The Politics of our Selves
<< The canonical version of this content is accessible on jtmartelli.com. This preprint – accepted manuscript version – is a forthcoming essay to be published in Modern Asian Studies (2021). The version of record will be available online in Fall 2020 on the publisher’s website. The SMUR version is archived on Academia.edu (incl. keywords). Citation will be downloadable on the Hal repository. This complies with the access policy of Cambridge Core. The original title of the article is: “The Politics of our Selves: Left self-fashioning and the production of representative claims in everyday Indian campus politics.”
Through engaging with everyday practices among student activists in contemporary Indian campus politics, this ethnographic study examines the breadcrumb trail between the left and self-fashioning. It focuses on a performative modality of political representation in Indian democracy by tracing the formation of biographical reconfigurations that implement subject-oriented techniques. The article charts out their relevance in producing political legitimacy. It engages with the way personal reconfigurations are mobilized to recruit and appeal to both subaltern and privileged communities, thus generating universalistic representative claims and political efficacy.
The study discusses self-presentations among leading left activists, members of five contending Marxist student organizations active in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. It shows that reconfigurations are a hallmark of practices of social ‘downlift’ which echoes the notion of declassifying, a concept developed by philosopher Jacques Rancière. While embracing secularism and the legacy of political martyrs, the analysis illustrates how self-fashioning attempts to erase signs and habits attached to economic and social privileges through subverting and engaging creatively with sacrificial and ascetic tropes. Conversely, such practices find themselves critically questioned by activists at the bottom of the social ladder who aspire to social upliftment, including members of lower castes and impoverished Muslim communities. I find that biographical effects of left activism are both long-lasting and renegotiable, shaping campus lives and subsequent professional careers. While such reconfigurations are not inspired by world renouncers of the Hindu mendicant tradition, these practices of the self might exemplify the historical cross-fertilization between longstanding cultural idioms and the Indian Marxist praxis.
It is commonplace to encounter an ascetic in a spiritual place, yet few expect a middle-aged errant with overgrown fingernails and shredded socks on necrotized toes to be found on a university campus of India’s capital. Even fewer imagine him to be caught claiming that with the advent of communism, madness in the world is coming to an end (Vidrohi in Bhasin 2015). However, in the years 2014-15 it was a matter of everyday experience for student activists at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to pass by the ‘secular ascetic’ of campus politics par excellence. Ramashankar Yadav, commonly known as Vidrohi (the rebel), attended all the campus protests, not missing any occasion to harangue the public and recite eccentric Hindi poems. Although his landed and relatively wealthy family (Shah 2012) – from a middle-caste background – regularly offered support to him (Akbar, interview 2015), he had voluntarily stayed as a vagrant in this notoriously leftist university since the 1980s, sleeping in the Students’ Union office or out in the open. He was often called “comrade” by the majority of socialist and Marxist-inspired campus activists, and would incite students to get involved in political activities (Singh 2015). As the once JNU student Vidrohi refused the assistance of relatives, he subsisted on food and cigarettes provided by the students. Arguably one of the best-known mascots of left activism in New Delhi, it did not come as a surprise when, a few days after his sudden death on 8 December 2015, a eulogy was released in the mouthpiece of a communist party: “Vidrohi died as he had lived – surrounded by students out on a protest march” (Krishnan 2016). Ahead of the cremation ceremony reverberating with slogans chanted by JNU students, the then President of the Students’ Union spoke about Vidrohi’s only belonging: campus activism.
When the JNUSU [JNU Students’ Union] results were declared, he told me one thing. As we know that he didn’t keep books, notebooks or pen, but he had a small pocket diary, he came to me and said, Azad [anonymized], please write your number in this diary. He said, “now I can stay one more year in the union office.” He looked sad but there was a hope and belief in his eyes. The way he lived his life, his departure was also spectacular [he had a cardiac arrest during a sit-in]. Those who want to go for his cremation they can go, but we also must take one responsibility. Comrade Vidrohi, whenever and wherever …he never used to miss protests and marches. The march will be incomplete if we don’t fulfil his dreams.
While scholarship on Marxism in India places emphasis on the economic sphere, it rarely scrutinizes the subjective routine and empirical aspirations of resolutely leftist politicians and activists such as Vidrohi. Not only do such aspirations of controversial secular ascetics interrogate how participant cohorts challenge structures of domination in Indian society, but they also question the way in which the understanding of such domination prompts attempts to transform oneself. These “technologies of the self,” described by Michel Foucault as ascetic practices of self-transformation (Foucault 1997:282) can be seen in the case of Vidrohi both as the expression of ideological worldviews and as ways to embody an ethical form of political activism (Bo Nielsen 2012). Such processes of subjectivation, enabling modes of understanding of oneself (Chapman 1997:208, Greenblatt 1980:2) are at the core of the article’s inquiry. Concentrating the focus on the realm of left political leadership, this article examines how the adoption of such identifiable set of political practices and selective self-presentations (Goffman 1978, De Certeau 1990) and self-actions (Wagner 1995) aim at successfully representing Indians from various sociological backgrounds, and in particular the weakest sections of political society.
The argument is based on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork at JNU in 2014–2015, which were complemented by shorter follow-up field visits between 2016 and 2020. I contend that it is by engaging with oneself, through what left campus activists call declassed practices, that they acquire the legitimacy to claim representation of the collective whole, including its subaltern sections. As empirical analysis will illustrate, declassing comprises a form of biographical reconfiguration – temporary or long-lasting – involving a symbolic forfeiting of one’s social status. Thus, to declass means here to eliminate one’s perceived class. By delving into the semantic matrix of the word in practice, I understand class in a broad way, as a metonymic notion including class in the Marxist sense, but also alternative forms of social stratification based on caste and gender. The gradual changes leading to identification with a “subaltern identity” (Guha 1982) – i.e. with the identity of subordinated sections of the Indian population – can also be described as a “minoritizing process,” involving a rejection of the identities included in the dominant categories of society (Brun and Galonnier 2016).
The study describes how declassing involves the use of practical techniques – somatic, aesthetic, oratory, territorial and intellectual – in order to renegotiate one’s status and to erase signs and habits attached to economic and social privileges. Seven elements at the core of this activist practice are introduced: dress-code refashioning, segregation of space, anger against society, martyr identification, nonconformist career aspirations, induced risks of political disengagement, and fasting. I present their demanding commitments and their compromises as life-changing experiences also burdened with doubts, material constraints, and moral rewards in a transitioning period of their lives. In line with the anthropological epistemic community, I embrace the view that political attitudes of campus activists – for the most part young – are negotiated rather than determined during infancy, thus leading to the development of prefigurative and idiosyncratic views of the world (Nisbett 2007, Jeffrey and Dyson 2014).
To make sense of the political efficiency of the declassing practice, the analysis engages with its ability to draw creatively on ascetic and sacrificial tropes. My understanding of asceticism is both empirical and theoretical. It is broadly defined as a person “characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence” (The Oxford Dictionary of English 2016). Detaching asceticism from the religious realm, the term is used here in a secular fashion, as an enduring performance of bodily practices (Freiberger 2006) comprising frugality in public spaces and the display of a set of restrictive moral postures. Such postures include the expression of repugnance for contemporary material culture (Miller 2001) and for signs of caste and class hierarchy. Built upon a leftist cult of sacrificial martyrs and a Marxist pro-poor aesthetic, such an approach also aims at garnering political benefits.
Conceptually, ascetic maceration is understood broadly as work applied to the self, or even more straightforwardly, as the “politics of ourselves” (Foucault 1984:340–344, Foucault 1993:199–223). While grounding asceticism of sections of the Indian left in the cultural framework of South Asian politics and its vibrant history of democratic participation, I am referring to the term ‘ascetic’ and its attributes (cf. infra) in a broad sense rather than to its specifically Indian conception. This implies that activists aren’t considered religious specialists (Gupta 1974), either irreversibly contemplative, reclusive, world renouncers (Dumont 1960), sexually abstinent (Van Dyke 2002) or followers of the path of a religious guru, nor am I depicting them as particularly interested in embracing monastic careers – either prior to or while pursuing their political activities (Hausner 2007). Furthermore, here the term asceticism does not suggest material conditions such as itinerancy or sedentariness in a religious site (Bouillier 2014), which may lead to significant wealth accumulation (Van der Veer 1989:459) and the gain of political leverage through securing party tickets.
