Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Bankim’s Prose in the History of Democracy: Towards an Amphiglossic Account



Bankim’s Prose in the History of Democracy: Towards an Amphiglossic Account

Probal Dasgupta, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

Abstract

In part 2, chapter 11 of Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s first Bangla novel Durgeshnandini published in 1865, Osman says, apni to rajnitiggoM bOTen, bhabiya dekhun, dilli hoite utkOl kOto dur. ‘You are indeed knowledgeable about politics, please ask yourself how far Delhi is from Utkal.’ That was presumably the first time autonomous self-expression in Bengal’s own language sought to articulate the political. It is argued in this paper that placing that passage in conceptual and political history involves tinkering with an innovative historiography and, in particular, tweaking some fundamental coordinates at the interface between the linguistic and the political analysis of democracy. One move made in this paper invokes the notion of paradigmatic recursion. Where syntagmatic recursion achieves Chomskyan infinity by stretching a discursive sentence lengthwise, its paradigmatic counterpart extends this infinity sideways by linking what one conversation partner has said to what the other partners have said. Bankim’s discursive practices imply an approach to democracy that encourages the syntagmatic-recursion-laden High pole of a diglossic system to learn from the paradigmatic-recursive Low pole. To formalize this approach in terms that make sense in the context of the theories of our times, it makes sense to forge a new tool, amphiglossia, a bidirectional version of diglossia, which involves not just distance from power in the sense of Bankim’s passage quoted above, but paradigmatic recursion as well.

Is a history of democracy feasible?

History-writing is generically allied to the state. There are, to be sure, apparently independent historiographers – willing and able to express opposition to current or past regimes in their country of origin or of residence. But even these authors, whose appearance of independence is sometimes well-founded at the level of a personal integrity project, follow writing conventions inviting a generic inference. This inference is that some ideally constituted state can and should use the products of such history-writing, in a suitably user-friendly rendering, in order to equip some viable narrative to be learnt by children growing up as citizens.
Such historiography may or may not presume a democratic default. For the state qua state, the democratic form is a historical option, not a constitutive compulsion. That certain discourses now current bespeak some sort of democratic consensus is a contingent fact. Some historical processes have enabled this fact in all its precariousness; other processes may disable it.
What reasons could we conceivably have, then, for imagining the possibility of a historiography specifically wedded to democracy, and of embedding an account of the emergence of the political in Bankimchandra Chatterji’s discourse in such a historiography?
The methodological proposals at the heart of the present intervention rest on the view that historiography can and must recast itself in relation to a self-conscious and symmetrically communicating citizenry seeking to represent collective processes. This view, in turn, stems from the belief that the archive – a specific kind of aggregation of texts – invites an exercise of recollective writing that shall from time to time make salient archival texts available to the citizenry, to the community calling itself ‘we the people’ and identifying this body of texts as ‘our own archive’.
The foregoing remarks stake out some questions that arise if one wishes to undertake a social science exercise tracing the emergence of political concepts in the lexicon of serious prose in major Indian languages over the last few centuries. To be sure, not all the questions that arise in this connection can be answered – or even rigorously formulated – at the preliminary level of negotiating terms of reference for such an enterprise. But it pays to begin at the level of the framework.
A history of democracy cannot, surely, be written within a framework that accepts authoritarian or violence-promoting premises. But is our writing taking place precisely in such a context, which we and other potential participants have willy-nilly inherited? Are our readers invited – in ways subtle and unsubtle – to take Anglophone authors and their English writings especially seriously, and to regard such writings as the validating translation filter through which all other material must pass in order to be taken on board? And is such an Anglophone-imposed framework – regardless of the success with which it appears to distance itself from the overtly colonial form of authority – unacceptable if one’s project is to write a history of democracy?
Readers who find it possible to respond with derision to the pointing up of such questions in a paper written in English may have failed to notice the distinction between symmetric and asymmetric translation practices. A multilingual context in which all participants strive to maximize translative symmetry and communicative equity promotes democracy. A context in which several languages are indeed in the picture, but in which only translations into a privileged medium such as English count as a preparation for having the translated material validated by some elite subcommunity, is manifestly asymmetric. Participants who seek to maintain such asymmetry are working against the communicative basis of democracy.
Why should it matter what medium a text is written in? Well, to see more clearly the importance of the work of ensuring symmetric translation between languages, consider one major attempt in recent times to overcome barriers that divide the national spaces of historiography and the corresponding state-sponsored educational apparatuses. This attempt was made by a group of scholars who, wishing to establish a new genre of historiography, wrote the Historio por malfermi estontecon (2007) – this translation of their work shall serve as our point of reference.
A tri-national committee comprising forty-two historians, drawn in equal proportions from China, Japan and South Korea, spent years co-authoring a secondary school history textbook that narrates the modern history of their three countries in a shared framework. This book, designed to enable children in all three countries to learn a version of the history of East Asia that experts can converge on, was simultaneously published in the three countries in their respective official languages. The Chinese, Japanese and Korean versions of the book count as equally authoritative; it is at this point that the symmetry of communication becomes important.
A few web pages in English briefly outlining the way the project was conceptualized and implemented, such as http://hrcolumbia.org/historical/bio.php?n=Soon-Won_Park, are indeed available. But the only translation published so far is the 2007 rendering into the Archimedean language Esperanto. This intercultural medium is used by some democracy-committed communicators as an arena where the terms of a permanent dialogue of all with all are to be negotiated at some distance from the Midas touch of regimes and other special interests. It is no coincidence that this negotiation-laden mediating space should have played a role in publicizing this attempt to bring monoglot historiographical traditions into systemic dialogue. Note, however, that even such an Archimedean language serves as just a facilitator of symmetric communication across political boundaries – by no means as a unique filter intended to enable definitive validations. The premises of democracy are incompatible with any proposed ‘final solution’, be it Esperanto, English or Mandarin.
        We take it, then, that a historiography of democracy is indeed feasible; that a small beginning has been made in East Asia; and that any such beginning has to take the language question on board for reasons of principle in order to equalize the representation of sectional conversations.

