the condemnatory JNU-related petition, which I refused to sign, despite the fact that I knew it would lose me some leftist friends and not gain me any rightist supporter. No matter how disgustingly some rightist groups used the JNU controversy (including the attacks and actual threats by extreme Hindutva-supporters, which do more damage to India than the sloganeering of confused youths), the fact remains that I also find it simplistic for the Left to protest just against alleged Indian atrocities in Kashmir, which is what the JNU controversy was also about. 

The JNU protest meeting to commemorate the so-called ‘judicial killing’ of Afzal Guru has long been a thorn in the eyes of those Indians who might or might not agree that the charges against Guru had not been sufficiently proved in court, but who definitely disagree with the protestors that the burden of blame in Kashmir should be laid primarily at the door of the national Government in Delhi and its agencies. 

For instance, I am convinced that Indian authorities have made huge mistakes in Kashmir; I am sure some innocent people have suffered. But the blame for the mess in Kashmir cannot be laid solely on Indian doors, as the Left sometimes seems to imply. What about Pakistani interference? What about Islamist atrocities? And can, once Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave the valley, even proponents of Kashmiriyat really look the rest of us in the eyes and claim that theirs is just a secular agitation for greater autonomy? 

I guess I am talking of contexts and relations, and a full and honest engagement with them. 

FOR ME, WHAT distinguishes the ‘Left’ from the ‘Right’ is the former’s insistence on contextualisation, relational thinking, and democratic reasoning. Hence, answers are not handed down from some hoary past or justified because of some putative ‘origin’; answers are sought in the complexity of the present, keeping in mind the fact that finally all societies consist of human beings. God, nation, custom, Adam and Eve, revelatory or ‘sacred’ texts, etcetera—all have to be contextualised and evaluated in a relational manner. This applies as much to the divine myth of the self-regulating ‘free market’ as it does to utopian ideas about a fair ‘Communist’ society. Nothing can be taken for granted; everything has to be examined in context against a human and natural backdrop. Failure to do so is basically a failure of the Left. 


 It is easy to defend the rights of ‘poor Kashmiris’ in JNU, but the context of Kashmir does not allow a simplistic identification with this side or that 

I am afraid the Left has been suffering from such failures more often than not in recent years. Some of it might be rooted in its very conception of current societies, which has hit a conceptual impasse that leftists generally refuse to recognise. No, I am not ‘defending’ capitalism. Hardly any thinking person is these days. Even economists who believe in Capitalism, such as the Nobel-winning American, Paul Krugman, are highly sceptical of certain trends in Capitalism, especially in its ‘neo-liberal’ and ‘finance capital’ incarnations. Similarly, it takes very little honesty to realise that, under Capitalism, basically located labour (or most human beings) is at a disadvantage against highly mobile capital, and any working model of Capitalism has to remedy this to some extent—a fact acknowledged by India’s centrist Union Budget of 2016. 

But to move from that necessary critique to a ‘revolutionary’ call to dismantle ‘Capitalism’ is a huge jump—and basically a dangerous one, because the Radical Left has no suggestion about what to replace ‘capital’ with. As ‘capital’ is our main source and determinant of power, it can be done away with only to the extent that a kind of power vacuum will be created. What will fill this vacuum? The Radical Left has never had any real answer to this—and as a consequence, Radical Left experiments have lapsed into pre-Capitalist versions of power. It is not a co-incidence that Communist nations depended and depend so heavily on capital punishment and physical chastisement and control. 

I think the problem around the JNU controversy was also initially a matter of contextualisation: it is easy to defend the rights of ‘poor Kashmiris’ in JNU, but the context of Kashmir does not allow a simplistic identification with this side or that. This is also the problem with many leftist petitions. In short, it does not help to petition against one set of wrongs, if one turns a blind eye to the opposite set. When euphoria over Kumar’s speech wears off, I wish my metropolitan leftist friends will look at the inability of even people like me to sign many of their petitions today.