By portraying declassing as an essential socializing and political tool, this article stresses specifically the socio-cultural and socio-economic tensions of this practice. It shows that declassing is widely adopted by the upper- and middle-classes along with upper- and middle-castes, while such notions are questioned – and sometimes rejected – by those at the bottom of the social ladder. The latter, including sections of the former untouchable Dalit community and marginalized Muslims, prefer to emphasize social assertiveness alongside material aspirations for themselves as a way to achieve social justice. This suggests that for left political organizations, the meaning of declassing and the representative call attached to it is not universal and largely depends on one’s social background. The term representation will be understood not in terms of an achieved state of affairs (such as electorally based representation) but as micro and everyday claims of being representative by political actors (Saward 2006, Tawa Lama-Rewal 2016). Therefore, representative claim-making consists of proposals that “might or might not be accepted, rejected or rearticulated by the represented” (Dutoya and Hayat 2016).
The argument is based on the assumption that it is possible to look beyond the simmering political cleavages of left politics in India. Indeed, this rich nebula has a long tradition of factionalism and sectarianism, based on regional, ideological and tactical divides. The article mainly understands the Indian left from the lens of its activists who are part of the broad umbrella of communist movements. Although the degree and significance of left fashioning for the production of representative claims might vary from one left organisation to another, I suggest that such practices are relevant, widely shared and constitutive of the left modality of politics in India at large.
Left politics is presented here in a holistic manner and although many functional differences exist between left parties and their various front organisations, I hypothesize that left self-fashioning in general can be grasped by looking at the politics of its student organizations. Because of historical developments that I go on to survey, I posit that campus activism at Jawaharlal Nehru University can be the eye of the needle through which to observe the wider political implications of self-transformations for left politics in India. Although the elitist academic standards of the university make JNU pedagogically quite singular, the pan-Indian reach of the university as well as the inclusive nature of its admission policy ensures high levels of regional, caste and class diversity. Additionally, it is probably one of the few spaces in India that encapsulates such a rich and diverse range of competing left politics.
The first two sections of the article establish the background of the study. The first draws upon approaches to left refashioning in South Asia and underlines their relevance for the study of Indian politics. I then profile the actors involved in JNU student politics and unravel their historical relationship with the Indian left at large. The third section examines how the “middle-classness” of many activists at JNU is negotiated in light of the notion of declassing, and how such ideas are challenged by politically active sections of Dalits and Muslims. It acknowledges the polyphony of declassing practices through surveying their oratory, visual, spatial, identificational, gendered, linguistic, moral, emotional and corporeal components. The section also engages with the long-lasting consequences of left self-fashioning through discussing activist disengagement and their professional trajectories after their JNU years. While it recognizes that left self-fashioning can be renounced – thus leading individuals to quit activism – it also shows that their sustained political commitments have left a durable impact on their lives. Notably, former JNU student activists espouse academia and turn their backs on careers in the private sector and non-educational administration. In the final section I engage with the declassed expressions of feminist assertiveness and the moral injunctions towards defeminization that they entail for left female activists. The article explains how, overall, the social practice under study differs from religious and Hindu nationalist forms of political asceticism, and how it ultimately serves as a legitimizing political device in the eyes of the larger political community.
Self-fashioning, declassification and the Indian Left: A theoretical perspective
The micro-practices of subject-formation are central in understanding socio-political transformations. As noted by Ong (1996:738), the process of becoming a subject is entangled in a dual process of self-making and being-made, occurring within “webs of power” connected to civil society, the state and political upbringing. The postcolonial canvas in which Indian ‘subject-ifications’ unfold has been researched extensively by subaltern studies scholars (e.g. Chatterjee 1986, 1989, Kaviraj 2005). Enriching this approach, a growing body of literature substantiates the study of self-making by looking at the way identity formation engages with postcolonial political ideologies such as Hindu nationalism, Nehruvian socialism and economic liberalization (Chandra and Majumder 2013).
Along with those three political fixtures of Indian modernity, Marxism historically constitutes a vigorous political force in the post-independence Indian landscape. Its locally embedded political machinery (Bhattacharyya 2009) as well as its hegemonic political culture (Joshi and Josh 2012) led many – i.e. sympathizers, cadres, activists, leaders – to become a communist (Dasgupta 2014). Notwithstanding its internal discords and the decline of its influence nationally, competing streams of communism in India have produced a distinctive and enduring Marxist discourse in various locations of the country, in and beyond the states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura in which communist governments have been in power for an extended period of time.
The effects of such historical developments are likely to have contributed to the formation of a distinctive Marxist political modality in India. As noted by Dasgupta (2005), the collective embracing of Marxism in Bengal could not have taken place without a contextual convergence of politics and culture. However, the doctrinaire stress of Marxism on labour and the state superstructure blind it to the idiographic emergence of Marxist selves locally. Thus, conventional accounts undermine the ways by which the subjective concerns of Marxist selves help to legitimize communist narratives and representations in the context of India.
Since shared identification with communist figures is informative about the imagination and aspirations of its followers, such affective processes constitute an analytical entry gate into the contemporary political relevance of Marxist self-making. For instance, Jaoul (2011), who in his study of the agricultural wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – CPI(ML) – in the state of Bihar, exemplifies how the appropriation of the party by the poor and vice versa is achieved locally through subjective identification with sacrificial workers, peasants and party cadres. One of them is Manju Devi, a young female activist who was murdered by a landlord militia, and for whom a statue was commissioned. The account indicates that such figures encourage party workers to change themselves, live the frugal life of the rural peasant to build “a long-term relation with the poor” (2011:369) and fight landed and wealthy oppressors.
As the case of Manju Devi indicates, a feature of various leftist movements in South Asia is the secular devotion towards martyrs, which provide exemplary role-model in the pursuit of activists’ self-fashioning. They are described in the literature as “pure” examples of self-sacrifice for a just cause (Lecomte-Tilouine 2006) and exemplary figures involved in the efforts to determine historical truth (Verdery 2013, Vaidik 2013). Ram (2016), locating martyrdom (rakthasakshithvam) practices among the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – in the southern state of Kerala, underlines their inherent non-religious nature and their relevance as socio-cultural institutions. Left self-fashioning thus nurtures close ties with leading sacrificial figures. As illustrated by Moffat (2018), the great martyrs (shaheed-e-azam) such as the communist freedom fighter Bhagat Singh – executed by the British Raj – act as ‘historical spectres’ for future generations of activists, haunting contemporary political selves by calling for the completion of the revolution left unfinished at Indian independence.
Accounts of Maoist-led civil war in Nepal (1996–2006) also emphasize the importance of emulating selfless martyrs in order to become subjectively a dedicated member of the revolutionary community. Lecompte-Tilouine (2006) insists on the thaumaturgic effect of sacrifice in Maobadi guerrilla groups; she shows through her anthropological study shows how violence and sacrifice for the cause is omnipresent in the accounts produced by the wartime Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and how such behaviour is attached to a privileged modality, either Brahminic or kingly. Ramirez (2002) notes that the Nepalese Maoist guerrilla relies on the heroism of martyrdom to develop a sense of personal offering to the high end of revolution. Even in a post-conflict context, this sense of internal struggle, battle against selfishness, and continuous experience of self-improvement was found in the psyche and recruitment strategies of Nepalese activists of the Young Communist League, i.e. the Maoist youth wing (Hirslund 2012). In a similar fashion, Snellinger (2010) notes that it is the narrative of suffering and sacrifice that underpins the notion of political public service for Nepali student activists (see also Zharkevich 2009).
The ascetic moulds of self-transformation generated through secular leftist politics can be further evidenced through considering the fighting practices of former separatist guerrillas in Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While many of its ideologues were both Marxist-Leninists and secular Tamil Nationalists, the leadership requested supporters to venerate deceased fighters as ascetics (sannyasis) who fought for a common cause, thus renouncing egoistic personal desires (Chandrakanthan 2000). Natali (2008) indicates that the veneration of Great Heroes (Maavenaar) is made through the establishment of graveyards which are compared to Hindu temples and in which “gods are seeded.” Roberts (2005) suggests the existence of a form of cross-fertilization between religious idioms and LTTE secularism, in which “enchantment” is nestled amidst rational discourses. At a more general level, such cross-fertilization draws on the more general ability to appropriate and reinterpret dominant cultural idioms to envision a “new man” (Sorensen 2007:27–33), whether it is nested in Marxist Christianism (Dussel 2003), Marxist Protestantism (Crossley 2018), Black Marxism (Robinson 1983) or Feminist Marxism (Barrett 2014).