Reformulating the language question

Methodologically speaking, the terms monoglot and polyglot – as well as the conceptualizations of translation and multilinguality associated with them – are opaque; they prescind from the conversation-laden heterogeneity within each single-language label.
Language involves both texts and conversations. Any historiography, even that of democracy, must deal primarily with texts. Being sites of representation, all texts engage with the several levels at which individual speakers and writers variously situate themselves on the speech/writing axis. One approach that has enabled advances in this domain of inquiry is built around the concept of ‘diglossia’. In its classical formulations, diglossia was viewed as a binary contrast between a ‘High’ or authorial (writer-focused) subcode and a ‘Low’ or locutorial (speaker-focused) subcode within a single linguistic code, whose unity the community stably upholds. This two-code conceptualization – elaborated by Rabindranath Tagore (1984) and Pramatha Chaudhuri (1968) – constituted the basis on which Ferguson’s (1959) cross-linguistic formulation of diglossia depended, as did its theoretically motivated widening by Fishman (1967). Those exercises worked within the structural-functionalist commentary on the nation-state that took the official pedagogy as a point of departure.
Writings seeking to incubate a linguistics that can look beyond structural-functionalism – including Abel 1998, Britto 1986, Dasgupta 1993, 2011, 2012a, b – critique the code-diglossic theory and propose a discursive take. Under those ‘substantivist’ assumptions which oppose the ‘formalistic’ tradition of inquiry, the diglossic relation stops counting as an intersystemic contract that holds between two codes or sublanguages describable as High and Low. Substantivism conceptualizes the diglossic relation as a dynamic process; this relation plays out between discourses and is configured in terms of a high-low geometry constantly negotiated at the diglossic interface.
Hard evidence for this negotiation in the case of Bangla appears well before Bankimchandra Chatterji (1838-1894). An empirical study of diglossia in some prose pieces by Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) shows that even that iconic author, recognized as the founding father of High Bangla prose, exhibits diglossic modulation (Dasgupta 1978). Low effects spill over into Vidyasagar’s High prose as part of his generic dynamics.
Can we simply expand the scope of that analysis of Vidyasagar and look at the dynamics of diglossia in Bankimchandra’s fiction? Will this yield a take on imagining the nation or something, within which we then examine more particularly the lexical emergence of a political vocabulary? Just what is the project we are trying to find terms of reference for?
It is quite natural that readers committed to a nationalist reading of Bankim’s oeuvre should have such questions in mind. The self-descriptive apparatus in his prose encourages that construal, which underlies the overwhelming majority of commentarial writings about the man who composed the song Vande Mataram. And why should we speak of nationalism-focused construals of Bankim alone? The two-code conceptualization that drove Pramatha Choudhuri and Rabindranath Tagore’s project of decommissioning the old Sadhu norm for Bangla as a language and installing a more democratic Cholit variety as the new basis for normative practices also amounted to a recasting of nationalist thought. Indeed, it has been read along these lines. If the point is to dislodge this long-held account of what happened, very strong reasons will have to be found for even considering another view of the matter.
My reasons have to do with the historiography of democracy. I propose to read Bankim as an author who introduced democratic discursive practices but who did not have conceptual tools that would have enabled him to articulate the key moves that he was making as an innovator. I take this stand in response to well-known extratextual facts – specifically, the way Bankim went about his work.
He did not begin his fiction writing in Bangla. His first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife (Chatterjee 1864/1996), was in English. But he never published this serialized material as a book (it appeared in that form only posthumously). And he never did any creative writing in English again. Bankim inaugurated his career as a novelist in Bangla by performing a public reading of the text of Durgeshnandini. This decision, together with the decision to write in the language of the community rather than English, suggests a commitment to a conversation-anchored project.
This conclusion is in keeping with Meenakshi Mukherjee’s analysis. In her foreword to Rajmohan’s Wife she writes: “When Bankimchandra who was in the first graduating batch of the newly-founded Calcutta University, began to write Rajmohan’s Wife, he must have known that the English-reading population of Bengal was not very widespread. Did he visualize very clearly who was going to be his reader? The half-hearted attempts at textual explanations of cultural details indicate a vague awareness of readers who may be outsiders to the Bengali way of life – possibly the British administrators in India – but given the historical circumstances and the place of publication, this could not have comprised a sizeable readership. His subsequent decision of never again writing fiction in English may have had as much to do with his realization of the illusory nature of his audience as with his nationalist ideology, or his honest artistic self-appraisal” (Chatterjee 1996: vii).
If starting a serious conversation had not been Bankim’s intent, it would have made no sense for his first novel, in English, to have explored the intricacies of the life of women in contemporary Bengal. Mukherjee writes: “Rajmohan’s Wife is very nearly realistic in its representation of East Bengal middle-class life. The story of the beautiful and passionate Matangini married to a villainous man is astonishingly rich in vivid details in the description of interiors and the quotidian routine of women’s lives. […] There is also an attempt […] to foreground the ways in which the home and the world are inextricably linked […] by locating the drama within the conjugal and domestic space in relation to the external arena of property, legality, crime and the colonial administration. Inscribed in the text we also find an early statement about the helplessness and claustrophobia of women in incompatible marriages that was going to be a recurrent concern of Indian fiction for many years to come. Given the rigidness of the power structure within the family among upper-caste Bengalis in the nineteenth century, it seems surprising that the first Indian novel in a contemporary setting should have focused on a woman of uncommon vitality who refused to be completely subjugated either by her brutal husband or by the expectations of society” (Chatterjee 1996: vi-vii).
There is a way not to let Bankim’s choices surprise us. It seems to me that one strand – albeit only one strand – of a valid reading of Bankim’s project in his Durgeshnandini can be expressed, somewhat dramatically, by casting him in the role of a Perseus bent on slaying Medusa, a.k.a. the moral and intellectual authority wielded by India’s prototypical British rulers in Bankim’s present, the nineteenth century. Meeting Medusa’s gaze would have turned Perseus into stone; likewise Bankim could not afford, aesthetically and discursively, to take on his British targets in any direct confrontation. Such a confrontation, given the balance of epistemic power in his time, would miss the point.
Bankim saw clearly that the point was to establish a community of readers; this community, in the fullness of time, would engage in a struggle for democracy, beginning with the demand for decolonization. He also saw that the founding of such a community would have to involve women. Ergo, he would have to persuade his male readers to let the necessary female readership emerge. Hence the intricate trapezium of balancing acts that appears in Durgeshnandini, on this reading.
Perseus slays the gorgon by viewing her image in his shield-mirror. Bankim confronts the epistemic master by having his image mediated through a mirroring exercise. His narration has female deutero-agonists receptively constitute politically supple male prot-agonists in a pre-British period of Indian history. The staging of this reception creates credible heroes whose counterparts, in an imaginable future, can take on their British adversaries. One major and intended side-effect is that such a depiction also helps readers (albeit dimly, in their day and age) to visualize an entire community which in such a future will comprehend and sponsor such heroes as they go about disestablishing colonial rule and founding a credible democratic alternative. By democracy I mean here the leadership of persons mature and thoughtful enough to be answerable to a critical public discourse that shall carry the full aesthetic and moral weight of the community’s best understanding – typically expressed by women in their private conversations. What I am claiming in my Perseus reading involves a geometry of concentric circles; my point is that Bankim was aiming for that geometry as a whole, without necessarily having a flawlessly complete and lucid view, personally, of all its details.
I base this claim on the place of women and their private discourse in the entire range of Bankim’s fiction. In particular, Bankim deploys the full diglossic gamut of options in his portrayals of conversation. Thus, if serious commentary is to keep up with the richness of what he pulls off in Durgeshnandini, we have to modify our reading of the language question. Specifically, we have to tune into conversation per se. Tweaking the linguistics of the conversation-discourse duality corresponds to unfinished business in the social science take on the state which I must, with deep regret, set aside in this already overstretched exercise. Let me stick to the tweaking that I must do here for immediate purposes.


