The politics of language

A JNU professor made a speech that questioned some of the deeply held beliefs of the Left. For his sins, he was heckled, booed, and “made to face questions from his audience”.

In all this, the current Public Enemy Number One, Kanhaiya Kumar, was the ringleader.

I got all of this from this “story” (maybe there is a reason why we call articles “stories”, after all).

I’d posted a link to this lecture in full, a couple of days ago. FWIW, here it is again:

“Made to face questions”? Every single lecture in the ongoing JNU lecture series ends with a question and answer session. At 1:40 into the lecture, Professor Paranjape says “I do hope there is an occasion to discuss some of these things later, if there is time for a question and answer”.

I guess you see what you want to see. I listened to this lecture twice — the first time start to finish, the next with frequent pauses to digest some point the professor was making, to think it through in my own mind (just as I did with every lecture in this compelling series).

This is what I saw: A young professor delivering a lecture he had obviously thought through and prepared thoroughly for.

A lecture before a sizeable group of students — many of them the possessors of strong opinions — that challenged some of their most deeply held beliefs.

A professor who questioned statements made by the university’s student leader and star of the hour, Kanhaiya Kumar, in his presence — a questioning that indicated that he was comfortable enough with the audience to be able to be honest, to have no fear of the sort of physical retribution others, outside the university’s walls, have had to endure even for comments that they never made.

I saw students who sat engaged and attentive throughout the 50-plus minutes that the lecture lasted — no one walked out in protest, no one stopped him from speaking.

I saw students who cheered and laughed at times, and at other times booed — and if you have ever been in a college/university, you know that you engage only with those professors you respect, irrespective of differing viewpoints.

I saw a young student leader — Shehla Rashid — at one point get up and call for order when a section of the audience got a bit too boisterous.  At another point I saw another student leader — Kanhaiya Kumar — walk up and tell the professor that he shouldn’t get distracted with one on one responses to members of the audience, to the point where he lost sight of his lecture itself.

I saw all of this, and it felt good to know that such spirit — on the part of professors and faculty alike — exists in our educational institutions. I sat through this lecture, as I have with the other dozen-plus in this series, and I felt envious.

The Swarjya Staff, credited with this piece, saw something else.

What did you see?

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11 thoughts on “The politics of language

  1. Pingback: “Blogs are dead” | Smoke Signals

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and links to the ‘stories’. But for your blog I would never have guessed the variety entertainment that is available in public space. I want to share two thoughts (my two pennies) in reference to this posting.
    1. Journalism has become, like many other professions, customer oriented / focused. It is no more about the facts or events, it is about what your clientele wants. If there are enough consumers for what you peddle, then you try to meet their expectation, and if the story doesn’t fit you can always color it the way your customer wants. Don’t bother about analysis, truth, ethics, etc.
    2. Again from your many citations, for the first time I have been introduced to news agencies on the edges of the spectrum – far right or far left. I get a sense that the current political forces are eroding the so called ‘middle’, or pushing ideologies to the extremes. I might be wrong, but either ‘the middle’ is either too silent, eroding at a rapid rate. I am not sure this is good for a democracy.

    – Ram

    • I’ve been in journalism for just a couple of months under 26 years now and frankly, I don’t recall a time when it was *not* customer focussed. “What does the reader want to read?” is a constant in newsrooms; it is how editors try to shape their front pages, and the rest of the content. I actually think the change is the other way — increasingly, those who run media houses have begun thinking of where they stand, what they want to serve up, what suits their interests and mindsets best — and they serve it up, knowing that there is an audience for whatever it is.

      But the second point is well made, really — when we select news to publish and how to write it, the accent used to be on information and on informed comment. The thinking was, if you do the basics right, people will like your product and buy in numbers.

      Now the shift in strategy, paralleling the shift in mindset, is to carve out chunks of loyal readers (just like in caste-based or region-based political parties. You decide that there is, say, a large left-leaning readership out there, or a right-centric one, and you deliberately tailor your content to that base, facts be damned. And yes, I agree — it is not good, for us as a democracy, but even more, for the growth of a country as well informed, aware.

      • I am sorry to butt in on this conversation as well. But there is a point to be made here. The trouble is not that newspapers or media are turning the debates in the direction they think is appropriate and appeals to the viewer/readership. The problem started with the editorializing of news. You do not see a single newspaper these days reporting news as it is, but they have to add their own colour to it as well. News was, is and always shall be news. Why make every report an editorial? And who is to blame for this? (In fact, during the The Hindu row over Siddharth Varadarajan, N Ram explicitly objected to this, taking the high moral ground that Siddharth was prone to editorializing/slanting the news etc.. but hey, what changed after he was replaced? Nothing). The point is, this strategising business is killing not just journalism but also informed debate among the viewer/readership. Can papers and news channels report news in a neutral manner at all? Can they give up this habit of tinting the news, each according to their own biases and editorial policies? Report it as it is, the public is not sufficiently “dumbed down” that it cannot make up its own mind. In which case, would it also not be sensible for the marketing and production manager to say that “we shall have greater reach because we are neutral, if we do not take a stand either ways” ??