Left biographical reconfigurations in India do not always unfold in conditions of war, internal or external (Menon 2016). Dasgupta (2014) for instance examines how the “body-politics of asceticism” is constitutive of the self-making of CPI(M) Bengali communists who ruled the state from 1977 to 2011. While communist activists “simply cannot stand holy men” (2013:85), their ascetic self-styling is depicted as a secular reconfiguration of a theological political culture in circulation in South Asia. Their memoirs – many but not all from CPI(M) – reveal a form of conversion to a new kind of ascetic subjectivity, based on severe self-cultivation, physical regimentation, body deprivation, and firm control over desires (2013:78–79).
Left self-fashioning in the literature on South Asia is often described as a practice of a certain social elite or cultured middle-class, which is traditionally over-represented in the ruling sections of ‘radical’ political organizations (Kennedy and King 2013). This is exemplified by Dasgupta (2005) again, who shows how Marxism, embraced by the pre-independence Bengali middle-class gentry (madhyabitta bhadralok), was inspired by the redeeming praises of intellectuals and poets such as the bohemian Marxist Samar Sen (1916-87). The ecstatic and dark romantic culture of the social group, comprising upper-caste Hindu landed elite, petty landowners, traders and indigent literati, shaped the expression of Marxism in Bengal, making the “rebellion merge with revolution” (2005:87).
Armed guerrillas are not the only ones embracing the figure of the renouncer. Chandra (2013) describes how several indigenous rights activists in India’s tribal belt developed a “radical bourgeois self” in order to disavow privileges of birth and the ordinary temptations of middle-class life. He notes, “the radical bourgeois self… sacrifices the ordinary householder’s existence to pursue a distinctively Indian kind of individualism and freedom.” Through examining their self-narratives, he suggests that the activist ascetic renunciation and the Marxian biographical reconfiguration can be understood as an exchange of capital, in which the Indian bourgeois exchanges economic capital in the form of material privileges for symbolic capital in the form of status and rank (2013:4). The speaking subaltern in the name of deprived tribal populations becomes for the activist a tool for a personal post-materialist quest (2013:41), which can lead to a misrepresentation of the actual grievances of local populations (Mawdsley 1998, Shah 2012).
Clearly, left self-fashioning is associated with a language of self-renunciation which underlines paradoxical, yet striking similarities, with another form of self-fashioning: Hindu asceticism. Kaviraj (2009), who draws parallels between a class/caste-based cultural production and the deployment of Marxism in South Asia, approaches the issue from a theoretical standpoint. He compares the erudite mastery of Marxist literature and historiography (in English mostly) by communist political leaders to the esoteric Sanskrit scholarship monopolized by Brahmin castes – who had the monopoly over religious exegesis. He argues that the assimilation of the abstract language of Western enlightenment, along with the willingness to understand the imported notion of class – and not the India-specific one of caste – as the universal grammar of social inequality gave Indian Marxism “Brahminical” overtones. As a result, the biographies of upper castes left leaders are full of references to their determined frugal morale.
Others insist on the self-fashioning politics of moral purification developed by radical left political figures. An example can be found in the ethnography of contemporary Maoist armed insurgency in the Indian states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh by Shah (2012). She argues that the fixed imaginary of Maoist renunciation embraced by veteran guerrillas, based on the concept of semi-feudal and semi-colonial exploitation, is no longer in tune with the political economy of mining in occupied areas. She gives the example of Gyan, an old-time Maoist leader who was known as a Hindu renouncer, “poring over Vedic texts [Hindu scriptures] and sitting on the Ganges’s banks for hours,” before turning to armed communist militancy. Through the example of Gyan, Shah underlines how the material renunciation continues into militancy, thus highlighting the ideological importance of the figure of the renouncer for the making of dedicated communist revolutionaries (2012:342).
In these accounts, the outcome of political movements is largely unaffected by activists’ biographical reconfigurations. Self-fashioning appears as a by-product of activists ideologically informed attitudes and commitments, yet little is known about the legitimizing effects of such self-fashioning. A theoretical insight to make sense of biographical reconfigurations in shaping left representative claims is the concept of declassifying developed by Jacques Rancière (1940–). In the sociological tradition, the term to declass refers to a process, real or perceived, of descending in social mobility (Goblot 2015 ). In this sense, being declassed is either due to the eroding value of academic diplomas in a climate of massification of education, or to the inability of new generations to attain a social status equivalent to their parents (Eckert 2014).
Departing from such approaches, Rancière defines the twin notion of declassification and disidentification as processes by which individuals abandon their predetermined social role, enabling them to take up the cause of another (Rancière 1998:212, 219-20, Blechman et al. 2005:288). Declassification is the way in which citizens escape the determinism of a social order that he calls the police, in which individuals’ distribution of places and roles is clearly identified and legitimized (Rancière 1999 :28). Processes of disidentification lead to the formation of political subjects who claim identities at odds with those defined by the social categories they belong to – according to the police order (ibid:38).
Rancière theorizes a practice of self-fashioning that involves a rejection of one’s socially fixed identity. Tassin (2014:158) understands this as an écart à soi (deviation from yourself), a transgression that enables individuals to bridge the gap between them and those displaying different pre-identifications based on gender, class, race, etc. (Rancière 2004, Panopoulos 2006). This overcoming of historically contingent social configurations is for Rancière (2005:56) the definition of both politics and democracy as it produces egalitarian claims in which a universally shared meaning is produced (ibid:49). The practice of declassification leads to the inclusion of the “uncounted and the stigmatized” (Rancière 2008:560), not through identity politics and self-representation (Girola et al. 2014:11), but through claiming collectively the impossibility of a particular form of identification. In return, discourses of disidentification – of breaking from an extant order – enable individuals to embrace subaltern identities and create political bonds (Norval 2010). Because social divisions imply that a section of a given community present itself as the expression of the group as a whole, a “certain particularity” has to assume a function of universal political representation (Laclau 2005:40–49). Such particularity carries the potential to challenge the social order precisely because it is capable of producing a political discourse under which discrete groups are “made equivalent”, thus facilitating collective mobilization (Laclau 1994:70).
Keeping the context of the study in mind, I understand disidentification as a modality by which the Indian left claims within the democratic public arena (Cefaï 2016) universalistic representation against political adversaries (Mouffe 2013). I specifically show how Rancière’s concept offers an analytical lens through which we can comprehend the attempt by left activists – in particular those from non-subaltern backgrounds – to squander the social capital associated to their class, caste and gender in the effort to claim representation for the downtrodden.
In a political space marked by abysmal inequalities, disidentification could be a powerful way for social elites to make the miscounted visible (Lievens 2014:12) and affirm equality in the name of all. In a vernacularized democratic space in which assertions of caste, religion, ethnicity and language constitute the backbone of its polity, disidentification constitutes a missing analytical link. It helps qualify and clarify the conflict over political representation between the left and the proponents of identity politics in its various forms, who advocate recognition and redistribution while fighting against both invisibility and voicelessness. Through a case study of left politics on the JNU campus, the following sections show the reality of this tension and the political success of the disidentification/declassification practice.
The voice of the left: Student activism, academic elitism and middle-classness at JNU
JNU is a prestigious English-medium residential university (JNU Annual Report 2018-19) harbouring a long running left culture and a vibrant student politics scene, in which the student wings of several regional and national left political streams are showcased (Singh and Dasgupta 2019). Neither apolitical nor grievance-based, student participation at JNU is, to follow Altbach’s terminology (1968, 2006), primarily value oriented. Because campus activism at JNU revolves around ideational debates and not solely around material demands (Thapar 2016), it shares a similar strand of youth politics to the University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad Central University (Telangana), Jadavpur University, Presidency University (West Bengal), Allahabad University (Uttar Pradesh) and the Film and Television Institute of India (Maharashtra) (Garalytė 2015, Deshpande 2016, Pathania 2018). Like JNU, most of the politicized institutions of higher education are public, centrally funded, postgraduate-oriented and teach predominantly social sciences and humanities subjects (Martelli and Garalytė 2020a). The emphasis given on values is also visible in other niche educational spaces where liberal and post-materialist assertions such as autonomy, self-expression and quality of life are asserted (Martelli 2017, Fuller 2018).