Formalizing distance from the political centre

The standard pragmatics at the heart of familiar linguistic theories is due to H.P. Grice; it works with principles of conversation (Grice 1975) focused on the dimensions of Quality, Quantity, Manner and Relation (usually called Relevance). I propose taking seriously the claim that these are principles of conversation. It follows that they work at a formal distance from written discourse. How is this distance specified?
An institution’s dispositions, expounded in a written document, specify the actual details of these dispositions in their concreteness and are free to resort to as many repetitions as called for; this is why legal documents look so impossible to the ordinary eye. But one individual conversing with another asserts her individual speakerhood by placing herself at a distance from this repetitive and pervasive presence of institutional specifications. Thus Gricean principles operate through a crucial semiotic distance between the primary conversational implementation of the principles for persons and a secondary textual version that enables listeners to extend the reach of the spoken language and parse the discourses of institutions. When this distance fails, you get caricatures such as a first year university student approaching a peer and saying, “Greetings, I am a first year student of Amuknagar University, I perceive that you are one as well, we have been encouraged to talk to our peers, so I am talking to you.” Caricatures of this type, such as Sheldon Cooper in the television serial Big Bang Theory, illustrate what writing sounds like when it pretends to be speech and erases the distance between the two.
Earlier versions of this take are available in the literature of linguistics and pragmatics. One technically brilliant implementation of the thesis that speech works at a distance from written prose appears, for instance, in Ray (1963). But we can set aside for present purposes the task of tracking the itinerary of the idea in linguistics proper. We can work with Bankim himself.
The proposal that the speaking positions that matter operate at a crucial distance from the centre of writing-qua-power is already expressed in the novel we are looking at. Bankim has his character Osman say in part 2, chapter 11: “apni to rajnitiggoM bOTen, bhabiya dekhun, dilli hoite utkOl kOto dur. ‘You are indeed knowledgeable about politics, please ask yourself how far Delhi is from Utkal’ – in other words, how remote ‘their’ capital, where ‘they’ imagine that they wield authority, is from ‘our’ province, where ‘we’ live and can think freely, even if we have to be circumspect about when and where to voice our not always obedient thoughts.
This distance from power is of course what enables the moment of the carnival in the sense of Bakhtin on Rabelais, the source of our current understanding of the novel. My preoccupations operate, however, at a formal level; hence the specific tweaking of pragmatics proposed here.
I take it that the overall reasonableness at the heart of the practices of personal speaking encoded in Grice’s maxims is to be distinguished from the impersonal models of rationality prevalent in the formal and social sciences. The Gricean model idealizes a speaker in terms of her adherence to the maxims, not at the level of the size of a sentence she is deemed capable of uttering. We can imagine a speaker who adheres to the maxims all the time; it is not a meaningful exercise to imagine one who utters indefinitely long and involved sentences, for such stretching would defeat the purposes of our pragmatics.
What, then, prevents a Gricean speaker from lapsing into pre-hominid non-recursiveness? Is it only the residual recursive examples, within the circumscribed limits of a reasonable adult attention span, that distinguish her from the best-known chimpanzees chronicled by our ethologists?
Our answer to this question is both formally and socio-politically more interesting than that. We take the stand that the written discourse (with occasional spoken implementations) emanating from the centre of the power-knowledge machine can and should be stretched to the point of imagining indefinitely long, involved and repetitive sentences, fully instantiating human recursive capacity in the sense of generative grammar. In contrast, spoken language is characterized by serial infinity. Speakers pick up each other’s cues and occasionally their own, building on earlier utterances in a serially recursive fashion, constantly demonstrating a higher-than-chimpanzee capacity for critical engagement with the centre’s authority embodied as discourse. This theory does not collapse even if chimpanzee conversation is shown to resemble human conversation in the use of pronoun-type cohesion devices and thus to manifest a rudimentary basis for serial recursion. For it has long been clear that chimpanzees cannot take on the challenge of critically and elaborately engaging with the discursive system.
The Rabelais-Bakhtin element of carnivalesque critique is a special case, on this construal. Speech as a whole is a constitutively democratic site where individuals take a dim view of the discourse of the powerful.
Furthermore, speech is a fluent traffic, where conversational turns taken by different speakers flow into each other, and even absorb the solidities of powerful discourse by forcing them into critical circulation. I propose to build this insight into the diglossia model by launching the term amphiglossia for the mutually critical relation between the writing-focused high and the speech-focused low ends of the diglossic spectrum in a democratic conversational culture.

Bankim’s deployment of the model

Bankim begins to show what model he is using already at the beginning of his novel. His very first sentence is “997 bOnggabder nidaghSeSe Ekdin Ekjon OSSarohi puruS biSnupur hoite mandaroner pOthe Ekaki gOmon koritechilen” ‘At the end of the summer of 997 B.E. a man on horseback was riding alone from Bishnupur to Mandaran’. He starts with these historical coordinates, and then precipitates his hero into a liminal space where talk can turn to fundamental categories – and does. On p 2, Bankim has Bimala saying, “striloker poricOYi ba ki?” ‘And what indeed is a woman’s identity?’ – to which the as yet nameless Jagatsingh does not reply: “jubOk ekOthar uttor korilen na. taMhar mon onnodike chilo” ‘The young man did not reply. His attention was focused elsewhere’ – a turn in the narration that invites the reader’s attention to the personal twist within the macropolitical framework.
        Throughout the narration, Bankim keeps in view the option of switching on the full power of the historical discourse. In part 2, chapter 18 Bankim writes: “Sondhir bistarito bibOron itibritte bOrnoniyo. e sthOle oti-bistar niSproYojon” ‘The details of the treaty are for history to set forth at length. This is no place for excessive elaboration’. By then the reader knows quite clearly what purposes ‘this place’, “e sthal”, can pursue to some effect. Tilottama gets her man; Ayesha loves and loses; on the way to realizing this, the reader is interpellated at the level of this fundamental arena of gain and loss, whose microdynamics Bankim interweaves with his portrayal of macropolitics. The interpellation takes the form of pulling the reader’s loyalties alternately towards one or the other of two sides engaged in serious combat, mortal or otherwise – takes the form of rigorously showing just how those larger institutional destinies specify the stakes in terms of which a particular protagonist makes sense of her emotions and choices.
        In relation to the word “protagonist” I am choosing to write “her” advisedly. The major choices in Bankim’s writing are made by women at the level of their perceptions and the decisions that follow from these. It is possible that some readers may imagine that Bankim was not taking his women characters and their portrayal all that seriously. I end by examining a passage that dispels such an illusion.

