JNU: Thus Spake Zola!
Truth is on the march and nothing will stop it! The interim bail granted to Kanhaiya Kumar by the Delhi High Court is the first of many vindications to come in the way of those who have since his arrest striven and relentlessly campaigned for justice. Likewise, it’s a snub to those who have incessantly maligned the accused, questioned his integrity, and made a traitor of an innocent man.
These have indeed been tough days for democracy. Demos, the common man on the street, didn’t seem to be much perturbed by the vile machinations employed by the state and its cronies in the tarnishing of not only one man but also the entire institution to which he belongs. If there is one thing that can be said about these so-called ‘patriots’ - it would be their willingness to be swayed by the popular thematic. The powers-that-be who exercise control over our corporate media understand this only too well. Throughout l’affaire JNU, these forces worked insidiously and strategically to discredit JNU and, more importantly, suppress the voices of dissent. The deplorable way in which an ardent crusader against poverty and casteism has been implicated in a case of sedition is laughably ironic if it were not so sad.
How very easy it is to base the understanding of a nation as an entity solely on the account of a fraction of its people! So often we fail to grasp the detailed subtleties of the myriad that makes the nation. Despite the headlines and furor, it appears that only a fraction of India stood by the students in the raging controversy of JNU. As we learnt in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the mob is so easily jolted by inflamed passions and incendiary probes; it rarely responds to truth, rationalism or facts. The question naturally arises: how did this controversy permeate into the living rooms of families across the length and breadth of our country? Did it encourage a much-needed debate on the idea of nationalism in 21st century India? Did it force us to contemplate over the disturbing realities that haunt our polity? The answer is no. It merely provided fodder for the herd to be swept up by the engineered hyperbole of our political leaders and their media puppets.
I didn’t use the phrase, l’affaire, earlier in this piece, to betray my francophilia; it was used for the intended purpose of invoking the famous ‘Chekhov’s Gun’. The phrase became popular as l’affaire Drefus or simply ‘Dreyfus Affair’ in the last decade of 19th century France. An upright military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of espionage and selling the secrets of the nation to Germany. On account of an elaborate and thoughtful conspiracy, the honest officer found himself in solitary confinement on the remote shores of Devil’s Island. One doesn’t have to look too closely into the affair to find similarities with what has transpired in the JNU case; forged documents, use of the press as disseminator of falsehoods, and a swelling public consensus desirous of punishing the traitor.
This bogey of nationalism that has been raised now as it was then, was previously quelled in part by the courageous efforts of Emile Zola, a popular French writer, who also proved himself as a prodigious investigative reporter during the course of the affair. It was Zola who had summarily exposed a military connivance in the persecution of Drefus, through his seething letter to the President of the Republic, titled “I accuse”. It was then, as now, that a multitude of people was stoked to anger by the bogey of patriotism under false pretences (which turned out to be a matter of collective shame when Drefus was exonerated). And it was then as it is now, that the press, especially two newspapers, L’Eclair and L’Echo de Paris, had proved to be harbingers of the vitriolic campaign against the innocent.
Fiercely and with an astute sense of justice, Zola had then written, “As they have dared, so shall I dare. Dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to tell it, in full, since the normal channels of justice have failed to do so. My duty is to speak out; I do not wish to be an accomplice in this travesty. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the spectre of the innocent man, far away, suffering the most horrible of tortures for a crime he did not commit,” and thus he began unspooling the details of this shameful scandal orchestrated at the higher echelons of the polity. Thankfully, unlike 1898, when these words were addressed to the French President, the apparatus of truth, liberty and justice still holds sway in India to an extent. The future is uncertain but one can say that the resistance has proven itself to be a force to reckon with.
Reading through Zola’s essay, one senses an eerie familiarity, as if the words were written for our times, for our cause, to help us fight the inequities better. The entities that have emerged as the main architects of the willful indictment of JNU, too, seem to adopt the same place in history that has been proven to be wrong time and again. It is the loud and booming voice of Zola that echoes, thus far, into the reaches of our modern times. It is imperative that we find in that voice both courage and the means to use that courage. Only then can we suitably hope to confront the irrational dictates of the collective consciousness or the collectively uninformed. One thing remains to be said, it is not the silent majority that condemns JNU, it is a cacophonous majority engineered by deceit. Once that deceit is fully exposed, history will repeat itself.
Even this humble reporter, on more than one occasion, has been accused of hiding behind the argument of ‘complexities’, of not wanting to take a firm stand against the ‘enemies of the state’, and perhaps the most deadly, of being an ‘intellectual’. Will it be perfectly ironic if I point out one more similarity - though at the cost of sounding facile since it involves comparing my own flippancy with the depth and sincerity of Zola — between l’affaire Drefus and JNU: The charge that the intellectual arrogance of JNU has pitted the students against the common man. The same charges were flung at Dreyfus’s supporters when they were called “intellectuals” by the anti-Drefusards, with the utmost sense of condescension to deride the intelligent and thoughtful. What can one call it if not poetic justice that a term that had first been employed as a word of rebuke, has now come to be an accolade for us all.
Thankfully, since the arrest and subsequent release of Kumar, vigilantism has tapered down in the face of emerging facts. The idea of ‘nationalism’ as defined by a narrow and bigoted perspective has been challenged, the jingoistic rabble-rousers have been temporarily sedated, and students have claimed one small victory against the nefarious designs of a powerful state. The writing is on the wall, Zola’s words resound louder today than ever before: truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it.