The Working Class Hero

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A few weeks back we briefly addressed the dynamism shaping the world through the politics of the far-right, and made an impassioned plea for hope and better days ahead.

This week, we look at the very demographic seemingly forcing this change – the “blue collar” worker.

Almost every country, or culture has witnessed a stereotyping of the working-class individual over the last half century. The typical profile of said individual has been as follows – educated as far as high school, migrated from poverty to some form of the middle class (and stayed there), and harbouring a deep rooted resentment of white collar professionals. The working class have been maligned as blunt and politically incorrect, and more so than anything else – perceived as the community most adversely affected by the machination of global economics.

If globalization was supposed to uplift the working class, it worked against it, and social mores moved no differently. The proletariat were made to feel like losers all across the globe, and the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled merely widened. If the reduction of the blue-collar worker to a cartoonish figure was bad, then, in many respects, the condescension of the professional classes towards them was even worse – treating the fall of the labour class as another form of poverty. It is no surprise that the politics of far-right populist movements are rapidly gaining influence. Such movements aren’t just promising their working-class voter base a world free of political correctness, immigrants, and a general return to the economics of the 1970’s. These movements are about giving the working class their basic human dignity back.

Few movies in the 21st century have been empathetic to the blue collar class’ struggle for dignity – and the Dardenne brothers’ 2014 award winning socialist drama film – “Two Days, One Night” – humanizes the working class woman.

Set in a solar panel factory in modern day Belgium, the movie revolves around a minimum wage factory worker, Sandra (played magnificently by Marion Cotillard), who tries to win her job back after a long leave of absence due to depression. While she is out, the factory management realizes it can deploy her colleagues for longer hours, as a result of which each working employee is due a bonus, and Sandra is considered dispensable. After much pleading, Sandra is given an ultimatum by her bosses (white-collar professionals). She has a weekend to convince her sixteen other colleagues to vote to forego their thousand Euro bonuses to win her job back.

Sandra faces a herculean task as she totters door-to-door to confront her colleagues, seeking their votes despite barely being able to drag herself out of bed. Cotillard’s character displays a mélange of silent suffering, anxiety, vindication, calm restraint, and in some cases, even empathy, when she is turned down very justifiably by some of her colleagues. Is it cruel for a man to refuse to eschew his bonus if it can help keep his children through school for the rest of the year? And doesn’t Sandra have a right to keep her job, regardless of the circumstances surrounding her suspension?

The movie shines in its sympathetic portrayal of all of Sandra’s factory colleagues as victims, while silently critiquing the culture of modern management, short term contracts, and non-unionised labour. Towards the end, the glaring question facing Sandra, and the viewer, is not why she should fight for her job, but what would happen if she lost. This is the ultimate victory of the movie – it painstakingly compels the viewer to totter along with her, empathise with the working class’ struggles, and support her as she gradually finds her inner strength to fight for her dignity. It is the same dignity that drives every human to have the right to earn their keep, bring food to their family’s table, and hold a steady job while doing so. Not too long back, if you could achieve these things, then you were quite simply, the working-class hero.

Catch the trailer for the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days One Night over here

Pressing On

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It would have been way too easy to dedicate this playlist to another bleak and dark topic, just as we did in the past few weeks. Unfortunately, not enough has changed to give us real reason for optimism or significant change in the foreseeable future. And yet, I was very happy to learn that this week I am to dedicate the weekly Justice Adda playlist to a slightly lighter topic: unity, healing and togetherness. This is, after all soon after the holidays, and while we have no reason to be complacent, we could try to think about how to make 2017 better; and as some of us are lucky enough to have spent a few days at home with our families, we can hope that through social change this luxury will become a reality for more people in the year to come.

 

 

LCD Soundsystem—Christmas Will Break Your Heart

Last Christmas, December 2015, one of the funkiest ensembles in the history of mankind (my opinion) released their first single in years, shortly after announcing their 2016 reunion tour. This tour was one of the musical highlights of year gone by, and I was lucky enough to witness them playing live in the Primavera Sound music festival in Barcelona. Quite different from the kind of material LCD Soundsystem usually play at concerts, the 2015 single “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” is a rather melancholic tune. It’s a rather pessimistic and depressing holiday song, not exactly your run-of-the-mill Christmas carol, and it described various situations in which the holiday make people feel sad and lonely, with lines such as: “Christmas will break your heart like the armies of the unrelenting dark // once the peace talks fall apart”. However, every verse ends with the optimistic turn: “But still I’m coming home to you”, and the song itself ends on a happy and comforting crescendo. Perhaps it’s symbolic of how 2016 turned out, and perhaps it’s just a good reason to keep on keeping on.

 

Sufjan Stevens—Ring Them Bells (Bob Dylan Cover)

Bob Dylan’s 1989 album “Oh Mercy” is considered by many to be one of the best Dylan albums outside his so-called golden age. I myself don’t know it very well as an album, but it does have one my favorite Dylan songs. “Ring Them Bells”, for me, is a hopeful portrayal of a simple life. It holds many religious references in both its lyrics and its melody, and rather Christmasy at that. That being said, however, it does not come without criticism and protest, present in lines such as: “Ring them bells for the time that flies // For the child that cries when innocence dies”. It was Sufjan Stevens’ cover of this song, which is featured on the soundtrack of “I’m Not There”, a movie loosely based on the life and work of Dylan, that made me fall in love with this song. As great as the original is (and some Dylan fans out there will kill me for saying this), something about the cover makes it even more pastoral, more holy, relaxing and emotional. The tender guitar licks and the mighty brass riffs accompanying Stevens’ soft voice really drive this song home, and to the heart of every listener.

 

Leonard Cohen—Anthem

Yes, I know. We lost Leonard too in 2016. And it completely broke my heart. But no matter what, his lyrics and poems will be with me for the rest of my life. Not only in my mind, as I hum his fantastic tunes, but in every inch of my being as I keep acting in the world whilst knowing how much that one artist influenced me. It’s tough to even consider choosing a favorite line, track or album, but “Anthem” does stand out in being a very personal call for social action and solidarity. It is moving for the individual, and it is empowering for movements advocating justice, human rights and a more moral conduct worldwide. Cohen reminds us that “Yeah the wars they will be fought again // The holy dove she will be caught again // Bought and sold and bought again // The dove is never free”. However, he promises us that it is not a situation that we must accept, and that we must use whatever tools and instruments we have to bring more light to the world: “There is a crack, a crack in everything // That’s how the light gets in”.