A key passage and its translation

The original passage in transcription (for a version in Bangla script, see the appendix):

Durgeshnandini: ch 12: aSmanir obhiSar

diggOj gOjopotir monomohini aSmani kirup rupoboti, janite paThok mOhaSOYer koutuhOl jonmiyache SOndeho nai. Otoeb taMhar Sadh puraibo. kintu striloker rupobOrnon-biSOYe gronthokargon je poddhoti ObolOmbon koriya thaken, amar SOdriSo Okincon joner tOtpoddhoti-bohirbhuto hOoa oti dhriSTotar biSOY. Otoeb prothome monggolacoron kOra kortobbo.
        he bagdebi! he kOmolaSone! SOrodindunibhanone! OmolokOmolo-dOlonindito-cOrono-bhOktojono-bOtSole! amake Sei cOronkOmoler chaYa dan kOro; ami aSmanir rup bOrnon koribo. he Orobindanono-Sundorikulo-gOrbo-khOrbokaarini! he biSalo-rOSalo-dirgho-SOmaSo-pOTolo-sriSTikarini! Ekbar pOdonokher Ek parSe sthan dao, ami rup bOrnon koribo. SOmaS-pOTol, Sondhi-begun, upoma-kaMckOlar cORcoRi raMdhiya ei khicuRi tomae bhog dibo. he ponDito-kulepSito-pOYopprossrobini! he murkhojonoproti-kocit-kripakarini! he ongguli-konDuyono-biSomobikaro-SOmutpadini! he bOTtOla-biddaprodipo-toiloprodayini! amar buddhir prodip Ekbar ujjOl koriya diya jao. ma! tomar dui rup; je rupe tumi kalidaSke bOrooproda hoiyachile, je prokritir probhabe roghubOngSo, kumaroSOmbhOb, meghdut, SokuntOla jonmiyachilo, je prokritir dhEn koriya balmiki ramaYon, bhObobhuti uttorcorit, bharobi kiratarjuniyo rOcona koriyachilen, Se rupe amar SkOndhe arohon koriya piRa jOnmaiyo na; je murti bhabiya srihOrSo noiSodho likhiyachilen, je prokritiproSade bharotcOndro biddar Opurbo rupobOrnon koriya bOnggodeSer monomohon koriyachen, jahar proSade daSorothi raYer jOnmo, je murtite ajo bOTtOla alo koritecho, Sei murtite Ekbar amar SkOndhe abirbhuto hOo, ami aSmanir rup bOrnon kori.
        aSmanir benir Sobha phoninir nEe; phonini Sei tape mone bhabilo, jodi benir kache pOrasto hoilam, tObe ar e deho loker kache loiya bERaibar proYojonTaa ki! ami gOrte jai. ei bhabiya Sap gOrter bhitor gelen. bromha dekhilen promad; Sap gOrte gelen, manuS dOngSon kOre ke? ei bhabiya tini Sapke lEj dhoriya Taniya bahir korilen, Sap bahire aSiya, abar mukh dEkhaite hoilo, ei khobhe matha kuTite lagilo, matha kuTite kuTite matha cEpTa hoiya gElo, Sei Obodhi Saper phOna hoiyache. aSmanir mukh cOndro odhik Sundor, Sutorang cOndrodeb udito hoite na pariya bromhar nikOT naliS korilen. bromha kohilen, bhOe nai, tumi giya udito hOo, aji hoite strilokdiger mukh abrito hoibe; Sei Obodhi ghomTar srisTi. nOYon duTi jEno khOnjon, pache pakhi Dana bahir koriya uRiya pOlae, ei jonno bidhata pOllobrup piMjrar kObaT koriya diyachen. naSika goruRer naSar nEe mOhabiSal; dekhiya goruR aSongkae brikkharohon korilo; Sei Obodhi pokkhikul brikkher uporei thake. karonantore daRimbo bOnggodeS chaRiya paTna Oncole pOlaiya rohilen; ar hosti kumbho loiya bromhodeSe pOlailen; baki chilen dhObolgiri, tini dekhilen je, amar cuRa kOtoi ba ucco, aRai kroS boi to nOe, e cuRa Onnuno tin kroS hoibek; ei bhabite bhabite dhObolgirir matha gOrom hoiya uThilo, bOroph Dhalite lagilen, tini Sei Obodhi mathae bOroph diya boSiya achen.

Ashmani’s tryst

My gentle reader surely wishes to hear about the beauty of the learned Gajapati’s object of desire, Ashmani. It goes without saying that I propose to satisfy his curiosity. However, authors have established certain conventions regarding the depiction of the beauty of women; such an insignificant creature as I cannot be so audacious as to depart from those conventions. It is thus my duty to begin with the indispensable invocations.
O goddess of speech! Your lotus-seated majesty, as gracious as the moon of autumn! For the devotees of your feet which surpass the tenderest, purest petal of a lotus, your affection, o Saraswati, knows no bounds! Allow me to sit in the shade of those lotus-feet of yours; I shall describe Ashmani’s beauty. You who shatter even the pride of lotus-faced women! You whose boundless creativity manifests itself in limitless compound words of matchless flavour! Permit me to sit next to your majestic toenails; I shall describe her beauty. My cuisine of compound parwals, of consonant-altered aubergines, of metaphor plantains will create a unique stew for the kedgeree about to be set on your altar. You whose breasts are exactly what the erudite doctor ordered! You whose affection does not exclude even the most vapid of intellects! You whose fingers are capable of scratching to the point of climax! You whose oil makes the lamps of Banyansbury shine brilliantly! Brighten the lamp of my intellect, I implore you. Divine mother! You have two forms. Your early form gave Kalidasa the gift of winged words, it was the spark that brought forth the Raghuvamsha, the Kumaarasambhava, the Meghaduuta, the Shaakuntala, the spark whose inspiration led Vaalmiiki to his Raamaayana, Bhavabhuuti to his Uttaracarita, Bhaaravi to his Kiraataarjuniiya; I beseech you, do not burden my shoulders with your inspiration in that early form of yours; come to me the way you looked to Shriiharsha who wrote the Naishadha, to Bhaaratchandra who portrayed Biddaa’s exquisite beauty and entertained the heart of Bengal, the way you were when you inspired the birth of Daasarathi Roy, the way you look even now as the resplendent muse showering light on Banyansbury, do manifest yourself on my shoulder in that latter-day form of yours, I shall describe Ashmani’s beauty.
Ashmani’s exquisite ponytail reminds one of her serpentine majesty; her poor majesty wrestled with her wounded pride; her final thought was, if that ponytail outshines me, moving around in public places makes no sense any more – let me go back into my hole. No sooner said than done: behold, the snake was back in her hole. Brahmaa, the creator, had a new crisis to address; with the snake back in her hole, who then would bite humans? This thought prompted him to grab the serpent’s tail and pull her out, whereupon her serpentine majesty, annoyed that she had to show her face again to all and sundry, started beating her head against the ground, to the point of flattening it, hence the serpent’s hood as we know it. Ashmani’s face is prettier than the moon; thus, the divine moon, unwilling to rise, complained to Brahmaa the creator. Brahmaa reassured him: “Fear not; go forth and rise; starting today, the faces of women shall be veiled” – hence the invention of the veil. Her eyes are like little birds; to avert the risk of the birds attempting a winged exit, God has designed bolts for the cages, we call them eyelids. Her nose is of the epic proportions that Garuda’s nose alone exemplified before her; the moment he set eyes on her, Garuda felt intimidated and climbed the nearest tree; since that day, all birds live on treetops. For similar reasons, the pomegranate forsook Bengal and took refuge somewhere near Patna, and the elephant, with its overgrown head, fled to Burma; that left Mt Dhavalgiri, who wondered how high his own peak could possibly be, at best two and a half kroshes, but surely this peak here was no less than three kroshes high; this thought gave Mt Dhavalgiri an overheated head, whereupon he began to shower ice and snow on his head, and to this day there he is, with his ice-capped head.