  3. I know, Prem, I am just watching the different narratives out there with increasing levels of depression. I saw your other chilling video of the Swami telling people how they would be killed for being anti-national and anti-hindu etc. But my point is, why is the alternate media making a song and dance about this too? I can understand the compulsions of the mainstream media which highlights the fact that the Professor questioned Kanhaiya etc. But what is it with the online media like Scroll.in for example which highlights it as if it is the only point made during the lecture? (Regarding Moonje versus Golwalkar)…

    Might I add? at one point in the lecture, oblivious to the gaffe, Paranjpe is heard saying that China is ruled by the Communist Party of India etc. Should we then create a meme of that or highlight it as the only talking point?

    But, I do have an objection too. This sense of being egalitarian, peaceful in debate is also theatrical. Since the students are well aware that the media focus is on them, it prevents them from confronting these people a little more vociferously. Well played, people would say. However, it allows the debate to be drawn into other directions, mostly futile, and dilutes the essential subjects. I am not saying that Stalinist dogmatism/idealism/fanaticism is the need of the hour, but a suitable and staunch comeback would also be useful 🙂

    • Point well taken, Tejaswi — that is exactly the trap we are falling into. Partisan sections of the media treat news as ammunition in a guerilla war, and constantly snipe away at “the other side” from ambush. As the noise reaches vomitous levels, revulsion sets in, and “alternate” media operations are conceived and created. The intentions are of the best — to, literally, provide sane alternatives to the noise factories. But once you set it up, the conversation becomes all about audience metrics, Return on Investment, the “bottomline”. And the pressure begins. So next thing you know — and this is particularly true in this age, where social media sets the agenda, not actual events themselves — you are shaping your content based on what “people are talking about”. Like the guy said, when you peer into the abyss…

      As to the theatrics of how the students are behaving, you could be right. I haven’t attended any of those, and I don’t have any first-hand contacts there, I have no idea what they are planning, their strategies. So yeah, this could be a showcase, a carefully crafted alternate to the “JNU = anti-national yahoos” narrative in the media. If yes, well played.

      This much, though, I know and found interesting — the day KK was arrested, they kicked off this lecture series with, IIRC, Professor Gopal Guru. I can understand students erupting in protest when something like this happens — strikes, morchas, whatever. That they chose to make such lectures a significant part of their protests is, in my mind, very much to their credit. And whether it is for the optics, or from a genuinely felt need, the fact that they ARE turning up in numbers, voluntarily, and listening to their professors talk of these big themes and ideas, and engaging with them, is IMO good — it doesn’t really matter in the end whether you consume medicine willingly or forcibly, the thing does you good, no? 🙂

      Nice catch, btw, about the CPI — I totally missed that.

      • Thanks, Prem.
        You are quite right about the “market driven” media, alternate or mainstream. But the overwhelming tendency is to appear to be fair. There is a fair amount of hypocrisy in that. To show the other side’s views, they claim… or to show that they are neutral and unbiased and attack both sides fearlessly. Complete rubbish, actually. Where their allegiances or sympathies lie are quite evident. So why go through the drama at all? (To be fair, a few of them do that anyway haha.. being partisan and one-sided).

        JNU theatrics – it is not necessarily a bad thing. The pleasure of watching Modi with his voice a-quiver at the loss of Bharat Mata’s child or to watch Smriti Irani promising to be the Red Queen on herself, ‘off with my head’ – all this is contrasted by the spectacle of all those students behaving sensibly and with restraint. It is remarkable. They have not put one wrong foot forward. So far. Fighting fire with fire, so to speak.

        The lectures.. I don’t know who thought of it, I suspect Asst Prof Rohit or probably Nivedita Menon and Kidwai. It is both appalling and inspiring at the same time to watch all those students at the lectures. Did you notice that half the time the students seem to be bored to death? Something really momentous, substantial and important is happening before them, and they are almost as listless as if in their regular classrooms 🙂 But what a series!!! Even with Paranjape’s lecture, I do not have a problem if he presents alternate views. As long as the debate is sane, rational, logical. Of course, there was a lot of whataboutery there. But it was still very measured and delivered in a seemingly balanced manner. A few days ago, another academic and RSS ideologue stated in the Indian Express the Melting Pot of his ideas and how RSS has been singled out for abuse and been completely misunderstood. I would have liked to write a serious rejoinder to all that he said, especially when we have seen Mukhs and Mukhautas before this that make us wary of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This reasonableness is frightening, coming from them. Rakesh Sinha said he would have appreciated serious debate about it. But here is the problem, who did not allow those debates take place? The Left? So these lectures should have included more of the right wing or centrist voices as well, in my opinion, just to show the world that they are more tolerant than the others etc. The students, however, seem to be missing the point. So much so that it almost becomes frivolous at times.

