JNU, the Headquarters of the Breaking India Enterprise

JNU, the Headquarters of the Breaking India Enterprise

Understanding the Breaking India Enterprise

We owe the phrase ‘breaking India’ to that wonderfully insightful book co-authored by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan (Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines). I am rounding it off by adding the word ‘enterprise’ to it, for it is an activity, pursued by a nexus of church groups, private think tanks, academics and NGOs, that employs and provides a livelihood to a lot of people within and outside India (as we see in the book). What is this enterprise’s objective? Well, as Messrs. Malhotra and Neelakandan have demonstrated, it primarily seeks to promote and exploit faultlines in Indian society in order to breed various kinds of separatist identities (Dravidian or Dalit), presumably to further the disintegration of India. There is, however, another aspect to the breaking India enterprise. Many of its votaries seek to alienate Indians from the Indian state through persistent conversations about its oppressiveness. They also harp on the artificiality of the Indian nation that serves as its basis. Their intention perhaps is to ensure that the average Indian ceases to be emotionally invested in the Indian nation-state so that it can be easily undone. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is rife with breaking India protagonists of both sorts – those who promote and exploit Indian faultlines and those who seek to alienate Indians from the Indian nation-state.

JNU and the Breaking India Enterprise

May the reader nurture no illusions; within India, JNU is the intellectual headquarters of the breaking India enterprise. I say this despite owing a massive intellectual debt to that institution. I have done an M.A., M.Phil and a PhD there and if I can read and write a little today, it is on account of JNU. However, besides reading and writing a bit, JNU also taught me to critically reflect on the world. And since the world includes JNU, I must critically reflect on my alma mater too and acknowledge that a substantial minority of the people inhabiting its campus are fairly well invested in the breaking India enterprise. That is why, three and a half years ago, some of them had raised the slogan ‘Bharat tere tukde honge!’ (‘India, you will break into pieces!’). I had described the incident in some detail in an article of mine published by IndiaFacts in March 2018 (The Uneasy Relationship of JNU and the Indian Nation-State). In the same article I had also said that the odious sloganeering had occurred at JNU since a lot of its faculty and students have been prejudiced against the Indian nation-state by Marxist and ‘cultural Marxist’ discourses – they see it as a bourgeois fraud or a regressive ‘Brahmanical’ and ‘patriarchal’ entity. But these discourses are not all there is to JNU’s dislike of the Indian nation-state. There are many other shades of opinions which cause the average master and pupil at JNU to see it in poor light. I wish to bring some of them to the reader’s attention in this article. I was unable to do that in the aforementioned one since it would have then turned out to be far too long.

That Bundle of Bile and Toxicity

There is a bundle of bile and toxicity, namely, a book, available in the market. It is somewhat pompously titled as What the Nation Really Needs to Know. The JNU Nationalism Lectures. I have wanted to read and comment on this book for a long time now, but was hesitating since I knew that it will be an unpleasant exercise. Read it finally I have and, trust me, the experience turned out be every bit as unpleasant as I had expected it to be. Why so? Well, this book contains, between two covers, nearly all the opinions and propaganda used by the breaking India protagonists on the JNU campus. Flip through it, and you will know why I term JNU the headquarters of the breaking India enterprise.