 

Ben E. King—Stand By Me

Before I knew “Stand By Me”, the Ben E. King song, I knew “Stand By Me” the Rob Reiner 1986’s coming-of-age film. I remember watching it again and again, as it was a kind of cult movie when I was growing up, analyzing it with friends, family members and teachers, and how some scenes from the movie became so iconic for me, that they represent to this day what I consider to be “American”. But most importantly, it taught me about friendship and devotion (incidentally, much like the group of friends in the movie, me and my closest friends constitute a party of four). As great as the movie is, it is all the more greater thanks to a brilliant choice of a title song. Ben E. King’s 1961 hit “Stand By Me” is to this day one of my all-time favorite soul songs. It features a great sound, with it’s signature percussion and rhythm, and King’s iconic singing. It is a great reminder of how together we can overcome obstacles. It was very recently covered by Florence + The Machine.

 

Curtis Mayfield—People Get Ready

A religious anthem of sorts, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is a fantastic soul song, that always moves me. To an extent, every time this song—and particularly this live version of it, with its distinctive guitar intro—plays or comes up on my shuffle, I stop everything I’m doing, take a deep breath, and remember that I am alive. I am not a religious person myself, and therefore it strikes me as odd, but I think there is something very universal about it, and while it’s full of Christian elements, it sends a very humane and moral message. It is truly fantastic, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

 

Happy new year!

 

 

More Songs On the Weekly Theme:

The Hollies—He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother https://youtu.be/Jl5vi9ir49g

Youngbloods—Get Together https://youtu.be/TMTK8oMTiJw

Tom Waits—In the Neighborhood https://vimeo.com/160627705

Beck—Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime (The Korgis Cover) https://youtu.be/PaI1sLqFOuE

Kanye West—Never Let Me Down (Feat. Jay-Z and J. Ivy) https://open.spotify.com/track/06TqBu4Vi2DEu2F2wNTEnb

‘Mama Put My Guns in the Ground’

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A few days ago we have decided to dedicate this week’s playlist to the innocent casualties of conflicts and wars. If last week we tried to focus on the right of the combatant to refuse the order to kill, this week we focus on the lives lost because the order was not refused. The horrible bombings in Turkey and Egypt were the events that led us to choose this theme, but when we did we were unable to foresee the tragedy that was about to unfold in Aleppo. Since I first heard the news of the massacre, I’ve been walking around with a lump in my throat. The other day I was on the bus, heading back to my London apartment, when I saw a demonstration in front of 10 Downing, calling for an immediate no-fly zone around Aleppo. A young girl got on the bus, carrying a Free Syrian Army flag, and I nearly broke down in tears. I wanted to thank her for doing what I failed to do, I wanted to tell her I admire her humanity and determination. I ended up saying nothing, doing nothing. I’ve seen many friends condemning the West’s inaction on social media, and I, too, wanted to criticize and rage. But I can’t even say I tried to act, and so I’m only left with a deep sense of shame, and this playlist.

 

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—Ohio

 

In May 1970 pressures to stop the war in Vietnam and its expansion into Cambodia were at an all-time high. The anti-war protests were concentrated around university campuses, and one such campus was Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. After several days of demonstrations, the Ohio National Guard arrived to disperse the crowd, but having failed to do so by non-lethal means, started marching towards the protestors with bayonets fixed on their guns. While maneuvering through the campus grounds, some of the guardsmen opened fire, shooting live rounds into the students that remained in the area, killing four and wounding nine more. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young wrote Ohio as a protest song against the events of that day.

Jay-Z and Kanye West—Murder to Excellence

One of my favorite songs off Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaboration album ‘Watch the Throne’, Murder to Excellence is a two-part song: the first is a requiem to persons of color who were killed by the police or by other events of urban violence in the city of Chicago; whereas the second part, highly contrasted to the first, is an ode to ‘black excellence’, and to the success of those who managed to survive such violent environments. It’s a beautiful song, featuring a sample of Quincy Jones’ Katutoka Corrine, a piece Jones wrote for the soundtrack of the movie ‘The Color Purple’ which deals, also, with racism and violence against people of color.

Sinead O’Connor and the Chieftains—The Foggy Dew

In Easter of 1916, as the British Army was sinking in the trenches of World War I, a group of Irish republicans stages an armed insurrection to end British rule in Ireland. The uprising lasted for six days, until it was fully suppressed by the British Army, who was the superior side in both numbers and weapons. At the wake of this event, 485 people laid dead, over half of them civilians, as the British army used heavy machine guns and artillery fire in a crowded urban area. There were numerous accounts of British atrocities against the local Irish population. About 3500 were arrested, many had nothing to do with the uprising, and about 1800 were sent to internment camps. The uprising was initially met with disdain and criticism among the Irish people, but its brutal oppression and the executions that followed led many people to support violent resistance to the British rule. The Foggy Dew is an Irish ballad which depicts the events of the uprising, brought here in the gut-wrenching rendition of Sinead O’Conner and the Chieftains.

U2—Sunday Bloody Sunday

I’m not a big fan of U2. I honestly never expected I would include one of their songs in these playlists. But Sunday Bloody Sunday was always a bit of standout song as far as I’m concerned. Not only because it’s far more interesting, musically speaking, than your average U2 song, and actually capitalizes on their strengths as a band, but because of its message and history. Here comes a band, with several number-one hits, and delivers a protest song that, at the time, was so potent, and packed such a punch, that literally put the band members in harm’s way! The story depicts the events of January 30th 1972, when British soldiers (again) shot 26—and killed 14—unarmed peaceful protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland. U2 managed to write a song that highlights the tragedy, but rejects calls for violent retribution or support for the IRA. In that, Sunday Bloody Sunday is truly a musical and cultural achievement.

Paul Simon—The Side of a Hill

I’ve always considered Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I was, however, rather curious about the origin of the backing vocals to that song, or at least the ‘Canticle’ version of that song. While Scarborough Fair itself is an old folk song, that wasn’t written by the duo, and is predominantly a love song, the backing vocals always seemed to depict something very dark, a war on the horizon, a looming catastrophe. And so, I’ve recently made some research, and learned that the backing vocals bit from that song, is in fact the reworked lyrics of an older Paul Simon song called The Side of a Hill. It’s a simple song: three verses, unpretentious melody, and a story that left me with a tear rolling down my cheek. It’s one of those stories that aren’t set in a specific location or time, and yet their truth is eternal. I won’t bother to tell you much more about it, I will only urge you to read the lyrics yourselves while listening to the song.

