Indians love statues. Why, then, would an image of national icon, Swami Vivekananda, sculpted by Naresh Kumavat, raise so much controversy? The answer is simple. The place where the statue was installed — New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU. Perhaps, one of the last academic bastions of the Left in India.
Yes, the far Left, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, has done unusually well in the recently completed Bihar elections. But they are far from being a dominant force in Bihar, let alone anywhere else in India. In JNU, the situation is different. The Left has ruled student politics from its very inception. Even to this day, Leftist student organisations control the diverse student unions, with members drawn from all parts of India and several parts of the world.
That JNU already has a prominently placed statue of Jawaharlal Nehru and a bust of B.R. Ambedkar in the library is beside the point. The opposition to the statue is not an outcome of animosity towards Vivekananda. Rather it is the fear of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The JNU Left is now afraid of being left behind in the march of the times.
Another self-goal by Left
The installation of the statue was seen as a prominent symbol of the saffronisation of the campus. In the campaign against it, the statue was vandalised a couple of times. An FIR was filed against unknown perpetrators. Not just campus dwellers, but the general public was also angry. In protesting against the statue, the Left has only scored another self-goal.
The Left’s ideological intolerance, dictatorial campus politics, and its diversionary tactics are well-known. The allegations that university funds were used for the statue were false. Former JNU student and current faculty member of Delhi University, Prof. Manoj Kumar, played an important role in raising the funds from private sources.
The statue, literally under wraps for months, was virtually unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday. Modi’s unveiling of the golden-hued figure of Swami Vivekananda on the ‘red’ JNU campus was, of course, widely reported.
But none of the reports even remotely do justice to what Modi actually said. His speech, as is his wont, was complex and masterly, inviting the youth of India to make a common cause for the larger benefit of the nation. Earlier, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal compared the two Narendras, Vivekananda and Modi, praising the latter for leading India into a new and glorious future.
Modi on ideology
Prime Minister Modi began by saying that the purpose of the statue was to inspire “a vision of divinity”. He wanted JNU students to imbibe courage and compassion from Vivekananda, in addition to ideas of service to the nation and love for humanity. In the darkest hour of despair and hopelessness, Vivekananda had roused a sleeping nation. Similarly, Modi wanted today’s young men and women, whom he called the brand ambassadors of the new India, to rise to the occasion.
Knowing the opposition to the statue, very astutely, Modi asked the students to stick to their ideologies because being true to one’s political beliefs was part of the idealism of youth and good for democracy too. But when it comes to the nation, we all have to rise above our ideological silos. Being chained to narrow confines would only damage us intellectually and politically.
He gave other examples of what he called the common cause of India. First of all, Swami Vivekananda, to whom I will revert later. But more recently in the living memory of India, to Mahatma Gandhi, who led an ideologically and politically diverse movement by making common cause against British rule in India. India’s freedom movement, to Modi, was a magnificent example of how we could rise above our selfish interests and party lines.
The other example he gave was of the Emergency. In the struggle against Indira Gandhi’s draconian and democracy threatening imposition, former Congress members and the RSS made common cause. Modi mentioned how he himself participated in this movement. Thus, ideologies are not a problem, nor are debate and dissent.
All of these are essential to vibrant democratic cultures, such as India. He mentioned how the Sabarmati Dhaba in JNU was a good place for such addas, what with its staple diet of chai and parathas. Healthy discussions, svasth samvad, make a democracy. Yes, Modi said, there is one type of ideology which isn’t all that good—that is avsarvaad, the ideology of pure selfishness and opportunism. That is one kind of disease that the youth, especially the idealistic and transformative section of society, ought to avoid.
Earlier, Modi plugged his government’s favourite policy slogan, Atmanirbhar Bharat, or self-reliant India, invoking Vivekananda’s ideals of self-knowledge, self-realisation, and self-empowerment. Modi clarified that Atmanirbhar Bharatdid not imply isolation or narcissism, but a vision to improve oneself and the nation, as also contribute to the welfare of the whole world. He said that his farm policies were based on the same principles of freeing the poorest of the poor from the burden of state regulations and allowing them to be self-reliant. He said reforms could only take place in an atmosphere of trust, vishwas, ensured by purity of intentions and beliefs (‘niyat aur nishtha ki pavitrata’).
Modi also emphasised humour, without which not only student politics but also student life would be dry and stressful. Earlier, he also flagged the importance of the new National Education Policy (NEP), which would promote all studies in all languages and regions of India. He mentioned how the very names of the hostels in JNU—Ganga, Yamuna, Sabarmati, Jhelum, Sutlej, and so on—were symbols of national unity and integration.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Modi once again proved that he is the political mastermind who can lift a specific occasion to an event of national significance, all the while promoting his party’s ideology and his own larger-than-life brand of leadership. For current JNU Vice-Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar, it was not only his finest moment but a fitting finale to a challenging and controversial tenure.
As an author of books on Vivekananda, I would add only one coda. Modi referred to a speech by Vivekananda at the University of Michigan in which Vivekananda was quoted as saying the 21st century would belong to India. After trawling through the complete works of Vivekananda, I cannot find any reference to such a speech.
Finally, when it comes to Modi’s quip, citing Vivekananda, that character, not tailors make one a gentleman, the irony will not be lost on those who’ve remarked on just how fastidiously well-dressed the Prime Minister himself is.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.