Nivedita Menon Posts

“What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures”

On 12 February 2016, the elected president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union ( JNUSU) , Kanhaiya Kumar, was picked up by the police from the campus. The arrest of two more students followed. During the three weeks that the arrested students, including Kanhaiya Kumar, remained in jail before securing bail, the JNUSU president, teachers and media persons faced physical attacks and intimidation at the court premises, even in the presence of the police. All this was perpetuated in the name of ‘nationalism’. 

…With each passing day, more and more citizens came out to ‘Stand with JNU’ to defend the ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘autonomy of academic institutions’. These two became the rallying points for the protest movement that continues in one form or the other. 

( From the Acknowledgements to the book)

What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures consists of the set of public lectures organised by the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) on various perspectives on nationalism and on different meanings of freedom to defend the heterogenous intellectual tradition that is today under threat. Hundreds of students and teachers from different disciplines gathered in the evening at the protest site, called Freedom Square, to listen to scientists, philosophers and social scientists speaking on issues of nationalism, academic autonomy and freedom of speech. Some of the contributors were Shashi Tharoor, Prabhat Patnaik, Gopal Guru, Achin Vanaik, Tanika Sarkar, Lawrence Liang, A. Mangai, G. Arunima, Nivedita Menon, Suvir Kaul, Jayati Ghosh et al.

The lectures were uploaded on YouTube and the transcripts were published by HarperCollins India. Interestingly the lectures were printed as they were delivered  — in English or Hindi. Also for a seminal collection such as this the paperback is reasonably priced at Rs 299 making it within accessible reach of many readers. There are many fascinating lecturers. One of those invited was eminent historian and founder members of JNU — Prof. Romila Thapar. She spoke on ” The Past as Seen as Ideologies Claiming to be a Nationalist” ( 6 March 2016).

Here is an extract:

…the reading and interpretation of the past requires a trained understanding of the sources and a sensitivity to understanding what has been written. The political requirements of today cannot be imposed on the history of the past. To maintain a generalized statement that the period of the last thousand years was one of the victimization and enslavement of the Hindus by the Muslims is historically unacceptable. This kind of generalization feeds communal nationalism. That is why I am cautioning against it. Unfounded generalizations have to be replaced by analytical history. 

At the time of Independence and soon after ( when none of you were born!), we had no problems defining nationalism and the definition was widely accepted. Nationalism meant declaring every Indian as an equal citizen of India and upholding the rights of every citizen to that equality. Today, efforts are being made to obfuscate it. Nationalism draws on reliable history and not on the contorted history that feeds communal ideologies. Reliable history demands critical enquiry which, as we all know, is essential to the advancement of knowledge. It is expected of a university to critically enquire into what  publicly may be claimed. Nationalism gives an identity to the citizen. The citizen is pre-eminent but no citizen or group of citizens can claim superiority over others as citizens, irrespective of what may be the basis of the claim. Citizenship is founded on the equality of all and the equal rights of all. Incisive debates on this are part of the nationalist enterprise, and this is an ongoing enterprise in the relationship between history and nationalism. Universities are the obvious places for such debates. We in India have had a head start due to our Constitution and with our commitment to making the nation a secular democracy. This is what we are committed to as Indians and what we are committed to when we became independent, and this commitment has to continue as the hallmark of our nationalism. 

This is a fascinating anthology which will be a keeper. Amazon India has termed it as a “bestseller” but at the time of writing print editions of the book were unavailable on the website. Anyhow it is worth possessing and mulling over the lectures delivered. Ideas can only begat more ideas — for better or for worse, only time will tell.

12 March 2017 

 

Laurie Penny “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution”

Book cover‘Neoliberalism’ refers to the attempt to reorganise society and the state on the basis of an ideal of ‘the market’. Neoliberalism proclaims the logic of business and money is the best determinant of human happiness. …

Neoliberalism is an attempt to build a ‘Machinery of Freedom’, in the words of David Friedman, in which human beings are economic creatures first and foremost. Everything we do should be about ‘maximising utility’, whether it’s in a relationship, in a job, or in social situations. The self is just an entrepreneurial project. The body is just human capital, a set of resources — whether the brain, the breasts or the biceps — which can be put to work generating an income stream. 

This affects everyone — but women most of all. Women are most likely than men to perform labour that is socially necessary but low waged or unwaged, and more likely to need public services and welfare. In this nominally freer and more equal world, most women end up doing more work, for less reward, and feeling pressured to conform more closely to gender norms. 

Neoliberalism, while extolling the ‘career woman’, reviles poor women, women of colour, sex workers and single mothers as hopeless dependants, sluts and thieves. That’s why the ‘career woman’ is a neoliberal hero: she triumphs on the market’s own terms without overturning any hierarchies. …

Neoliberalism colonises our dreams. It cannibalises our ideals of freedom and regurgitates them as strategies of social control. 

 

Laurie Penny is a feisty twenty-seven-year-old who blogs extensively, has been shortlisted for the George Orwell Laurie Pennyprize and written four books in less than five years. She lives and breathes her feminism. She rightly points out that feminism is evolving and has moved on in some senses from what the pioneering feminists like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer wrote about. Today the movement is not necessarily about giving equal rights to one gender, ie women, but also recognising the importance of including men in the dialogue. It is also engaging with the gender under neoliberalism.  Patriarchal norms and structures continue to be very deeply embedded in social and cultural systems across the world. Having said that, it is not fair to assume that all men subscribe to the patriarchal ways of functioning. She writes with passion and has the guts to be outspoken. But she writes emotionally merging many personal narratives with her professional commentary. No harm done in bringing these two aspects of her life together but it weakens the argument of the book and making it overwhelming to read since it is not very clear where the chapters are heading to. Yet, this is a book which will be read for a long time to come.

If Laurie Penny continues to write and publish at this furious pace, creating a body of work on feminism, over time it will prove to be excellent resource material for mapping the evolution of feminism and its discourses at a point in history. For once here is a feminist, a woman, who is able to take out time and write in real time, record and create an archive of material for posterity. Otherwise a regular failing of women activists is their inability to record in words their actions and thoughts. Instead it is passed on orally from older women activists/feminists/academics to the younger generation. A sad truth. The little documentation that is available as publications ( books/films/audio clips/posters/handicrafts) is a mere drop in the phenomenal work that has been achieved or is done continuously. I LOVE the outrageous bubblegum pink cover. The many layers to the illustration of a black nib of a fountain pen ink. See it for what it is or for a sexually explicit drawing of a woman’s uterus/vagina. I truly love the boldness of the cover design.

Here is a wonderful review of the book: Gaby Hinsliff, “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny – review” , 4 July 2014, The Guardian . ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/09/unspeakable-things-laurie-penny-review )

Read this book along with the following recent publications:

Nivedita Menon Seeing Like a Feminist  Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013.

Kate Bollick Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own Corsair, New York, 2015.

Shereen El Feki Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World Vintage, London, 2014.

Rafia Zakaria The Upstairs Wife : An Intimate History of Pakistan (English) Beacon Press, 2015.

Laurie Penny Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution Bloomsbury Paperbacks, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 270 Rs 299 

14 September 2015