Broadly speaking, the JNU-type of activism contrasts with two other forms of student public participation. One revolves mainly around welfare, administrative and campus-specific issues (Hazary 1987, Jeffrey 2010a). Such politics, led by brokers and local political entrepreneurs, is often motivated by prospects of personal gains (Jeffrey and Young 2012, 2014). It tends to be more violent (Oommen 1974, Ullekh 2018) while reproducing existing social hierarchies, whether weaved around caste, class (Jeffrey 2010b, Kumar 2014) or gender (Lukose 2009). While different in nature, ideological and non-ideological student activism both have solid ties with off-campus party politics; universities therefore often serve as pools for the recruitment of cadres as well as springboards for aspiring netas (leaders) (Hazary 1987, Baruah 2013).
The third type of Indian student politics somewhat paradoxically relies on an anti-political discourse. Following the trail of privatization of higher education, such politics of antipolitics demands the ban of protests in the public space (Lukose 2009) and labels organized politics only in terms of corruption (Sitapati 2011, Chatterjee 2016), unruliness and time-waste. Congruent with the disciplining public discourse on political activities in educational institutions (Lyngdoh 2006, Teltumbde 2019), such attitudes are developed mainly by upper-middle class (Jaffrelot and Van der Veer 2008, Kumar 2017) cohorts across study disciplines – and with particular acuteness among STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students (Fernandez 2018). Averse and acrimonious understandings of contentious politics put substantial emphasis on civic order, safety and consumption rather than on dissent, justice and redistribution. They also replace notions of social justice such as inclusiveness with those of individual merit (Subramanian 2015, Henri and Ferry 2017).
The establishment of JNU in 1969 as a flagship postgraduate university in the social sciences first reflected the ambitions of the socialist left at the centre structured around the alliance between the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Indian National Congress (INC) (Batabyal 2015). In 1971, a generation of upper-class students created and strengthened a Students’ Union (Pattnaik 1982). The Union, which was meant as an instrument of politicization of the campus, was deeply influenced by Marxist thought, and the union took direct part in the affairs of the university from the very beginning. After the state of Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1975–1977), the Union reflected more clearly the regional domination of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) in West Bengal and Kerala (1977–2004) (JNUSU Office Bearers 2004). Finally, in the last fifteen years, it has been promoting the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) CPI(ML), a formerly anti-parliamentary Bihari-centric organization converted to electoral democracy in the early 1990s (Jaoul 2008). Today, a non-negligible section of the younger generation of CPI(ML) office bearers are JNU graduates. Post 2016, the state-sponsored coordinated attacks targeting anti-government student activism in the country triggered alliances between various oppositional student groups, causing a united front of left political outfits to emerge in JNU campus (Martelli 2020).
Biographical accounts of former activists and professors (Souvenirs 2008, 2009, 2010) are vivid testimonies of the leftist ethos of the university, as exemplified during the major protests that followed the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the left – i.e. member of the CPI – president of the Students’ Union on 12th February 2016, on charges of sedition (Scroll.in, 3 March 2016). The reaction to this, and the arrest of two Maoist sympathizer activists over alleged anti-India speeches, was followed by daily meetings in the administration bloc renamed for the occasion “freedom square” (Youth Ki Awaaz, 19 March 2016).
As for the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA), student organizations affiliated with leading left parties have dominated JNU student politics and won most of the Student’s Union elections on campus. As exemplified by Figure 1 below, an overwhelming majority (85 percent) of JNU Student’s Union (JNUSU) elected representatives since its creation were members of a Marxist student group. Eighty-one of them were part of Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of CPI(M), 34 from the All India Students’ Association (AISA), the student mass organization of CPI(ML) and 19 from the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), the student body of CPI. I focus mainly on the activists in these three student organizations along with two smaller ones, the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU), supporter of the Communist Party of India Maoist (CPI(Maoist)) and the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF), a splinter group of SFI.
Figure 1. Weighted Map of Political affiliations of JNU Students’ Union Representatives (1971–2017) 
|(1) Marxist student organi-zations||
SFI: Students’ Federation of India, student wing of Communist Party of India Marxist CPI(M).
AISA: All India Students Association, student wing of Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist CPI(ML).
AISF: All India Students Federation, student wing of Communist Party of India CPI.
DSF: Democratic Students’ Federation, splinter group of SFI, associated to Left Collective in West Bengal.
Rev. SFI: Revolutionary SFI is another splinter group of SFI.
DSU: Democratic Students’ Union, supporter of the Communist Party of India Maoist CPI(Maoist). It usually does not contest JNU student elections.
|(2) Other left student organi- zations||
FT: Free Thinkers, a defunct non-affiliated socialist platform inspired by the ideas of Jayaprakash Narayan,
Ind. : Independent candidates with no official political affiliation.
STY: Solidarity, a defunct non-affiliated socialist platform named in the wake of the Solidarność movement in Poland.
SYS: Samata Yuvajan Sabha (Equal Youth Assembly), the youth wing of the defunct Samyukta Socialist Party (United Socialist Party).
|(3) Non-left student organi-zations||
NSUI: National Students’ Union of India, student wing of the Indian National Congress.
ABVP: Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All Indian Student Council), student wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) RSS. Strongly supports the current Hindu nationalist party in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) BJP.
UDSF: United Dalit Students’ Forum, sympathizer of the Bahujan Samaj Party (Majority People’s Party) BSP. It does not contest JNU student elections.
BAPSA: The Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association is a splinter group of UDSF. Contrary to the latter, it contests elections since 2016.
While activists are a minority among JNU students, their numbers are not negligible. Among the 1,224 students I surveyed in 2014–2015 as part of my doctoral thesis (Martelli and Ari 2018, Martelli and Parkar 2018), 33 percent declared participating at least once a month in political activities and 23.1 percent were members of a student organization on campus. Among those disclosing their political affiliation, 71.3 percent were part of a Marxist student organization.
While the overwhelmingly leftist section of politically active students at JNU reflects to a certain extent the socioeconomic diversity found on campus, such groups have the tendency to over-represent middle-class profiles rather than upper-class ones (Martelli and Ari 2018). I point out the middle-classness of JNU activists by showing their tendency to display a comparatively lower socio-economic status (Fernandes 2006, Mishra and Parmar 2016) when compared to the average JNU student. At a general level, the entrance policy of JNU – which implements affirmative action mechanisms – ensures higher levels of socio-economic diversity than other institutions in the country (Martelli and Parkar 2018). As per the JNU Annual Report 2014-15, only 44.3 percent of JNU students did not benefit from any government reservation.
Among activists, more male participants and a higher proportion of non-elite profiles can be found, proxied by the background information of parents such as income, profession, education and place of residence (Martelli and Ari 2018). As indicated in the survey, on average a higher proportion of political activists and political participants received their former education in a language other than English when compared to non-activist cohorts, indicating humbler educational backgrounds – but not necessarily deprived ones. Amidst its inclusiveness, student politics at JNU attracts middle castes in higher proportions (many of whom are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) who have pursued secondary education away from the main Indian metros (see Appendix). This highlights the dissonance between the middle-class upbringing of activists and the deprived backgrounds of those at the centre of leftist discourses. I turn now to the analysis of how such dissonance is addressed by Marxist activists through the practice of self-fashioning.
Squandering the heritage through declassing and the production of representative claims
When you live with humble people, you have to live like them.
(Berhampuri, interview 2014)
Some evidence of JNU activists’ self-fashioning do exist in the gender’s studies literature and constitutes a good analytical departure point. Barkaia (2014) for instance indicates in her doctoral dissertation that several left female activists attempted to transcend their gendered experience through veering away from what they considered “bourgeois morality” (Shivani, cited by Barkaia 2014:108). She gives the example of Vanessa, a pro-Maoist activist who decided not to keep very short hair in order to not be associated with an “urban elite” (2014:100). Similarly, Shipurkar (2016) confirms that politically active women on campus do “look different,” such as by wearing kurtas (loose collarless shirts). Desquesnes (2009) gives additional evidence of this by mentioning the guilt of several female activists such as Isha, who tries to renounce “western practices” but finds it difficult to do so, such as putting eyeliner (kajal) (2009:79) and using predominantly English in her daily vocabulary. In line with these accounts, I found activists’ fashion sense to contrast with the ‘average’ JNU student outfit.
