Pedagogy and violence: Mapping the everyday politics of Hindutva
Fieldnotes is The Polis Project’s series based on diverse stories unfolding on the ground that academics, journalistic, writers, and artists traverse during their fieldwork
Dr Akanksha Mehta is a Lecturer in Gender, Sexuality, Race and Cultural Studies and the co-director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London. She teaches courses that explore feminist, queer, crip, postcolonial and decolonial knowledge productions on Empire, nation, violence, justice, activism, and everyday politics. Her doctoral research (titled ‘Right-Wing Sisterhood’) used ethnography, narrative writing, and visual practice to examine the everyday politics and violence of Hindu Nationalist women in India and Israeli Zionist settlers in Palestine. She is a photographer and a (staff) member of Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA) and also writes about pedagogy, activism, and higher education. She can be found on Twitter as @AjeebAurat.
During my doctoral research in 2013 and 2014, my Hindu right-wing research interviewees in suburban Mumbai and Thane made me aware of their practice of ‘daily walks’. Small groups of women from Hindu nationalist organizations drove to what they identified as Muslim neighbourhoods, sometimes with sticks and stones, always with loud chants and shouts. They usually didn’t physically attack individuals, but created a ruckus around the inhabitants of these spaces. Warning them that India was and will remain a Hindu nation, they exhorted Muslim ‘traitors’ to leave the country. Screaming slurs against Pakistan and slogans about Kashmir belonging to India, they pelted stones and banged on doors. When satisfied with the disruption they had caused, they would leave, filled with excitement, energy and laughter. This ritual of violence both marked and claimed a territory as Hindu and tried to terrorize those who were seen to be outsiders, and therefore unwanted, dangerous and deviant. Often, on these excursions, I heard these women wishing they could do more physical harm on their ‘walks’ and plan out scenarios of escalated brutality.
On the evening of 5 January 2020, a group of masked people entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi and attacked students and staff with iron rods, hockey sticks, lathis and stones. They walked to different parts of the campus, including hostels, targeting students and staff they identified as ‘leftists’, tearing apart hostel rooms (particularly of Kashmiri students), breaking glasses, furniture and cars and even smashing ambulances and medical vehicles that had arrived at the gate to assist the injured. Around thirty students and staff were injured and later taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital, including the President of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union (JNUSU), Aishe Ghosh. Accounts from those on and around JNU during the attack reveal that university administration, security and Delhi Police did not stop the attackers and their brutal violence. Video footage also reveals that lights on the streets near the campus were switched off during the attack and that the masked attackers were allowed to leave campus, weapons in hand, shouting slogans like “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalo ko” (shoot the nation’s traitors).
These slogans took me back to the ‘daily walks’ of Hindu nationalist women. Images show that the attackers included both men and women and it is known that they were associated with the Hindu right-wing student organisation Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). As news of the attacks broke, many media organizations in India and internationally began to report the incident as a ‘clash’ and as ‘university violence’. Delhi Police, when asked by reporters to comment on the violence, called it a ‘scuffle among students’. Some commentators expressed shock and surprise on social media and labelled the attackers as a ‘random mob’, dismissing the complicity of the State and the political motivations of the violence. Hindu right-wing organizations such as the ABVP claim that leftist student organizations in JNU were the actual attackers and that the students associated with the ABVP are the ones who are injured and missing. In a video posted on Twitter, Nidhi Tripathi, the ABVP national general secretary, stated: “Naxals entered the hostels and beat students brutally with lathis.”
