Student Protests, Policing, and Academia: A Fine Balance?

By Kanchana N. Ruwanpura

“Actually speaking, madam, there is nothing I can do. Sometimes the law works just like a lemon-and-spoon race.  The eviction has to take place. You can appeal later.” A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

JNU Student sit-ins; Courtesy: Dr Wilfried Swenden

It is late April 2016; I had wanted to scribble some thoughts on what was supposed to be India’s finest hour in a neoliberal age under a Hindutva government after a trip to Delhi around mid-February.  As usual work pressures got in the way.

Mid-February in India was a time that we, a small group of academic colleagues and I were in Delhi, which happened to coincide with Make in India week.  India was showcasing to our global world its capacities and capabilities, where with a wandering and excluded populace, to paraphrase Kalyan Sanyal, it was a post-colonial economy ripe for further capitalist development incursions. It was also a time when the University of Edinburgh had a high profile academic delegation visiting India, headed by the Principal, to scope potential collaboration opportunities.  During this same time, India was also facing a grave crisis within its academic sector and some of its more laudable characteristics and values, the respect for the law, for pluralism, for diversity and dissent, were all under threat.  India was also being unmade.


A call to academic administrators, both in South Asia and the UK, to engage with their students and appreciate the fact that they have become the critical citizens that Universities aspire to produce, rather than clamping down on protest or standing by whilst others do. CLICK HERE FOR THE CAMPAIGN AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH

For those of us with short memories or even wholly unaware of social unrest in other parts of the world or are unable to appreciate intricate connections between different global spaces, India’s Make in India week started on February 13th 2016.  It was launched with an opening speech by its Prime Minister, who claimed that India was involved in its “biggest branding exercise”, extolling the virtues of India’s capitalist capabilities and the steps the India state had taken to facilitate the needs of capital by rapidly overhauling its infamous bureaucratic red-tape. A day before a student activist leader at one of India’s premier Universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), was arrested for sedition.  His crime?  To have dissented; while trying to break a scuffle between students protesting against the execution of Afzal Guru, who was allegedly involved in the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, and a right-wing student group (ABVP  – the BJP’s student wing), Kanhaiya Kumar’s critical speech was used against him on grounds of sedition and nationalism.  Being no scholar of India, I rely on Shirin Rai’s penetrating analysis, which notes that events around Kanhaiya’s arrest, the policing and fear propagated within JNU was undoubtedly a moment of sacrificing democratic governance for short-term electoral gain. What I can say based on first-hand experience on the JNU campus during a few days was the admirable solidarity between academic staff and students opposing a heavy-handed University administration; teach-ins and sit-ins on a daily basis in front of the administrative offices – on a platform that contested state intrusion into its academic space.

Wall of Solidarity, JNU Administration Building; Courtesy: Dr Wilfried Swenden

There can be no doubt that when we permit policing and surveillance priorities to make incursions into academic spaces, which were fashioned to educate, promote and nurture critical thinking and civic values, we emasculate the very meaning of academia. The Indian state was deliberately sabotaging academia as a space of critical thinking, civic consciousness and dissent; there was no space for students who demonstrated integrity, intelligence and desire to create an alternative vision of a different India.  If we had any doubt as to the Indian state’s motivations, once the international solidarity pressured the Indian state to remove the presence of Delhi police at JNU, one only had to turn its gaze towards the University of Hyderabad where peaceful student protestors are being dealt with similar violent harassment since January 2016.

Why pen thoughts about it now; in late April?  When the University of Edinburgh’s high profile delegation was in India at the time of policing events unfolding at JNU, in our attempts to woo India, not too many of my colleagues dared to voice their unease, if there was one, in the public blogs maintained. Where, those other than Wilfried Swenden and Roger Jeffery, made reference to these episodes, they referred euphemistically to an India that faces many challenges, despite its many promises. This is all an internationally outstanding University since 1583 was publicly willing to say; during courtship one does not make sensitive public pronouncements – or so I thought.

People and Planet; Courtesy: Mary Hanlon

It appears in late April, there is more than just public courtship at stake.  At the University of Edinburgh, the group People and Planet have been peacefully protesting and urging the University to divest investment from fossil fuels (a long running campaign not just at the University of Edinburgh but also British academia and globally).  From information shared by EUSA with the academic community, six students were informed that they were to be subject to a disciplinary inquiry – giving them a short time frame, until April 22nd 2016, to respond.  To a collective letter sent by the academic community in support of the student protestors, a University administrator responded to clarify any misconceptions that we – the academics may have; the investigation was to be about any allegations of potential misconduct.  While the students did have a right to peaceful protest, the University also had a duty of care towards working staff – “the right to protest must be balanced with other University responsibilities….”.  That the University decided to embark on this shameful exercise during the revision period and just before student examinations, a stressful time for students, is not just a question of poor timing and judgment, it is also about University administrators making decisions to be heavy handed and send a message to peacefully protesting students that they too will set the parameters on spaces for dissent.  So despite the University of Edinburgh’s laudable proclamations of making a world of critical thinkers that have shaped and influenced the world – and indeed it has, it too joins the slippery slope of curtailing the space for critical thinking and dissent within academia.

