Coming from a middle-class Dalit family in Uttar Pradesh, Abhinav Prakash saw the interplay of caste and class from a vantage point early in life. During his days in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, he got dismayed by the appropriation of the Dalit discourse by non-Dalits. With the belief that he owed it to the ‘real Dalits’ to be politically expressive, he joined the students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Today, he is considered as one of the most influential right-wing opinion makers with regular columns spread across various publications.
Here is an exclusive chat:
JNU is known for the hegemony of Left parties. What made you join the right-wing ABVP during your days in the university?
I have always been a conservative ever since I can remember. Even during school days, I tilted towards the right wing. My first systematic exposure to the left-wing thought was when I was pursuing Economics (Honours) from the Hindu College, Delhi University. The syllabus, as you can imagine, was heavily laden with the Marxist readings especially in the third year. Then I chose Centre of Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over the Delhi School of Economics mainly because of my disinterest in the neo-classical economics with its overdose of mathematics.
In JNU, I was fortunate enough to be taught by pre-eminent Marxist scholars of India. Although I was never completely convinced by them on most issues, I learned much. My engagement with the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) started much later. But being at the heart of the citadel of the left-wing in JNU, I was also a witness to the decadence of the left-wing politics, its shallowness and sheer intellectual bankruptcy, which revolved around caste and regional hegemony under the grab of ‘progressivism’. Their anarchist view of the society, hostility towards India and almost genocidal hatred towards Hinduism left me with no choice but to search for an alternative political force in the campus and ABVP is the only right-wing party, in fact the only true opposition in the campus. But it was only when my hostel friend became the JNU ABVP unit president that my involvement with the party began.
You are open about your political inclination in your articles while teaching in a University; has there ever been any conflict with your students or administration?
One thing I learnt from even the old-school Marxist professors is to be honest with the syllabus rather than converting the classroom into an ideological seminary. In fact, for my Economic (Honours) students, it was I who taught them Marxist political economy! But of course, there can be no complete separation between your own understanding and what you teach as part of the syllabus. So I would always slip in a critique, an alternative way of looking at the same topics.
As far as my articles are concerned, I rarely share them with the class but it is the students themselves who would read and want to discuss them. So yes, sometimes we do have such discussions but far from any conflict; it has always been a wonderful experience. For students, they are a fresh perspective in a mainstream discourse dominated by the usual Left and liberal clichés. But what is noticeable is that an overwhelming majority of the class now tilts towards the Right. And this is happening when you have highest ever number of girls and subaltern castes in classrooms today. I am often surprised at how widespread and vocal is the support for Narendra Modi. For example, I have had students coming up and saying how their parents support SP or BSP but they are happy with the BJP sweeping the UP elections as ‘we are nationalists’ too.
I have never faced any conflict with the administration as yet. Creating conflicts with the administration is what comrades do, I am too conservative to destabilise institutions for instability and anarchy.
What do you think of the current political discourse in our universities?
Well, the real question is about the relative lack of political discourse and depoliticization of the universities but I think your question pertains to the recent high-profile incidents in few universities like JNU, HCU or DU. You can’t understand the real political discourse in educational institutes without accounting for the rapidly changing demography. You now have huge number of first time learners especially from the Dalit and backward castes, which has shaken the old cosy gentlemen’s club that left-wing student politics was. These students have a very different understanding and experiences to be interested in the secular-communal or fascism debate. It is this demographic change which is fuelling the right-wing surge across the campuses. They don’t come from families of the ‘global citizens’, for them India is a real entity, focus of their aspirations not just a travel-stop in their career. They don’t understand the convoluted discussions of ‘can the subaltern speak?’, for they are the subalterns who are speaking! No these students have not read Foucault or Derrida, for most of them access to course books itself was a luxury. But they know their Ambedkar or Vivekananda.
In fact, even when you talk about JNU, Left is a spent force. Besieged by the right, it has been undermined by the Ambedkarite forces. Left is just a shell, pretending to be alive in TV debates and orchestrated ruckus for media consumption like the one at Ramjas. It’s outright hilarious that the same bunch of 40-50 professional protestors are present everywhere from JNU to Ramjas and are being presented as the voice of the students! In my view, the campus discourse will be dominated by the Savarkarite and Ambedkarite forces in the coming years and there is no particular reason why they would always be in conflict with each other.
There is a general perception that the right-wing lacks young thinkers. What do you say to that?
