Regular-article-logo Tuesday, 21 May 2024

‘Voltaire’ vs vacuity: Why academics are held

‘Crackdown on dissent would shame right-wing rulers elsewhere’

Samik Bandyopadhyay Published 24.08.20, 02:19 AM
Varavara Rao

Varavara Rao File picture

Dissent is being silenced and dissenters are being sent to prison. Writers and academics are being treated as criminals for refusing to toe the line of those in power. Samik Bandyopadhyay, academic, litterateur, translator, publisher and theatre expert, speaks on the trend to Subhoranjan Dasgupta, professor of human science.

Q: Let us begin with aged poet Varavara Rao, now in hospital with the coronavirus infection. Why was he arrested and why has he been languishing for the past two years at Taloja central prison? What crime did he commit?


A: Varavara Rao, a singular voice of protest, has been jailed earlier as well. But never could the powers that be table any credible or concrete evidence of any actual crime he had committed. The accusation operates at the level of speculation and imagination. We can perhaps also claim that to punish Varavara Rao for his supposed crimes, the practitioners of power have resorted to a surreal technique and are indulging in dark fantasy.

It is a matter of great shame that an uncompromising and rebellious poet of his stature has been imprisoned for the last two years. It is a shame to say that he and some others had conspired to kill the Prime Minister. He is being subjected to judicial harassment and even persecution in a way that would put to shame even Right-wing governments exercising power in some other countries.

Q: What crimes have been committed by G.N. Saibaba, Vernon Gonsalves and Shoma Sen? They are all popular and respected academics....

A: As I have said, not a shred of evidence has been placed on the table that could pin down or corner G.N. Saibaba, Vernon Gonsalves and Shoma Sen. They have also been languishing in jail for the last two years, and repeated attempts to secure bail for them have been squashed. It is a matter of great shame that the legal system of our country accepts whatever the government says.

Yes, we must admit that along with Varavara Rao, Saibaba, Gonsalves, Sen and Rona Wilson have committed a grievous crime — they have fought spiritedly for the poor and the deprived, for the underprivileged, for the tribals and for the landless.

When Jean-Paul Sartre was out on the streets of Paris to voice his support for Algeria’s independence, the French government had detained him. At that precise point of time, President (Charles) de Gaulle said, ‘We cannot detain a Voltaire’.

We do not, of course, expect this remarkable level of sensibility and sensitivity from our rulers. Indeed, what they have done at more than one level is simply terrible. At one level, they allowed the penniless migrants to die on the road. At another level, even during the pandemic and border flare-up in Ladakh, they cornered and put to jail some of the finest minds in our country.

Students and dissenters were chased and arrested. Some of those who were charged with (having an) anti-national frame of mind were coolly picked up from JNU and Jamia Millia. To give a few names: Safoora Zargar — she is pregnant — Meeran Haider, Ishrat Jahan were all sent to prison for (allegedly) inciting communal violence. Luckily, some of those detained were granted bail.

Q: ‘Urban Naxals’ is an expression coined and loved by those in power....

A: Of course, they would not blink a moment to use this expression. Naxalism has its own tragic history. In the late ’60s and early ’70s of the last century, the Naxalbari movement gathered pace, made progress, though it was summarily crushed. Today, the ruling powers have usurped the term ‘Naxal’ and are using it against intellectuals who are liberal-minded, Left-oriented and critical.

This attitude and tyrannical practice underlines the total intellectual vacuity of our rulers. We need to condemn this false borrowing of an expression from past history. Nothing short of condemnation is called for in this context.

Q: It seems from the rulers’ attitude and practice that they are particularly perturbed by two academic institutions, Jawaharlal National University and the Jamia Millia Islamia. Why?

A: From 2007 to 2017, I taught at JNU and enjoyed every moment of my engagement there. It was a wonderful experience. The students came from all parts of the country, were clearly Left-oriented, and lively interactions took place in the classroom. When I was getting ready to say goodbye to the enthusiastic students, the new VC, a Sangh parivar figure, came in and thereafter the problems began. The police entered the campus, beat up students and even arrested some of them.

Like the JNU, the Jamia Millia also has an admirable national representation. Bright students, mainly Muslim, came from all regions of the country and tried to propagate and focus on the enlightened Muslim point of view. I have participated in several seminars held at Jamia Millia and enjoyed my interaction with the students and members of the faculty.

It is a matter of abiding shame that baton-wielding policemen entered the Jamia Millia complex, ransacked the library and injured innocent students who were studying there. I repeat, not even an extreme Right-wing government of any other country would have allowed its police to swoop down on an academic institution in the way it was done in the capital.

These two institutes, in fact, appear as eyesores to the rulers who are clamping down on dissidence. Once again, such attitudes and actions point straight towards the absolute intellectual vacuity of the present dispensation. The rulers, who are swearing every moment by nationalism, are not prepared to face questioning, critiquing minds. They want and demand complicity and subservience. To cut it short, this harangue on nationalism underlines the sinister attitude of the rulers.

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