 

Marvin Gaye—What’s Going On https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-kA3UtBj4M

Leonard Cohen—The Partisan Song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S34cVkL6zCE

Loreena Mckennitt—Breaking the Silence https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luPNc06qb4Q

The Police—Murder by Numbers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Wp-SZSBkjk

Neil Young—War of Man https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxS-7jkKK1I

An Impassioned Plea for Decency

 

Are movies an accurate reflection of our times? Big budget Hollywood fare and routine superhero movies continue to bedazzle us with special effects, while core plotlines continue to remain oblivious to the sweeping changes hitting the globe. The very same film-makers and entertainers criticizing right-wing politics on late night talk shows, suddenly lose their voices on screen when given an opportunity to offer a diatribe against modern day irrationality.

Mr. Trump’s election on the back of anti-immigration rhetoric, and the wave of populism and right wing politics that is wafting through democracies across the globe should serve as a reminder that we are living in a more intolerant, and increasingly polarized society.

Let’s face it – circa 2016, humanity is a cynical and frustrated lot. Some of us blame ourselves for our problems, others choose to find effective scapegoats, be it immigrants, people of other races, other religions, sexual orientation, or simply people with a difference in opinion.

Liberal ideals were meant to be championed as a worthy opponent to humanity’s current malaise, and are instead being blamed as the source of it all. If society inexorably changed, then why did liberalism remain static and less proactive?

The internet and social media was meant to unite us, but is now being championed (rather effectively) by the very solipsistic, inflammatory forces that wish to divide us. Where the internet fails, a slightly older form of technology – the movies – might still offer hope.

I had to dig deep and recall a seventy-six-year-old movie by arguably one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. Well before America had even entered the second World War, and while most nations were still undecided over whether to condemn or condone Hitler’s divisive, authoritarian, and expansionist policies; Charlie Chaplin decided he had enough of Germany in “The Great Dictator”.

He quite literally, found his voice (this was Chaplin’s first sound movie). He mocked Herr Hitler and Nazi Germany, and delivered one of the greatest speeches in cinematic history in the movie’s climax, exhorting the human race to ignore the despots who wished to control them, and simply be kinder to one another:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….”

  • Excerpt from Chaplin’s monologue in “The Great Dictator”

A time traveler would be flustered – it is easy to find parallels between Chaplin’s world in 1940, and our own today. Perhaps the comedian’s words were a portender of what would follow: dictators, right wing Governments, and intolerance will come and go, but mankind mustn’t lose hope. It is imperative that we too, find that hope and kindness rather than choosing to silence it. If not for anyone else, then at least for our own dignity and decency.

 

sunday-recommendations

‘Oh Good Old Fashioned War!’

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At December 10th we celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). This year, it will be 68 years since its adoption by the UN General Assembly, and it remains, to this day, one of the most astounding achievements of that organization, and—dare I say—of mankind. Of course, it leaves a lot to be wanted, and there’s plenty of room for criticism, but celebrations are indeed in order. Having said that, I would like to focus today on one aspect of criticism raised by several major human rights organizations, and that is the absence of a ‘right not to kill’ from the declaration. While it is implied by UDHR article 18 (‘right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’), the right to disobey military orders to kill other people, or to conscientiously object a draft, is not explicit in the declaration. The wording here is important, because not having an explicit ‘right not to kill’, means to don’t have the freedom not to kill, which also means others (states, organizations) have the authority to order you to kill; and this I have a problem with. Which is why I decided to devote this week’s playlist to anti-war, and more particularly anti-draft songs. It features some absolute classics, so don’t forget to enjoy the music while you reflect on this topic.

Edwin Starr—War

A classic counterculture soul song, Edwin Starr’s War is probably the penultimate anti-Vietnam song of all times (I still have a problem weighing it against CCR’s Fortunate Son which featured in an earlier playlist). Originally recorded by The Temptations to feature on their album ‘Psychedelic Shack’, the song didn’t truly fulfill its potential until Starr came along and it gave a far more power rendition, with his unique James-Brown-esque shouting style and with the heavy brass and percussions that make the song so iconic. War quickly became a number one hit in the American charts, and later inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was covered by Bruce Springsteen and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and featured in numerous films and TV-shows.

Tom Waits—A Soldier’s Things

[CONTAINS SPOILERS] How effective is the right song in a soul-crushing movie scene? Jarhead, one of my favorite anti-war movies of all times ends on such a soul-crushing scene. The Jarheads, that is the US marines, who just came back from the 1991 Gulf War, take a victory lap in their army bus around the town. One person gets on the bus, his jacket covered in military-style patches. It’s clear he’s a veteran, maybe from Vietnam, maybe from a later conflict. He sits down and looks confused, whispers a ‘hurrah’, we—the viewers—realize he’s still not over the war, and the our ‘heroes’ won’t be even in many years to come. Tom Waits’ A Soldier’s Things always makes me think about that scene, even though I completely forgot that actually IS the song playing throughout it, because that scene and this song work together so well. The sense of bitter nostalgia, of realizing the meaninglessness of what you were once told is of utmost importance, is well-reflected in both. The movie ends on the astute observation ‘we are still in the desert’, both literally—referring to the 2003 war in Iraq—and figuratively, as we still haven’t found the promised land, where we won’t have to kill or be killed.

Pink Floyd—The Gunner’s Dream

Pink Floyd released ‘The Wall’ in 1979, following it up with a huge concert tour that resulted in their breakup. And yet, in 1982, following the tumultuous events of the early 80’s (Falklands War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Israeli invasion of Lebanon are all mentioned specifically), the came together once more to record ‘The Final Cut’, an anti-war album through and through. Much like ‘The Wall’, It is a very Roger Waters-heavy album, emphasizing lyrics over music and shaking off almost completely from the psychedelia of the early Pink Floyd materials. In fact, ‘The Final Cut’ includes some song that were rejected from ‘The Wall’, and are told from the perspective of the school teacher who goes to war. Waters obviously relates heavily to his personal history: his father was a conscientious objector at the first stages of World War II, and then had a change of heart and joined the British military only to be killed in battle shortly after. Waters was only five-months old. The Gunner’s Dream is told from the perspective of an airplane gunner who falls to his death, and his final hopes and wishes for mankind, for a world where ‘no one kills the children anymore’.

Hair Original Soundtrack—The Flesh Failures / Let the Sunshine In

[CONTAINS SPOLIERS] Perhaps the most iconic cultural piece of the anti-war generation, the musical (and movie) Hair is an ode to hippie-culture, a criticism against racism, classism, gender issues and, of course, against the war in Vietnam. In the film (the plot of the musical is quite different) Claude Bukowski (portrayed by John Savage) comes to the city to spend his few last days before the draft, where he befriends a group of hippies. As he joins the army, and shortly before being sent to Vietnam, one of the hippies, Berger (Treat Williams), arrives to replace Bukowski so he could go hang out with the other before going away. However, as Berger is imposing as Bukowski, the troops are being sent to the war. In long lines, boarding the military airplanes, the soldiers sing The Flesh Failures. After we learn that Berger died in the war, we see the group—Claude included—standing next to his grave at Arlington Cemetery, and singing Let the Sunshine In. The movie ends with a full-scale anti-war protest in front of the White House.