My past and on-going academic engagement with Hindu nationalist mobilization allows me to reflect on the recent violence at JNU (and the rising Hindutva fascism in India) and assert that it is crucial to not dismiss this attack as ‘random university violence’ or frame it as a ‘clash’ or ‘scuffle’ or to exceptionalize its brutality as new or unprecedented. My doctoral research used ethnography to examine the contours of the everyday politics of Hindu nationalist women in India (and Israeli Zionist settler women in Palestine) specifically focussing on the role of pedagogy, ‘charity’, intimacy and friendships, and discursive and physical violence in right-wing nationalist and settler colonial mobilizations. I spent months with women in organizations such as Durga Vahini, Rashtra Sevika Samiti, and Hindu Women’s Forum and with some men in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Hindu Defense League and the World Hindu Conference. My past and on-going academic engagement with Hindu nationalist mobilization allows me to reflect on the recent violence at JNU (and the rising Hindutva fascism in India) and assert that it is crucial to not dismiss this attack as ‘random university violence’ or frame it as a ‘clash’ or ‘scuffle’ or to exceptionalize its brutality as new or unprecedented.
The violence at JNU is yet another realization of the dream of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). A dream that has already unfolded through the intensification of the decades-long colonial occupation and the recent and continuing communication blockade of Kashmir, increased violence against Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis, the Trans Bill and other legislation, the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 (CAB) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the building of detention centers, and more. The recent State violence to curb nation-wide protests through beatings and shooting, detentions, raids and arrests, is accompanied by a longer history of everyday Hindu nationalist violence and terror.
Educational and Pedagogical Institutions and the Hindu Right-Wing
Pedagogy and education have been a central focus for Hindu Right-Wing organizing for decades in two crucial ways. First, there is a strategy by the Hindu right-wing to establish pedagogical and educational spaces across the country (and globally) to spread their narratives and political ideologies as widely as possible. Second, there is a careful plan to destroy, infiltrate and take control over existing Indian pedagogical spaces and educational institutions that are seen as ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-Hindu’. This includes progressive, leftist, and historically Muslim universities (such as JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia – JMU, Aligarh Muslim University – AMU etc.) as well as secular curricula in schools and informal spaces of teaching and learning, especially those that focus on marginalized groups and social justice.
The former – establishing right-wing educational spaces – is done through a formal system of over 25,000 schools, degree colleges, teacher training colleges, and vocational institutions (serving 40 million students and employing almost a 100,000 teachers) set up by Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, the educational wing of the RSS. Outside of formal education, mostly Hindu right-wing women coordinate and run seminars, workshops, conferences, reading groups, study sessions and training courses that focus on all aspects of Hindutva education and mobilization. I attended several of these spaces and was astonished at the frequency, scope and spread of these gatherings. Their pedagogical outreach is also done through publications (books, pamphlets, graphic novels, comics, brochures, reports) produced by various Hindutva publishing houses across the country that are circulated widely through organizations and shakhas and via YouTube, websites, social media, text messages and WhatsApp.
The other form of mobilization – that is the destruction and control over existing ‘anti-Hindu’ spaces – is done through attempts to seize control of the management and administration of universities and schools, hiring staff that align with right-wing political views, changing and influencing formal curricula and textbooks and imposing new rules that raise fees and affect what can be studied and researched, systems of financial aid, and access to the university and its spaces (including to hostels). It is done through disruption of events and systematic virtual and physical harassment as well as through undermining, detention, arrests, silencing and removal of students and teachers who are Muslim, Kashmiri, left-wing, progressive and are often constructed as ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘anti-Hindu’. As we have seen in the past weeks, it is also done by executing carefully planned violence in university spaces through the use of police forces and State power (such as in JMU and AMU) and directly, through mob attacks from Hindu right-wing organizations (such as in JNU and previously in Hyderabad Central University-HCU).
