Since the sedition charges on JNU students in early 2016, censorship, legal action and hooliganism have been directed towards academics in the name of nationalism. The neo-liberal electronic media have lapped up these stories either speaking for or against their freedom of expression. Several scholars and intellectuals, from the novelist Arundhati Roy to political-scientist Nivedita Menon, have been branded as anti-nationals for questioning police and army brutality, jingoism and human rights violation. Now, Partha Chatterjee is the latest entrant in this hall of fame of anti-nationals. Chatterjee, familiar to academics as one of the core members of the Subaltern Studies collective, wrote an article about the Indian army in Kashmir on independent news platform ‘The Wire’ which led to a media controversy that truly warns us about the growing threat against academic freedom in India. To understand this issue, we need to know that Partha Chatterjee is a Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at Columbia University and an honorary professor of Political science at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.
One of the latest controversies in the rising conflict between the Indian military and the citizens of Kashmir was unleashed when Major Leetul Gogoi tied a man to his jeep as a human shield against local stone pelters. Instead of facing any disciplinary action for this, Gogoi was presented with a certificate of commendation by the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat for his contribution to counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir. Several prime time debates in the national media have discussed this issue in the last few months. In the article Chatterjee wrote addressing the same, he compared Gen. Rawat’s justification for Gogoi’s use of a human shield with that provided by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, a villainous figure in Indian history, who was responsible for the killing of hundreds of unarmed people including those celebrating a Sikh festival in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. When questioned about their brutal methods, both Dyer and Rawat had stated that their duty compelled them to carry out these “dirty tasks”, that they were forced to find innovative methods to fight their enemy to prevent the situation from escalating into utter mayhem.
Arnab Goswami, the most popular news-show host in India, is both loved and loathed for his high decibel, theatrical persona and his unabashed jingoism. Like the quintessential ‘angry, young man’, his anger is deemed righteous by many and he presents himself as both the representative and the savior of the nation. Pockets of the Indian media have repeatedly accused Goswami of being patronized by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In one of the episodes of his primetime show, he picked up Partha Chatterjee’s article declaring it as “illiterate”, “anti-national” and an example of a conspiracy against India by Pakistan and the USA. In the panel discussion, there were at least three people who had read and understood Chatterjee’s argument. While none of them completely agreed with him, they tried to argue for the freedom of an author to express his opinion. The rest of the panelists were spokespersons of political parties and employees of the Indian army. The rage of the anchor was only surpassed by that of the military personnel who confused Chatterjee’s religion with a satirical cameo-role of a ‘reformed Hindoo’ he played in a film. Screaming at the camera, he listed incorrect university affiliations of Chatterjee both in Kolkata and the US, and then proceeded to say: Chatterjee is no longer a reformed Hindu, he is now a Muslim. But any attempt to address the core argument of the piece was futile even by those who did not really agree with it. In this ‘debate’, they were ridiculed, shouted down and even reprimanded for ‘smiling inappropriately’ at the passion of the ex-military personnel whose heart, Goswami asserted, beats for India as he eagerly waits to lay down his life for her.
In this debate the nation, its people, the BJP spokesperson, and the army were on one side. On the other side were traitors, Muslims, Pakistan, foreign universities, and so-called ‘pseudo-secular’ ‘pseudo-liberal’ elites. Goswami even found a descriptive sentence in Columbia University’s website written by Chatterjee about how the centralizing efforts of Indira Gandhi led to the Emergency. He presented this sentence to his audience as one where the author is praising the efforts of Mrs. Gandhi. He concluded that Chatterjee is a supporter of the Emergency, not simply that of the Congress party. It is not plausible that Goswami, a postgraduate from the University of Oxford, could not decipher the meaning of that simple sentence. Personally, I have rarely witnessed such a cunning and obvious misrepresentation of an academic text.
In the end we were told that this article provided ammunition to Pakistan, that “snooty elites” make money in American universities by abusing their own nation, and that Chatterjee should not be allowed to get away with this. And indeed the media ensured that he was not going scot-free. Reporters chased him around despite his repeated assertion that he has nothing to add, alter or clarify regarding his piece in the electronic media. In response to a critique, however, Chatterjee restated his argument regarding the colonial logic that is inherent in the structure of army which the Indian state uses against its own people in the North-East and Kashmir. Yet, without any attempt to understand his argument, several newspapers and newschannels are still asking how dare the scholar compare a patriotic general of the Indian army to the evil British general who butchered innocent people? And then how dare he stick to his argument despite the outrage of the army, BJP leaders, Mr. Arnab Goswami, and the nation they embody?
This reaction, exaggerated as it is, can be understood better when we consider what Chatterjee’s article is most effectively attacking. Those who are so easily swayed by the rhetoric of patriotism are assured of their moral supremacy over both the ‘Westerners’ or erstwhile Colonial rulers and Muslims in and around the nation. By comparing the Indian army to the Colonial army, Chatterjee has truly disturbed this popular notion of India as the brave, surviving, fighting victim of both British and Muslim aggression.
In the last response that Chatterjee wrote on the matter, he warned us against a politicized army and an army that is seen as a savior of the nation. On the contrary, Goswami’s highly popular channel thrives on the binaries such as Hindu/Muslim, India/Pakistan, nationalist/anti-nationalist, pseudo-secular/reasonable and so on. It routinely uses the trope of the army as the savior of the nation such that anyone who questions it must be a traitor and an anti-national. And despite calls for a ban, critiques, countless memes and parodies, Goswami’s massive popularity continues unabated making us wonder about the future of the Indian democracy.