Jimmy Cliff—Vietnam

Jimmy Cliff’s Vietnam is a very simple song: in its music, in its lyrics, in its story and even in its message. And yet it is incredibly effective and touching. How effective, you ask? Bob Dylan declared it is the best protest song ever written. Need I say more than that?

 

Bob Dylan—John Brown https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbLldlwYXRY

John Lennon—I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mf44CHE31Gc

Steppenwolf—Draft Resister https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3f7xBjTphaM

Black Sabbath—War Pigs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQUXuQ6Zd9w

The Pogues—And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle cover) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZqN1glz4JY

 

'A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall'

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This week marked the end of the conference with worst abbreviation in history, or the UNFCCC COP 22 (standing for the 22nd Conference of Party as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Which is why we thought we might make this playlist about climate change or more broadly about environmentalism. Now I’ll be frank—I was a bit ambivalent about it. On one hand, there’s so many beautiful songs I know that concern the environment and what we’re doing to it. On the other hand, some songs about the environment tend to glorify a ‘return to nature’ of sorts and be a bit enviro-nostalgic. Now, don’t get me wrong, I obviously believe that we need to find better ways to live with nature, and I realize that we are doing irreversible harm in our current conduct. It’s just that I associate this ‘return to nature’ either with pan-Aryan romanticization of warring tribes or with hippie naivety that results in very little actions. Not only do I think that this approach is wrong because it won’t lead us in the right direction, I also think it stems from some mystical beliefs that abolishing technology and moving ‘back’ to the wilderness (the ‘back’ can also be debated) will serve as a panacea to the issues we face today. Now, after I have stated my reservations, I will get on with this week’s segment and talk about the reason we all gathered here today: the music, and perhaps through it, some insights about the environment.

Song 1: Jethro Tull—Wond’ring Again

The moment I was presented with the theme for this week’s playlist I thought ‘Good! I could play a Jethro Tull song!’. And indeed, the British progressive rock band had more than their fair share of environmental awareness songs throughout their long years of making music. Luckily, the choice wasn’t difficult, as ‘Wond’ring Again’ is, to my humble opinion, one of their most beautiful songs ever, and maybe one of my favorite songs of all time. The ‘Again’ is not there by mistake: in 1971 Jethro Tull released ‘Aqualung’, an album that was a harsh social critique on the welfare system and on religion in the UK. However, standing out in that album was the beautiful, melodic and romantic ‘Wond’ring Aloud’ in which Ian Anderson—the lead singer of the Tull—expressed his love to his better half. The song ended on the positive note, ‘and it’s only the giving that makes you what you are’. A year later, in 1972, Jethro Tull released ‘Living in the Past’, yet another album with severe social statements. This album featured ‘Wond’ring Again’, a song that ‘appropriated’ the melody and structure of the original and turned it into a harsh critique on overpopulation and consumer culture, ending it on the ironic note: ‘and it’s only the taking that makes you what you are’. The severe critique that the song brings forward is, to me, more than painfully beautiful, but is also a great reflection of how we destroy eco-systems and how our lack of care to our environment also translates to lack of care to our peers.

Song 2: Joni Mitchell—Big Yellow Taxi

I think I belong exactly to that awful generation who associated the line ‘paved paradise // put up a parking lot’ to the Counting Crows, long before we knew who Joni Mitchell was. But ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is, of course, a kicking 70’s anthem before anything else, and one that highlights environmental awareness. According to Joni Mitchell herself she:

…wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.

Song 3: Gorillaz—O Green World

Gorillaz, the supergroup headed by Blur’s Damon Albarn, broke into public awareness with their breezy hip-hop tunes in 2001 with their self-titled debut album which featured songs like ‘Clint Eastwood’ and ’19-2000’. Their true masterpiece however, I assert, was their sophomore ‘Demon Days’—a mature, musically-hypnotizing concept album that revolves, in a great way, around environmental issues. And indeed, ‘O Green World’ isn’t the only song that calls for awareness to global warming and depleting resources. It is, however, one of the best tunes of the entire album (alongside heavy-disco ‘DARE’ featuring Shaun Ryder) and perhaps one of the most underrated of their repertoire. While the lyrics are quite cryptic for this one, it’s worth to have a look at the excellent live version of the song and the accompanying video art to see its environmental theme.

Song 4: Peter Gabriel—Here Comes the Flood

‘LOOOOOOOOOOORD!!!!!!!!!!!! HERE COMES THE FLOOOOOOOOOOOD’, I roar every time this song reaches its climactic crescendo, perhaps one of the most dramatic moments of modern music. The song paints a biblical-scale post-apocalyptic picture of the world, and adds a warning to the willfully ignorant: ‘Drink Up, Dreamers, You’re Running Dry’. In 1975 Peter Gabriel left supergroup Genesis which he originally founded, and started his solo career. His first album, Peter Gabriel’ (I know, original) was released in 1977 and featured some of his best solo materials, namely ‘Solisbury Hill’ and ‘Here Comes the Flood’ (to this day I’m not sure if it’s an ironic take on the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’; how cool would it be if it is though?). Gabriel was joined by King Crimson member and music legend Robert Fripp which, I have no doubt, added a lot of the dramatic flair to the album. A piano-and-vocals version of the song features Gabriel and Fripp alone and opens with a radio interview about the possibility of an impending ice age.

Song 5: Neil Young—Cortez the Killer

I’ll start with a bold statement: Cortez the Killer is one of the best rock songs of all times. Every time I listen to it, or to a cover version of it (especially this one), I find it mind-boggling that it was released in 1975. Its sound, its savagery, its raw power sounds like something timeless from an outer dimension. Which is why I justify fitting it in to this category even though it isn’t, in the conventional sense, an environmental song. The song mainly speaks of the conquest of the New World by the colonial powers (especially Spain, as the song pertains namely to Hernan Cortes) and how the indigenous people were murdered by the conquistadors. However, the world which Neil Young describes in the song—the world destroyed by Cortes—is one in which social and environmental harmony is achieved. The destruction of such a world at the hands of greedy powers looking to become richer and even more powerful may be seen as a critique towards our environmental conduct today, or lack-thereof. I know it may go slightly against what I said earlier, about how I refrain from idealizing the past, but I mean—this is one of the best rock songs of all times, give me a break!