Whether this occurs in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Britain itself, the unfortunate upshot is likely to be the same – dissent and peaceful protest is to be curtailed; policing and surveillance is to be the norm*. So even in the absence of any specific allegations of excessive behaviour on the part of students and indeed despite having alternative plans around working spaces for its staff, the law and University regulations are invoked to undermine the critical and precious space of academia.  It too is suggesting, quoting Rohinton Mistry from A Fine Balance, “Sometimes the law works just like a lemon-and-spoon race.  The eviction has to take place.  You can appeal later.”


* The ways in which academics are compelled to engage in the policing and surveillance of overseas (T-4) students, as per the diktats of UKBA compulsions, and how the University and indeed all or many universities have uncritically embarked on wide-scale surveillance of its academic community, students and support staff alike, are of course all part of the creation of a surveillance society in the West.  How we too are sleep-walking into a Stasiland, a la Anna Funder, and mimicking the worst excesses of the former Communist bloc seems to evade the notice of University administrators.

“Our Mahabharat has upped the benchmark for TV content in India”

Piyush Roy with Creative Director and Producer Siddharth Kumar Tewary and actors on the set of Mahabharat
Piyush Roy with Creative Director and Producer Siddharth Kumar Tewary and actors on the set of Mahabharat

SIDDHARTH KUMAR TEWARY, the 35-year-old creative director and producer of the biggest series in the history of Indian television, Mahabharat, belies most of the conventional images of an Indian mythology film or television maker. Coherent, contemplative, consistent and contemporary, he embodies the tone and tenor of his show that has definitely upped the benchmark for costume dramas in India. Starting with pan-Indian location shoots in the Himalayas, Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the monsoons may have compelled the drama’s biggest event the Mahabharat war to a chrome screen in a Gujarat studio, yet the show’s quality of content is still ahead of what one sees on Indian television today, in spite its over emotive war sequences of late.

Tewary in a candid chat with PIYUSH ROY, the Arts & Culture Editor of The South Asianist on a rainy evening at his Mumbai office reflects on the charms and challenges of a 21st century adaptation of the world’s longest epic and discusses its still abiding resonance and relevance.

This is not the first time Mahabharat is being adapted on the Indian television. What was your creative brief? 

My journey of making the Mahabharat started in 2009 though its telecast on the Star Plus channel commenced only in 2013. The channel’s visionary CEO, Uday Shankar’s lone brief to me was – ‘Along with new writing, I want you to break the way people look at television. I want you to take television content in India to another level of execution and production values.’ We have tried to make a show that is able to hold the attention of a new generation of viewers who have grown up watching an Avatar or Lord of the Rings.

What according to you is the attraction of Mahabharat as a TV series and a timeless tale?

I believe that Indians are god fearing and god loving people. So mythology can never, not excite our audiences. The challenge is how you make its telling exciting. People like characters and then they watch a story, they don’t like a story first and then watch its characters. And to make people like characters, there has to be emotional connect. Mahabharat is a treasure trove of human emotions. It is said in its opening verse – ‘what is here will be found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere…’ Every aspect of life is there in the Mahabharat. You cannot think of a better story in your lifetime.

When the Vedas were written, only a few read it. Not many know about it even today. So Mahabharat was written to understand the essence of the Vedas in an entertaining way. It is said, if you read the Mahabharat you have read the Vedas. What are the Vedas trying to say? It’s not telling that war is bad at the end of a war. It is trying to tell you a story, with a sub-text and a lesson within every plot on how to lead a quality life. That’s how we cracked the idea of getting the character of Lord Krishna to share the epic’s ever relevant messages as seekhs (relevant life lessons) that have become extremely popular.unnamed

Abridged and edited videos of Krishna’s teachings on different aspects of life from the series have acquired an independent, stand alone following of their own as evinced in their extensive sharing and viewing in the Net space. How did you come up with the idea of giving the ‘sutradhaar’ (narrator) role to Krishna?