What the Nation Really Needs to Know originated in the aftermath of 9 February 2016. That day a group of JNU students had organized a ‘cultural evening’ to commemorate the ‘judicial killing’ of two terrorists, viz., Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru. They had been hanged in 1984 and 2013 respectively. As the ‘cultural evening’ progressed, the ‘genteel’, ‘cultured’ folks attending it took to raising slogans. They raised slogans such as ‘Bharat tere tukde honge! Insha Allah! Insha Allah!’ (‘India, you will break into pieces! Allah Willing!’) and ‘Kashmir mange Azadi, Kerala mange Azadi!’ (‘Kashmir demands freedom, Kerala demands freedom!’). As the reader might remember, the entire country was outraged. Whoever took the name ‘JNU’ in the days to follow, did so with revulsion and anger. However, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teacher’s Association (JNUTA) seemingly concluded that the country is outraging over some mere sloganeering since it is so ignorant and could do with some tutoring (JNU’s capacity for vanity is immense). So, the JNUTA organized a ‘teach-in’, or a series of open air lectures, in the forecourt of the administrative block of the university, ostensibly on the complexities that characterize nationalism. However, the actual idea appears to have been, as they say at JNU, to ‘problematize’ the nation so that the benighted Indians realize that they are unnecessarily getting worked up on something ‘problematic’ (the integrity of the Indian nation-state) and stop outraging. As I see it, this ‘teach-in’ turned out to be an unwitting exhibition of JNU as the headquarters of the breaking India enterprise. Most of the twenty-four lectures that were delivered in it contained breaking India ideas in some form. Later, after the ‘teach-in’ concluded, these lectures were compiled and released as this volume, What the Nation Really Needs to Know. If the reader wishes to know with what persuasions the average JNU student is recruited to the breaking India enterprise on a daily basis, he or she may look no farther than this bundle of bile and toxicity. Let me concisely present and, wherever required, paraphrase, the most obvious breaking India ideas that it is replete with.

The introduction to What the Nation Really Needs to Know is authored by Janaki Nair, a professor at the Center for Historical Studies, JNU.[i] She is also one of the editors of the book. This introduction very effectively sets the register for the material that follows. To my eyes, Prof. Nair comes across as a breaking India protagonist enamored by faultlines. As she writes, “India…is the not the space of benign diversity…but hierarchized, multiple differences, which are of various kinds and intensities.”[ii] On account of this, we are also very incoherent as a country. India, she argues, “has one of the most fragmented social bodies in the world”[iii], in fact, ours is a land “marked by foundational differences.”[iv] The utility of the constitution in such a country is that, she contends, “it alone upholds and defends the idea of difference, while creating a community of equals….”[v] Dear reader, in case you have not realized the full import of her words, let me translate them for you – to properly understand a JNU savant one has to read a lot between and beyond the lines. Prof. Nair does not view our country as a national community, a nation-state, whose members speak different languages and consume varieties of food. We are not one nation exhibiting diversity, but a congeries of “hierarchized differences” (the reference is to caste). We are just so many thousands of castes riven by primordial faultlines (“foundational differences”). She, very likely, does not see us inhabiting a shared space of values and meanings, since the average JNU professor does not acknowledge the existence of something like an Indian culture, or sanskriti. This is all the more reason why we are not a nation-state, just a faultline ridden mass of castes (a “fragmented social body”). Our constitution too, in her eyes, does not create a national, civic community out of us. It merely preserves our differences in a state of equilibrium (so that the strong among us do not set upon the weak) while granting us legal and political equality. Do not assume that these are extreme views by JNU standards. ‘India is a mere congeries of castes criss-crossed by ancient faultilines’ is a pretty commonplace idea at JNU. A lot of people subscribe to it there.

Prof. Nair’s introduction is followed by the transcripts of the lectures that were delivered at the ‘teach-in’. The first is by Prof. Gopal Guru, a political scientist (‘Taking Indian Nationalism Seriously’)[vi]. Prof. Guru’s lecture too perceives a faultiline, between the citizenry and the state. He seemed to think that all the outrage being directed at JNU was somehow manufactured by the state; it was not naturally emerging from the Indian nation. “In the present context of JNU,” he said, “it was very clear that the state was overriding the essence of nation. It tried to become more important that the nation.” He thought it important that the state “does not subordinate the nation to its narrow interest”[vii] (of self-preservation?). He also seemingly disapproved of the fact that “right-wing forces use extraterritorial loyalty as the negative criterion to define who is a nationalist” making “ontological association with ‘Bhumi’ or land (motherland)…an absolute criterion to define the nation.”[viii] In plain language, according to Professor Guru, the branding of any Indians with extraterritorial loyalties (nurturing love for a country other than India) as being not nationalist is a right-wing thing (hence bad). Also, the condition that no Indian may have extraterritorial loyalties binds the Indian nation’s being (spirit, essence, or ‘ontology’) with the land that it occupies (the Indian geo-space) making it the sole basis of Indianness. Professor Guru finds this too a bad idea. Seemingly, he wouldn’t mind if Indians professed loyalty for other countries while living in India, nor does he attach any special sentiments to the land that is India. During the course of his lecture, he also stressed that the state “in order to realize the normative content of the nation, has to make some actual space for the principle of equality.”[ix] Again, it is a remark loaded with an insinuation. Apparently, Prof. Guru thinks that true, genuine nations are made up of equals (equality is/should be the norm that makes a nation) and India is not quite a nation since it has not realized true equality (his lecture contained a reference to the Bahishkrut India, or Dalits)[x], nor is the Indian state making a real attempt in that direction (Dalits are not being given their proper due as members of the national community).