‘Come Gather Around People // Wherever You Roam’

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When I was first approached to compile playlists for Justice Adda, it never occurred to me I’ll be publishing the first one merely 10 days after Donald Trump became the new President-elect of the United States. As if his campaign wasn’t already dripping with racist and misogynistic speech, the tide of hate-related incidents following the elections left me truly speechless. I therefore turned to music to find comfort, and to also witness its great ability to bring people together and to commemorate great moments of unity and of popular struggles. This is the topic of this week’s playlist.

 

No list of protest songs, no matter how extensive, will ever be complete without Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. This song, over 50 years old now, seems eternal and timeless, and served as one of the main anthems of the civil rights movement and of subsequent political struggles that it has inspired. When Cooke wrote and recorded ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, his friends feared that such a politically-charged song might ruin his career, yet he decided he cannot stay quiet any longer at the face of injustice. The result is not only an anthem of equanimity and silent persistence, but maybe one of the most beautiful songs of the period.

 

Another song identified with the civil rights movement is, of course, Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. In fact, according to Sam Cooke, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ inspired him to write and record ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. Soul singer and activist Mavis Staples claimed that when she first heard it, she failed to understand how such a song can be written by a white young male—which only goes to show the power of music and its ability to bring people together. To this day, no one knows what the answer the blows in the wind is, and Dylan himself remained vague on the topic, yet perhaps it is the questions that truly matter here.

Another song from the period, although one that is associated with Vietnam more than with the civil rights movement is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’. The song is a protest song against the draft and against the growing militant views of those who did not have to be sent to fight. It was inspired by the marriage of Eisenhower’s grandson to Nixon’s daughter and by the anger that lead singer John Fogerty felt, knowing that these people won’t be sent to fight whereas he himself was drafted. Fogerty further claimed that it took him merely twenty minutes to write the song, as he so enraged by it. In a way, ‘Fortunate Son’ is not just a song about the war, but a song of solidarity between all those who weren’t the sons of senators and millionaires, those who weren’t lucky enough to opt out of the unnecessary war in Vietnam. The song is perhaps the most iconic piece of culture from the war in Vietnam, and has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows and even computer games.

Making a jump across the pond, a song that needs almost no introduction—it is, of course, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Preaching for global harmony and for shedding off all the constructs that lead us to see each other as rivals rather than companions, ‘Imagine’ quickly became an anthem of solidarity that reflected the politics of the ex-Beatle and was the voice of a generation (Sorry Kanye…). It is a very simple piece musically, yet that seems to have made it an even more potent vehicle to carry Lennon’s lyrics to the hearts and minds of so many people.

Finally, staying in the UK would be worthwhile to visit another folk/protest singer-songwriter associated with the Marxist left, Billy Bragg. To be honest, I don’t know many of Bragg’s songs, and it’s possible that some more digging in his discography could lead to finer results in terms of sitting together with this week’s theme. However, ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’ is such a beautiful and a catchy tune, that I could not help myself but add it to this list. ‘If no one seems to understand’, sings Bragg, ‘Start your own revolution, cut out the middle man. Waiting for the great leap forward!’. Seems to me like a good message with which to seal this week’s blog. Enjoy!

 

A Case of The Trial

A review of Sadakat Kadri’s The Trial which looks at the history of the criminal trial from the days of Socrates to the trial of OJ Simpson.

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“Each time a defendant comes to court and contests his or her guilt, a process unfolds that reiterates precepts that are central to the self-image of modern democracy.”

The law is reason, free from passion. Or so said Aristotle. The crux of Sadakat Kadri’s The Trial attempts to prove the opposite. Kadri’s ambitious book looks at the western criminal trial from the days of Socrates to the more recent trial of OJ Simpson. It traces the contours of law, and finds the interdependence of reason with passion, juxtaposing one with the other. Each chapter navigates a particular era, rummages through its social fabric and seeks to explain the evolution of the law. The book is divided into eight thematic and chronological chapters. Kadri explicates notions of fairness and justice, emotions and passions and correlates each to the society and its norms.

While modern criminal trials in western societies are considered secular, founded on reason, their existence has been shaped by religion and superstitions. Kadri tries to poke into these aspects in the first chapter, which looks at the conflict between the need to ‘punish’ and the fear of mistakes. The idea of the law “descending directly from the gods”, and hence the onus of its adjudication on them, is tacitly explored. Kadri uses the story of Oresteia, by Aeschylus – “The oldest courtroom drama” to reflect on the tension between the two ideas of justice that were at odds with one another. The first, assumptions that people were at fault only if they had done evil deliberately. The second, that some deeds demanded punishment, regardless of the perpetrators intention, if the rage of the gods was to be forestalled. Kadri then goes through the trials of the Greek and Roman eras, describing their rationale in detail. He mentions practices such as ordeal (drowning, freezing), combat, compurgation (proving innocence by making gathered crowds swear it) to carve out the idea of justice.

The chapters on The Inquisition (or orthodoxy revisited), The Witch Trial, and the Trials of Animals, Corpses and Things (even against weevils that threatened vineyards, and the “defunct decedents” who died before they could be called for their cases, but were tried after their death) are downright fascinating. They challenge every modern notion of rationality, and portray the banalities that societies across the world considered fair and legal at some point in their history.

The subsequent chapters delve into modern times, starting with the Moscow Show Trials. The chapter on the “War Crimes Trial” – rips the visage of idealism and justice with respect to international law, from the Nuremberg Trials onward. What Kadri calls a “shameful little secret of international criminal law” is the fact that “Nuremberg was conceived in Moscow and came into being despite the wishes of the western allies rather than because of them.” Kadri explains how the western Allied leaders “resolved to reiterate Churchill’s earlier proposals for extrajudicial killings. Stalin would be asked to approve a loss of “50–100… world outlaws” who were to be “executed summarily on capture and without recourse to the method of trial, conviction and judicial sentence”.

The last chapter dedicated to the Jury Trial looks at the modern Jury system and the role and significance of evidence. Kadri details how the Jury system has become a part of every country that saw the shadow of the British Empire, barring a few. He talks about it being a venerated system of justice in the US and UK. Kadri argues that jury trials outline perpetrators as ‘bad’, so as to define what is good. That in exposing criminals to a community denunciation, it reestablishes to the citizens that they are law abiding, morally sound characters in contrast to the immoral defendants being persecuted. Through multiple cases and their absurd resolutions, Kadri then goes on to note how juries are fallible. The most disputed questions at a criminal trial are the credibility of the witnesses, the reasoning behind the beliefs and doubts, and whether such issues demand “social legitimacy” rather than “fiendish cleverness”. He concludes that jurors may not be oracles, but their diversity allows their potential failings to cancel each other out. The “prejudices and stupidities of like-minded professionals are less likely to – and those of one judge never can.”

