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The interrogation of learning by ignorance

By Tabish Khair

Recently, several human rights activists, alleged to be ‘conspirators’, were taken into custody by the police in India. Who are these activists or ‘conspirators’?
I cannot answer this question, except by quoting from the newspapers, as I do not know any of them. I do not even know them through their writing, which probably reveals one of my areas of ignorance. While all of them are established scholars or journalists, I can only vaguely recognise a couple of names from media reports read in the past. Hence, I am not in the position to ‘attest to their character’, to use a foolish but, in this case, inevitable phrase.
I do not even know those who know these arrested activists personally. Given my ignorance, I cannot question the information that the police might have, or the decisions they take in the name of national security, provided, of course, that these are legally justified and constitutionally permitted. For me the activists are innocent, unless proved guilty in a court of law, and so are the police.
Because, if some on the Right jump to conclusions about activists, some on the Left, given their suspicion of state power, also jump to conclusions about the police. It is best to wait for the evidence to come out in a court of law.
However, while I am not going to pronounce hasty judgment on either the activists or the police, I have a problem with what happened. That is because I know some scholars who know people associated with these arrested activists or ‘conspirators’. I know these ‘third persons’ — people who know people who know the arrested activists — as well-meaning scholars whose political leanings are ‘human’ rather than ‘party’ ones. This is what one of them wrote to me: “What has left me shaken is the police raid on the home of one of my teachers. Professor K. Satyanarayana is the Dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at EFL University, Hyderabad, where I did my MA years ago. He specialises in Dalit Studies and, as a Dalit himself, is sincerely invested in its academics. I owe most of what I know about caste and society in India to him. He is a wonderful teacher and one of the kindest, nicest people I know. His house in the university campus was vandalised by gun-toting policemen: they [the Professor and his wife] were confined to their home for several hours with no external contact allowed and interrogated about their choice of lifestyle, which the police insisted came from their association with banned organisations. All this, because his wife is the daughter of Varavara Rao, one of the arrested activists. They came with a warrant written in Marathi, a language neither Satya nor his wife understand, that only authorised them to look for Varavara Rao in their house, but proceeded to destroy his 30 years’ worth of academic material. They took away his books, computers, gained access to his email, and reportedly asked impertinent and stupid questions [about his inter-caste marriage, among other things].”
This, being a personal account by a scholar I trust, leaves me deeply disturbed. It describes something that should not have happened — and it describes this happening to someone just because they are related to one of the arrested activists. Above all, it depicts the heavy-handed treatment of scholarship by ignorance, a habit no democracy can condone.
I will not say more, because I have no desire to speak only to Left-leaning readers. Instead, I will tell you another story. This is a story from another country, another place. Let me turn the page and the year.
The year is 2015. The place is that part of Syria which is controlled by the Islamic State (IS). The man is an 82-year-old archaeologist named Khaled al-Asaad. He has broken a major law of the IS: he has protected idols and a past that the IS wants to erase. He has ‘conspired’ with the West. He has ignored the IS’s version of Islam. For this, the IS has tortured him for a month. They want him to reveal where valuable artefacts, including idols, from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra have been hidden for safekeeping. These artefacts are a thorn in the IS’s flesh. An oasis in the Syrian desert, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. Its 2,000-year-old art and architecture is a blend of various civilisational influences, including Greco-Roman and Persian ones. Its cultural hybridity and ‘idolatrous’ iconography are anathema to the IS.
Khaled al-Asaad refuses to divulge the information. The IS beheads him and hangs his body from a column at the heart of the ancient city.
No, don’t jump to conclusions. I am not comparing our activists — or ‘conspirators’ — with al-Asaad, the activist and ‘conspirator’ executed by the IS. India is nothing like the IS. There is no comparison.
But surely, the inability of the politically blinkered to comprehend the expanse of scholarship in both the cases is just an unhappy coincidence? Surely, the uncouth interrogation of learning by ignorance is just collateral damage?
But again, surely, it should not happen in a country like India, a democracy with its hoary traditions of learning?