Lectures by Prof. G. Arunima[xi] and A. Mangai[xii] excavated faultlines between parts of South India and the North. Early in her lecture Prof. Arunima revealed the cold ‘anywhere mindset’[xiii] in which no emotions are evoked by the membership of a national community. “I put myself down as someone who is nation agnostic”, she said. Underlining further her ‘nation agnosticism’, she declared, “I’m an Indian because my parents are Indians and I have a passport that tells me that is what I am…I have never felt the need to wake up every morning and start swearing my allegiance to the country.”[xiv] Thereafter, ironically, she went on to rue the fact that her home-state, Kerala, does not find a place in the national narrative. Prof. Arunima thought that “Kerala…is an exceedingly marginal region within the story of the [Indian] nation.”[xv] If you, the reader, are wondering why does she, being a ‘nation agnostic’, care, know that she does because she is keen on imagining or creating a faultline between Kerala and the rest of India. Prof. Arunima also recollected that when she studied the history of ‘modern India’ as a student (at the Center for Historical Studies in JNU, of all places) there were no references to Kerala, it was all about U.P., Bengal and Punjab. Here she cleverly held back information, very likely to produce resentment in the hearts of the Malayalis in the audience. Having studied modern Indian history at CHS, she of course knew that it is largely about the Congress’ role in the Indian freedom movement (this history has been predominantly written by Congress loyalist historians). Since Kerala was two prince states, Cochin and Travancore, in the colonial period, the Congress had little presence there (its organization was largely restricted to the British ruled territories) and hence the state is scarcely mentioned in the histories of ‘modern India’. But she did not say this, instead, Prof. Arunima pretended as though the elision of Kerala from modern Indian history is some grand conspiracy on the part of the North (Punjab, U.P. and Bengal). She also disapprovingly observed that due to the state’s gradual “‘mainstreaming’” its matrilineal tradition has weakened.[xvi] In other words, greater integration with the Indian nation-state, as she saw, has had a socially regressive effect on Kerala.

Ms. Mangai began by telling her young audience, with apparent pride, that her home state, Tamil Nadu, is “historically by default ‘anti-national’”, and she “grew up hearing anti-Sanskrit, anti-Hindi, or anti-north India, or anti-Central government slogans.”[xvii] This was, her lecture implied, on account of a long history of ‘Tamil nationalism’. She traced its origins to the composition of the Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Languages by the missionary Robert Caldwell in 1856[xviii] – the work classified Tamil as belonging to a distinct, Dravidian group of languages. A second stage in the evolution of ‘Tamil nationalism’, according to her, was the rediscovery of the Sangam era epics Cilapatikaram and Manimekalai. Containing Jain and Buddhist teachings, Ms. Mangai claimed, these epics showed the Tamils that they “have nothing to do with…Hinduism….”[xix] Soon after, Periyar came by. He tried to purge Tamil Nadu of Hinduism, hated the Ramayana, and struck a militant anti-Hindi posture.[xx] In brief, Ms. Mangai indentified two premises of ‘Tamil nationalism’, linguistic pride and antipathy for Hinduism. But she, of course, did not reveal to the assembled crowd that even in the nineteen sixties and seventies, when Tamil politicians frequently made separatist noises, this so called ‘Tamil nationalism’ enjoyed rather feeble traction (may the reader not confuse it with Tamil cultural pride). Nor did she tell them that 87.58% of the population of Tamil Nadu returned its religion as Hinduism in the 2011 census. Breaking India protagonists are capable of both lying brazenly and inhabiting a parallel reality.

