No safe spaces anymore

Goondas on campus

From Jamia Milia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and now JNU, what does one interpret from such acts of violence and brazen attacks led by mobs with impunity?

In the dark hours of Sunday evening, when some streetlights were temporally switched off, graphic footage of bleeding students and faculty members emerged from Jawaharlal Nehru University. The JNU campus witnessed a mob-driven terror attack for over an hour as the campus administration and the police (present nearby) failed to intervene.

The attack wasn’t (and mustn’t) be viewed as an ‘act of violence’ or ‘vandalism’ alone but rather be acknowledged as a coordinated attack specifically directed against a group of students and faculty members with a clear political agenda.

What happened at JNU is a blot, a moment of national shame, signifying how those in positions of power have gone on a war against their very own ‘future’ (young students), rupturing the nation’s social fabric.

From Jamia Milia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and now JNU, what does one interpret from such acts of violence and brazen attacks led by mobs with impunity?

For one, they signal a harsh reality of today’s India, one in which there are no ‘safe spaces’ left anymore. India may still electorally be a democracy but not the kind that it was founded upon or aspired to work towards. Campuses, libraries, hostels have been destroyed to ensure that one cannot feel safe anywhere, seemingly with the implicit, if not explicit, approval of those in power and authority. The resentful have been allowed self-gratification by beating down those with contrarian views (or ideologies) with iron rods and lathis. Still, there is a deeper, more insidious, attempt underlying these events.

Centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes, articulating his theory on the state of nature, emphasized how the desire to protect oneself against acts of violence committed by others can allow a citizenry to be willing to collectively give up their natural rights (or even claims of liberty or freedom) for a larger ‘collective good’ or ‘social contract’ to be achieved between ‘the State’ and its own ‘subjects’. Hobbes argued that individuals require a “visible power to keep them in awe,” to remind them of the purpose of ‘the social contract’ and to force them, for ‘fear of punishment’, to keep their promises. This power must also be sufficient to keep in check the yearning for superiority of those who desire ‘honour’ or ‘glory’ (or national pride). Hobbes called the (state) power necessary to transform the desire for a social contract into a commonwealth the sovereign, the Leviathan, or the “king of the proud”.

Drawing from Hobbes, one can observe a new ‘social contract’, emerging in Narendra Modi’s ‘New India’, with an unwritten charter somewhat like this: “Become a statizen and align your views and actions with what the state of nature puts forth. If you (any group or an individual) fail to offer unconditional loyalty towards the State, the agents of the State shall do everything in their power to annihilate you by instilling ‘fear of punishment’ through legitimate or illegitimate means. So, understand your ‘national’ duties than claiming your natural (constitutional) rights, else you would be labelled or be asked to leave the country and settle in some other land” (which, ironically, is what most elites may eventually end up doing against such a state of nature).

This charter appears to be the new social contract between the State and its citizens (especially the youth) which is trying to actualize itself in recent episodes of violence against dissenting voices.

For this new social contract to continue entrenching itself, dissolving (or eliminating) safe spaces is critical. If a premier institution like the JNU, in the middle of the national capital, can experience an attack as it did, one can imagine what can happen in universities elsewhere in the country, away from the national spotlight, should anyone dare dissent.  

A bleeding JNU is also a powerful example of how an institution, which allows students from all kinds of backgrounds access to quality higher education, allowing everyone to co-habit a space, promising equal opportunity even for ‘unequals’ (or those with an experienced history of discrimination), has now become a political instrument for an ideological war and for a politics of fear, which would eventually find its route to the larger masses.

Young students have, in the process, become ‘collateral damage’ for the State which cares little about their education, state of employability, or well-being, but rather uses their ‘blood’ for its ideological-political project. A couple of troubling questions arise at this point: Are most citizens (or those aware of recent events) indifferent or naïve to realize how this new social contract is being legitimized through both social and political action? Have we become, by a conscious choice, an illiberal political space? And if that is the case, is there a finality to this dark occurring in the absence of a credible political alternative?

Sadly, there are no clear answers to these questions yet, but there is a tiny glimmer of hope. Over the last few weeks, the older women of Shaheen Bagh (peacefully protesting 24/7 for more than 23 days now); students of universities across India, and members of the civil society have exhibited strong acts of solidarity against an authoritarian regime.

Their acts reflect a conscious, collective spirit of ‘voice-based activism’, where each such ‘voice’ represents a type of activism where people cannot, or do not want to, leave because they deeply value the institution (say, a government) that finds itself in a crisis. Instead, they are interested to improve its performance through active participation, even through resistance and at the risk of being brutalized by those who wield power, just trying to bring about change and reform a State’s nature of existence. Let’s hope such activism can help us reclaim our safe spaces and resolve the questions that remain unanswered for now.

(The writer is Director, Centre for New Economic Studies, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana)

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