Re-Centering Delhi: Thinking Beyond JNU and Jamia

Lutyens Delhi is undergoing a change both socio-political and architectural. Source: Financial Express

It was a hazy and cold winter evening in December 2016 in the hallowed liberal grounds of the India International Centre Annex in Lutyens Delhi where the power elite of the media and social sectors had gathered. 

This included Naresh Fernandes, the honcho of Scroll.in, Hartosh Singh Bal, political columnist and Magsaysay Awardee Bezwada Wilson among a constellation of significant others for the relaunch of the premier regional media platform, The Himal South Asian which was moving to Colombo from Kathmandu via a detour in Delhi. 

The interesting bit about the concept of the platform was flipping the narrative lens from North to the South instead of the stereotypical vice versa. 

The platform, known for its critical perspective founded by veteran Nepalese journalist Kanak Mani Dixit was hounded out of Nepal due to increased state pressure. The inversion of the traditional gaze on South Asia as presented in the imagery below is a powerful imaginary about the possibilities of multiple articulations of South Asia, rather than a thought process borrowed extensively from the colonial handbook. 

An Inverted South Asia. Source- Himal South Asian

The rarefied echelons of power such as the Lutyens based institutions in South Delhi as the above-mentioned India International Centre, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, India Habitat Centre, American and French Cultural Centres, Bikaner House in the proximity of Khan Market and the entire diplomatic establishment make this terrain of real estate one of the most concentrated social and cultural capital. 

The think tank seminar circuit is housed in these spaces where ideas and capital circulate as the traditional power elite try to hold on their turf in the Modi era. 

The think tank intelligentsia is fed by manpower from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or the Jamia Milia Islamia (Jamia), a designated minority institution and colleges from the Delhi University ecosystem such as Hindu, St Stephens or Lady Sriram College.

The alumni from JNU and Jamia Milia Islamia, home to MCRC- a famed journalism school with famous former students such as Washington Post Columnist Barkha Dutt and Bollywood Star Shah Rukh Khan have a good hold of the newsrooms of the NCR. 

NDTV, a bastion of the so-called secular media is in Greater Kailash in South Delhi in the proximity of JNU itself. The geographical familiarity makes for greater media coverage of events at JNU, Jamia Milia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh, the sites of anti CAA/NRC protests which have transformed into theatres of a desi culture war between the government and the liberals.

There are thousands of higher educational institutions in India, however why is it only JNU and Jamia are given the privilege of perennial media coverage bordering on attention fatigue and saturation? 

The reason lies in the exclusive clubs of access lubricated by relational elite networks built upon decades by alumni in the bureaucracy and media, which creates an illusion which they like to manufacture, whether it is grounded in firm reality or a feeble signal amplified for political messaging, the reader is well positioned to gauge for him/herself. 

Driven out of ballot box centred political power, the old spaces of privilege fight back through these highly visible however trivial theatres of contest for control of the narrative. 

One dominant sphere of influence are humanities and social sciences faculties in the western world, where liberal academics and writers primarily of Indian origin and India watchers furiously file meaningless Change.Org petitions and write for edit pages peddling an anti Modi view, which impacts how the world perceives India. 

The coverage includes the recent Economist cover implying an intolerant India and the pre-election Time Magazine cover of ‘Divider in Chief’ by Author Atish Taseer, stripped recently of his OCI Card by the government. 

However, India has a large domestic consumption market which is resilient to create an internal demand, and global investors interested to capture long term value, will remain invested in the country. 

Many liberal thinkers such as Mukul Kesavan, Shiv Visvanathan and Amit Chaudhuri have written eloquent articles on the anti CAA/NRC protests which have almost elevated the minor liberal campus-based protests in to pop culture and attempted to equate Shaheen Bagh to a Tahrir Square or a Shahbag which is an exercise in sheer hyperbole. 

An example of over exaggeration is a half pager in the Economic Times on Aishe Ghosh, the President of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student’s Union who is a research student in a university. 

