The Manipal Institute of Technology in Karnataka has suspended an assistant professor after a video showing a Muslim student powerfully criticizing him for calling him by a terrorist’s name went viral on social media. Reacting to the teacher labelling him as “Kasab” after the 26/11 gunman Ajmal Kasab, the student says, “Being a Muslim in this country and facing all this every day is not funny, sir.” “You can’t joke about my religion, that too in a derogatory manner,” he adds. During this entire exchange, the classmates of the student remained silent, either giggling or fiddling with their hair.
Apart from the normalized Islamophobia shown in the aforementioned case, what stands out is the apathy of the students towards their Muslim classmate. While the former is linked to the rise of cultural majoritarianism, the latter pertains to the depoliticization of society. These twin tendencies are logically intertwined, based in the neoliberal reforms implemented by the Indian ruling class beginning from 1991. The intention of these reforms was to undermine the practice of socialistic planning of the Nehruvian state. In the immediate post-colonial context, such a form of state regulation was established in order to the control the rapaciousness of the private-sector bourgeoisie and promote the upliftment of the people pauperized by colonial exploitation. Thus, socialistic planning was based on the concept of equality, the recognition that social forces had to be coordinated in order to protect the interests of marginalized sections. This ideological structure found its cultural counterpart in the notion of secularism, which aimed at curbing the voraciousness of majoritarianism so that minorities could exercise their democratically guaranteed civic rights.
In the neoliberal era, the jettisoning of socialistic planning in favor of market liberalization meant that the ethic of equality had to be replaced by the spirit of individualist competition. From now on, the economic relations among the people of India were to be determined not through a political rationality focused on promoting the common good but through the atomistic clash of self-maximizing objectives pursued by “rational” individuals. Efficiency was to be achieved through the competitive struggle of individuals, wherein the failure of a person would be the result of his/her personal weaknesses. In this social Darwinian worldview, the presence of social inequalities would be masked by an aspirational rhetoric of hard-work. The outcome of this normative perspective is a discourse that repudiates the pursuit of equality and champions values of selfishness. Politics as a domain of collective self-determination shrinks with the growing emphasis on individualist self-sufficiency.
Insofar that the entrenchment of the neoliberal personality signifies the weakening of equality, the cultural strength of secularism declines precipitously. According to Aijaz Ahmad, the mass psychology of neoliberalism is “premised on the idea of infinite competition among unequals.” This means that relations among denominational communities are “to be determined by majoritarianism, as relations in the market are determined by prior possession of property and levels of accumulation”. In the domain of education, this marriage of neoliberal economics and cultural brutality has manifested itself in a very stark manner. The commercialization and privatization of learning has meant that a student is not a creative pedagogical actor but a consumer of degrees battling with others to enhance his/her job prospects. In this war of all against all, the “exam warrior” can freely trammel upon others to attain victory. What matters is the raw power possessed by the students. This power can have a cultural grammar, expressed in majoritarian attitudes that assert the abject inferiority of the Other. The socio-economic backwardness of the Muslim community can be rationalized as the result of their cultural characteristics. Here, we can see how the competitive atomism of “exam warrior” spills over into the cultural parochialism of a distinctly defined Hindu community, which is waging a war against a Muslim population perceived to be parasitically feeding upon national wealth. The depoliticized student who is so fixated on careerism that he/she justifies structural inequalities displays a similarly callous approach when it comes to the majoritarian oppression of a religious community. Today, the conjuncture in which Indian students find themselves demands that they oppose this combination of free market fundamentalism and religious conservatism to preserve the country’s democratic institutions.
Yanis Iqbal is a student