Declassing vs asserting dress-code: Apologia and critique of left self-fashioning
Once in JNU campus, the aesthetic panoply of the left leader is highly identifiable. It comprises an unshaved beard for men, an unwashed and old drab-coloured Kurta, chappals (flip-flops) even in winter, gamcha (thin cotton towel protecting from the sun) in summer and a jhola (jute shoulder bag) (see Figure 2). When attending rallies with activists, Drumi, a JNU PhD student used to speak sarcastically about their fashion sense: “It makes students think that activists are going to work with the masses by bus just after their speech… just as if they were always in movement, busy, so that they have to keep their things always with them.”
Photo Credit: By author and K. Parkar 2014. The GSCASH is the Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment. Its missions were formal enquiry and redressal of cases of sexual harassment on campus, assistance and mediation of complainants and the sensitization of students on gender issues through the organization of programs and workshops. Until 2017 and its replacement by a less autonomous body, the GSCASH included two elected student representatives.
The situated political significance of such activist chic becomes clearer when interrogating activists about the panoply of meaning they attach to the notion of “declassing,” which they often referred to as voluntary trajectories of social downlift. Sundar, a former JNU Students’ Union president (2012-13), was unequivocal about what to ascribe to this phenomenon: “Is being declassed a relevant question? Obviously yes, the problem of party leadership is that they have lost ground; lost touch with people… declassing is a very important thing, to communicate with people you need to be humble. My father is a factory worker… I do not need to declass that much, but in a sense we are all middle-class” (Sundar, interview 2014). The following vignette, citing several statements about declassing, shows the pervasiveness of declassing idioms among the left at JNU, while being understood both as a fight against the economic elite and as a challenge to the dominant elite.
 Leaders also have to fight against their own origin. The most difficult is to fight against yourself (Dipen, interview 2014).  Without declassing you cannot reach the masses. You get corrupt if you have something to lose or to gain; if you have ambition. But I had only one ambition, the one of setting up and strengthening SFI and DYSF [youth wing of CPI(M)]. … Declass is the way you should show the path… be exemplary. The personal is very important. You have to be exemplary and throw yourself into struggles (Akhil, interview 2014).  We are all [he points at another comrade, Chandauli] middle-class and we need to declass, we have to follow the model of Chandrasekhar [a martyr]. But to declass is very tough because you have to relate with the working class (Barthi and Chandauli, interview 2014).  Consumerist culture has penetrated the campus… and declassing, this is utopian, has to go with deculturing yourself… decolonizing the mind. It does not make any sense to raise expensive coffee and continue the fight. We come from a feudal society, we carry our past and have to break from it… there is always a mind to mimic someone upper than you… you can be lower caste and being casteist… you can be subaltern and aspire for power. The right thing is the aspiration to be humane (Tausiq, interview 2014).  DSU comrades are deliberately not claiming scholarships, is this part of the declassing process? (Karim, interview 2014).
The centrality of the “declassing” practice among the left on campus was recounted to me by Jitendra, a former activist for ‘backward classes’ at JNU (Anjaiah and Kumar 2011), who had lost faith in the ability of current Indian left politicians to uproot their “Brahminical identity.” Puchalapalli Sundarayya (born Sundararami Reddy, 1913-85), one of the founder members of the CPI(M) in the state of Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, was according to him the exception that proved the rule, as “he renounced his Reddy [upper caste] name, gave up his 5,000 acres of land and decided to castrate himself in order not to have Brahmin descent.”
Another critical insight was provided by a senior professor at JNU who claimed that Marxism in India had integrated the Gandhian visual of self-denial. “Well, Marxists are in a way sadhus [religious ascetics] in secular uniforms” he stated. This line of argument about the sacrificial leanings of the declassing practice was later substantiated when I encountered Pratap, a former All India Students’ Association campus leader. Pratap was elected in 2007 as president of the Students’ Union and has a deep knowledge of the kinds of frugality that total activist engagement entails.
Youth from middle-class background… urban class… when they start to associate themselves with the poor of the poor, you feel this connection, this need to declass. I used to have this kind of feeling, that I cannot eat costly food. No-one tells you that directly, it is a very unsaid thing. Actually it is a very unconscious dominance of Gandhi. He gave a particular image of politicians you know. It’s culturally loaded. Moral guilt is there… It stays in your mind, where do you belong? To declass… sometimes this theoretical question has been taken at a superficial level. We wear unwashed kurta pyjama and dirty jeans, uncombed hairs, smoking cigarette… this framework of the revolutionary… Gandhi was the one who introduced peasantry in the freedom movement. Before it was elite, ruling-class… Gandhi introduced mass movement with this idea that he is a fakir, that he owns nothing and wants nothing… that image of him fighting for us. Particularly for the left… this idea of sacrificing everything got in their mind. If you are involved in a movement, automatically the movement gives you a form of living… but suppose he [the activist] is not part of the deprived… suppose he is middle-class… In Indian left movement, they are a lot of mass leaders who technically belong to the rich, to the upper crust. But the force, the energy of the movement you are part of… actually it inculcates to you a specific form of lifestyle. Because you are too much into it. You are an agrarian leader, you are not living like a contractor with car, you have to be there with the people. So declass is very necessary (Pratap, interview 2014).
His account is revealing in two respects. First, it confirms that declassing can be understood as a form of disidentification in which left activists try to divorce from their middle-cum-higher-class selves. Second, it argues that the sacrificial modality of left self-fashioning resonates with the broader cultural repertoire of asceticism in India. Pratap’s mention of the fakir (Muslim ascetic) also directs to Gandhi’s austere discipline of non-attachment to material possessions and brahmachariya, understood as self-discipline, chastity and sacrifice (Devji 2010). I do not wish to claim that Gandhi directly inspires the “political technology” of Marxist declassing. However, in line with Pratap, I want to suggest that Gandhi popularized the idea that intimate practices, especially body practices, expressed sincere association with the masses. Gandhi welded ascetic language and popular politics together, and this connection was soon reinterpreted by Indian Marxist practitioners, while attracting sharp critique from sections of oppressed communities.
Keeping in mind the fact that declassing is a dominant modality of JNU campus politics, such practice sparks more ambiguous feelings for activists from Muslim and Dalit backgrounds. Because these politicized students fight against the common perception that they rank low in the social ladder, the idea of declassing was seen by them as a reinforcement of their downgraded social status. In such cases, declassing discourses were complemented – and at times replaced – by assertive claims. Below are examples of how uneasy the compromise between the politics of recognition and the politics of declassing is.
 I am not supposed to go down, I am supposed to go up. Because of my unprivileged background [Muslim from a rural area of West Bengal] I find all this idea to declass ridiculous, though it was not the case when I was active in DSU… you have to take my activist commitment in an historical perspective, I wore jhole [jute bags] because I was imitating my peers, I was emulating. Now that I have stepped out I wear the jhole on particular occasions, at least I am aware of its symbol. You know, I still have 20 kurtas in my room, I have them but I don’t wear them (Karim, interview 2014).  This was in 2007. That Dalit fellow went on stage for his speech with an impeccable shirt, the Ambedkarite [Ambedkar is a Dalit figure] jacket and glasses. He tried to look smart. Still ABVP [a Hindu nationalist student organization] goons tried to destabilize him, use abuse words like ‘chocolate’ [in reference to his skin colour] (Lino, interview 2014).  Class struggle is my class interest… my father is handicapped and we have only three acres of land. I would say I am lower-middle-class so I do not need to declass… rather I need to improve my standard of living. But I also need to decaste, you can see these things in the way you are eating… it is a difficult process because it’s subconscious. Then I can become a shaheed [a martyr], where you eliminate yourself, eliminate your values (Venu, interview 2014).
For many activists from deprived sections, to transform one’s identification to those with a humbler social background would appear to contradict their aspirations, so the idea of squandering one’s heritage was in part a narrative difficult to defend. In such cases, through discarding declassing practices, left activism became for some a way to affirm one’s marginalized identity and avenge perceived forms of degradation. For example, Sumbul, a female candidate from AISF at the student elections in 2014 would claim on stage to be part of the pasmanda (most marginalized) section of the Muslim community before shouting, “long live revolution… long live social justice.” Cohabiting with declassing claims, assertive leftist claims often involved more personal experiences; for instance, a former JNUSU president would discretely relate part of his activism to a reaction against an experience of perceived humiliation. An activist from the backward class category recalls being stopped by a supervisor at an entrance examination of an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) because of his inability to afford a proper shirt (Venu, interview 2014).
