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  • Prachyadeep Dasgupta

The Poverty of Philanthropy

Hindutva and Ashoka's infantile disorders

A look of surprise and hesitation filled the faces of many who attended the protest against the administration organised by the Social Justice Forum. Were we going to raise slogans? Gathering, asking questions, braving the rain — these filled us with immense adolescent pride. We were protesting. But the slogans seemed to come too close to making it real. How did political slogans become so alien and threatening on Ashoka’s campus? The events that precipitated after the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, in the country and Ashoka, have been met in our campus with a sad, silent acceptance. The other silence has been on the part of the administration — in protectively hushing the event’s celebration and maintaining an artificial calm. This silent polarisation, acceptance, and our general inability to move beyond email threads is rooted in an institutional system of selective de-politicising and an absence of real political consciousness among Ashoka students. The former ensures the latter, which nourishes the former. In all, the students of this country's 'leading' liberal arts institution can neither organise nor agitate, and forget as soon as they can the events which, time and again, excise parts of their apparent freedom.

As concrete details began to emerge, it became clear that the Ashoka administration had tried its best to sweep 22nd January off as just another day by asking the organisers of the Prayer Meeting to shift their event to the ‘bleachers’ from Takshila. The administration allocated a relatively secluded space for the Prayer Meeting in hopes of keeping it out of view and preventing any tensions on campus. However, those in the administration are not the only ones anxious about disruption; we, the students, are as well. The administration is naturally invested in maintaining business as usual as this university — no matter how much we refuse to see it — is answerable to its patrons and the powers that be. Any disruption in the order of things, even as minor as a dharna or boycott, is a disruption of activities at the endpoint of an apparent one-way flow of philanthropic capital. If at any point the recipients of this capital exercise their conscience to question its costs on their political will, the very logic of philanthropy that sanitises a systemic dumbing-down of politics falls apart. However, it is only then, in these disruptions, that we can understand how institutions divest people of their politics by saturating them with things. 

Keeping with the spirit of our times, the relations between people populating this university become relations between things we possess; it is the silent accounting of the comparative values of these things that give us our values as people. This hijacking of human relations by things manifests in Ashoka's 'student politics', which, given our permanent obsession with consumption, is insatiably occupied with services and amenities: hot water, mess timings, A/C and heating, the number of water purifiers on each floor, and the mysterious intricacies of student ID cards. This is not to claim that such issues are irrelevant but to remind ourselves that, from time to time, they should stop mattering. The comfortable cannot be political. With everything at our disposal; with a range of cuisines to choose from at two at night; with an industrially efficient system to return our dirty clothes perfectly folded and cleaned, we think we can afford to be oblivious in our ‘safe space’ as we have nothing more to win and everything to lose if the peace of the present is disturbed.


An institution of liberalism like Ashoka is a space of capital par excellence. No matter how high an opinion we have of ourselves, we are — and indeed, were always supposed to be — frighteningly undisruptive. Defanged criticism has become the motto of liberal arts education. We must not be deluded and mystified by the promises of freedom of criticism, for it often comes at the cost of our rights. A liberalist space is always capable of containing and subsuming change because, in trying to make us all a little more agreeable, it makes us all a little more neutral. This neutrality of the liberal utopia appears perfect as this is the condition of the least resistance; hence, the condition of unprecedented productivity and wealth. Nonetheless, this condition preserves misery and inequality for its own good. This misery is either removed from our sight or inculcated into our happy home as we bring in the children of misery for a weekly session on the English alphabet.


We at Ashoka are a demography with privileges unquestionably greater than the students of India's public universities. Our labour is more free than theirs, for most of us have the luxury of guarantee — that our homes would be run even if we were to take our time to meander through courses and 'explore' college life. We are at rest. Ours is not a fight for the survival of our bodies. For this very reason, ours must be the fight to tear off that infantile liberalness — the sacred belief that thought is free by itself. It is not; thought must be made free, and our secure bodies — well fed, well partied — find it impossible to do so. Hence, those among us who feel helpless in this age of the death of reason, make to ourselves perverse whispers of comfort, for we know, come temple or science block, the dull compulsions of economic forces that allow us HDFC-style enlightenment off the backs of dispensable staff will keep on its ready rut. 