And then there were those who sought to emotionally disinvest Indians (in this case, the students they were addressing) from the Indian nation-state by holding forth on its artificiality and oppressiveness. Prof. Jairus Banaji wondered aloud if “nations exist the way that classes exist?”[xxi] He concluded that they don’t. Classes, Prof. Banaji said, “are real communities…real existing entities….”[xxii] Nations, on the other hand, he contended, do not have the same “ontology” as a class, they do not exist the same way that classes do.[xxiii] Though Prof. Banaji did not state it in so many words, it seems that he believed that the Indian nation too does not quite exist, since, in his apparently Marxist eyes, only classes are objectively real, not nations. Prof. Nivedita Menon[xxiv] proclaimed the nation-state in general, and the Indian nation-state in particular, to be a horrible thing. Though not a native speaker of Hindi, she (admirably) delivered her lecture in the language (to reach out to the Indian public at large?) and observed that there is a grave contradiction between democracy and the nation-state (“rashtra-rajya or jantantra main ek gehra antarvirodh hai”) because the nation-state, in the name of national interest, tries to trample upon democratic voices (“jaise-jaise log janwadi awazen uthate hain, unko rashtra-rajya rashtra hith ke naam par kuchalne ki koshish karta hai”).[xxv] I get a feeling that she was obliquely referring to the sloganeering on 9 February (her likely idea of democratic voices) and the subsequent crack-down on JNU (which perhaps she saw as the Indian nation-state’s trampling of democratic voices). She also thought that the Indian nation state is intrinsically violent and militaristic, its real face are the stock of weapons that it exhibits during the annual Republic Day parade on Raj Path (“26 January ko Raj Path par hum jo hathiyaron ki parade dekhte hain, wohi hai sakshat rashtra-rajya”).[xxvi] We all know that soldiers and military hardware alone do not make the 26 January parade, they are followed by the mobile tableaus of various states and cultural performances, but Prof. Menon, being a busy academic, does not seem to. Further, Prof. Menon thought that the only face of India that people in Kashmir, north-east and a tribal in Chhattisgarh are familiar with is the Indian army (“Bharat ka jo chehra Kashmir dekhta hai, north-east dekhta hai ya Chhattisgarh ka adiwasi dekhta hai woh hai Indian Army”),[xxvii] since, apparently, they inhabit a militaristic, oppressive country. She also told her audience that the entire world saw India as an illegal occupier of Kashmir (“duniya bhar mein ye mana jata hai ki Bharat ne Kashmir ko awaidh tarike se adhikrat iya hai”)[xxviii] and an imperialist country (“duniya mein India ko…bilkul ek samrajyawadi desh ki tarah hi mana jata hai”).[xxix] Some speakers seemingly thought that Indians should stop holding the territorial limits of India and the Indian nation-state sacrosanct. Prof. Achin Vanaik[xxx] observed that there is “a lot of talk about the unity and integrity of India” and underlined that it is only about a “territorial space” which “a religious nationalism tries to sacralize….[xxxi]  One gets the feeling that he did not want his audience to get awfully sentimental about the Indian “territorial space.” Prof. Vanaik went on to state that, as a result of this attempted sacralization, questioning “existing borders or territorial acquisitions (of India) becomes blasphemous….”[xxxii] In simple language, it seems, Prof. Vanaik was disapproving of the sanctity the adherents of the Indic religions attach to the Indian earth and wished that anyone wanting to discuss changes in the external, political boundaries of India (it is a given that it will involve secession of, or giving up, territory) should be allowed to do so. Prof. Prabhat Patnaik[xxxiii] first asked his audience how a nationalism based on a social contract ought to be preserved and then told them that the answer is already given by Lenin. He had, Prof. Patnaik claimed, wanted the ethnic, linguistic groups of heterogeneous countries to have the right to secession[xxxiv] if they did not honor the social contract. (In political theory a ‘social contract’ is an arrangement in which citizens surrender some freedom to the state in lieu of the protection and welfare that it provides them.) Since our own country is quite heterogeneous too, I am tempted to guess if Prof. Patnaik would like this right to prevail in it. Further, I find it a pity that he failed to recall that the same Lenin whom he so approvingly quoted had put an end to the independence of a tiny ethnicity, that of the Georgians, by ordering an invasion of their country by the Russian Red Army in 1921. He had curiously failed to grant the right to secession to Georgia (formerly a part of Tsarist Russia) which had proclaimed its independence after electing a Menshevik government. Prof. Harbans Mukhia[xxxv] informed his audience that “nationalism is not a settled question in any country.”[xxxvi] To substantiate this assertion he gave the examples of France where (as he said) the inhabitants of the Brittany region still do not regard themselves French and the erstwhile Soviet Union which “never became a nation.”[xxxvii] May be, he was delicately urging his audience not to see the Indian nation-state too as something final.