The Trial is not an easy read. It is encyclopedic and at times hard to digest, given the magnitude of information that has been condensed within its pages. While Kadri notes that the book is specifically on the jury system of criminal trials, it does not adequately address why countries such as India, Singapore and Malaysia do not follow this system. Nor does he assess the deficiencies of other systems in comparison to the Jury system. Though it is thematic, it often digresses from case to case, making too many points at once. However, Kadri’s writing, his analysis peppered with fascinating examples, and passionate interjections absolve most of its flaws and keep the pace. Like his other book Heaven on Earth – a legal history of the Sharia laws across the Muslim world – The Trial attempts to analyse multiple themes and ideas, and then contextualise their relevance through time.

Kadri’s views of the criminal trial often make the reader introspect on the nature of justice. How is justice defined and what does it mean to each stakeholder – the society, the defendant and the victim? Assessing this is not simple. It means understanding the norm, beliefs, identity and geographies of the lands where it was served. It also means understanding that law and order that seek to be evidential and rational, are products of evolving sentiments and emotions, and it is these which eventually frame notions of justice and fairness. Kadri is often pessimistic and cynical of the criminal trial. He reveals its rot and decay, its fallacies, inconsistencies and the blatant misconstruction of the ideas of justice. He looks at the problems with evidence, and the manipulation of arguments that distort the empiricism of the jury.

However, his conclusion is not pessimistic. Like its namesake by Kafka, the book delves into the surreal aspects of a judicial system. Each chapter is punctuated with quotes from Kafka’s novel that reaffirm the absurdity of a system perceived to be an ideal. But the case Kadri does make in his cynical view of the trial is that it is the best of all the alternatives, and that the current form of the judicial system in Western nations has evolved into this state of imperfect perfection, after centuries of trials, errors and realisations. He says that the crucial question remains whether there exists an alternative that can command equal respect and more confidence.

He concludes that each time a defendant comes to court and contests his or her guilt, a process unfolds that reiterates precepts that are central to the self-image of modern democracy. The criminal trial portrays “a state that is sufficiently self controlled to precent public officials from unilaterally deciding anyone’s fate, and humble enough to trust its citizens to watch the law in action – even, sometimes, to do justice themselves”. Kadri affirms that the criminal trial literally enacts the meaning of human dignity –“showing a civilization that treats its most despicable enemies with respect – presuming them innocent, confronting them as equals, and giving them a champion to argue their cause”.

Trials then are more than just idealised or flawed spectacles. They stand as testimonies to the idea that despite human inconsistency and irrationality, the best form of reasoned and well-argued deliberations should always triumph over any instinctive and savage desire for punishment or retribution.

( This post was originally published on No Man’s Land)

Critical unlearning: Making the journey from school to university

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Ever since February 9, news on the media and social media has been dominated by JNU. The fallout of an event organised by 8 students to protest the ‘judicial killing’ of a ‘terrorist’ has been spectacular. Taxpayers are angry that their money is going towards breeding the next generation’s terrorists, while social media trolls are calling for a shut down of the entire university. The purpose of this piece is not to engage in a political polemic on the events that happened in JNU, but rather is an attempt to explain the context of the education provided there, its impact on research and finally  the importance of a university in inculcating a spirit of inquiry and thinking. Before that, this piece highlights the importance of university education by differentiating it from school education.

Over the last four years, in my capacity as a teacher of History and Political Science, I have always encouraged my students to express their thoughts and beliefs, no matter how controversial or uncomfortable they may be to me or their peers. I have had students asking why certain religious groups commit acts of terror, or why do we need to talk about caste now that untouchability has been made illegal by the constitution. The importance of this lies in the fact that views have contexts and pasts and if one is to engage with contradictory views and start a dialogue it becomes important not just to listen but to understand the other and not to resort to mud-slinging. It would be very easy to isolate, demonise and exclude those students who harbour these views. However, this is where the problem arises. As a teacher, immense responsibility is placed on how to handle such delicate situations. Only by giving these students the space to express these views can one even begin a discussion to help them see the limitations of their argument, which has perhaps been drawn from incomplete or biased information.

I have learnt that it is vitally important that ‘impressionable’ kids get exposed to uncomfortable truths at an early age, to spare them the shock of hearing it in their foreign universities, where they might be fearful of having to tackle this ‘radical’ new learning without guidance. As such, events are dissected and examined through various prisms. While learning about our national movement, important aspects such as gender, caste and labour are incorporated and students are then made to look at some of the limitations that many nationalist leaders had. None of this is designed to instill disrespect or disloyalty, but only meant to show how hero-worship and one interpretation is not healthy in the long run.

The unfortunate part however is that our school education system caters to rote learning and memorisation, thus criminally depriving students and teachers of the joy of understanding the essence of the liberal arts. Moreover, the school culture in our country places emphasis on discipline, conformity and standardized learning, which, while it may ensure admission into a prestigious university, does not train students for the journey that happens in the university.

 

With regards to the space of a university, unlike a school, this is a place where defying authority and rules is essential. The education in the university is testament to this, as board curricula, and individual textbooks give way to closer peer to peer interaction through tutorial discussions and reading lists prescribed by professors in their courses. Events in post 1947 India, often regarded as controversial and complex and therefore shamefully ignored in our school curriculum, become an essential part of classroom discussion. It is here that realities of the nation are brought out- the ‘integration of the states’, the question of languages, regional identities and caste conflicts and so on. Here, readings hitherto unknown to the student must be read if they are to excel both in their exams and tutorials. For example, Mein Kampf was an essential read in a paper on ‘Right-Wing Movements in Europe’, for it brought into the open an individual’s carefully constructed vision for the nation. The writings of Ramaswamy Naicker which is filled with vitriol against Brahminism, Hinduism and the Congress party, were necessary reading in order to bring about the contradictory nature of the mainstream nationalist movement, which tends to ignore caste in public debate. Readings of B.R. Ambedkar on questions of caste include scathing attacks on Hinduism, as well as refutations of ‘Mahatmas’. An event such as the French Revolution, so easily understood as the event which ushered in the era of Democracy, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was called a ‘Myth’ by the historian Alfred Cobbane. Reading the Constituent Assembly debates, particularly on language brought out the tension that was prevalent in the country at the time, and shattered a pre-existing myth that Hindi was spoken by a majority of the population. Understanding the Anti-Hindi agitation and the practical usage of English went a long way in mitigating those previously held ‘truths’.