On a recent research visit to New Delhi in July 2019, I had two encounters that identified how these two strategies around pedagogy and education are working in tandem and are enabling and being enabled by various forms of everyday violence. In a conversation with managers and employees of the RSS publishing house Suruchi Prakashan in Jhandewala, New Delhi, it was revealed that the publications that Hindu nationalists were previously putting out only through their own organizations and educational spaces, were now actively pushed into the formal education system.[i] Books that imagined India as a Hindu nation, glorified Hindu myths, and professed hatred and violence towards Muslims, Kashmiris, Dalits, and ‘anti-nationals’ were being sold to schools across the country as mandatory additions to the curricula, especially for younger students. Plans to replace the formal school curriculum with a pro-Hindu one were picking up speed at different structural levels. In a different engagement, I interviewed one of the co-conveners of the GIA – Group of Intellectuals and Academicians – that defines itself as a “group of empowered Indian women, intellectuals & academicians working together to elevate the position of women in our society, committed to work in the service of the nation.” As the co-convener explained, GIA took its current shape after Modi came to power in 2014 and was comprised of ‘high achieving’ and ‘intelligent’ women in academia, law, business, and other fields who were committed to patriotism and (Hindu) nationalism.[ii] At the very beginning of our conversation, she said: “hum lekh se lekar sadak tak active hai” (our activism extends from writing to the streets). She then elaborated on the organization’s role in connecting educational and pedagogical interventions with a variety of ‘street activisms’ from marches and demonstrations to “saving Hindu girls from love jihad” – all done through the lens of (Hindu) women’s empowerment. Both these conversations – at Suruchi Prakashan and with the co-convener of GIA – revealed yet again the centrality of education, academia, pedagogy, university and school spaces in Hindutva politics and plans. They reminded me of dozens of other interviewees, who had professed the need to establish and control education as a key Hindutva strategy and expressed deep hatred for universities they saw had ‘anti-national elements’ like JNU (and JMU, AMU, HCU among others) and for the State funding they thought went into them. They routinely expressed desires for different forms of violence towards the structures, the students and staff on these campuses.
Everyday Violence, Everyday Hindu Nation
In March 2014, I attended the three-day first annual meeting of the Hindu Defense League (HDL) in New Delhi.[iii] At the meeting there were about fifteen to twenty men, most between the ages of 18 and 35, who had travelled from different parts of the country to strategize and plan HDL’s mission and activities in the coming year. Some of them were students and also had affiliations to the ABVP, others worked in family businesses or corporate jobs; many were involved in the RSS and VHP. While in New Delhi for the meeting, they stayed at the massive multistoried home of one of the founding members, meeting leaders of other Hindu right-wing organizations and organizing and attending protests, including one in support for the ban of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. In their strategy and planning sessions, held at the house, they discussed the numerous ways to cause harm to Muslims, Kashmiris, Christians, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘anti-Hindus’, articulating their desires as well as their strategies for violence. Some of these included boycotting Muslim businesses, saying no to Muslim taxi and auto drivers, not renting houses to Muslims, speaking up and protesting against reservations, belittling colleagues who ‘got jobs only through unfair quotas’, coordinated and planned social media and WhatsApp action, campaigning for Modi’s election, liaising with rich businessmen for Hindu development projects, banning books and organizing demonstrations. Two of their key plans included taking on ‘anti-national’ universities and their students and staff and executing everyday and ‘small’ acts of violence towards Muslims, Christians, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘anti-Hindus’. Sometimes, the line between their plans for educational spaces and their strategies of everyday acts of violence appeared blurry. Their discussions of the former often focused on JNU (alongside JMU and AMU) and their discussions of the latter included violence ranging from spitting at people, hurling stones, blocking paths to attacks with rods and sticks. The discussions that HDL was having then do not stand in isolation – they echo and influence the calls to controlling education and executing violence that several, if not all, Hindu right-wing organizations have been making and executing for decades. The violence in JNU on 5 January 2020 was not an aberration or a ‘random incident’ – it is yet another realization of some of the deepest desires of the Hindu nation and its enablers.
In the circulating images of the masked attackers of JNU, we see a woman amongst a group of men and her identity, presence and participation in the violence has become a point of focus. There is an inordinate curiosity and attention on the woman attacker’s history, motivations, social media posts. Some of this attention is to name her so she can be arrested (she has been identified as Komal Sharma) and to pay attention to her savarna identity and the caste-dimensions of this attack and of Hindutva. However, there are also traces of the cropping up of the age-old question: how can women be violent in this way? This question not only ignores decades of research and writing by academics, journalists and activists on gender and violence, but also dismisses the crucial complicity and active role that women play in the Hindu right-wing. Ignoring this complicity and participation is dangerous as it limits our understanding of the everyday violence of Hindu nationalism, how it is nurtured, and whom it affects.