Conclusion

Those of us who participate vigorously in today’s commentarial traffic, on seeing such a passage, are tempted to make a familiar move – pursuing the high culture/ popular culture binary that Bankim himself invokes in this passage, and moving the conversation entirely into the domains that count as business as usual in our disciplines. Such a gambit, however, might stop us from noticing that Bankim, for whom the high culture/ popular culture binary is after all a toy, is not just playing with it, but has other purposes in view. The dynamics of cultural power in the high/ low binary had not yet become a question in his times, and he already had enough on his hands: he could not afford to dwell on microscopic issues.
        I chose to show you an entire chapter from Bankim’s novel in order to bring out how important the portrayal of women was in his project. He takes pains to draw the reader’s attention to the dynamics of various viewpoints even at the level of the description of the external appearance of women. Suppose we grant that these issues were on Bankim’s screen; what now? Where am I taking this argument?
        This paper did not begin with a comprehensive understanding of prose and try to place Bankimchandra on that map. What we did instead was take a rough and ready understanding of Bankimchandra for granted and, with some help from him, try to come up with a new map of discourse in general and prose in particular, since that is where democracy can happen. Hence our preoccupation with diglossia. Where are we now in that exploration?
        The interim answer provided here comes from only one of the open sites of what needs to become a collective excavation. Others well versed in the historiographic and literary critical arts will obviously use appropriate tools to revisit their own construal of prose, of Bankimchandra and of the history of democracy. Their articulations will form an indispensable component, not represented in the present text, of a serious approach to the issues.
My own interim answer – which takes as a point of departure the thesis that the novel characteristically deploys several vantage-languages in one and the same discourse – is that Bankimchandra’s fiction from Durgeshnandini onwards implies that this deployment is never able to work with purely horizontal relations between the vantage-languages in question, but always, in every vantage dyad, also invokes with the vertical, diglossic axis – in the sense that one vantage occupies the metalanguage position and treats the dyadic partner as its object language.
This claim about diglossia does not collapse into a special case of heteroglossia. The default geometry of distinct vantage languages in the discourse of a novel – if for expository reasons we wish to first take a look at that default in terms of a heteroglossic approach that has not taken Bankim on board – is horizontal. Consider an actual example: imagine that the narratorial voices of Nikhilesh, Bimala etc. in Home and the World were not given the separate niches that Tagore does in fact give them; imagine that all the voices were run together in an apparently undivided narration. From such an apparent homogeneity, does the heteroglossic approach simply enable us to disentangle the distinct voices? No, it does not stop there; the point is also, while we do this disentangling, to notice what it takes for a Bimala to concretely realize her personal unity, going beyond her fractured self-discoveries as Nikhilesh’s Bimala and as Sandip’s Bimala. A totally relation-free Bimala point is never available as a site of self-validation; the self arrived at always has a geometry to it. To put the matter in the subjective terms in which a precritical reader may conceptualize the work of reading a novel, Bimala’s ‘finding herself’ involves discovering the developmental path that leads her, through specific partnership-laden modes of relating, to a richer specification of these modes as uniquely her own. It is the site of such a bildung that brings out the generic power of the novel. Even in a novel highlighting the bildung of just one person, the apprenticeship of others also engages the reader, who joins them in the complex journey towards a richer comprehension.
What does Bankimchandra’s invocation of the ‘meta-vantage-language’ relation allow us to add to this basic take on heteroglossia? Consider a Ram having a chat with a Shyam and deriding Jadu; can we as commentators afford to make the simple-minded claim that these deriders are placing themselves on a higher plane and that this is what counts as verticality and a ‘meta-vantage’ relation?
Much depends, obviously, on the manner of this deriding. Where Jadu socially stands in relation to Ram and Shyam on the grid constrains the range of aesthetic choices available to them as deriders. Besides, ‘where Jadu stands’ invoke several social dimensions – there is no single grid that determines the highs and lows relevant to computing this geometry. Do these corrections bring us closer to taking Bankimchandra’s material on board?
Not really; these simple second revisions of our naïve first draft reflect ordinary heteroglossia theory and pragmatics. What Bankimchandra contributes is the realization that a particular vantage-language is never just a language: it is a vantage-point intelligible only in the dynamic, politics-laden diglossic context of that society’s discursive repertoire. In other words, the hypothetical attempt to compute where Jadu stands vis-à-vis Ram and Shyam without looking at the diglossic geometry of their vantage-languages is a formalistic skeleton that a serious approach to discourse will have to clothe with actual flesh for the exercise to begin to make sense of a novel.
This is not a repetition the old point made by anti-formalistic social theorists about the meaninglessness of formal geometry devoid of human content. Bankimchandra shows that injecting the geometry with social content changes the geometry itself, structurally, as follows. The meta-vantage viewpoint that occupies high ground diglossically labelled as H[igh] and lectures to lowly mortals does not enter into automatic relations of symmetry with the meta-vantage viewpoint that occupies L[ow] ground and laughs at the heights. Establishing symmetric relations costs actual work, in the form of a struggle conducted at several sites, including the writing and reading of such fiction. Amphiglossia, the symmetric form of diglossia, is not a neat piece of architecture like a bridge; it is an activity that closely resembles scrambling up and down a steep, brambly slope. That site of struggle is where a society hardens its children into democratic citizens; every milieu in the person’s private existence gets to play a role in the story of the struggle through which citizenship is achieved in each case, despite all the apparent disconnection between milieux.
Readers whose expectations had been raised by the reference to an easy-to-learn Esperanto in the opening sections of this paper – by the claim that that Archimedean language is a laboratory where symmetry and reciprocity are incubated – may find their hopes dashed as they hear these words about the need for struggle to achieve amphiglossic symmetry.
Esperanto is indeed a neutral language designed for ease of learning. However, nobody has made the absurdly exaggerated claim that its speakers have discovered a neutral discursive vantage point. Climbing up and down a steep slope is hard work. Adults who wish to prepare young children for such climbing may tell them fairy tales that make the climb look playful and straightforward. The taste of those narratives in the recesses of our unconscious may lead us to hope for easy answers – this hope is the intimate form taken by confidence that our elders instilled in us by narrating those fairy tales when we were little. It is possible that the outwork that packages Esperanto comes with a largish helping of that fairy tale ethos attached. But even in their flightiest rhetorical excesses, Esperantists have never said that a neutral language automatically carries a neutral discourse without specific labour establishing such a site.
Bankimchandra’s contribution lies in his example: he shows how to work towards discursive reciprocity between vantage languages. Reading his Durgeshnandini, we glean at least the following insights concerning the art of reciprocal, cross-vantage conversation in contexts where formal symmetry has not proved to be attainable:
In certain transactions, it becomes necessary to work with a metadiscourse relation between one vantage language and another; this is a necessity both in fiction and in real life. Any meta-relation is bound to have an overtly vertical look to it, but actual voices managing the relation are able in principle to ensure that that vertical appearance stays on the surface; the enterprises of harmless teasing and purposeful targeting use the apparatus of verticality in distinct ways. By the same token, meta-relations harbour a horizontal (i.e. reciprocal, symmetric) potential, whose practical elaboration can be idealized to the point of universalizability, call it the Kantian point. Metalanguage-focused practices exemplify this kind of idealizing (and the record shows that such enterprises have achieved some success in Esperanto).
If indeed Bankimchandra can be read as having invited his readers to push their discursive symmetry seeking enterprise towards the ideal of democratic citizenship, the question of whether readers today are able to keep faith with the initial promise is not confined to Bengalis alone. Translations into Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi etc. inserted Bankimchandra’s fiction into the regional imaginations of South Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If the exercises prompted by centenaries, sesquicentennial volumes and other numerological entities have led commentators in some of those languages to reread their Bankimchandra in recent years, cross-boundary conversation at a theoretical level has yet to take off. Seriously pressing for such a conversation will of course strengthen the ritual-bureaucratic spirit and have the effect of disabling conversation; one hopes it is clear that I am staying away from the pressure button! My point is just to reiterate that the broader question has to do with cultivating the democratic imagination throughout India. The narrow question that I have been pursuing beyond any reader’s endurance has to do with what Bankimchandra’s example tells us in the domain of the general theory of prose. Surely a reasonable number of readers will agree that these two questions are related – that our theoretical fantasies are hard to pursue without reference to concrete practices, and that Bankimchandra’s enterprise was exemplary.