It’s just an extension of the stereotype that right-wing lack thinkers. The harsh reality is that it’s the left-wing which is depleted of young thinkers. When did any left-wing young thinker make a new point? Just repeating the same old cliché and failed ideas, which have been repeated for decades or parroting the articles written by aged professors doesn’t make you a thinker. On the contrary, the right-wing is churning with a million views. One just has to see the flood of blogs, web-sites, magazines, and social media in recent times to get a glimpse. Most of the contributors are young, with strikingly fresh perspectives. For example, a series of articles about the collaboration of the Hindu merchant castes with Islamic invaders of India has set the entire young right-wing circle on fire with applause, critique, and vehement disagreements. You don’t find any such passionate debates on the other side, the fire is dead out there. The only thing they can dig out is that RSS didn’t participated in the freedom struggle or which caste Mahishasura belonged too!
The general perception you are talking about has been created because of the institutional control by the Left for the large part of our post-independence history, which has denied space to the right-wing scholars. So what you are talking about is actually the lack of institutional recognition. Even 15-20 years back in JNU, there were right-wing students who would contest left-wing professors in public debates & classrooms but none of them could remain in academics as avenues were not open to them. Many of them had to take up other professions or move abroad. It’s telling that they could find teaching positions abroad but not in India. Even today, many social sciences students including Dalits and OBCs have told me how they belong to the right-wing, vote ABVP in JNUSU elections but pretend to be left or centrist in their academic work just to secure their career. It is also a huge failure of the right to create its own institutions and ecosystem, which can guarantee a clear career path to such people.
Does the new generation of the Sangh Parivar still believe in Mandir-Masjid politics?
Well, I am in no position to speak on behalf of the Sangh parivar. But as far as the Hindu right is concerned, yes, there is an overwhelming support to rebuild important temples destroyed during the medieval period. In fact, it’s an overwhelming view among the Hindus, irrespective of whom they vote in elections. To present it as a Sangh Parivar agenda is erroneous and escaping from the reality.
Tell me a little about your family background. How has your caste-identity shaped your thought and politics?
I come from Awadh in Uttar Pradesh. My father came from a family of small farmers and was a first generation learner. Fortunate enough to get education in a village, he moved on to earn a B.Sc from the Allahabad university, after which he joined the state civil services and retired as the Member Tribunal of the Commercial Tax Department. Contrarily, my mother came from a well-positioned family which had huge (tracts of) land, business concerns and even produced a member of UP legislative assembly, from Congress of course! A rarity among the Dalit communities back then. As a result, she lived an urban life, secured a good education of M.A then B.Ed, which I am told meant a big deal back then. I grew up in a mixed-caste environment due to my father’s job profile. But growing up in this middle class urban setting also meant that you are placed at an interesting vantage point from where you can watch the curious play of caste and class under the forces of modernisation.
So yes, like most Dalits, you quickly learn about caste because it’s the first thing enquired about when you step out of your home. I don’t know if it was because of that or because of my reading habit that I had more awareness of caste, society, and politics than my schoolmates or even collegemates. But it was only after coming to JNU that caste began to become an ever more dominant discourse. It was not just due to the prevalent JNU discourse but also due to the fact that we were now being sucked up into the mainstream society. People around me, whatever their caste, were discovering their caste networks. We were finally being socialised into the norms of the Indian society.
But I also saw something very troubling. The Dalit discourse was and continues to be heavily dominated by non-Dalits who define the popular perception of our collective aspirations. So it’s the ivory tower left-wing academia, or demagogues like Kancha Ilaiah or the likes of Arundhati Roy who have a defining word on what it means to be a Dalit or what do Dalits want! The reason it is so, is not because that Dalits cannot represent themselves but about who controls the institutions and public sphere.
An agenda-driven faux narrative has been imposed upon Dalits like Dalits are not Hindus, Dalit-Muslim unity, Dalits are against the Indian state and what not! As I was growing up, I never saw a Dalit who was not a Hindu! And I am talking about educated, successful, politically active people whom you can’t accuse of being ignorant. Even my family is traditional Shaktas! But here I came to JNU and suddenly I was being told by non-Dalit comrades and intellectuals that Dalits are not Hindu! So I decided that if the likes of Kancha Ilaiah or Arundhati Roy can appropriate the voice of the Dalits, surely, real Dalits too can speak as Dalits. I, therefore, started to openly voice my opinions as a Dalit.