 

At first glance, the student has a right to be aggrieved, as his or her education in school has imbibed a sense of patriotism, loyalty and support for the country. Reading the intellectual genius (and in many cases violence) of the above mentioned individuals can be harmful if not approached the correct way. This is where pedagogy at JNU becomes important to understand. Professors are mindful that students come from different backgrounds and as a result the objective is not to instruct through a political prism, but rather through a critical unlearning of the past, to freshen the mind, and finally to instill a sense of questioning. The student does not become disloyal or dare I say anti-national, but is only increasing his or her potential for research and understanding, both important tools in the job market and academia. The notion of questioning goes a long way in shaping the student’s individual thoughts which are then expressed either through speech or writing.

 

In-between school and one’s job lies the experience of a university. At the extreme ends, specific tasks are required to be fulfilled, often ending up in mundane routines which do not give scope to the student to play with ideas and decipher right from wrong. In the university, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is a place where Gandhi battles with Ambedkar on the question of Caste, Adam Smith and Karl Marx engage on economics, Nehru and Bose discuss nationalism, Periyar questions India, while Savarkar and Jinnah provide their own inputs on the two nation theory. It is in this context that we must view the university. The education here is not the accumulation of facts but rather the exposure to uncomfortable truths which every student of the social sciences must be exposed to. Tutorial discussions make the students go beyond their comfort zones in order to defend their views and findings, and reach conclusions not on emotion or sentiment but analysis and reason.

 

Interactions with people from different regions and identities provides students the opportunities to learn about not just their peers but also their own unique histories. While a student from Delhi or Mumbai might not accept  the idea of ‘azaadi’ for states from the union, a young Kashmiri student’s perspective on the reality of the state or a Manipuri’s tales of the state atrocities in his or her state goes a long way in eliminating certain myths and stereotypes one harbours from the days of the school. Here, information is not provided through the biases of politics nor through the sensationalist media, but through actual written and oral histories. If thinking differently is to be seen as a threat then the university as a concept must be destroyed.

The university is the ground for the formation of political opinion. It is the environment where a student’s beliefs and thoughts are first nurtured and then expressed.There is one other aspect of the university that must be addressed. While the above section has discussed this from an academic perspective, extra curricular activities also go a long way in ensuring a holistic development of the student. As a personal example, I would use the example of college debating societies. These societies or clubs give students the opportunity to engage in constructive argument and dialogue with their peers (for financial rewards in many cases). The methods associated with research once again are drastically different from schools. In the case of schools, a simple cut-copy-paste from the most accurate google search on a topic, followed by memorization and flowery language would seal the deal. In the university, students are discouraged from using technology and rely on the strengths of their logical and critical thinking, as well as contributions from their teammates, which go a long way in developing other skills such as argument construction from scratch and teamwork, other important skills for the future.

Moreover, choosing sides in debates is not subject to a person’s pre-disposed political affiliations or views on issues. Rather, students sometimes are forced to argue on the side of issues which they may have been uncomfortable with during their schooling. On a personal level, I have argued on the side of topics which I may personally disagree with, such as the support for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the deployment of the armed forces in Naxal affected areas in central India. The point here is not to change one’s beliefs, but only to engage and understand where the other viewpoint stems from. This has two consequences. First, the existing viewpoint one cherishes gets strengthened, as only after engaging with its adversary can the student go further into depths of his or her side and strengthen his or her position on the issue. Second, in an environment where students are constantly challenged, readings, which are sometimes difficult to grasp owing to their own political leanings are slowly absorbed by the mind, through previous experiences of debating and arguing in a civil matter, respectful of both sides. The essence of debating in the university as such, encourages students to think about hitherto taboo issues such as – homosexuality, prostitution, the conduct of the armed forces in conflict zones, among many others in order to instill not cynicism with their own views, but a welcome engagement with others, again an essential tool to take away from the system.
This piece has tried to place the university as a bridge between school and the environment of the work place. While the limitations of both have been highlighted above, it is imperative to understand, that students, once they become workers in various fields will follow definite routines, patterns and structures, and will thus become cogs to an eventual end, which might or not have personal satisfaction. Thus only the space afforded by the university allows for conflict, for disagreement, for engagement, for intellectual competition, for radicalism, and finally for a student to fully develop a frame of thinking which goes beyond the limited confines of prescribed textbooks or work routines. If we as a society continue to view the university as merely an extension of school education, divorced from politics, questioning and challenging authority, we are headed for a future devoid of independent thinking, and choice, which are the hallmarks of any progressive society. To save our society, we must save the university.  

We are Rohith, Kanhaiya and Umar. We are JNU

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Over the past few days, we have been trying to untangle the different concerns that have governed the public discourse on Jawaharlal Nehru University. These have ranged from concerns around basic liberties, university autonomy, and the right environment for scholarship and academic discussions, to concerns regarding the targeting of students based on their identities, disciplining of democratic spaces, suppressing and criminalizing dissent, a breakdown of public institutions like the police and courts to ensure the rule of law in the capital city, the kangaroo courts of the media, and the maligning of one of the best educational institutions of the country. Each of these concerns appeal to different concepts, and they seem so tangled with each other that a coherent assessment of each question in a short article might be a tough task. However, at a time when our public discourse has grown so tangled over a few slogans given out in a University, the best one can do is dive into the tangle and make sense of it by asking questions that worry us the most.

When did the word Azaadi become a term that people should not use?

JNU, is one of the beating hearts of social science scholarship (besides having excellent schools in other disciplines as well) in India. It is a place where persons from across classes, castes, regions and genders, can assertively make arguments that matter to them. These arguments are often driven by their own experiences, or the experiences of those they are in solidarity with. Most importantly, it is a place where scholarship and knowledge are held as the highest virtues that form the basis of its deliberation.

Why is such a University a place where Hum kya chaahtey.. Azaadi! (What do we want? Freedom!)  become a slogan that is celebrated by a few students? This is not a slogan that was popularly raised on campus earlier. However, at the last meeting I attended inside the JNU campus (before it became a den for Dilli Police and media vans), on 31st January 2016- Rohith Vemula’s birthday, this slogan was given after a range of slogans in the name of Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar. It surprised me initially. Hum kya chaahtey.. Azaadi.., was a slogan generally given in meetings of solidarity with the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir, a cause that many in JNU have been sensitive to, even if some have not wholeheartedly supported it with as much fervor as other causes. And here it was, being sung during a meeting against a systematic and protracted act of institutional humiliation extended to a Dalit student, driving him to his death. The slogan was followed by several others, which in the JNU fashion, expanded on the previous slogan: Manusmriti se azaadi, brahmanvaad se azaadi..! (Freedom from Manusmriti! Freedom from Brahmanism!). I joined these slogans with some enthusiasm. The words just appealed to me for their simplicity, and the clear plea it made to those present to throw off institutions like caste which made someone feel that his birth ‘was a fatal accident’. The slogans of the Kashmiri people for azaadi from repeated conflict and curfew, to have a democratic say in the laws that govern them – especially AFSPA, and for the dignity to conceptualize one’s own way of life, had also appealed to the students of JNU.