Media is manufacturing a pseudo leadership bubble, by doing a ‘Kanhaiya’ to Ms. Ghosh, another example of an articulate former student leader popular on the liberal seminar circuit and primetime TV studio debates. 

The remaking of this subgenre of liberal Delhi culture is underway with a counter narrative being nurtured by cultural nationalist think tanks such as the India Foundation of BJP Leader Mr. Ram Madhav and the National Security focused Vivekananda Foundation. 

There are pro BJP academics/bureaucrats such as Prof Makarand Paranjape, helming the prestigious government run policy think tank- Shimla based Indian Institute of Advanced Studies and Mr. Shakti Sinha at the Nehru Museum and Library in New Delhi which hosted prolific author Mr. Hindol Sengupta for his book launch on Hinduism. 

The media architecture is evolving as well, with Right Wing Media Iconoclast and Republic TV founder Arnab Goswami, a trained social anthropologist from Cambridge for every Rajdeep Sardesai, a known Modi baiter, Media Star, former First-Class Cricketer, Author and Oxford Law Graduate. 

His spouse Sagarika Ghose, senior journalist and fellow Rhodes Scholar is the daughter of Bhaskar Ghose, a Director General of Prasar Bharati, the state broadcaster during the height of the Congress Rule. 

The liberal power elites are however a closed loop social network of the old school boys club kind, accessed only by privilege, the ‘Naamdars’, in the lexicon of Prime Minister Modi which means, the elites who rule by the virtue of their family name, their inherited social capital.

Lutyens Delhi is being reworked through the creation of the Central Vista, designed by Architect Bimal Patel, a Modi Favourite who designed the splendid Sabarmati Waterfront in Amdavad.The expansion in the spatial dynamics of Lutyens is a rupture to the old elite’s Idea of Delhi.

The condescension of the liberals for the religiously minded Hindu, who felt a pride in ones cultural ethos, degraded as vernacular country pumpkin is the primary reason, that the idea of Delhi, as a pseudo secular power hub is being decentred.

The power duo from Gujarat is doing this from within the city as a bypass operation by bringing in other marginalised, subaltern perspectives from outside the national capital region; Puri, Varanasi, Nagpur and beyond. 

India is a subcontinent of 1.4 billion souls, where regional centres have their own vernacular ecosystem of meaning, power and structures. 

In Modi’s New India, its about time to give equality of opportunity to other regional centres a key role in shaping the future with its own media and policy infrastructure.

Why should not Pune/Madurai/Motihari/Silchar/Thiruvananthapuram shape the national conversation, as the national is a summation of the regional. 

Pune is an academic hub with a rich history and should have a greater role in creating policy pathways for Maharashtra and India. Madurai, the ancient temple city and hub of culture can be a hub for our relationship with Sri Lanka and ASEAN with a massive Tamil speaking diaspora. 

Silchar, in Assam with a large Bengali population can be a springboard to Myanmar as well as Bangladesh. Motihari on the India-Nepal Border mediates an informal relationship with the culturally continuous part of Nepal called the Madhes in the plains. Thiruvananthapuram has played an outsized part with our relationship with the GCC thanks to its massive migrant workforce. 

Each part of the country has a different yet unique imagination of the nation applying the notion of a ‘Country as an Imagined Community’ in the words of scholar Benedict Anderson. 

The southern part of India never suffered the ramifications of a deleterious partition which left a deep scar on the soul of the nation. In my conversations with scholars and writers from Kerala for instance with a large minority population, the understanding of refugee justice is missing while favouring an anti CAA/NRC stance, as the partition memory cannot be grasped in entirety, and is perceived from anti minority framework. 

This seventieth Republic Day, as we celebrate our constitutional democracy, we hope that every part of the country from Imphal to Porbandar, and Leh to Kanyakumari are brought in from the periphery to the core of the national conversation in the upcoming decade in the life of our nation, rather than a purely national capital obsessed thought process. 

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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