In 2016, Modi showed us how hype destroys history

I must confess that as a sociologist and historian I cannot leave the last year alone. Media has wrapped up 2016, tied it into a bundle, capped it by naming Narendra Modi the man of the year. As a critic told me, if there is one man the year does not deserve, it is Modi.

It is not Modi’s antics paraded as achievements that I am objecting to. It is the way performances are constructed as events, and become narratives that ooze certain objectivity. Such a narrative obscures other events, which have no storytellers and are not even allowed historians.

In fact, 2016 has been the year of silences, where the ironies, paradoxes, tragedies of a traumatic year have been sidelined. Short of dressing Modi up as Santa Claus, the media has erased a sense of everyday India.

It is as if hype has destroyed history. It is this unstated history that I want to talk about before one moves on to 2017.

Forgotten

The year 2016 has been the year of forgetting. As Narmada Bachao pursued its Jal Samadhi, even created a calendar of struggle events, middle-class India and media decided to abandon it. It was, in fact, the year of the abandoned people.

As the world talked of a young aspirant mobile India, of a subcontinent where most people were under 25, reports on the status of the old emerged which were distressing.

Old age is now seen as a form of obsolescence. It is commodified and if parents do not have property or money, they are quietly abandoned. Many old people haunt the streets begging, many too stunned to even beg. This dichotomy of youth and old age has been devastating for India.

The year 2016 has been celebrated as the year of success, of start-ups, the year India celebrated the dominance of the Aadhaar card, the year we confused identification for identity. Sadly, few recognise that worldwide 2016 was another tragic year of the refugee, whether Syrian, Somalian or Rohingya.

India has been silent on these events choosing what many call a strategy of pragmatic silence. It is sad when sadness and sorrow are limited by passports. It was the year when the state and the majority party consolidated its power, pummelling dissent in civil society.

jnubd_010817105255.jpgThe battles of JNU or Hyderabad had little impact on society. They became circuses and spectacles.

In fact, 2016 was the tragic year for civil society as environmentalism was seen as sedition. The separation of security and sustainability was the event of the year, while India saw a consolidation of internal and external security.

It was the year when the university as an institution came under severe pressure. The regime discovered that one way of disturbing the Constitution was to rewrite the syllabus. Constitutions and syllabi resonate in synchrony as modes of thought.

The sadness is that in 2016, the university was becoming more and more of a sarkari output, with a huge number of vacant posts, with a pressure toward mediocrity as the only promise of survival. The battles of JNU or Hyderabad had little impact on society. They became circuses and spectacles, rather than being recognised as desperate attempts by the university to maintain a sense of debate, of plurality, of a community of difference.

It is ironic that Smriti Irani, now minister for textiles, talks of diversity in crafts when she had no sense of the diversity of ideas as crucial to the dynamic of the university.

The attack on Nandini Sundar and Bela Bhatia puts a seal to the devaluation of dissent in the country. It is around the university one sees the consolidation of a gargantuan majority. It is here one sees a suppression of dissent, deviancy, minority and marginality.

Mindset

This attempt to curb the traditional mindset of the university is accompanied by an attempt to corporatise it. The whole move towards rankings and a confusion of rankings with quality is having a dismal impact on research, scientific research in particular.

The university itself becomes replete with organisational contradictions with unreal expectations of research accompanied by Stakhanovite demands for teaching.

Teaching loads are so demanding that academics, especially those with ad hoc appointments, are becoming a new of form of bonded labour. The fatal injuries to the university inflicted by the regime is among the tragedies of 2016 that media rarely talks about.

Training

In fact, if one looks at advertisements in educational supplements, the tutorial college, the Kota-style training school are seen as events more representative of the university than major seminars. The emptying of Nehru Museum, the ideological takeover of other institutions are events that need to be marked in any calendar of 2016.

We erase this tragedy by creating a farce. By inviting a few Nobel laureates to consort with those in power, we complete the farce of the academic in 2016.

Yet one cannot end on a defeatist note. The courage of individual intellectuals, whether it is TM Krishna challenging the Music Academy, Nandini Sundar facing up to the police in Bastar, the solidarity of JNU as it fought the regime’s definition of patriotism and nationalism need to be recalled.

One wishes 2017 produces an independent university report on education to challenge the clinical nature of official reports.

In 2016, however, women produced the most interesting achievements — from PV Sindhu to Sakshi Malik. Yet, the very achievements of women I think let us escape from the fact that 2016 was the year when khap panchayats rang dominant and honour killings acquired a mystique.

The year 2016 by becoming the year of individuals while ignoring the fate of institutions, became a problematic year in terms of storytelling.

Even at the risk of marginality one has to spell the narrative, only then can one confront 2017 with some sense of hope and confidence.

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