The students of JNU were not merely giving out a slogan for liberty for themselves, but for the Dalit students who had been suspended from their hostels and classes in the University of Hyderabad. There are many who, over the past few weeks have asked, why the students from JNU had to carry out marches in solidarity with Rohith Vemula. To these questions, many of us would reply saying that we do not see showing solidarity with Dalit students, nor building a feeling of fraternity among the student community over it, as a waste of time, or a process devoid of study and scholarship. We see it as the process of building the background conditions of care, trust and respect for rights, all necessary for public reason to develop in a free and democratic society.

What happens to the public reason of a free and democratic society, when it denies background principles of care, trust, and respect for rights, in political and academic life to people in its capital city?

After studying for many years in JNU, I have come to understand a democratic culture as one that works best with the background conditions of care, trust, and respect for rights. It works when public political culture is constantly assessed and reworked as it interacts with diverse and dissenting views. In JNU, in particular, it works through scholarly discussions in classrooms and seminars, late evening deliberations over chai or a solidarity march, through plays that are interactively enacted with the audience at the different meeting points of JNU, reading parchas over dinner, endless debates in each other’s rooms, and attending General Body Meetings on campus regularly. The JNU culture is not a myth- it is a culture that trusts each other before questioning each other, which cares for the answers that the other person has to give, which respects that others have different opinions. Most importantly, it is a culture which prides itself in how secure it is in the foundational values that guide these opinions – equality, justice and freedom. This is a culture which confidently says Hum apna adhikaar maanghte hain, Nahin kisi se bheek maanghte hain. (We demand our rights, we do not have to beg anyone for them.)

Over the past one week, questions have been raised over the credibility of the University simply because its students are doing exactly this – asserting their rights in their own way. Third rate news anchors have gained coverage for patronizingly telling the students of JNU to “stop doing politics” and “start studying”, the capacity of JNU students to do their duties before they ask for their rights has become a raging issue on social media. A PhD student, who among other things referred to Afzal Guru’s death as a judicial killing, is being branded by the media of being associated with terrorist organizations. Police reports are being filed against students for holding meetings over when and how Mahishasur is the good guy instead of Durga, and for inviting SAR Geelani to talk on campus. The JNU Students Union President, no small post to hold when you are part of the academic community, has been arrested, and repeatedly mauled outside court rooms, for supposed seditious activity of which there is no proof. The university and its activities have been maligned because some unidentified persons gave out some questionable slogans, supposedly on campus.

What happens to a society where scholarship becomes victim to disciplining by the Government and the majority backing it?

The campaign to malign JNU seems to stem from an idea that universities and students are arenas where thoughts are disciplined, rather than given the dignity to grow on their own. If education in such institutions is being subsidized by the Government, then the ‘consumers’ of this subsidized education must be obedient to the dictates of the majority backing the Government thinking. If they question what the Government does, or how the state apparatus functions, then they should be taught a lesson for employing the ‘privilege’ the majority gives them of talking, by questioning the majority itself. Many of us are aware that this maligning is not extended to JNU alone – it was extended to Rohith, it is regularly extended to the people of Kashmir and North East India, to Muslim citizens who have been detained without any substantive charges against them, to Dalit and Tribal communities who simply want to assert their democratic voice guaranteed to them by law.

JNU seems to have become a test case for a Government that wants to practice suppressive disciplinary methods against those who want to voice their claim as part of the sovereign people of this democracy. Unfortunately for the Government, JNU has a long history of questioning suppression in an informed manner. Our slogans have imbibed this questioning too: Dum hai kitna daman main terey, dekh liya hai, dekhenge (We have seen how much strength your suppression has had in the past. We will see how much strength it has now too!)[i]. This test case will not be validated.

The students of JNU are not consumers of taxpayers money alone. We are producers of research, and based on this research we have stood in solidarity with various movements of the marginalized in this country. We question how the law can be made more sensible to the people of this country. We don’t just use the writings of Marx and Lenin, but are also inspired by the writings of Ambedkar and Periyar, Gandhi and Azad, Ramabai and Bordoloi in doing so. This doesn’t amount to a waste of taxpayers money. It is what taxpayers money is supposed to do: enable the citizenry to think of how their state should be, and what their state should do.

When did it become a wrong thing to say that we want liberty and equality to be the governing principles of our constitutional democracy?

We don’t think that the state should send in the might of its police, led by an inarticulate and deeply imprudent BS Bassi, to interrogate students on the validity of treating Afzal Guru as a martyr, or supporting the claims of the people of Kashmir on their right to self-determination. This is a conversation to be had in a democratic and scholarly space that our university embodies. If there were slogans given for the “Bharat ki barbaadi” then, given that there was no incitement to imminent violence after these calls, there can be no charges of sedition against whoever gave these slogans either. Unlike the Bhakts of ‘BharatMata’, JNU doesn’t expect its Students Union president to admonish fellow students like their mothers would. It expects students, as self-authenticating members of the student body, to responsibly justify to the student body why they felt the need to make these slogans, especially against the criticisms that were immediately posed to them. The Students of JNU certainly do not expect a complete breakdown of the institutional apparatus of the police and courts to take place in the capital of India, they do not expect their Professors and fellow students to get mauled and beaten up by lawyers who still roam free in the name of nationalism.

If we, as a democracy, are to continuously engage with the question of how to extend the principles of social cooperation to all citizens with equal respect, then suppressing those voicing concerns of the marginalized is certainly not the way to go about it. The students of JNU are simply asking if the majority wishes to acknowledge the legitimate claims of the minority. If it does, it cannot put conditions, tested by media trials and preemptive detentions, on these voices. The students of JNU also ask these questions publicly, by engaging with different moral doctrines, and not by throwing up imageries of a Mother India.

Like some of the best universities in the world, the students of JNU dream of a society with ideals that can freely and equally give its citizens unbounded possibilities. These are not unreasonable demands to make of a constitutional democracy. They are the demands of those who want liberty and equality to be the governing principles of our social and political lives.

 

 

[i] This is not a completely satisfactory translation of the original slogan in Hindi.