To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass.
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Karamazov Brothers
I have never met Professor Hany Babu; and till now I have not got an opportunity to interact with Safoora Zagar. Yet, the skill of empathy that I have evolved as a teacher—yes, simply a teacher without the ideological baggage of ‘left’ vs. ‘right’—makes it easier for me communicate with them in silence. Yes, Professor Hany Babu is a known name; the students and teachers of Delhi University adore him, speak of his scholarship, his significant work in the field of literature and linguistics, and his commitment to the ideals of social justice and human rights. I can imagine his intensity and passion; I can see him inspiring his students in the vibrant classroom. Even if I disagree with him—say, on politico-ideological issues, I can still learn from him; and I know that it would not be difficult for me to spend an hour with him at the DU cafeteria, and have a cup of coffee together. Likewise, I have heard a great deal about Safoora Zagar; some of my students who teach at Jamia Millia Islamia have told me about her courage and conviction, and her honesty and sincerity. Had I been at Jamia, I would have loved to initiate a conversation with this vibrant/young student; and possibly, we would have reflected on culture, politics, philosophy, sociology, gender and religion. And I am sure that despite differences, we would have evolved and grown.
Yes, the life of a student-teacher is precisely this: debating and evolving, learning and unlearning, and negotiating and acquiring the courage to live with the plurality of perspectives. But then, I am aware of the fact that a teacher’s heart is not necessarily what the state or its legal/bureaucratic machinery appreciates. For me, Professor Hany Babu is a colleague, or a passionate being driven by the ideals of justice and equity; however, for the state, he is a conspirator: a threat to the nation. For me, Safoora is a promising student with curious eyes and heightened spirit of humanism; but then, for the state, she too is a conspirator trying to disrupt social harmony and peace.
And I ask myself: why is it that a teacher’s heart has no meaning when the state deals with the likes of Professor Hany Babu or Safoora Zagar?
A teacher’s heart vs. the state’s logic of surveillance
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Well, when I joined the vocation of teaching and research, I realized that it ought to be celebrated as a domain of possibilities—diverse and even conflicting ways of looking at the world, politics, culture and society. It is this non-deterministic space that allows what can be regarded as epistemological pluralism; it allows multiple perspectives to develop; dissent is not seen as an act of criminality; instead, it cultivates critical thinking, and promotes the culture of debate and dialogue. In other words, a university need not necessarily be obliged to say ‘yes’ to the system, or its ruling ideology; it can even question the cherished ideals or practices of nation, nationalism, religion and secularism. And hence, I thought that as a university professor, I should be ready to live with many voices—including the voices that my politico-cultural sensibilities need not necessarily approve of. I am not a bureaucrat—an agent of the ‘law and order’ machinery. I am simply a wanderer—debating, questioning, learning and unlearning. Hence, it became easier for me to evolve a teacher’s heart. I debated. I disagreed. But I never castigated someone as a criminal with ‘anti-national’ traits.
I live amid Marxists and Maoists, Gandhians and Ambedkarites, liberals and anarchists, believers and atheists, technocrats and poets, professional scientists and spiritually enriched philosophers. And the art of living with philosophical differences—not the dull bureaucratic uniformity— has become the rhythm of life. For instance, I have seen some of my students questioning my ‘forward caste’ location, and contesting my engagement with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; I have seen my Marxist friends interrogating my romance with Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti. And I too have not always given my consent to the process of ideological indoctrination a group of left-Ambedkarites engage with; I have not necessarily agreed with every word the likes of Judith Butler or even Ramasamy Periyar have uttered. But then, these differences, I have felt, are normal and natural. One’s academic integrity should not be doubted; nor should one’s character be scandalized for one’s politico-intellectual position. For instance, I would not like to be castigated or ridiculed by my philosophic opponents as a svarna Gandhian, or a bourgeois idealist; I would like to be listened to and understood. Or, even though I am not an ‘activist’ or a ‘left-Ambedkarite’, I can still raise my voice against the onslaught on public universities because, as I believe, no party has the absolute monopoly over emancipatory ideas. The fact that I am a dialogic teacher is enough; my existence should not depend on a certificate from the ‘leftist’ or the ‘rightist’ camp. Likewise, I do not think that my ‘Maoist’ colleague is a conspirator; nor do I feel that those who question the controversial NRC or CAB are betraying the nation. They are only imagining and striving for yet another idea of India. They need not produce the certificates of ‘patriotism’ sanctified by a particular school of thought.
I know that this art of listening, or the ability to live gracefully amid differences is an exceedingly difficult task. But then, this is something that a university ought to teach us. We are not ‘loyal soldiers’ of the nation; nor are we spokespersons of political parties: Congress or BJP; BSP or CPM. Neither conformists nor conspirators—we are dialogic beings engaged in a rigorous process of continual self-reflection. Hence, beyond the prism of ‘’left’ vs. ‘right’, or ‘patriotic’ vs. ‘anti-national’, or ‘Ambedkarite’ vs. ‘Manuvadi’, I see Professor Hari Babu as a teacher, a thinker, a public intellectual, or a compassionate human being deeply concerned with the fate of Professor Saibaba—yet another dissenter somehow surviving in the dark cell of a prison. I do not see him through the eyes of a bureaucrat or a police official. As a teacher, I feel he is a thinking, sincere and reflexive being; and he should be listened to, even if his ideas disturb the status quo.. Likewise, Safoora Zagar, to me, is just like my student: a passionate student with a dream, a passion for the idea of a pluralist nation. And even if she is ‘angry’, a sane society must try to understand the reasons for her anguish. Her place is not the prison. She should be allowed to move freely, and bloom like a flower.
Well, I do realize that the state or the ruling regime does not look at the world the way I do as a teacher. Why is it so? Possibly, there are two reasons for this. First, the intoxication with power goes against the spirit of a dialogue or a conversation. While dialogue requires mindful listening, the discourse of power acts as a barrier. It fears; it suspects; it stigmatizes. It wants conformity; it is uneasy with even the slightest difference. And if majoritarianism becomes the order of things and nationalism is equated with herd mentality, the dialogic space gets increasingly reduced; dissent is criminalized; and even a thinker is seen as a terrorist. Second, as power makes one insecure (the resultant fear of losing it), surveillance becomes the usual practice. And the psychology that nurtures surveillance becomes toxic. For instance, while a sufi mystic with the lightness of being might see a Kashmiri youth as a child of the divine, the police official—with his suspicious eyes—is likely to see him as a potential suicide bomber. As history shows, for the mighty British Empire, Gandhi’s ahimsa was a threat; for the fascist regime in Italy, Antonio Gramsci was a conspirator; and for the racists in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was an enemy. In fact, every totalitarian regime (‘left’ or ‘right’) fears the power of alternative visions and ideas. And hence, it censors ideas, condemns ‘radical’ books, and equates critical thinking with an act of criminality. For instance, it may even suspect you if you read Tagore’s essays on nationalism, or cherish the idea of Gandhi’s civil disobedience; it may employ the surveillance machinery to observe the minute details of your everyday life if you, for instance, refer to Mao and Che in your lecture on Marxism. As a result, it fails to distinguish a thinker from a criminal; a politically charged professor from a terrorist; or a creative dissenter from a murderer. The result is the absence of compassion. It is, therefore, not surprising that even at the time of the pandemic, a poet like Varavara Rao or an academic like Anand Teltumbe has to be sent to the prison.
With the death of dialogue and compassion, we move towards darkness. Is it the time that as teachers, irrespective of our worldviews, we come forward, and urge the state to rethink its conduct?
Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.