        Lastly, their lack of foresight. These lectures could have turned out to be priceless some day in the future. But these handheld camera-phone recordings do not do justice. They should have planned it better. Can’t they not get a better sound system, for example? Can they not get hold of a camcorder? These are priceless lectures and I would have loved to have the entire series to show students and kids in the future. But these amateur videos they put out, makes it almost a shame. Whether or not the students themselves value these lectures, I suspect (or would like to believe) that there are still the germs of free-thought alive in this country which would cherish these as reminders of an intellectual age and would have wished this were done with some bit of planning and professionalism. There are so many out there from IIMC and with media studies and mass communication as their subjects. Did not one of them pause to think that these lectures could be turned into a permanent record for future generations? It is not like we are privileged to listen to these speakers every other day. Lack of planning, not looking at the bigger picture etc…

        (Sorry, why are my comments always so long I wonder and yet, end up typing out long tracts of interminable nonsense)…

        • On JNU theatrics, I’d think their big misstep is allowing politicians — Kejriwal, Rahul G, Yechury et al — to piggyback on their protests. For visceral reasons — and also for optics — I’d have loved to see them stand on their own, and keeping the pols at a distance.

          Ref the videos, yes, that’s a pity. The initial talks, like the one by Gopal Guru, were almost worthless. It took about five or six lectures before they figured out the need for a fixed camera on a tripod — but even then, the positioning of the camera and the handling leaves so much to be desired. As you say, sad. Particularly because — as you point out — these could be valuable in the long run.

          • It would be ironic for me to oppose your desire to exclude politicians now, especially since I was a vocal opponent of the IAC movement for its brush with disparate forces and flirting with contrasting ideologies. But do you not see that in this instance it is not piggy-backing at all? Do they reap the benefits? Yes. But they are certainly not in the picture. Least of all Rahul G. They just don’t have a locus standi here.
            Secondly, do we really want a student movement to be larger than the political movement at all? I know that sounds contra to all that is happening and for me to say it, even as I support it, is stranger still. But we must also be aware that a political (for the lack of a better word) result is what everyone is looking for. If this happens to be the spark next to the gunpowder sacks, so be it. What would be an alternative to a successful student revolution that overthrows an elected government, for example? Would it not be completely pointless to have a students’ movement without any development on the political front as well? The question would be, what next, once an ostensible students’ movement manages to dislodge a duly elected (but subsequently unpopular) government? It is when we romanticise these movements as unique and independent and exclusive that we lose track of the objectives. Their (students’) objectives are modest now, even if they do make audacious statements that seem to be over-ambitious. But, I must say that the politicians are given a bad name in this country when there really is no alternative but to hope that in the democratic and electoral process one voice or the other stands above the other. I am sorry to sound like I am disagreeing with you (I would be nauseated too when opportunistic politicians came together to gang up against a government on the back of a popular movement that is unrelated. Vide, Jana Sangh dual membership socialists communists centrists in 77, then the grand experiment even worse in the VP govt with the Rath Yatra Chimanbai Patel Devi Lal Ajit Singh Chandrashekhar etc etc etc… it is infuriating indeed).
            Without any sort of political intervention all movements and revolutions and rebellions are invariably lost and wasted.

  4. Was making the point on twitter with a few, interesting media found this to be news, that professor questioned Kanhaiya. But they did not bother summarizing the other Nationalism series lectures by JNU professors. It’s taking it out of context of the series, for Watsapp forwards etc. – attention deficit problems among us, as you said.

    Thanks a lot for returning to blogging, get so much news here without the unnecessary tadka of sensationalism. Your favourites list on Twitter is another great reading source 🙂

    • True. It goes to how we think of “news” today. Listening to say Romila Thapar or Harbans Mukhia speak at length, discuss big ideas in profound ways, is too much trouble — and makes for “bland” copy. It also stems from the general thinking pervading newsrooms, that “no one is interested” in detail, nuance, reason. Plus hey, it is just too much trouble. (To its credit, I notice that Scroll has been putting up summaries, however brief, along with the videos).

      Personally speaking, I honestly believe there is a middle ground out there; that there are enough people with intelligence and balance, who want to know what happened and are not just looking to be told how to feel about something. Which means there is a “market” for that kind of journalism. Unfortunately, though, that is the hardest class to appeal to, and to hold — hence these shortcuts to audience retention, audience building.

      Thank you for the kind words — I got back to blogging simply to fill a need I feel personally. That people are organically finding this blog and reading is a delightful bonus.

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