Mahishasur: Return of the Grand Narrative of Liberation

[Published in The Forward Press of November 2011. Translated in English from my original submission in Hindi by the magazine]

In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities
—Arthur Rimbaud

To be in the headlines, it often seems, is the destiny as well as the intention of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). This time it made headlines because of the cover story of the FORWARD Press magazine by renowned thinker and political activist Prem Kumar Mani, in which he challenged the brahmanical reading of the myths and presented an alternative and “resistant” re-reading of the story of “goddess Durga” and “Mahishasur” (“Who Are the Bahujans Really Worshipping?”, FP, October 2011).

The last part of this article that strongly challenged the brahmanical traditions was publicized as a release and pasted on the walls of JNU by All-India Backward Student Forum (AIBSF), an organization committed to fight for the rights of the Dalit-bahujan students. It must be noted that pasting of pamphlets and posters is a part of the JNU tradition. The heat these posters generate have played a huge role in giving birth to and strengthening the JNU traditions. For example, it was on the same JNU campus that in 2003, the Progressive Students’ Union, under the leadership of Mudrarakshasa and Ramnika Gupta, took out a procession and burnt the Manu Smriti. And the regressive camp brought out despicable pamphlets like “When Infidels Died, Allah Smiled”.

One thing has generally been very clear; these debates in JNU were carried out in the form of debates and violence was shunned to all possible extent. In any case, if debates are not carried out in the universities then where else?

But the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarathi Parishad (ABVP) – continually rejected and pushed back by JNU students – used the AIBSF pamphlet based on the FP article to look for possibilities to polarize the students for their own nefarious ends. Alleging that it offended Hindu sensibilities they began tearing the AIBSF posters off. And with that they began spewing forth communal poison they are so well known for. It needs no saying that these guardians of regressive values do not have any answer to reason and logic except resorting to violence.

And resort to violence they did. A few days after that event AIBSF and UDSF had organized a talk on the topic “Reservations in Private Sector”. Later that night, after the talk was over, they carried out a well-planned attack on the organizers in which many leading members including Jitendra Yadav, Vinay Bhushan and Munni Bharati were injured. Police had to be called to the scene and both the parties lodged separate complaints.

The general student community was enraged at this violent brand of politics, and, the following Monday, it showed in the massive demonstration demanding the university administration take action against the guilty. The administration scared by the huge gathering of students was forced to promise strong action against those found guilty.

But then, the socio-political significance of this event goes much beyond any action. This significance lies in strengthening of efforts to reread myths, claims and traditions. And then these efforts determine the pace of history – history, which according to Hegel, is the history of “growing consciousness of freedom”. Whatever else the battle between Mahishasur and Durga may have done, it has definitely compelled everyone in JNU, who stands on the side of justice, to be ready for a direct confrontation with injustice inherent in one’s own history and traditions.

This confrontation culminated with the seminar “Mahishasur and Macaulay: A Rereading” organized by AIBSF and UDSF on the eve of the birth anniversary of Lord Macaulay. There was a much larger audience this time and the speakers included social activist and writer Ramnika Gupta, Dalit thinker and poet Kanwal Bharati and Editor in Chief, FORWARD Press, Ivan Kostka and VC Bose, IAS. Many things were said but the underlying note was the same – it may be a history of defeats but defeated parties have a history, nonetheless; and to retrieve one’s history is an act of great importance. But one must go beyond merely propping up a new myth to counter an existing myth because the limits of post-modernity weaken the possibility of a grand narrative of liberation.

This seminar is also a message that the attacks by the status-quoists will only strengthen the resolve of those working towards change. They only recharge them with indomitable spirit to search into their own history.

And then not only Mahishasur but all the rejected great heroes of history make a comeback and this return act as one more log in the funeral pyre of Brahmanism.

The message is that you will no longer be able to hold Mahishasur back, because almost a century and a half earlier you were not able to stop Jotiba Phule from bringing back Baliraja. Now all Mahishasurs will return to your cities, and with limitless patience they will snatch away from your hands their rights. This much is certain that they will not do unto their enemies what was done unto them, because they take their stand with justice.