Bearing in mind the emancipatory motto of the Dalit reformist Ambedkar (1891–1956), lower castes activists I encountered did claim that political assertiveness implied breaking the association between poverty and the stigma of inherited caste pollution, and for this reason some rejected the idea of declassing altogether. For instance, Hilsari, a Dalit involved in the CPI(M) affiliated student organization (SFI), was very clear about the inappropriateness of declassing:
After my MPhil submission I will have to work and send back some money home. I cannot afford to declass; I need to look assertive. Malls and Café Coffee Days [i.e. a popular coffee chain] are around you, why should you avoid them? See, when you want to look poor is that you are actually from a privileged background. I think it is quite irresponsible, I cannot afford that. Look at Ambedkar, he tried to dress up smartly, assert his own [Dalit identity] while people wanted him to remain dirty (Hilsari, interview 2015).
This statement underlines the contingent and situated nature of the concept of declassing for left activists, the relevance of it depending on the social origin of its upholders. Assertiveness instead of declassing is, in the words of many Dalits, a choice rooted into their personal experiences of social humiliation. I was troubled by the large number of examples provided by respondents. Tulsi, an office bearer of the United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF), a Dalit cultural organization, mentioned to me an event in which his professor prevented him – and not his other classmates – from entering his home after being asked to pluck garden flowers.
Another instance of such humiliation is given by Patani, member of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), a Dalit political group. He told me the story of a conflict with his roommate who refused to drink water from the same glass as him, trying to avoid caste-based pollution. Gradually emerging as the main anti-left platform in campus in 2016, the newly formed BAPSA challenged the assertion that the left was the most legitimate to represent the cause of the oppressed. Labelling left politics on campus as a “gallery space to patronize Dalits” (Tulsi, interview 2015) BAPSA and UDSF challenged declassing politics though invoking against it an assertive “Ambedkarite politics” (Kumar 2018).
The acceptability of the “left declassing” discourse by the student population varies. With a few notable exceptions, I encountered only few JNU students completely alien to campus politics dominated by the left. While almost half of freshers declare that they do not participate in political activities, this number falls under ten percent after completing five years of study (Martelli and Ari 2018, Martelli and Parkar 2018). The normalization of the left political language and its declassing tropes is visible on the night of the JNU Students’ Union election vote counting. Traditional left naras (slogans) are chanted but also parodied, and activists’ ways are affectionately mocked. Laughter is not only there to express anti-left sentiments, but to deride for one night the seriousness of the dominant ideologies of JNU student politics. The content of the jokes shouted is not anecdotal, for it reveals how rooted the leftist political culture is at JNU. The jokes do not point primarily at a sexual or religious imaginary; they concentrate on the political folklore of the campus and the declassing culture it entails. For instance, two of the parodical tongue-in-cheek slogans would take on the self-negligence of left activists by rephrasing two of their slogans: Nahi nahane wale ko ek dhakka aur do (Those who don’t take bath, push them once more) and Lifebuoy bhi lal hai (Lifebuoy [India’s best-selling red-coloured brand of soap] is also red) – i.e. uttered after pura campus lal hai (the all campus is red).
To conclude, the Dalit and Muslim discourses on self-fashioning can be very different from those developed by other politically dominant sections among Marxist activists. The accounts presented above are a reminder that declassed meaning-making varies greatly according to one’s social background and lived experience. Yet, precisely because it is contested, this form of self-fashioning shows its relevance in contemporary left student politics. It exemplifies how the left uses biographical reconfiguration – whether at substantive or superficial levels – to legitimize the claim that it represents the cause of the Indian underbelly. To map out further such representative claims, the next section delves into the additional everyday practices at the core of left self-fashioning.
The routinization of left self-fashioning: The day-to-day legitimation of representative claims
The decades-long dominance of left politics at JNU is an indication of the political legitimacy activists do derive though mobilizing the declassed representative claim. As for many social phenomena, the activist’s devotion to this political modality cannot be credible unless the practice of declassing is made repeatedly and over an extended period of time. Considering the centrality of day-to-day in situ socialization in the circulation of political attitudes at JNU (Martelli and Ari 2018, Martelli 2020), the efficacy of left self-fashioning relies on its everyday routinization in a shared living space where such practices are made visible. Thus, I am surveying below various ways through which declassing practices are made pervasive and inherent to JNU campus politics. These routinized practices introduced below are: space segregation, martyr identification, anger emotionality, and fasting.
Nested within the competitive field of campus activism, these processes of individual fashioning are accompanying the daily trail of political activities organized on campus. While activists’ collective actions often focus on the general welfare of students and on admission inclusiveness, on other occasions they engage more widely with the socio-economic condition of India’s weaker sections, thus making the declassing claims congruent with political actions taken on campus. Thus, engagements and expressions of ‘solidarity’ with the issues concerning the deprived inform and legitimize declassing claims.
Such instances are many. They include calls by left student organizations for a demonstration in support of the workers of the automobile manufacturer Maruti Suzuki, 147 of them being jailed after launching strikes in 2012, which led to the burning-to-death of a manager in Manesar (Haryana) (Nowak 2014). Other cases comprise protests against communal riots which took place in Muzaffarnagar (a district of Uttar Pradesh) in 2013, which led to the displacement of tens of thousands of individuals and to the deaths of 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus (Berenschot 2014). The Students’ Union sent a “fact-finding” team to collect evidence and to provide assistance to the victims. Additional initiatives entail commemorations of anniversaries of the gang rape of Nirbhaya (fearless one), a pseudonym given to the physiotherapy intern who was gang-raped in a bus in Delhi on 16 December 2012. Support is systematically “extended” after the suicides of members of weaker sections of Indian society, such as Dalits and farmers. For illustrative purposes, below are displayed four JNU pamphlets by four different left student organizations, vividly protesting in support of Dalits, Kashmiris and poor famers.
Top left-corner: SFI congratulating the kisan (farmer) long march, a large-scale protest organised by a sister organization in the state of Maharashtra (March 11, 2018).
Top-right corner: AISA commemorating the denial of justice surrounding the 1996 case of killing by Hindu militia, the Ranvir Sena, of 21 Dalit laborers in Bathani Tola in Bhojpur, Bihar (July 14, 2012),
Bottom-left corner: DSU calling for a protest after the suspension of Kashmiri students after cheering Pakistan in a cricket match (March 7, 2014).
Bottom-right corner: BASO (splinter group of DSU) protest call against anti-Dalit violence on the commemorative ground of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra (January 2, 2018).
While the practice of declassing is tied to participation in political activities in support of the downtrodden, the moral injunctions it entails include refraining from visiting certain places. As indicated in the preceding account of Hilsari, this practice suggests that along with the focus on visuality, left self-fashioning also involves strong spatial components. During my time on campus, I found that many left activists tended to circumvent commercialized areas, those which are perceived as ‘dirty’ living spaces. JNU Marxists showed a tendency to avoid being seen or visiting places where the ownership of costly objects such as a smartphone or a motorbike “have to be reflected upon” (Berhampuri, interview 2014), thus boycotting settings of ‘shining India’; malls, food chains and branded coffee shops associated with the triumphant consumerism of the Indian middle-class.
Resultantly, the spatial politics of activists leads to the superimposition of an ideological layer on to the actual map of the city, causing them to redraw territorial hierarchies. Contrary to commercialized areas, select food-stalls (dhabas) within the campus are seen as more compatible with a declassed way of life. One in particular called Ganga Dhaba was perceived by Pratap (interview 2015) as a refuge from the areas polluted by consumerism (interview 2015), an opinion he also expressed in a newspaper interview to The Indian Express:
With its thorny babools [acacia trees], rocks for chairs and tables, and deep pits and mounds, Ganga dhaba is a critique of today’s glittering commercialized times… It is a symbol of free thought and open exchange of ideas, with its uncontrolled space where any number of people can huddle anyhow around any stone. Here, students have planned revolution as well as found romance. But now, it is not the locus of life on the campus that it used to be. If you walk a little ahead, you will find another eatery, the 24/7 dhaba, which seems to be what the Ganga dhaba is a critique of. Here, you will find tables and chairs, a well-ordered space, a bigger menu and fewer people in JNU chic — jeans and kurta. Ganga dhaba and the 24/7 dhaba spatialise the slow shift from Marx to market which has become visible on the campus (Kumar 2013).
