By Dr Maaz Bin Bilal
The ever-ironic liberal writer Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970), famous for A Passage to India (1924) and other novels, wrote a prescient dialogue in his lesser-read-and-liked The Longest Journey (1908) that is apropos to the liberal crisis in contemporary India.
It reflects most lucidly on the abstract behemoth of the nation that is being stuffed down people’s throats to shut them up, and the very different and opposing strategies that “the great world” and the institutions of knowledge opposing it adopt.
Rickie and Ansell are studying at Cambridge as they discuss what the “great world” thinks of the university. Rickie, speaking in “journalese”, according to Ansell, accuses Cambridge to be out of touch with the times, to satisfy not “the professions, the public schools, nor the great mass of men and women,” and claims “that her day is over.”
This must sound similar to Arnab and converts where “the nation” wants to know only selective things, condemns what it feels like, and demands the subsidised university to follow its diktat. The “journalese” of mass media shapes popular opinion in India in an unprecedented manner.
“The great mass of men and women” whoever they are seem not just dissatisfied but angry on TV, and demand blood from the vulnerable. Whom do these people really represent?
Through Ansell, Forster deconstructs some of these modern myths created by the propaganda of “the great world,” which in more explicit terms one needs to pinpoint today as the great nation being thrown in our faces: “Where is it? How do you set about finding it? How long does it take to get there? What does it think? What does it do? What does it want?”
As Nivedita Menon in her teach-in lecture at JNU on nationalism emphasised using Ernest Renan, the nation is in fact a daily plebiscite, a constantly changing formation of opinion.
Does it ever think one thought? Does it ever seek to know one thing? Especially, a country like India -which speaks in multiple languages, produces art in multiple traditions, and where large populations struggle for survival on a daily basis?
Does “it”, whatever that entity may entail, want to persecute in its name the top universities and their students who are asserting their right to think and question? Or do the impoverished bare lives of this country, which should ethically and constitutionally be a part of “the nation” not care in the least about what the failing state thinks of Pakistan, or China, or “anti-nationals”?
Does it not demand for food, and, yes, infrastructural “development,” and a better quality of life?
GREAT WORLD, LITTLE EARTH
Forster’s Ansell goes on to assert: “There is no great world at all, only a little earth, for ever isolated from the rest of the little solar system.”
What does a village in Vidarbha know of the celestials of Delhi’s power circles? Ansell’s continuing monologue needs to be quoted at length for the close insight it carries: “The earth is full of tiny societies, and Cambridge is one of them.
All the societies are narrow, but some are good and some are bad. . . The good societies say, ‘I tell you to do this because I am Cambridge.’ The bad ones say, ‘I tell you to do that because I am the great world, not because I am ‘Peckham,’ or ‘Billingsgate,’ or ‘Park Lane,’ but ‘because I am the great world.’
They lie. And fools like you listen to them, and believe that they are a thing which does not exist and never has existed, and confuse ‘great,’ which has no meaning whatever, with ‘good,’ which means salvation.”
THE ‘NATION’, THE REFUGE
Forster’s Ansell, although an atheist like the writer, adopts a theological vocabulary to emphasise the distinction between the great and the good.
Gandhi’s and Tagore’s moral visions for the country were emancipatory, they were good. On the other hand, so-called greatness, such as is now being claimed largely by various right-wing outfits who clamour for “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, is never urged in their own names, and only aspires for greatness for its own sake.
The Sangh does not even say that saying ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ is compulsory because the Sangh wants it. They attribute that demand to ‘the Nation’.
A JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] or an HCU [Hyderabad Central University], if they protest for freedom of speech, for social and juridical justice for the deceased, Afzal Guru or Rohith Vemula, they do so as students of their universities, as citizens of the country who abide by the country’s law, and question its shortcomings legally from ethical vantage points of human rights.
They do not pose as what they are not, nor do they claim to represent the world, or the nation. They value human life and sing for it, not for an abstract idea that kills for itself.
DOS AND DON’TS
It is not good enough to claim, as Makarand Paranjpe did in his lecture at JNU, that we must follow the middle path towards knowledge and understanding (even if he said it with far more jargon).
One must practise it by focused listening, as was allowed to him at JNU, although not practiced by him when he went astray from his prescribed method to launch into ad hominem attacks.
Nor was this listening allowed by those in power to those who were arrested and kept in jail for days, nor to him who committed suicide, and now not to those whose food, power, water, and internet supplies were disrupted.
RESISTANCE TO INTELLECTUALS
Lastly, ever-alert to both sides of the coin, and a brilliant listener, Forster makes his Rickie retort validly to Ansell on the university’s exclusions: “‘I never shall come indoors again,’ said Rickie. . . ‘It’s well enough for those who’ll get a Fellowship, but in a few weeks I shall go down. In a few years it’ll be as if I’ve never been up. It matters very much to me what the world is like.'”
There is an insecurity, a resistance that intellectual breeds in others, and there needs to be more engagement with what are otherwise called the world, the nation, or Forster’s “masses of men and women.”
There is the fear of intellectual snobbery that is evident in the earlier speech of Ansell too when he compares Cambridge to the lesser public schools of England. The intellectuals who raise slogans for freedoms must also try to be evermore inclusive.
MAKE MORE JNUS
The argument in India too then should not be that the so-called “we” should contain what the students of the heavily subsidised JNU think or do. Instead, there needs to be a call for more and more institutions of learning that are heavily subsidised, that produce quality scholarship and continue to question inequality in their own names, in the name of the constitution, and of human rights with the goal to improve upon the state and make it more inclusive and a better democracy.
Edited by Joyjeet Das