I started this piece by recalling a ritual of everyday violence espoused by women in the Hindu right. Similar to the men in RSS and VHP, in the training camps, workshops, and regular gatherings organized by women’s groups such as Durga Vahini and Sevika Samiti, women received elaborate training for ‘self-defense’ and are pushed to embrace physical violence. In March 2014, the head of Delhi’s Durga Vahini chapter proudly showed me the room of their local office where they beat up Muslim men they accuse of love jihad.[iv] Women were also taught to embrace and circulate a language of violence – stories, songs, poems, images and videos that constructed Muslims, Christians, Kashmiris, and sometimes amorphous ‘anti-nationals’, ‘Urban Naxals’ and ‘leftists’ as dangerous, pathetic, perverted and barbaric deviants: these were dripping in blood, gore and brutality. Women in these organizations plan and participate in numerous acts of regular violence and also implore the men in their families to prove their masculinity by embracing violence. I will never forget an interview with a Durga Vahini leader in Thane in May 2014, where my interlocutor, a woman in her early forties, who was passionately recalling her participation in the organization and its violence, jumped up mid-interview and yelled for her husband. Asking him to bring the laminated certificate that RSS gave him for his participation in the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992, she told me how proud she was of her manly man and his violent acts.[v]
I am relating these brief and punctuated ethnographic vignettes to illuminate the critical need to understand the role of women in Hindu nationalist violence. The recent attack in JNU reminded me that such attacks emerge from a long history of Hindu right-wing thought, strategy, planning and everyday violence. Paying attention to this history is important as it allows us to trace the connections between educational spaces and violence and, importantly, to re-center all victims of everyday Hindutva terror, some of whom have been suffering the brutality of the Hindu Rashtra for years and decades.
A lot of my doctoral research was carried out in the months just before Modi came to power as the Prime Minister of India. My research interlocutors had been engaging in many forms of violence for a long time, but they also relayed their plans and dreams for a Hindu nation with a renewed willfulness, passion and hope. I would hear them say: “Ek baar Modi Sarkar aane do, phir dekhte hai hum kya kya nahi kar sakte” (once the Modi government comes into power, we will see what all we can do), “Main political nahi thi but Modi Sarkar ke liye ban jaonge” (I was not political before, but for Modi I will become political), “Modiji aa jaye, phir haemin koi nahi rok sakta. Hum inke saath jo karna hai kar sakte hai” (Once Modi is in power, no one can stop us. We can do what we want with these people).
The narrative that the JNU attack (and several other recent incidents of violence) was a ‘random mob’ or, worse, a ‘clash’ obfuscates Hindu right-wing organizations’ escalation strategies and sidelines the complicity of the State and the police in fulfilling them. It has been reported that Delhi Police and University Security didn’t stop the attackers in JNU (or detain or arrest them when they were leaving). In JMU and AMU, Police attacked students and staff and has even admitted to opening fire into the crowd. Across Uttar Pradesh, police officers are raiding homes of ‘suspected troublemakers’, detaining, torturing, sexually assaulting and beating up Muslims and ‘anti-nationals’, including children. More recently, on 30 January 2020, an armed man fired at student protestors outside JMU, repeatedly shouting ‘yeh lo azaadi’ (here, take your freedom) and injuring a student who was attempting to calm him down. His now-deleted Facebook page was filled with Hindutva iconography and posts – such as “Shaheen Bagh khel khatam” – Shaheen Bagh, the game is over and “meri antim yatra par mujhe bhagve me le jayen aur shree Ram ke nare lagaye” – wrap me in saffron for my last rites and chant Shri Ram. Calling himself RamBhakt Gopal Sharma, he was also ‘Live’ on Facebook as he approached the campus. In circulated images of the attack, it has been pointed out that a large contingent of Delhi Police stood metres away, watching passively as he approached the protestors, brandished his gun and shot at the student. In the aftermath, the Police who ignored the pleas of protestors to diffuse the situation, walked calmly to the attacker and detained him, while the injured student, Shadab Farooq, had to climb a police barricade to get medical attention. This shooting and two other such attacks come days after the Minister of State for Finance, Anurag Thakur of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led an election rally in Delhi with the slogan “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalo ko” (shoot the nation’s traitors) – a slogan also chanted by the JNU attackers. They also come weeks after Home Minister Amit Shah asked BJP and Hindutva supporters “to teach Delhi’s tukde-tukde gang a lesson” and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath vowed to take “badla” (revenge) on protestors.