In contrast, malls and food chains were the least reputable spaces for left activists concerned about their political and public reputation. I vividly recall a revealing anecdote that manifested the taboo attached to glittering spaces. The 2015 April heat in Delhi was at its peak and I had promised Arpita, an active member of AISF, to take her to a pizza place as she had craved one during her last ten-day-long hunger strike. One evening, I finally convinced her and her comrade-friend Azad to go to a restaurant chain in the fashionable market next to campus. They claimed they had never been there and accordingly much discussion focused on what they saw from the dining table. They concentrated their indignant comments on overweight customers and on waiters who expressed condescension towards customers ordering too little. As we were finishing our meal, the unexpected happened: three activists from a rival Marxist organization entered Pizza Hut to eat. After a fleeting moment of astonishment and awkward salutations, Hariti, Jitendra and Priya disappeared from sight and went to eat on the lower floor. Making sure he could not be heard, Azad started laughing, “You know what they call me?” he asked, but before I could respond he was already answering, “A revisionist. They are supposed to be real revolutionaries, radical ones. But what I find crazy is that their personal life goes against the principles they claim in public. Their private life is going against their political principles.”
The meeting of five Marxist leaders from two rival organizations at Pizza Hut was a truly incongruous moment; they were witness to each other’s political sacrilege at odds with their understanding of the declassing code of conducts. Aside from the comical overtone of the example, it underlines how important the notion of exemplarity – real or claimed – is to the conduct of left politics. As exemplified here, the political legitimacy of self-fashioning is inseparable from this notion of exemplarity, whether applied directly to the self or when projected on the commendable life of deceased martyrs.
Focusing on activists’ invocation of shaheeds, I now discuss their instrumental role in providing historical depth to the declassing practice. I suggest that an ideal-type personification of the declassed figure is the consecrated martyr, which facilitates activists’ personal identification with a political movement and the public display of their intimate appropriation of pro-people rationales. Because martyrs are admirable and irreproachable beings, they can – in the case of Indian communism – be ‘good to think with’ as symbols of declassed individuals who commit to their cause until death and enable comrades to show to masses the way forward.
On campus, several public celebrations of martyrs are organized annually. Organizations such as DSU and SFI organize memorial lectures in remembrance of the killing of several iconic party workers (DSU pamphlet 2014; SFI Central Executive Committee 2016). AISA also holds an annual celebration of the martyrdom of “Chandu,” alias Comrade Chandrashekhar (JNUSU president 1994–1996) and screens a homage documentary called Ek Minute Ka Maun (A Minute of Silence) in an open-air JNU lawn. Every last week of March, during the commemoration of his assassination, Chadrashekhar is presented as a declassed communist sacrificing his life for the fight against injustice and caste oppression in India. An AISA activist recounts that Chandu “led many agitations, he would interest anybody with his speeches… and Chandu could interest through his practice…of his life… declassed life in fact. …He didn’t pay attention to what he is wearing… he never minded (Akbar, interview 2014). On the rival organizations’ own admission, AISA – through constantly reclaiming the legacy of Chandu – manages to appear to new students as a sincere, committed and radical student organization on campus (Gowda, interview 2015).
AISA activist recounts that Chandu “led many agitations, he would interest anybody with his speeches… and Chandu could interest through his practice…of his life… declassed life in fact. …He didn’t pay attention to what he is wearing… he never minded (Akbar, interview 2014). On the rival organizations’ own admission, AISA – through constantly reclaiming the legacy of Chandu – manages to appear to new students as a sincere, committed and radical student organization on campus (Gowda, interview 2015).
When it comes to achieving political mobilization, the invocation of Chandrashekhar’s sacrificial self is by no means insignificant. Chandu is not only an inspiring figure for activists, but also a political totem instrumental to galvanize, recruit and persuade common students to join protests and participate in political activities. As displayed in the following quotes from six pamphlets from AISA (Figure 4) – all are from the PaRChA archive, an archive of 70 000+ JNU activist material collected and digitized by the author (Martelli 2018b, Martelli 2019) – Chandu’s martyrdom captures the universe of social suffering that prevails outside of the campus microcosm. Consequently, his sacrifice enables students to enlarge their political imaginary and locate current student politics within the larger historical framework of anti-class and anti-caste struggles.
While the political significance of commemorating martyrs is not entirely encapsulated in the social phenomenon of self-fashioning, the credibility of left activism depends in parts on their ability to harness an ideal version of declassing in their daily politics, the one imagined and embodied in the sacrificial lives of left martyrs. The political ecology of left martyrology is important in building a legitimacy based on sincerity and emotional resonance (Traïni and Terry 2010), which in turn play an important role in the emergence and decline of student movements.
While not specific to Marxist activism, I envision anger against perceived injustice as a contributing factor aiding the declassing practices delineated above, as it entails a practice of emotional association with the suffering classes and castes. In outlining the inequality between the rich and the poor and the consumerist heartlessness of the ‘bourgeois middle-class’, activists regularly find ways to trigger affect, in particular emotions associated with social conflict over land, labour, love or dignity.
In order to locate such embodied emotionality, I will now refer to the distinctive visual culture of JNU student politics, and in particular its poster culture. Every year in summer, each student organization mobilizes local artists in their ranks to draw posters several meters long and paste them on administrative and academic buildings. The result of this process is the saturation of political messages everywhere a student looks. Most of the 392 posters pasted on campus walls in 2014 were pictorial representations of the social oppression against workers, peasants, etc. Three campaigns of poster-making later, when questioned about the relevance of the display of raped women and massacred Dalits in his posters, Souradeep, an AISA male artist-cum-activist declare that:
…even though a woman is not part of my country, even though she is not my mother, my partner, or my sister …even though we don’t know the actual experience of pain they face, all [these women] are in my landscape. How can you ignore? If you are engaged with the people, you can’t ignore, even if you are an upper class. You have to take part in Dalits’ movements, because it’s part of your landscape. We have to liberate each and every one. We are part of the same structure we call society. We are all, in a way, secondary order witnesses. So my posters and paintings, are spaces of morbidity… there are no other options, it’s about the representation of politics… on the one hand, it is about criticizing society, and on the other, it is about criticizing yourself as well (Souradeep, interview 2017).
The ability to feel the suffering of the oppressed women and Dalits who surround him is crucial to Souradeep, who consequently uses this expressed emotion to “criticize himself” as an elite member of Indian society. Later in the interview, he associates this privilege to his Hindu identity, which contrasts with the marginalized condition of Muslims in contemporary India. In his posters, self-reflexivity is mediated through the depiction of morbid subjects such as women aborting, agonizing animals, half-starved farmers or a couple of murdered valentines massacred by Hindu vigilantes for being engaged in inter-faith love.
The embedded aesthetic of pain on JNU posters can be exemplified by the following (Figure 5) four-meter-large acrylic poster inspired by 1937 Picasso’s Guernica and a 1947 sketch by modernist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (1915-1978). It was painted by Souradeep with the assistance of another student and pasted on a wall in front of an academic building. It displays a similar morbid aesthetic than his more recent 33-feet (10 meters) panoramic ink on canvas composition displayed as a scroll and commissioned for the exhibition on student politics Memories of Change (Martelli 2019). The title, “When nothing works then serious shit happens” is inspired from a slogan against a 2013 bill regulating land evictions; it reflects on the violence endured by farmers when the state acquires their means to subsistence.
Many elements representing class oppression can be found in the JNU poster. The dominance of the rich is symbolized by the enormous steamroller/tank. It is mounted by capitalists holding a newspaper with the headline “Towards a richer life.” Different categories of oppressed individuals are crushed under the weight of the oppressor class. The man holding the ear of wheat is the Indian peasant, and the slender but muscled bodies lying on the floor represent workers’ corpses, in contrast with the fat capitalist. The grievances of the peasant-worker class are written on the sign held by a woman: “Fair wages, food, health, education.” The blue colour of smashed individuals is an indication of their low caste identity. In India, symbols and colours have an acute political meaning, and blue connotes Dalit identity (Jaoul 2006). The ideological interpretation of the picture is provided in the corners of the poster though a verse quoted from the poem Dark Times (1937) of the dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956): “When the great powers joined forces against workers… why were the poets silent?” The sense of this in the context of India is: ‘if Indian society is so unfair and violent, why are you not doing anything about it?’