If thought and dialogue become the sole modes of resistance, all resistance would be given its cathartic release in our classrooms before it becomes real resistance. As it is the body that is marked as an enemy, and the body — of the high temple or its high priest — that is sacred, real resistance must also be resistance by the body — resistance not merely by speech but by action, movement, and disruption. Comfort and peace of mind come with the blood on our hands. For too long we have been guilty of indifference. History never forgives those who cannot see despite having an extra pair of glasses. The political reality of this country cannot be ignored. However, this does not mean we must reconcile with it. Believing in the dominant narrative is always easy. All we have to do is give in and remain passive, distant, or a-political, and the narrative will come to us. In our times, no matter where we are, Hindutva can arrive packaged as historic happiness: a shared memory of a world which everyone can inhabit. This 'new' history is also the product of forgetting and silence as the events that transpired after the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya show us; that is, if we are willing to see it.


Hindutva is a readymade fetish object. It feels good in its abstracted form. Yet, it only seems abstract, as history, as destiny, as faith, as love. It can thus inculcate its first Other, Muslims, as willing subjects reconciled as second-class citizens. The ultimate weapon? Love. At Ashoka, it can do so because we either cannot take the risk to remember (and thus agitate) or are unwilling to remember, and hence willing to forget. As such, Ashoka's liberalism is built on an infantile secularism that seeks to retract into itself and away from religion. This is really what it means when the university seeks to abstract from a religion its basic principles. How many more treta-yugas will have to be dawned by history-wielding godmen for us to see that religion can no longer be separated from its politics? At the other end of this willing blindness is the success of the Ram Temple Prayer Meeting to present itself as the harbinger of “radical love” and a celebration of a nation's manifest destiny. It could pull off this extraordinary rewriting of memory because we believe that there remains a religiosity separable from politics. Behind this institutional ideology is that well-taught silence that makes Ashoka a 'safe space' — home to a tribe of students whose outward consciousness, instead of being actively political, is built around an equally infantile a-politicism. The space for neutral inertia and indecision is shrinking. If we choose to shy away from being political now, politics will forever dominate us from the outside and its holy ghost forever haunt us in the form of innocent religion. To remain a-political now not only makes us complicit to the undoing of a nation; it makes us active cadres to it.


The most difficult task on our hands is to prevent students from turning against each other, while constantly reminding ourselves that the way to do that is not by sponsoring collective amnesia and ignorance, active or passive. We must identify ourselves now in no uncertain terms. Polarisation may follow, but that is only part of being an adult. We must remember that the politics of this country no longer exists merely as politics but as an all-pervasive Ideology; that the temple at Ayodhya and its politics have split friendships and families from the inside. To question or resist it needs both an unlearning and a learning, and very few have had access to either. Ostracising those who found reason to celebrate the events of 22nd January will only set back into motion the wheels of bourgeois politics which, by keeping the oppressed of this country buzzed on seasonal varieties of spiritual booze, has kept upper-caste and upper-class interests hegemonic for centuries. Those who organised and participated in the Prayer Meeting are as much our fellow students as those who protested against it. We must remember what is really at stake here: our conscience and our consciousness. How we react now — and react we must — will determine whether we can fight for our freedom and our rights in the future or continue our game of gathering 'to share' and forgetting after. Else, like the caste survey, academic freedom, or ill-treatment of workers, the real issues will keep getting lost. This is the poverty of philanthropy. Its silent discipline produces the perfect student of the liberal arts who keeps their radicalness confined to journals. This is exactly why, despite the seeming irony, we must ensure that Ashoka does not remain a safe space; it is the illusion of a safe space that has brought us to this precipice today and allowed us to ignore the warnings for so long. Ashoka is not and never was a safe space. There are no safe spaces. What we think are safe spaces are really safety valves.





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