Some time back I received a link to a “point by point rebuttal” of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech. Not surprisingly, the rebuttal was being given by a person with IIT/ IIM background. I said “not surprisingly” because increasingly, I am finding some clear differences between the stances of people who belong to these two broad categories. Clearly there are variances within each group, but for the moment I am focusing on broad patterns. Also I am using both IIM and JNU in a symbolic sense. Not every JNU type necessarily belongs to JNU and not every IIM type necessarily belongs to an IIM. For example, before joining IIM Ahmedabad way back in 1970, I would describe myself as a JNU type though I had never been there. Let me elaborate.
After flirting with Engineering, I had made up my mind to pursue an academic career preferably in Philosophy. I was studying an unusual combination of Philosophy, psychology and Mathematics. Though I was reasonably good in academics, a large part of my time was spent in college canteen/ India Coffee house, pontificating about all kinds of issues. I was actively involved in student politics and had strong leftist leanings. Much later in life, I realised that these leftist leanings had very little to do with political ideology. They were more an expression of my “romantic idealism” and an innate “anti-establishment” streak. Thus while I revered people like George Fernandise and Madhu Limaye, the same reverence was not extended to Indira Gandhi in spite of the fact that she was fighting against a strong right-wing syndicate within the Congress party and had taken strong measures like bank nationalisation and abolishing of privy purses. Perhaps her being part of the “establishment” had much to do with it. Thus whatever she did was seen as political expediency, whereas whatever likes of Limaye did was seen as an act of commitment and conviction.
However, very soon I got disillusioned with the lack of substantiveness of University life,particularly in the philosophy department and made a compromise decision of joining IIM Ahmedabad. I call it a compromise decision because I had no emotive pull towards pursuing a career in Management. I wonder if any one pursues management education for the love of the subject. Generally speaking their choice is determined more by ambition and issues of career-success than emotional/intellectual fulfilment.
I soon discovered that both my romantic idealism as also my anti-establishment streak were not very compatible with the ethos of IIMA. I was surrounded by colleagues who were very proper in their behaviour,took their studies seriously and had brilliant academic records. While they liked an occasional “Adda”, their primary focus was on their studies, getting good grades and bagging a prestigious job at the end of the course. Further, management as a discipline is much more comfortable with rational pragmatism and tangible empirical evidence than any philosophical enquiry which is based on a different set of beliefs and assumptions about human condition. After all, it will not be very comfortable if managers were to start questioning the primacy of constructs like “cost-benefit analysis” or “increasing market share” or “growth/profitability”etc. Thus “managers are not philosophers” is a statement that has been repeatedly thrown at me both during my IIM days and thereafter. Gradually, my romantic idealism began to wither away and I was in the complete grip of my “anti-establishment” streak. This got manifested in blatant disregard for systemic requirements, mindless arguments and actions of utter self-waste. My stay at IIMA was best captured by a friend in the course-end booklet-
” All night card-games in smoke filled rooms,vehement arguments with harassed instructors, old film songs, impeccable Hindi : that’s Mama. On those rare occasions when he has the time and the inclination he goes to class” ( Mama was my nick name at the Institute)
To cut a long story short, I was a misfit amongst the JNU types and I became a misfit amongst the IIM types. Perhaps there is some perverse romanticism about being a misfit OR may be non-polarisation of ambivalence is such an integral part of my identity that no matter where I am, I become a misfit.This ambivalence has surfaced with great force in the last couple of months while the difference between the JNU types and the IIM types has become very sharp in the social discourse/social media triggered by some recent developments.In this discourse, I hear two very distinct voices both of which leave me feeling ambivalent.
The first voice I hear is of the JNU types. The romantic/idealist in me resonates strongly with their emphasis on humanistic values of liberty, Equality and Fraternity. My anti-establishment streak is reinforced when they talk of all the injustice and oppression that we have inherited from our past and how it is all too prevalent in our present social order. On the other hand, I also start feeling a little uneasy with their emphasis on only the negatives be it of our heritage or of our present condition. It overwhelms me with feelings of guilt and shame as an Indian and particularly as an upper caste Hindu. I ask myself – is caste/gender based oppression the only thing that they see about us? Do they see nothing to celebrate in the Indian reality? While they keep harping on virtues of diversity and plurality, have they ever bothered to ask as to what are the inherent strengths of this civilisation ? If caste/gender based oppression was its only narrative then how could this diversity flourish?
The other thing which puts me off about the JNU types is what I experience as their intellectual arrogance and the ease with which they dismiss any view point other than their own. The meanings that they give to words like Liberalism or Secularism or their narrative of Indian tradition and history can not be questioned. While they decry the Brahmincal Indian tradition, I wonder if they ever see as to how much of Intellectual Brahminism they display. They come across to me as very erudite people but leave me wondering about the depth of their assimilation of what they are talking about.
Another voice that I hear is of the IIM types. I strongly resonate with their rational pragmatism, with their refusal to be emotionally blackmailed by sentimentality, by their respect for structure/order and their pursuit of progress/development without upsetting the apple cart. My difficulty with them arises when they refuse to look beyond what seems like “common sense” to them -for example when they talk of “meritocracy” without getting into the nuances of “merit”. Listening to them I feel that there are no structural inequities in this world and all will be well provided there is “law and order” and people did their work honestly and diligently. Needless to say, corrupt politicians /bureaucrats are their favourite punching bags . Perhaps they do not see much difference between running a company and managing a nation state and believe that all that it takes to set things right is competent and honest leadership.
The other difficulty that I have with the IIM types is their arrogance of success. In their book, the ultimate test of any perspective is “success” which is invariably defined in tangible terms like GDP, FDI, Improvements in infra-structure etc. Any mention of intangibles like social disharmony, ambience of fear/intolerance, ecological insensitivity is either dismissed for “lack of evidence” or treated as minor aberrations or attributed to malevolence of people who want to detract us from our “development agenda”. Also in their world, people are clearly divided as “winners” and “losers” and needless to say, it is only “winners” who are regarded as worthy of listening to.
One of the main differences between the IIM types and the JNU types is the way they engage with the prevalent values and beliefs of their context. For the IIM types these values and beliefs are “common sense” and hence “self-evident”. They strive to play by the established rules and excel. Consequently they seek stability and thrive in it. On the other hand the JNU types believe that the rules themselves are flawed and need to be re-written. Hence they seek to disrupt and thrive in chaos. It is not easy (at least for me) to say as to who is right and who is wrong. I believe both are partly right and partly wrong.
What adds to the difficulty is the propensity of both groups to deploy the logic of “either-or” variety. Both groups seek to bifurcate on the basis of binaries like good-bad, right-wrong, true-false etc. It is another matter that what one group regards as “right”, the other sees it as “wrong”. Both groups are very sure of themselves and there is very little space for “self-doubt”. Thus one can only agree or disagree with them- particularly when it comes to their basic beliefs and assumptions.The end result is that rather than complementing each other, they end up fighting each other.
It is hardly surprising that some one like me for who “doubt’ has been a constant companion, should feel a bit out of place amongst people who are so sure, so clear, and so certain, irrespective of what specific position that they take. Simultaneously,since I have strong identification (and equally strong reservations ) with both JNU types and IIM types, I try to co-hold them to the best of my ability. Indeed it creates some difficulties, several misunderstandings and considerable confusion. If there is one thing that I am clear about – it is the need to co-held them, or for that matter all such perspectives/phenomenon which seem contrary and mutually exclusive.
Do share your experience with binaries both in yourself and the world around you.