Appendix


The original passage in Bangla script:
দুর্গেশনন্দিনী: দ্বাদশ পরিচ্ছেদ: আশমানির অভিসার

দিগ্‌গজ গজপতির মনোমোহিনী আশমানি কিরূপ রূপবতী, জানিতে পাঠক মহাশয়ের কৌতূহল জন্মিয়াছে সন্দেহ নাই। অতএব তাঁহার সাধ পূরাইব। কিন্তু স্ত্রীলোকের রূপবর্ণন-বিষয়ে গ্রন্থকারগণ যে পদ্ধতি অবলম্বন করিয়া থাকেন, আমার সদৃশ অকিঞ্চন জনের তৎপদ্ধতি-বহির্ভূত হওয়া অতি ধৃষ্টতার বিষয়। অতএব প্রথমে মঙ্গলাচরণ করা কর্তব্য।
হে বাগ্‌দেবি! হে কমলাসনে! শরদিন্দুনিভাননে! অমলকমল-দলনিন্দিত-চরণ-ভক্তজন-বৎসলে! আমাকে সেই চরণকমলের ছায়া দান কর; আমি আশমানির রূপ বর্ণন করিব। হে অরবিন্দানন-সুন্দরীকুল-গর্ব-খর্বকারিণি! হে বিশাল রসাল দীর্ঘ-সমাস-পটল-সৃষ্টিকারিণি! একবার পদনখের এক পার্শ্বে স্থান দাও, আমি রূপ বর্ণন করিব। সমাস-পটল, সন্ধি-বেগুন, উপমা-কাঁচকলার চড়চড়ি রাঁধিয়া এই খিচুড়ি তোমায় ভোগ দিব। হে পণ্ডিতকুলেপ্সিত-পয়ঃপ্রস্রবিণি! হে মূর্খজনপ্রতি ক্বচিৎ কৃপাকারিণি! হে অঙ্গুলি-কণ্ডূয়ন-বিষমবিকার-সমুৎপাদিনি! হে বটতলা-বিদ্যাপ্রদীপ-তৈলপ্রদায়িনি! আমার বুদ্ধির প্রদীপ একবার উজ্জ্বল করিয়া দিয়া যাও। মা! তোমার দুই রূপ; যে রূপে তুমি কালিদাসকে বরপ্রদা হইয়াছিলে, যে প্রকৃতির প্রভাবে রঘুবংশ, কুমারসম্ভব, মেঘদূত, শকুন্তলা জন্মিয়াছিল, যে প্রকৃতির ধ্যান করিয়া বাল্মীকি রামায়ণ, ভবভূতি উত্তরচরিত,  ভারবি কিরাতার্জুনীয় রচনা করিয়াছিলেন, সে রূপে আমার স্কন্ধে আরোহণ করিয়া পীড়া জন্মাইও না; যে মূর্তি ভাবিয়া শ্রীহর্ষ নৈষধ লিখিয়াছিলেন, যে প্রকৃতিপ্রসাদে ভারতচন্দ্র বিদ্যার অপূর্ব রূপবর্ণন করিয়া বঙ্গদেশের মনোমোহন করিয়াছেন, যাহার প্রসাদে দাসরথি রায়ের জন্ম, যে মূর্তিতে আজও বটতলা আলো করিতেছ, সেই মূর্তিতে একবার আমার স্কন্ধে আবির্ভূত হও, আমি আশমানির রূপ বর্ণন করি।
            আশমানির বেণীর শোভা ফণিনীর ন্যায়; ফণিনী সেই তাপে মনে ভাবিল, যদি বেণীর কাছে পরাস্ত হইলাম, তবে আর এ দেহ লোকের কাছে লইয়া বেড়াইবার প্রয়োজনটা কি! আমি গর্তে যাই। এই ভাবিয়া সাপ গর্তের ভিতর গেলেন। ব্রহ্মা দেখিলেন প্রমাদ; সাপ গর্তে গেলেন, মানুষ দংশন করে কে? এই ভাবিয়া তিনি সাপকে ল্যাজ ধরিয়া টানিয়া বাহির করিলেন, সাপ বাহিরে আসিয়া, আবার মুখ দেখাইতে হইল, এই ক্ষোভে মাথা কুটিতে লাগিল, মাথা কুটিতে কুটিতে মাথা চেপ্টা হইয়া গেল, সেই অবধি সাপের ফণা হইয়াছে। আশমানির মুখ  চন্দ্র অধিক সুন্দর, সুতরাং চন্দ্রদেব উদিত হইতে না পারিয়া ব্রহ্মার নিকট নালিশ করিলেন। ব্রহ্মা কহিলেন, ভয় নাই, তুমি গিয়া উদিত হও, আজি হইতে স্ত্রীলোকদিগের মুখ আবৃত হইবে; সেই অবধি ঘোমটার সৃষ্টি। নয়ন দুটি যেন খঞ্জন, পাছে পাখি ডানা বাহির করিয়া উড়িয়া পলায়, এই জন্য বিধাতা পল্লবরূপ পিঁজরার কবাট করিয়া দিয়াছেন। নাসিকা গরুড়ের নাসার ন্যায় মহাবিশাল; দেখিয়া গরুড় আশঙ্কায় বৃক্ষারোহণ করিল, সেই অবধি পক্ষিকুল বৃক্ষের উপরেই থাকে। কারণান্তরে দাড়িম্ব বঙ্গদেশ ছাড়িয়া পাটনা অঞ্চলে পলাইয়া রহিলেন; আর হস্তী কুম্ভ লইয়া ব্রহ্মদেশে পলাইলেন; বাকি ছিলেন ধবলগিরি, তিনি দেখিলেন যে, আমার চূড়া কতই বা উচ্চ, আড়াই ক্রোশ বই ত নয়, এ চূড়া অন্যূন তিন ক্রোশ হইবেক; এই ভাবিতে ভাবিতে ধবলগিরির মাথা গরম হইয়া উঠিল, বরফ ঢালিতে লাগিলেন, তিনি সেই অবধি মাথায় বরফ দিয়া বসিয়া আছেন।

References

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Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra. 1984. Durgeshnandini [first published 1865]. In his Bankim Rachanabali. Vol. 1. Ed. and intr. Kshetra Gupta. Kolkata: Patra’s. 1-75.

