A spectre is haunting Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)—the spectre of Indian dialectical materialism (dialectical materialism, as anyone in JNU will tell you, is a philosophical approach to reality derived from the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels).
In Room 14 of Kaveri Hostel, a group called The New Materialists is dreaming of annihilating caste distinctions, obliterating religion and destroying the trinity of LPG—liberalization, privatization and globalization.
In their new world, there will be no gods. Nor will there be fanatical adoration of pop stars like cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and actor Shah Rukh Khan. No one will drink Pepsi, no one will read The Times of India. Public revelry for film star Amitabh Bachchan’s birthday… no. They will be curtailed as customs left over from the dark days of capitalism.
“Bachchan might be a convincing actor but he is reduced to being a mascot of neo-liberalism,” says Anandha Krishna Raj, an MPhil student in international law and a founder-member of The New Materialists. A native of Tamil Nadu, he and two other members of the group are articulating the objectives of the movement, which will observe its first anniversary next month on Diwali.
Speaking in a calm tone, Suraj Bery, a student of social sciences, says, “By overthrowing this bourgeois society centred around consumerism and caste antagonism, we aim to establish a casteless socialist civilization.”
Until last September, The New Materialists were limited to the hillocks and gardens of the JNU campus. That was before they attempted to host an on-campus beef and pork food festival. Right-wing groups such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad staged protests. The JNU registrar issued a circular warning students against the “possession, consumption or cooking of beef on campus”. The Rashtriya Goraksha Sena (“a cow protection outfit”) filed a petition, the Delhi high court directed the authorities to ensure that the festival did not take place. The university administration suspended one New Materialists member and issued show-cause notices to three others for allegedly causing unrest on the campus. Students sympathetic to the movement staged a six-day hunger strike in protest.
“The food festival was not about our taste buds, as alleged by a Hindi newspaper,” says Anoop Singh Patel, a PhD student in African studies whose suspension was later revoked by the university. “Beef and pork deal with religion and we, The New Materialists, believe that religion is the tool of the upper castes through which they dictate every layer of society on what to think, say, wear and eat.”
The New Materialists follow the ideals of “dialectical and historical materialism” and devote themselves to the study of the “Indian material thoughts” of E.V. Ramasamy “Periyar” and B.R. Ambedkar, who were known for their critical views on Hinduism. “They have written in great detail about the hegemony of the Brahmins, and their works make for necessary reading to understand how caste works in India,” says Raj, who objects to my referring to Ambedkar as a Dalit icon because “I’m not a Dalit and he is my icon too”.
To announce their inception in November last year, The New Materialists put up posters on the campus of an English translation of Periyar’s critique of the Hindu festival of Diwali, which was originally published in the Tamil magazine Viduthalai in 1956. The poster ends with the phrases “He who created god was a fool! He who propagates god is a scoundrel! He who worships god is a barbarian!!!”
The reaction was swift. Within 24 hours, all the posters were torn and The New Materialists entered the public consciousness of JNU. In March, the group held a meeting in the Koyna Hostel mess to discuss “The Politics of Food Culture: The Holy Cow and the Unholy Swine”.
Provocatively titled talks are not out of place in JNU. “For generations, teachers and students have nurtured a space for dissent on this campus,” says Nivedita Menon, a JNU professor who has attended meetings of The New Materialists. “Sometimes, the authorities are not welcoming, but they too are part of the university’s culture of democracy and dissent, which hasn’t evolved by accident but through tireless daily intervention from both the teachers and the students. We’ve worked hard to produce and maintain this spirit of JNU.”
And the spirit leans firmly towards the Left. The notable alumni include Leftist leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury. In the student union elections held last month, three of the four posts were bagged by the All India Students’ Association, the students wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), while the president’s post was won by a candidate from the Students’ Federation of India-JNU, a breakaway group of the students wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The new president’s name is V. Lenin Kumar.
In an internal American diplomatic communiqué, leaked by WikiLeaks in 2011, JNU is described as “The Kremlin on the Jumna”. One cable, published by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, says: “At its inception in 1969, Indira Gandhi hoped JNU would become the haven of intellectuals bent on countering right and left extremism and encouraging democratic expression. JNU failed to fulfil its stated purpose, however, as the University came quickly to be dominated by the Indian Left, which has remained in control ever since.”
In one of the leaked memos, an anonymous alumnus describes his alma mater as “a utopia, where politically and intellectually charged students rarely wished to leave for the real world, a haven from traditional India, where women mingled with men until the wee hours of the morning, and students from depressed rural backgrounds were provided opportunities to come into their own”.
The New Materialists have no office, no politburo and no registered members. Their base of operations is a Gmail address, and they are writing their manifesto. “We are different from the earlier generation of Indian Marxists,” says Raj, “who were of upper caste and class with educational backgrounds in foreign universities. They had no idea of how untouchability worked on the ground.”
The kind of world The New Materialists seek to create can be glimpsed through the authors they read, the musicians they hear and the places they frequent. Apart from Marx, Lenin, Ambedker and Periyar, they pore over the works of George Orwell, Ramswaroop Varma, and Bhagat Singh. In addition to John Lennon and Bob Marley, their computers contain the music of the Adivasi singer Jeetu Marandi and the Naxalite Telugu balladeer Gaddar.
The New Materialists’ hangouts in Delhi consist of Jantar Mantar (to protest), India International Centre (for seminars), Teen Murti Bhavan (for the library), Pragati Maidan (for the book fair) and the National School of Drama (for theatre). Although JNU is a 10-minute walk from India’s first McDonald’s outlet in Basant Lok Market, they prefer the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place, the same loss-making café whose impending closure is featured every year in newspapers.
The room of a New Materialists member in Kaveri Hostel looks as ordinary as any postgraduate student digs. There is the unmade bed, the cluttered writing table, and the desktop computer. Two things stand out: a wall poster of Periyar and a hard-bound edition of the ABC of Dialectical And Historical Materialism. Printed by Moscow’s Progress Publishers in 1976, it has chapters with long-winding titles such as Consciousness Is a Reflection of the Material World, and The Law of Transition of Quantity Into Quality and Labour, Language And Thought.
Analysing the current affairs through the prism of their ideologies, their opinions differ from those espoused every night on our TV screens. Picking up the day’s newspaper (The Hindu, of course), Raj scans the front page and says: “Karnataka refused to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu despite an order from Delhi. This shows India is not one nation but a land of many nationalities.”
Are they not patriotic Indians?
“Our nationalism is not about waving flags at cricket matches, it’s for the uplift of the oppressed,” says Bery. “The ruling class serves the purpose of capitalism and communalism.”
So what is to be done?
“It might sound absurd to talk of bringing about a revolution while sitting in a hostel room,” says Patel in a firm voice, “but the working-class majority will soon rise to overthrow this fascist state.”
Capitalists of the world, run.