Are the Elites Accountable only to their ideological bias?
“It did not happen!” Recollect neither the exact date nor the name of the speaker. But a few things are certain. It was a run-up to the 1989 student union elections in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The only political event I ever attended during my six-year tenure as a student and the person who made the assessment was an upcoming star of the Indian Left. The discussion was on the Tiananmen Square developments that were stirring the youth around the world. Despite living in the pre-CNN era, the world had some idea of what was happening in Beijing. The evidence for the denial? Videos provided by the Chinese embassy in the capital.
At that time, the people of China, both within and outside the country, were extremely uneasy, nervous and anxious over the students’ protests while the mandarins were struggling to manage the situation even while countering the Western narrative and meddling. But one thing most Chinese did not do: denial.
Being more catholic than the Pope, progressives were more royal than the king. That too in the highly politicised JNU campus. Not sure if the speaker or organisers ever recanted, rewrote history or apologised for the denial. The ideological red washing almost worked. A few weeks after the Kaveri hostel post-dinner talk, the left lost power in the student union elections. Perhaps for the first time since the founding of the University.
That was more than three decades ago but continues to epitomise intellectual dishonesty in institutions of higher learning. Despite being globalists, ideologues are immune and unapologetic about their blinkers. First, they create an illusion for others but before long, start living in the fantasies with all earnestness. Maya and myopic world.
But the right to be wrong is also a fundamental right. Reading the world through an ideological prism is a right and prerogative of anyone; including an ideologue, party activist or a believer. People are free to believe whatever suits them. There is no correct reading of the past, present or future. Should not be. Otherwise, we all end up living in a world of indoctrination and mind control.
However, when indoctrinated minds enter the classroom and paint a picture that is always in line with his or her ideological or religious persuasions, knowledge stagnates. Even in the 21st century, certain societies continue to believe in the unscientific notions of the world being flat while others keep out human evolution from the curriculum. Ideologues of religious or secular persuasions do not admit a contrarian view; both believe and propagate a sense of superiority over the other; the framework can be our caste, race, religion, ideology, employment or offices we hold. But when we enter the classroom—even if virtual these days—with such a sense of superiority over others, knowledge stops.
In some ways, classrooms are like temples; we must leave our prejudices and personal likes and dislikes before entering. Otherwise, we will be violating its sanctity. Is there a magic cure to wash away all our prejudices? Unfortunately, there is no Ganges to cleanse our indoctrinated mind. So, one has to settle for lesser alternatives.
The first step should be to recognise our limitations in flagging selective examples to underline our arguments. Colonialism, occupation of others’ lands, human rights violations, safeguarding minorities, authoritarianism or disarmament all are vital issues. The problem is not in the failure to recognise their evil but being selective in our application. Colonialism is not just a western menace. Non-Western socialist societies have also been colonisers. Exploiting the natural resources of the Global South is not the monopoly of the West. West alone does not have a monopoly over neo-colonialism. In the name of food security for their citizens, several rich and powerful non-Western countries have been surpassing the East India Company and buying up vast swaths of lands in poorer countries of Asia and Africa.
One can have a legitimate disagreement over nuclear weapons being an international currency of power; India’s global ascendance will not be determined by the size and lethality of its nuclear arsenal but by its economic strength. Yet, prime criticisms of the Indian nuclear tests came from the apologists of the communist tests before India’s. The same is true for the votaries of Emergency, the neo-crusaders of free speech or apologist of Stalin as the new paragon of freedom and democracy.
The intellectual duality is more visible over Kashmir, often an epicentre of various protests in the country. Over the years, the human rights situation in Kashmir has been a cause for concern. Not because of external criticisms but due to our own inability to live up our laws, norms and values. Can we look in the mirror and proudly say that our human right records are unblemished? Apologists might, but most of us will not be able to face the mirror.
But the problem of human rights debate has a pattern. Kashmir, yes, Tibet, Never! Due to ideological considerations, votaries of Kashmir conveniently skip the human rights situation in Tibet. Some leading lights argue that communism is the greatest thing ever happened to the people of Tibet. The silence over the Uyghurs in Xinjian is equally deafening. Russia is no longer a communist power, but this had not freed some from being apologists for Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab. Likewise, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was above board because he was ‘standing up’ to the US. In recent days, many are quick to pontify the racial unrest in various American cities over the murder of George Floyd; but they have no time or interest to discuss ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Their priority is not youth empowerment, but sugar-coated ideological prejudices.
For many, ideological commitments are a license to peddle selective knowledge. One can be boisterous and emotional in classrooms over the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories or the American occupation of Iraq but pussyfooted over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Many learned minds continue to peddle that the Soviets were ‘invited’ by Afghanistan. Not sure how many Russians still believe this.
The strategy is simple. It is not about evidence leading to a conclusion, but a framed-up conclusion in search for proofs. Hence, applying a uniform yardstick to read and evaluate global events continues to be alien to our ideologically-driven academics. Whether human rights violations, youth power, suppression of public opinion, liberalism or accountability, the elite seemed to have forgotten the need for the same yardstick and ideology-free examples.
The unprofessionalism never happens in a vacuum. Many are comfortable and convenient to be a willing partner and collaborator with the state. Their proximity has been rewarded handsomely through official and semi-official positions, patronages, empanelment and, of course, Padma awards. One cannot become heads of various academic institutions without political connections or patronage. This was true yesterday, true today and will not be different tomorrow. When was the last time the best one got the top job? It is always a question of best-connected ones. No matter which ideology is in charge. Most of the time, connections matter. Only connections.
Ideology and activism are necessary. Only then, change is possible. Otherwise, we will still be in caves. But when classroom discussions are determined by only ideology—religious or secular—knowledge stagnates. Even if the outcome is not in sync with our interests, worldview or interests, one has to be brutal with the values that we try to present for others.
Dear ivory-tower ideologues, if you can’t criticise the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, seal your lips on the Iraqi one. If you can’t discuss Tibet, pretend things to be fine in Kashmir. If you can’t flag the conditions of Baha’is in Iran, why bother about CAA? Imparting selective knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance. An ignorant one does not manipulate, brainwash or justify lack of knowledge. However, the learned ones do all these and more; they pretend to be paragons of virtue; pontify and present themselves as the sole custodians of righteousness; deride everyone who question or challenge them; and believe and argue that only theirs is the holy truth for all issues and problems. Time to get off your high horses!
One-sidedness and ideological bias are legitimate, but when they enter the classrooms under the garb of progressiveness, we are in a slow, systematic but long-term indoctrination of the youth. If one were to criticise other faiths without a self-reflection, that person would be called a bigot, racist and xenophobic. And rightly so. Does it not apply to the ideologues who venerate only their version and deride everyone else?
By P R Kumaraswamy
(The author is a professor at JNU)