It is simplistic to describe turmoil in universities as ideological warfare

Bindu Puri
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Outside JNU in New Delhi. (Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

The ongoing turmoil in some of our universities has been presented by many as the result of a conflict between two rival ideologies: The “Left” ideology and the “right” ideology. This is far from the truth. There are many contingencies, quite independent of ideology, which have contributed to the turmoil — contingencies such as the involvement of political parties in student affairs, the religious and ethnic divide in our country, the regional versus the Centre issues, the increasingly assertive self-righteousness of our youth, our fatigued, demoralised, and unthinking teaching community and so on.

The direct involvement of political parties is perhaps the most pernicious of them all. It embroils, with a degree of ruthlessness, students in the messy, dubious ambitions of these parties and of their individual members. The student is now excited about everything but courses, research and publishing a paper in that well-cited journal.

Since the general perception created is that of ideological warfare, something needs to be said briefly about ideology and its potent dangers. An ideology is a cluster of ideas — one might, somewhat charitably, call it a “community” of ideas — mutually related, mutually supporting and resting fundamentally on certain crucial unquestioned assumptions. Marxism is such an ideology and one might say that all left ideologies are offshoots of the Marxist ideology. The important thing about an ideology is that the only way it can defend itself against an incisive intellectual offensive, which includes an offensive against its basic unsupported assumptions, is to, aggressively and in multiple ways, repeat and assert these assumptions. It is therefore condemned to a vicious circularity.

Its creative potentiality remains strictly within the confines of this circularity. This is the fate of all ideologies. It is interesting also to reflect on the thought that the foundational beliefs of rival ideologies may come from the same source. For example, there is both a left Hegelism and a right Hegelism, there is a left Wittgensteinism and right Wittgensteinism.

The colonial hegemony in our universities has been replaced by a leftist hegemony. The diminution of the Marxist parties in the political arena is matched by the resolute infiltration of left ideologies into our education system. Since violence is not shunned by these ideologies — not by most of them, in any case — we often see unabashed use of violence in pursuit of their goals: In JNU, it is not just the violence of January 5, but the violence of locking up centres and their offices for months, incarcerating people in their rooms for hours, covering walls of the university buildings with offensive graffiti, and an abandonment of norms of civility.

The left ideologies have had an unchallenged rule in our universities with just a token presence of thought other than theirs. But now it seems to them that they face a real threat not from a rival ideology, but from an entire tradition of thought — a tradition of thought that has engaged with marvelous insights into the human condition — man’s philosophical pursuit, his politics, economic well being, physical and mental well-being, social organisation, ethical life and spiritual quest. Indian philosopher K C Bhattacharya had spoken about the old-world Indian mind. The great Indian tradition is not an ideology in the sense I talked about in the beginning. It is a brilliant play of ideas, which is free, celebratory, with inventive forays into uncharted areas, rich in argumentative vigour and unafraid of questioning the basics. The ruling intellectual class has managed to keep this tradition at bay for so long, prevented its free play, its articulation in modern terms and its engagement with issues of life. What they need is not freedom of expression to debunk others in debates and arguments from within the confines of their own ideology, but freedom from the shackles of their own ideology.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 1, 2020 under the title 'Ideology versus tradition'. The writer is chairperson, Centre for Philosophy, School of Social Sciences, JNU.

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