Chaudhuri, Pramatha. 1968. Sobuj pOtrer mukhopOtro [in Bangla; ‘Message from the editor of Sabuj Patra’]. Repr. [from Sabuj Patra’s Baisakh 1321/ April 1914 issue] in his probondhoSOnggroho [in Bangla; ‘Collected Essays’]. Kolkata: Visvabharati. 25-30.

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[This paper, in its Bangla version, has appeared as a chapter in Merur praarthonaa: bishuber uttor, 2015, Kolkata: Abhijan.]

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Space that Killed Rohith Vemula

[draft as of 31 Jan 2016; to be submitted to Mainline]

Does Rohith Vemula’s suicide note make charges that can serve as the basis for judicial action against individuals who drove him to his death? This question has been under intense public discussion. There have also been claims that he was not a Dalit. Those claims are easy to refute: it is verifiable that his mother Radhika, who belongs to the Mala caste (an SC community), divorced her Vaddera (OBC) husband in 1990 and brought Rohith up in a Mala neighbourhood in Guntur. Rohith’s upbringing, coupled with facts about his birth, is the decisive criterion according to the relevant Supreme Court judgment.

The main point, however, is that the framework governing all these debates rests on certain structural premises concerning the judicial-penal system. In the context of the punitive procedures that drove Rohith to his death, it becomes important to inquire how those structural premises bear on the autonomy of the university. In precisely what setting does the judicial-penal function operate in the management of universities and other HEIs (Higher Educational Institutions)?

Let us begin with what we all understand. We know that autonomy implies that the police cannot walk into an HEI campus except when requested by its management. That this management exercises a surrogate version of judicial and penal authority over its employees and students. That fully flourishing autonomy means a management willing and able to discourage interference from the government. Anecdotes that still circulate about Gurbaksh Singh, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, highlight his ability to send a chief minister packing. These ideas mark the limits of the received wisdom as far as the autonomy of an HEI is concerned.

In the wake of Rohith’s tragic passing, if we refuse to stretch these limits – to the point of acknowledging the idea of the university per se as an autonomous imperative that goes beyond the capacity to repress, coerce and impose – then we will be irresponsibly prolonging the crisis that leads to such suicides, and not by Dalits alone. In this intervention, I raise some questions about the propriety of certain ways of punishing a university student in the context of the idea of the university. These questions arise under any set of assumptions. Public debates on this matter rarely address the issues raised here. If authors who hold views radically different from mine can be persuaded to respond to these questions, a serious debate will become possible.

For the sake of argument, it helps to put oneself in the shoes of penal authorities willing to characterize a person as an ‘offender’. I take it that in an HEI, as in the bigger judicial-penal system, the reason that leads penal authorities to punish is that they wish to help the offender to behave, i.e. to reform his/her behaviour. (For convenience, I am italicizing the HEI leadership’s standard terms; any errors of perception on my part are inadvertent.) But the authorities at an HEI are not trained as penal specialists. They are acting on the basis of their own sense of the primarily educational mandate of an HEI. Therefore I further assume that the authorities at an HEI notice the recurrence of disciplinary problems in the case of students who come from certain backgrounds (however one chooses to characterize these backgrounds). It follows that the authorities at an HEI are bound to recognize the need to apply their mind to the serious problems at the level necessary in order to prevent their recurrence.

Now, consider the case of a Dalit student from an impoverished background. The sincere desire of the authorities of an HEI to help a particular Dalit offender to behave is bound to lead them to notice the social setting which exposed that offender to a less than idyllic childhood environment. The long-term impact of that exposure must be taken into account by any HEI leadership that does not confine its actions to the penal function. The managers of an HEI cannot help noticing these matters sooner or later, once they seriously try to put in place measures designed to bring about the behavioural changes they would like to see. Since one is dealing with human conduct, it also follows that the management of an HEI must be concerned with the perceptual and cognitive basis of such behaviour.

In this context, I need to note that the University of Hyderabad – where I worked from 1989 to 2006 – is a site of particular interest in the context of sustained inquiry about such questions. In 2005, some of us kick-started interdisciplinary research there on cognitive science, now organized under a Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences. It so happens that Vipin Srivastava, who is the university’s acting Vice-Chancellor at the moment of writing, has spent the last few years shaping the research profile of that centre. The fact that Srivastava, who started out in physics, has later moved into cognitive science is an encouraging circumstance. It is perhaps understandable that today, under sudden pressures that he was unprepared for, he may be implementing purely administrative measures based on what he perceives as procedural exigencies (I notice that an active cognitive scientist appointed during Srivastava’s directorship of the centre, Joby Joseph, is on the other side of the barricade: Joseph has been one of the faculty members taking part in the hunger strike). In the long run, however, those of us who want all academics to seriously think about the crisis can expect the Srivastavas on all our campuses, for scientific reasons, to support our efforts actively – by the Srivastavas I mean those academics who realize the need for inquiry to cross the artificial ‘science/arts’ boundary. If our Srivastavas fail to meet these expectations, we will have a scientific problem on our hands, not just a procedural, political or ideological divide.

This was an aside, though an important aside in the present context. We return now to our main point. We take it, then, that tough-minded academic administrators are bound to eventually realize that bringing about behavioural change requires serious cultural and cognitive improvement. It is possible that such administrators visualize a need for such improvement primarily in the mind of the individual ‘offender’. However, surely even they see that one individual’s mind cannot be improved in isolation. The enterprise of improving anybody’s cultural and cognitive profile, however one might pursue it, must be anchored, first of all, in some assumptions about social interaction, and must also envisage a societal intervention to change the atmosphere.

In this context it becomes important to notice that, in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s tragic death, the initiative for changing the atmosphere on the University of Hyderabad campus is being led not by any Dalits-only lobby driven by identity politics, but by a coalition spearheaded by the upper-caste leadership of organizations working for social change. Academic administrators who find it difficult or inappropriate to engage with identitarian organizations may find it easier, in this context, to take due part in the dialogue that has become imperative.

