Prof. Avijit Pathak: ‘Language is not a prisoner of religion’

Interview with Prof. Avijit Pathak of JNU.

Published : Dec 05, 2019 07:00 IST

Prof. Avijit Pathak.

Prof. Avijit Pathak.

Professor Avijit Pathak has been fighting against the Hindutva ideology for several years. His involvement in the students’ protest in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) against the massive fee hike announced by the Central government is understandable. He has been teaching at the university for three decades. He is equally concerned about the protest by some Banaras Hindu University (BHU) students against the appointment of Firoze Khan as assistant professor of Sahitya (literature) in the Sanskrit Department. Pathak scoffs at such demarcations of faith and caste. He said the BHU students’ protest was “reprehensible” as “language is not a prisoner of religion”. Between attending rallies and long marches and making speeches in and around the JNU campus, Pathak took time off to answer a few questions from Frontline .


Have different yardsticks been adopted for JNU and BHU students? At BHU, students were allowed to stage protests for days against the appointment of Firoze Khan, whereas those protesting the fee hike were lathi-charged in JNU.

There are clearly two yardsticks involved there. But what are the factors governing these actions? We will have to do an in-depth study of it. Why is the JNU targeted again and again?

Do you think JNU is problematic for the government primarily because of the profile of the students, many of whom are from the poorest sections of society, the most marginalised sections or belong to minority communities? These students find their voice after coming to JNU.

As someone who was a student here and has been teaching for more than 30 years, I think it may be a possible reason for the tense relationship between the present establishment and the university. The establishment seems to be ill at ease with students who question the existing order. In the history of JNU, there have been student movements. Students protested against Indira Gandhi. There were protests during Manmohan Singh’s regime, too. But the current protests are like a turning point. There could be two or three reasons for this.

First, JNU is unique as a place of learning for its heterogeneity. Students here come from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. In the classroom, not every student has the same level of comfort with English. Not everybody speaks the same way. There will be a young girl from Lady Sri Ram College of Delhi University, a tribal girl from Chhattisgarh, a student from Aligarh, one from Kerala. This heterogeneity leads to democratisation of consciousness and thinking, it gives birth to a new mind space. The invisible walls of class, religion and region are demolished.

Secondly, it is one of the universities with a progressive admission policy. It attracts a lot of talent and potential from marginalised sections of society. That, I believe, gave a thrust to subaltern dialogue. That was a critical part.

Thirdly, because of the predominance of social sciences, liberal arts and the humanities in JNU, every process of socialisation is political and centred on critical thinking and questioning. A different kind of reading, of nation, of living, of family, of identity, of sexuality is found. There is much greater political awareness. This place generates a vibrant consciousness.

All these go against a dominant, hegemonic discourse. When we look at the organised pattern of growing privatisation and commodification of education it is becoming a process that is reproducing the hierarchies and inequalities in society. For those who cannot afford to do an undergraduate programme in Ashoka University or Shiv Nadar University, JNU remains an option. It is like Aligarh Muslim University and Hyderabad Central University, a place where students from socially and economically backward sections can get affordable quality education. Students with economic and other backwardness are taught by Romila Thapar and other greats of the humanities stream. Imagine the impact it will have on them. JNU was a product of a certain kind of welfarism on the part of the state. Today, in the age of neoliberalism, market-driven ethos, the establishment is destroying the idea of any shared egalitarian space.

JNU is known for heterogeneity. The present government at the Centre seems to believe in one nation, one language, one religion. JNU is a misnomer for it.

Absolutely. Because of its critical thinking, JNU is always a bit of an oddball. Yet, we should not forget it is the thinking that emerged out of a process of democratisation and sensitivity towards heterogeneity, critical pedagogy. We oppose dominant hegemony in the name of nationalism, majoritarianism and the ethos of the neoliberal market. This mix of certain kind of majoritarian nationalism and market-driven neoliberalism is not welcome here. The larger discourse in JNU resistance, right from Kanhaiya Kumar [former students’ union president] to the recent protests against the fee hike, reminds the government that the state has a responsibility towards funding public education.

What could be the reasons for the drastic fee hike?

One of the things that the administration says is that it is trying to privatise many services. The charges for services will have to be borne by students. The administration claims that the University Grants Commission [UGC] is not giving sufficient money to the university. This is precisely the point the students are raising. This is exactly why we have to fight because the state has to fund universities and higher education. This is the right of citizens of the country, not a privilege. The discourse is not about whether the hostel room rent is Rs.100 or Rs.300. In the larger context, it is about the role of the government in public funding of education.

The state has adopted a policy of velvet gloves towards students protesting against the appointment of Firoze Khan to teach Sanskrit in BHU.

I feel strongly that what is happening in BHU is shameful, especially in terms of the history of Indic civilisation, where all the time there has been a certain fusion of thoughts. That was the kind of India, a melting pot, a confluence of multiple faiths and traditions. What we are witnessing today is walls of separation and walls of exclusion. Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Kabir broke the walls of separation; today we are seeing more and more walls being erected in the name of religion. At BHU what we see is academically absurd in the sense that no language, no knowledge tradition should be equated with any particular caste, creed or religion. The Newtonian law of gravitation became your knowledge, my knowledge. It does not matter whether Newton belonged to a different country or different faith. Similarly, even if I am not born in a Muslim family, I am enchanted with the poetry of Rumi, I would like to be enchanted by a lot of Urdu novels and poetry. Likewise, it is possible for any man, English, French or Muslim, to read, study and teach Sanskrit. It belongs to all of us.

Is it not ironical considering that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh insists on one language, one culture and one nation. A Muslim has studied Sanskrit and would like to teach it. He ought to have been welcomed.

Yes, all the more reason he should be supported by all. On the one side we have certain exclusionary principles and toxic politics, walls of separation. On the other, when somebody breaks those boundaries, he still faces exclusion. I do not know if behind this act [of students sitting in a protest against the appointment of Firoze Khan] there could be other micro politics, department politics. In the department politics, there could be other possible candidates, who with the help of some teachers could be instigating the students. I do not know. However, I am appalled that the very idea of a tradition of knowledge can be equated with a religion. We must not forget that we even managed to decolonise English.

All of us need to raise our voice. Today it is about Sanskrit and a Muslim scholar. Tomorrow, it could be somebody else. Knowledge cannot be held a prisoner of religion or political dispensation.

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