While Hindu right-wing organizations have long engaged in everyday violence, the intensification of the brutality and the kind of harm they intend to cause, and can get away with, has everything to do with the current support and assurance they receive from the State and police forces. Paying attention to this nexus between a right-wing State (and its arms) and right-wing organizations that often frame themselves as socio-cultural, educational, student-focused or charitable is crucial as we protest and resist. Giving roses to the police or writing odes to soldiers is not resistance, but an erasure of those who suffer the worst brutality of State violence in India and in Kashmir and a gross misreading of Hindu right-wing tactics and power alliances.
The attack on JNU was pre-meditated, politically motivated, rooted, practiced and enabled through a history of Hindu nationalist violence and a long-standing focus on controlling educational spaces. It was also dreamt of and planned not only in recent WhatsApp group chats (as has been revealed) but also, for decades, in shakhas, training camps, workshops, strategy meetings, casual conversations, publications and the varied rituals of everyday violence embraced by both men and women in the organizations. Understanding this remains necessary as we move forward in protest and actively disavow any narratives of ‘clashes’ and ‘random mobs.’ It remains necessary as we understand how the State and the police are inherently violent and etch out all the connections between the current complicity of a right-wing State and Hindu nationalist organizations. It remains necessary as we show solidarity with JNU, but also continue (or in many cases, begin) to center the occupation of Kashmir, Northeast India, and the structural, judicial, and everyday violence against Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, trans communities, and other marginalized people in every step of our resistance to a Hindu Rashtra. It remains necessary as we must turn inwards and ask: Why did the recent abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the communication blockade in Kashmir now in its seventh month not bring so many of us to the streets in defiance of the dreams of Hindu nationalism? Why didn’t the closure of and brutality in Kashmiri universities and other contours of the everyday violence of the decades-long on-going settler colonial occupation of Kashmir not elicit this massive show of support and resistance? Can we ever Stand with JNU without Standing with Kashmir? Can we ‘save our Democracy’ without self-determination and Azaadi for Kashmir? Can we dismantle one dream of the Hindu Rashtra without the dismantling of its longer, colonial, more violent and brutal dreams?
Bio: Dr Akanksha Mehta is a Lecturer in Gender, Sexuality, Race and Cultural Studies and the co-director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London. She teaches courses that explore feminist, queer, crip, postcolonial and decolonial knowledge productions on Empire, nation, violence, justice, activism, and everyday politics. Her doctoral research (titled ‘Right-Wing Sisterhood’) used ethnography, narrative writing, and visual practice to examine the everyday politics and violence of Hindu Nationalist women in India and Israeli Zionist settlers in Palestine. She is a photographer and a (staff) member of Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action (GARA) and also writes about pedagogy, activism, and higher education. She can be found on Twitter as @AjeebAurat.
[i] Fieldnotes from interviews at Suruchi Prakashan, Jhandewala, New Delhi, 25 July 2019
[ii] Personal interview with the co-convenor of GIA, New Delhi, 25 July 2019
[iii] Fieldnotes, New Delhi, March 2014
[iv] Fieldnotes, New Delhi, March 2014
[v] Fieldnotes, Mumbai and Thane, May 2014