Academic administrators who emphasize adherence to disciplinary norms may have noticed that the one-man commission appointed on 28 January by the Ministry of Human Resource Development will be guided by the UGC (Prevention of Caste-Based Discrimination/ Harassment/ Victimisation and Promotion of Equality in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012. Sukhadeo Thorat’s article ‘Discrimination on the campus’ (The Hindu, 26.1.16, p. 10) draws attention to the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2015 and to the UGC Regulations, noting their limited scope and effectiveness. He concludes that “we need a separate law against discrimination in colleges/ universities, to treat an act of discrimination as a punishable crime [...] as in the case of gender discrimination and ragging”. He argues for “the legal route” by pointing to the ragging precedent: “when ragging was made a punishable offence, instances of ragging dropped dramatically”.

That the nation has to start a mid-day meal scheme to keep children in school, that every HEI has to establish a CASH to discourage sexual harassment, and that the same logic may now compel campuses to set up a mechanism to protect SC and ST citizens from harassment – these are gross measures. The fact that they are being put in place indicates the magnitude and the starkness of the structural crisis. Now, if there is one thing we know about crises, it is that disaster management approaches, even if implemented with Japanese efficiency, are inadequate. Your superb management team may be able to rescue thousands of flood victims. But disaster managers are not in the business of foreseeing and preventing floods.

In this context, it becomes appropriate to focus on the exchange on NDTV on 19.1.16 between Barkha Dutt and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, Apparao Podile. Dutt repeatedly asked him, “When Rohith wrote you an anguished personal letter why didn’t you reach out to him at a human level? You tell me that he was a student you yourself had taught; couldn’t you have reached out to him?” Apparao’s responses ranged from “We have to follow rules and procedures; we make important decisions collectively” to “You must notice that I did not break any rules or laws; if I had, you would have been asking me why I broke them”. The point to note is that even in a crisis situation, publicly facing a journalist’s question about why he had, as a human being, not reached out to a fellow human being, this leader of a university did not see any need to affirm the value of responding at the human level. He deeply believes that the only obligatory responsibility of the leader of a university is to adhere to acts, statutes, laws and rules.

The chilling point is not that Apparao is a particularly reprehensible member of the academic community; the point is that, in his adherence to rules alone, he is typical of the leaders of our universities. This is one symptom of the crisis that we are trapped in. If we want to find a way out of the crisis, firefighting methods are necessary but are not enough. We must find a way to get university managements to understand that in the context of university autonomy, punishment on a campus is not analogous to a court trying offenders and imprisoning them if they are found guilty. Any punishing that may take place must occur as part of the enterprise of educating that is the cultural responsibility of the entire campus, going beyond the scholastic duties of the teacher in the classroom or the laboratory. The question is how to help university managers to understand this. That they do not understand this is a significant component of the crisis that Apparao’s remarks exemplify.

Will it help if we invoke the welfarist approach that postulates rights and entitlements and proposes measures that will build various capacities as part of the state’s duty to the individual citizen? Does such rights-based welfarism have the wherewithal to actually address the crisis?

The discourse of the rights and capacities of citizens shares with our tough-minded academic administrators the assumptions of methodological individualism. Even within this shared framework, all participants in the debate must recognize that the obligation of the state – or of the administrative authorities of a university – is not simply a rulebook-defined duty to provide physical and mental first aid to those in distress, and to stop relevant others from violating their rights. Remember that we are talking about a university. Tough-minded academic administrators claim to be concerned with norms. Maximizing the cultural and cognitive growth of young adults, in the company of experienced adults engaged in teaching them, is the constitutive, normative aim of the enterprise of a university. If teachers cannot provide culturally and cognitively optimal company to each other and to students, it becomes difficult for students who come from traditionally oppressive categories to overcome their biases and customs and to stop themselves from persisting in their oppressive ways.

The obligation, at a university, is to provide literate and informed help to students, and if possible to do so pre-emptively, before crisis-level need for aid pushes an individual into panic and worse, a mental state that might make the giving or receiving of any effective help impossible. This obligation cannot be met by an administration per se; it is a cultural and cognitive responsibility, and those responsible, the teachers, need to realize that eradicating oppressive and oppression-fostering habits is not as straightforward a task as observing the laws of the land.

By saying the job is challenging I don’t mean that cultural norms are elusive and obscure. I mean that the term I just used – ‘traditionally oppressive categories’ – is not an absolute but a relational term; it only makes sense in the context of a particular dyad. Men are traditionally oppressive vis-a-vis women (that’s the men/women dyad); Savarna Hindus, vis-a-vis Dalits and Adivasis; Mainland Indians, vis-a-vis Northeasterners; big city dwellers, vis-a-vis compatriots from small towns and villages; and many more dyads.

Now, these dyads have cross-cutting effects, best clarified by giving an example. Suppose you are a Savarna man from a small town. This means you are likely to be traditionally oppressive towards Dalits, Adivasis, women. However, when you encounter an elite woman from a metropolitan city, you may find her arrogant and oppressive. Your feelings of insecurity may lead you to behave badly towards her – at least playing up your social power as a male, even if you don’t go so far as to harass her in the technical sense.

It is these cross-cutting effects of the dyadic relations between the backgrounds we come from that make it specifically difficult to understand our realities in terms of notions like ‘traditionally oppressive categories’. We are nonetheless bound to use such risky notions as we struggle to come to terms with the crisis. The take-away from this intervention is that I would like to propose some mutuality in this enterprise. Let us acknowledge the need to negotiate, to find new formats for dialogue, at every level, as part of our daily living on and off campus, as part of what it will take to overcome the crisis. I don’t mean tolerance, though that is an essential minimum; I mean dialogue, without which we will be stuck where we are, as a polarized society.

One problem that has been decelerating our cognitive and cultural progress is that in our society we are not simply polarized: we are complexly polarized. If Hindu/Muslim had been the only dyad to deal with, we would not have had a crisis. Some of our fellow citizens, who go so far as to imagine that “those Hyderabad university Dalits shed tears when Yakub Memon was executed, that means they are in league with Muslim extremists, this is the fundamental problem, we need more patriotism in this Hindu majority nation” are not just trapped in a political package they have consumed. They have failed to notice that Dalit and Muslim organizations do not work together. At the deeper level of perception that we have to attain, they are missing the point that Dalit/Muslim is not even an operative dyad in the context of India’s polarizations. The overall relation between Dalits and Muslims is mediated through the Dalit/Savarna dyad within that ‘Hindu majority’ and the Hindu/Muslim dyad (though I acknowledge that this global formulation sets aside the marginalized status of Pasmanda Muslims within the Muslim fold).

The point is that we in India, on and off university campuses, are polarized in multiple ways. Bringing our literacy to bear on understanding how we are situated is half the battle. This is one important responsibility that even the best of us have been failing to face. I don’t wish to imply that any of us are avoiding the task on purpose. Many of our tough-minded academic administrators are well-meaning persons driven by the highest principles. We have been failing because it is a complex challenge. We badly need, we urgently need to get better at it. If we don’t, the crisis won’t just continue unabated; we will have a much deeper crisis on our hands.