Krishna in our show is not a conventional sutradhaar. A sutradhaar is one who connects the dots. He doesn’t connect any dots. If you see what he says and does, there is no connection between the previous scene and where he takes you. The normal storyline is flowing, where in Krishna comes to talk about the deeper philosophies, the subtexts around what we saw and how it connects with our world. The viewers hear him say, ‘Don’t try to be better than the best. Try to improve yourself and you will become the best.’ He is basically our voice to the nation, articulating whatever we have understood of the Mahabharat and thought to be worth emulating. We have given those thoughts to Krishna’s character to share them to the world, and the actor Saurabh (Jain), has taken its impact to some other level as a performer.

The popularity of actor Saurabh Jain’s Krishna has rekindled memories of devotee fanzine associated with ‘god’ protagonists in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1987-88) and B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata (1988-90). How did you go about casting for the mammoth series, which has at least 20 characters of a protagonist’s calibre?

Casting for the show was a critical process. The biggest question posed to every actor was, ‘Why does he/she want to do the show and what’s so unique about their role for them?’ We primarily targeted at getting actors hungry for good work, who wanted to prove a point and go all out. You cannot work on a Mahabharat just with the intention of making some money because shows like this don’t happen every day. You have to be prepared to give the time, effort and energy it demands to understand each character and come and ask the director 100 questions around its characterisation. Only those people who wanted to make a difference to their lives and were ready to give it their soul like me were cast. All of us working on the epic had one goal – to make our lives memorable!

What’s your take on the ongoing debate on whether Mahabharat is mythology or history?

I believe that Mahabharat is history. It was first written as an account of 18 days of an ancient war by sage Ved Vyas, called Jaya (Victory). Subsequent story tellers added the back stories to make it the Mahabharat that we read now. History is normally written about people who ruled. Mahabharat is a story of rulers, who ruled India centuries ago. Over generations many things have been added to the core narrative to make it a sort of mytho-history because some events do make one think it to be myth or a leap of faith. Most fiction normally comes with an expiry date of appeal. Can any fiction writer writing something relevant to today’s times claim that it will be relevant to readers’ centuries later? It’s impossible! Yet this is one story where everything written centuries ago is relevant even today. So it has to have been based on real people and events.

How did you balance the limits of historical authenticity with the liberties of mythology in your interpretation?

Research data on the period varies from observations like lack of colour in that era to a possibility of its characters living in caves, and the like. I wanted to make a grand visual epic, a representation that you would see and say ‘wow’ because if you ask a common person his perceptions about lifestyle in an epic, he or she would say that they perhaps drank in golden glasses. There’s a public perception every mythology or historical caters to. You can’t change those perceptions overnight. You can make it evolve. Our agenda was to evolve that perception while retaining the grandiosity of an epic by making it believable enough for the audience to say, ‘Yes they must have lived like this.’ Fact is that nobody knows how they lived. At best one can debate on the basis of something written by someone, but what’s the guarantee about its veracity? We hired specialists from various fields as consultants and told them about our vision. My brief to Oscar winner Bhanu Athaiya, who designed our costumes, was that the characters shouldn’t look from another country. They should look Indian, but be dressed in a way that if one looked at their jewellery they couldn’t say it to be today’s jewellery or costume, and she came up with this idea of hand embroidered costumes. Dr. Madhavi Narsalay, of the Department of Sanskrit, of University of Mumbai had given us the maps that we have used for the then Indian kingdoms and their territories, like today’s Kandahar was the Gandhar of that era.

unnamedThe war sequences have been critiqued to be tad too emotive. What’s your take on the last major ‘modern’ adaptation of the Mahabharat by Peter Brook (1989)?

Worldwide, any form of entertainment without emotion won’t work. Nobody is interested in just watching two people fight. Action without emotion is zero! However, if you are making the Mahabharat for the West you cannot make it the way we have done. You have to understand that their lifestyle and culture is different and condition your telling accordingly. For instance, there if something doesn’t fit you in a store you don’t give it for alteration you go for the next option that fits best. There the shops shut at 6 pm, here business picks up after 6 in the evening. I could just go on about the differentials… Fact is that our worlds are different. If you are making Mahabharat for that world, you might do it Peter Brooks’ way, but it didn’t appeal to me. I am a massy guy in my head so too much intellectualisation doesn’t work for me. A show has to talk to me, make me think, but in an entertaining way, it has to move me emotionally.

The year-long, 250 episodes plus, Mahabharat series comes to an end in August 2014. What’s next?

I am currently working on two historical projects one on Razia Sultan (India and the world’s first Muslim empress) and another on Ashoka the Great. After Mahabharat, the old style of making periodicals and costume dramas will no longer work in India. We have thus set a benchmark in a way. Normally TV soaps are written in the simplest possible manner to appeal to the lowest common denominator as people are not supposed to be thinking while watching TV. Our thought was to also attract those who want to engage with some thoughts and philosophies. That has also become the crux of my life – to entertain people and through that give a message, if I can, that life is good!

On-set, filming Mahabharat