Vivek Chibber: The very idea of the "anti-national" is a negation of democratic rights

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In a recent interview with The Hindu, sociologist and author of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital Vivek Chibber brings nuance to a spate of recent events in India, including the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula and the arrest of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, a prestigious graduate school in Delhi known for its progressive politics.

Though he criticizes the Indian Left for its failings on Dalit rights, and acknowledges the need for Dalits to organize around their identity, Chibber insists that “any Dalit movement, if it is actually going to address the needs of Dalits as a group, has to see itself as part of a class-wide movement.”

Asked about the similarities between the Dalit struggle and the Black Lives Matter movements in the United States, Chibber says:

There is a parallel with the U.S. Black Lives Matter, if you think of it as a movement, has two layers to it. One is a layer of real organizers in urban areas, who were incredibly and very concertedly active around issues of economic justice. Because for them the most pressing issues are not so much discrimination in the labor market, but not having a job at all; not so much the exclusion in schools, but not having [access to] schools at all. These activists are very aware that their concerns as black people involve fundamental issues of economic justice, not just narrowly racial justice.

Furthermore, these activists are also aware that what has become Black Lives Matter is as much a name brand and a commodified emblem as it is a movement. And in the past six months or so, we have seen Black Lives Matter has not been as visible as it was a year ago, on the streets. This is partly because many of the most prominent icons of Black Lives Matter are already moving into the Democratic Party, or into Teach for America, things like that.

So it is an avenue that a certain section of the black middle class is using for its upward advancement. We have seen that happen in India too — with Dalit intellectuals and Dalit politicians. Therefore, I think for people who are progressive, there is a simple and clear position to take, which is that one cannot and should not set issues of Dalit identity against issues of Dalit class interests because what they face is not simply economic exploitation but many things on top of that.

Secondly, unless a movement for justice for Dalits is fundamentally and solidly based in class and economic justice it will not address the needs of the vast majority of this section of the population.

A variety of movements and issues have recently become flashpoints in India. Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at Hyderabad Central University and a Dalit rights activist, was expelled from the university, along with four others, due to allegations of assaulting a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — the student wing of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Prior to the expulsion, Vemula and others had come under the central government’s scanner when members of ABVP’s Hyderabad Central branch forwarded a letter to a BJP Member of Parliament that accused Vemula and his peers of “anti-national” activities. Vemula had taken part in July 2015 protests against the state execution of Yakub Memon, who was convicted on conspiracy charges related to the 1993 Bombay blasts. Vemula had also condemned ABVP’s violent behaviour at a Dehli screening of the documentary, Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hain, which suggests that the BJP had a hand in the Hindu-Muslim riots of 2013 in Muzzafarnagar, Uttar Pradesh.

In July, Vemula’s monthly stipend from the university was stopped. In August, the ABVP letter was forwarded to Union Minister of Human Resources Development, Smriti Irani. That month, Vemula and four other students were charged with attacking an ABVP member on campus. They were initially cleared of these charges by an inquiry committee, but the decision was reversed and the expulsion upheld in December. Amid cries of foul play in the reversal and accusations of state interference, Vemula committed suicide in January.

Even as students and Dalit rights activists across the country came together to seek justice for Vemula, JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and a couple of other students were arrested in February under a draconian sedition law for allegedly shouting anti-national slogans ("Pakistan Zindabad", long live Pakistan") at a campus event marking the anniversary of the secret judicial execution of Afzal Guru, who had been convicted of involvement with the 2001 Parliament attack. Videos said to substantiate the allegations were later proved to be doctored, and the Delhi government is preparing charges against three TV news channels who aired them. Kumar was recently released on bail and gave a popular speech, which included a call for justice for Vemula. While the speech was widely hailed for its revolutionary spirit (and an earlier speech inspired a catchy dubstep remix currently doing the rounds online), some have also criticized Kumar for having succumbed to the trap of nationalism, the same misplaced sentiment used to arrest him in the first place. 

Chibber points to the wider failure of the Indian Left to criticize the conceptual and legal bases of the “anti-national” charges: 

Instead of arguing over whether or not Kanhaiya Kumar and these people uttered what they said, the relevant issue here ought to be, why does India have a sedition law at all? Even the Left, the mainstream Left parties, their position has been not to ask why is there a sedition law, but to say this was at most an act of a few hooligans, and the whole university should not be attacked or undermined because of it.

But the thing is that the moment you say that a few people in a university can be arrested because of the slogans they are shouting or the views they espouse, you’ve effectively undermined the entire academic institution. You’re attacking the whole university. It seems to me that the fundamental issue here is not whether or not Kanhaiya Kumar was complicit in shouting anti-national slogans, but the very idea of something being anti-national, and that the state gets to define what is anti-national. The very idea is a negation of the very essence of democratic rights.

Recent events in India and widespread media coverage of various social justice mobilizations across the country, offers left forces, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — not so long ago declared by the media to be dead — an opportunity to regain momentum. As Kumar and others have pointed out, the lal salam (salute to the revolution), a greeting used by the Left in the subcontinent, is back. But as Chibber cautions, for the salute to translate into an actual revolution, activists and militants practice a clear-eyed, self-critical politics that transcends mere demagoguery.

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