[i] JNU has multiple schools, such as the School of Social Sciences, School of Languages, etc. Each of these Schools, in turn, is divided into various disciplinary centers – Center for Historical Studies, or Center for English Studies.

[ii] Rohit Azad, Janaki Nair, Mohinder Singh, Mallarika Sinha Roy (eds.), on behalf of Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association, What the Nation Really Needs to Know. The JNU Nationalism Lectures (Harper Collins Publishers India, 2016). Introduction, p.xix.

[iii]  Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., p.xxii.

[vi] Delivered on 17 February 2016. Professor Guru teaches at the Center for Political Studies, JNU.

[vii] What the Nation Really Needs to Know., p.10.

[viii] Ibid., p.6.

[ix] Ibid., p.9.

[x] Ibid., p.6.

[xi] She teaches at the Center for Women’s Studies, JNU. Her lecture titled ‘The Nation and its Regions: How does it all Add Up’ was delivered on 20 February 2016.

[xii] A. Mangai is the pseudonym of Dr. V. Padma. She teaches English at Stella Maris College, Chennai. At the time of the ‘teach-in’, she was a visiting fellow at the Center for Law and Governance, JNU. Her lecture titled ‘One Hundred Years of Tamil Nationalism’ was delivered on 1 March 2016.

[xiii] I have borrowed the phrase from the British journalist and commentator David Goodhart.

[xiv] What the Nation Really Needs to Know, p.26.

[xv] Ibid., p.28.

[xvi] Ibid., p.34.

[xvii] Ibid., p.135.

[xviii] Ibid., p.137.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid., pp.139-140.

[xxi] Ibid., p.259. Prof. Banaji is associated with the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London. His lecture titled ‘The political Culture of Fascism’ was delivered on 11 March 2016.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., p.260.

[xxiv] She teaches at the Center for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, JNU. He lecture titled ‘Rashtrawad Banam Janwad’ was delivered on 22 February 2016.

[xxv] What the Nation Really Needs to Know, p.53.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid., p.59.

[xxviii] Ibid., p.57.

[xxix] Ibid., p.58.

[xxx] Currently retired, he used to be a professor of International Relations and Global Politics at the University of Delhi. His lecture titled ‘Nationalism: Its Power and Limits’ was delivered on 26 February 2016.

[xxxi] What the Nation Really Needs to Know, p.102. Emphasis in the original transcript.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] He is professor emeritus at the Center for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU. His lecture titled ‘Two Concepts of Nationalism’ was delivered on 9 March 2016.

[xxxiv] What the Nation Really Needs to Know, p.237.

[xxxv] Currently retired, he was a professor at the Center for Historical Studies, JNU. His lecture titled ‘Reinstituting the Colonial History of Medieval India’ was delivered on 6 March 2016.

[xxxvi] What the Nation Really Needs to Know, p.195.

[xxxvii] Ibid.

Featured Image: Scroll

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Saumya Dey

Saumya Dey is an associate professor of history at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. His primary research interests are intellectual and cultural history. He has, till date, authored one monograph and a collection of essays - Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2015) and The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and other Essays. Historical Legitimacy of an Idea (Shubhi Publications, 2019). He earned his PhD at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.