The vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University has attempted to construct a strange theory of the Indian state. In an article in the Indian Express, which was part of a talk she gave to a Delhi University conference, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit held forth on India as a constitutional state and ‘civilisation state’, Indian feminism and methods of writing ‘her’ story (herstory) and ‘his’ story (history). However, her creative social science theorising raises more questions than it answers.
The moment she became JNU’s VC, Pandit declared that she had broken two glass ceilings: she was the first woman and the first Other Backward Class (OBC) person to hold the job. This I thought was good news. But when I read her article, I realised her thinking runs against the interest of both OBCs and women. Let me explain why.
Pandit writes, “Reducing India to a civic nation bound by a constitution disregards its history, ancient heritage, culture and civilisation. I would place India as a civilisation state.” In other words, as a female intellectual coming from an OBC background, she is telling us that there is no place for constitutionally-mandated civic rights for either women or the Shudras (OBCs) as there were none in the ancient ‘civilisation state’ of India that she celebrates.
Pandit also said that history was ‘his’ story and that there has been no ‘her’ story written so far. One would have expected her to elaborate on the women who made herstory, which would have helped us understand her own new mode of writing about Indian civilisation by foregrounding women’s creativity, knowledge, bravery and so on. But all she did was to mention the two very conventional mythological names of Sita and Draupadi: one whom she lauded as a ‘single mother’ and the other as wife of five husbands with her own autonomy. The popular writer Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni made these points a few years ago. Why does the scholar Santishree’s herstory end there?
In her article, Pandit mentions only male thinkers of modern India – Subramanya Bharati of Tamil Nadu, Balagangadhara Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Eswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Mahatma Gandhi, Kandukuri Veeresha Lingam Pantulu and so on. There is not a single modern woman in her herstory. Strangely, all the men she names are Brahmin-Bania. Neither Savitribai Phule, not Pandita Ramabai, Jilukaribai or even Sarojini Naidu – who worked with Gandhi – exist in the JNU VC’s herstory. Pandit’s herstory does not talk about Periyar Ramaswamy Naikar of Tamil Nadu, Narayanaguru of Kerala or Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar of Maharashtra, the state from which Tilak and Gokhale came and who – according to the JNU VC – made bigger history, if not herstory, than them. Human equality was Phule and Ambedkar’s focus, a subject which was totally negated in Pandit’s ‘civilisation state’.
If the OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis were to follow Santishree Dhuilipudi Pandit – the new organic intellectual from an OBC background who came into the limelight thanks to the current power dispensation in Delhi rather than by her writing of herstory – they would have to give up the agenda of social justice. They would have to disregard the constitution that gave them rights to education, employment and equality, rights that the Vedas and Dharmashastras denied. They would henceforth seek to recreate ‘civilisation states’ like the classical janapadas and mahajanapas or monarchies, which constructed caste and untouchability and executed them through the punitive apparatus of the ‘civilisation state’ with the guidance of the Vedas, Puranas, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Manu’s Dharmashastra and so on.
Does Pandit, as vice chancellor of India’s leader university in the social sciences, seriously want students to debate the merits of the present constitution vis-a-vis the classical ‘civilization states’ of ancient India? Is she aware of the fact that Bahujans were never allowed to take part in such debates in the ancient ‘civilisation state’ she valorises?
Her proposal that henceforth we should write herstory and not history is a positive, feminist one but why should herstorians only draw, as she did in her article, on the knowledge reserves of men, and that too of only Brahmin men? As an OBC intellectual heading such a great university, does she not want her students to critique the caste system? I ask this question because history and herstory both tell us that no civilisation state in ancient India tolerated such a critique or allowed it to take permanent root. Is there any place in her world for the thinkers who worked to build an egalitarian India by abolishing all inequalities, including caste and gender based inequalities? Is there a place in her regime to think afresh that civilisation in fact starts with hands and implements producing food from the earth and not with the Vedas? We will know the answers to these questions only when Pandit elaborates on her new theory of herstory.
One good thing is that she is a believer in E.H Carr’s facts as ‘sacred theory’, as against the existing trend of interpretations are ‘sacred theory’. By citing Carr, a foreign scholar to boot, she is in a way disagreeing with the present ruler’s worldview – which functions not on facts but faith. The movements the BJP deployed in the post-Mandal phase of Indian politics are based on the idea that faith is more sacred than anything else.
One gets the feeling that the JNU VC wants to write herstory based on Sita’s single mother battle. Once the Rama temple in Ayodhya is complete, the present regime will start implementing its version of Ram Rajya with a new name called Hindu Rashtra. What will be the fate of Sita and Draupadi in that state? Does she expect many newborn girls to be called Draupadi, a name we rarely encounter today? The JNU VC surely knows Sita did not become a single mother because Ram ceased to exist as her husband. Rather, the caste law of Rama Rajya forced him to abandon his pregnant wife.
I hope the students and social scientists at JNU engage themselves with some of the questions their VC’s article raises. In particular, one hopes the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad takes a cue from her and enters into scholarly discourse through reading and writing rather than keeping a watch on who eats beef or meat.
Whether one agrees with her or not, Pandit has done well as a university vice chancellor to speak and write about social science issues. Since the present regime came to power in 2014, those in positions of authority have rarely given the rest of us the chance of engaging with ideas and theories. In my view, this is one of the primary tasks of a vice chancellor. In the recent past, sadly, VCs have engaged mostly in non-academic work to please their masters above.
I seriously hope Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit continues with her academic discourse in the future too.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a Shudra OBC retired professor from Osmania University Hyderabad, who failed to get a seat in M.Phil course in JNU in 1976.
Featured image: Shantishree Dhulipudi Pandit. Photo: Facebook
This article was first published on The Wire.