As indicated by Souradeep, felt emotionality enables the artist to go beyond his privileged experience and rejoin the sufferance of the toiling masses in order to represent them. By unfolding an aesthetics that encapsulates indictment and pleas, Souradeep’s pamphleteer and graphic discourses use pathos to denounce, accuse, and incriminate the “bad people,” identified with India’s crony capitalists, the zamindars (big landowners), imperial forces (United States), neo-colonisers (Israel) and the corrupt Indian state.
Similarly, a pro-Maoist senior supporter will never miss an opportunity to recall the state of affairs in the country: “Don’t you see the unbearable exploitation of the masses… see among them there is despair; people have the choice between dying alone or dying fighting” (Sharad, interview 2015). Through calling upon mimetic grief, the activist allegorically becomes the deprived: he is therefore capable of political empathy. Declassing, that is the sincere attempt to side with those suffering, is a practice that enables activists to unleash a universe of negative feelings that command indignation and call for action. Such rallying calls are part of a rich set of means activists have at their disposal to make political claims. Within such a repertoire of contention, one practice strikes as particularly relevant to the study of left biographical reconfiguration: fasting.
Activists’ self-fashioning in campus is anchored to a daily political routine which involves organizing and participating in many public events. One particular way of protesting, hunger strike, engages with self-centred corporeal practices for the cause of needy students. I describe such practices as important for inserting the question of self-sacrifice into the realm of less political issues affecting students – involving mostly infrastructural and administrative shortcomings in campus. Obviously, fasts belong to the wider ‘toolkit’ of South Asian politics (Reddy 2009), and many of them might have little to do with expressing empathy for the depressed classes. Within the left repertoire of contention, some JNU activists even admit favouring gheraos (blockades) over fasts (Desquesnes 2009). However, tied to a communist political agenda, fasts can become a full-fledged means of promoting one’s selfless personal commitment while addressing the grievances of students, thus claiming effective representation.
Along with being an instrument to satisfy student demands and gain leverage in negotiation with the JNU administration, fasting allows activists to put pressure on decision-makers in the name of distressed people – e.g. poor students without on-campus accommodation or students unable to afford living costs. Because fasts demonstrate your commitment to students’ welfare, political organizations usually ask future candidates at the Students’ Union elections to participate in the hunger strikes organized on campus. A former JNUSU president acknowledges the relevance of hunger strikes in the following way:
We cannot sustain our politics on the basis of national and international issues only while doing nothing about campus issues. So what we did… we stood against the privatization of education, I sat on a hunger strike for a film institution, again I sat on a hunger strike on an issue of Aligarh Muslim University, where the [Students’] Union was being banned… that way we could link issues [national and local]… we could get mobilization for that… the issue of hostels, fellowships… fines for guests [in students’ accommodations]… the kind of restrictions there… I went on a hunger strike many times… I sat for 12 days, I sat for 7 days, I sat 2 days on an issue of a Kashmiri medical student being denied admission… Muslims were not given admission… we should take up those… when you don’t address day-to-day issues… then it leads to depoliticization… (Gowda, interview 2015).
As noted by Gowda, sitting on hunger strikes is a way to show action and support for broader issues as well as for the material well-being of the community to be represented – in this case the weakest sections of the student population. On these occasions activists sit on mats under a covered courtyard in front of the administration building and begin their fast to death, only ingesting non-carbohydrate liquids. The purpose is to demand improvements of student conditions, such as restarting interrupted construction work for new hostels, or the increase in small research scholarships from Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 (40 to 60 euros). After a couple of days, doctors from JNU health centre come to check the blood pressure and other vital indicators of those fasting. Because of the theatrical and life-endangering leanings of the practice, the fasting ground becomes the epicentre of political life on campus (see Figures 6 and 7), making hunger strikes the centre of gravity of JNU politics. By way of indication, no less than 4 101 among the 72 424 pamphlets I collected as part of my ethnographic work – and covering the period 1973–2015 – mention a hunger strike.
Captions: (Left) Water Dispenser for Hunger Striker at JNU Administration Bloc, December 2014. (Right) Placard Listing the Names of Hunger Strikers and the Number of Days of Fast. (Photos by author)
Subtext: “Hunger strike in JNU day 2. Comrades sitting in hunger strike getting massage by fellow comrades.”
The use of the individual body as a tool of contestation brings forward a form of self-sacrifice that appeals to different ideological communities in South Asia. The display of corporal sacrifice by left activists relates to somatic self-disciplines used within the pre-independence repertoire of political action. As outlined by Alter (2000:66), hunger strikes make fasting bodies both political and moral; and such a devotional stance can also be applied to the fasting bodies of JNU left activists. Consequently, left activist endeavours are expressed through the re-appropriation of a language of somatic constraints popularized by freedom fighters from different ideological horizons – Bhagat Singh, Batukeshwar Dutt, Jatindra Nath Das, Jayaprakash Narayan, Mahatma Gandhi, etc.
Reinterpreted within the left ideological canon, such self-discipline has, at least indirectly, grounding in the declassing tradition. For instance, advertising weight loss, especially during political campaigns, would be an indubitable sign of devotion to activism. After declaring that he had lost five kilograms in a single month, Muzaffar, an AISA activist would restate the committed nature of JNU activism: “JNU activists are the most hard-working in India, both physically and mentally.” The case of Muzaffar confirms how the politics of corporeal self-fashioning serves to legitimize leftist representative claims; this is why left student organisations will have in their ranks public figures ready to go on a hunger strike if needed, especially prior to student elections.
References to martyrdom and fasting successfully mobilize aspirations for self-control (Shah 2018) and manifest sincerity towards the cause of the deprived, thus strengthening the legitimacy of such practices within the larger left repertoire of contention in South Asia. Beyond the JNU political arena, hunger strikes are routinely called by the entire range of left parties. These include CPI(ML), for example when it supports landless poor and sugar mill workers in Bihar (Liberation, 2017, 2018), CPI(M) when it defends rubber producers in Kerala (The Hindu, 2015), CPI(Maoist) when it protests against the mistreatment of tribal political prisoners in Jharkhand (Times of India, 2014), and CPI when it demands compensation for farmers after floods in Bihar (Live Hindustan, 2018).
The thread that underpins the popularity of hunger strikes, martyrs and certain other declassing idioms among left activists is a certain readiness to foreground self-sacrifice politically. For instance, Bhojpura, an AISA Dalit female activist declares in 2016 that “I sat on hunger strike for 16 long days for social justice and social inclusion. I was fighting to save the deprivation points [system of positive discrimination for the entrance examination] for marginalized caste and class …mainly students from marginalized caste and class were targeted” (Bhojpura, social media post, May 2016). It is mainly because fasting triggers the emotions associated with self-sacrifice that Bhojpura’s post led to the accusation by another aforementioned Dalit activist from BAPSA – Patani – that Dalit martyrs and fasters of CPI(ML) endured self-harm in the sole interest of the organization’s upper caste leadership.
Getting pain after seeing this [i.e. Bhojpura fasting] … Want to tell one thing that Dalits fight for this upper caste led left organizations since its inception by giving their lives, careers and everything they have. But still they become alone in their own fight for survival. Still they become alone in fighting and dying…and the upper caste comrades keep on extending their token murderous solidarities every time. When Dalits fight and works for your organisations like manual labourers giving their entire time and energy, is it not your organisation’s responsibility to save them in crisis instead of making them (victims) [of] your guns and pushing them towards death. Our [Dalit] students are coming from the first generation unlike you with so many responsibilities, working in your organizations putting their career at risk and on the top you are pushing them for hunger strike till death instead of you doing. Shame on you. (Patani, social media post, May 2016)
Recently 3 Dalit ML [i.e. CPI(ML)] workers were killed in Bihar. In a similar way we find the long list of Dalit martyrs for Liberation [i.e. CPI(ML)]. However, we have never seen the list of Dalits in Polit Bureau Committee of Liberation. Is it ‘Marx’s agency’ or ‘Manu’s Agency’ working in Liberation [i.e. CPI(ML)]? Where is the ‘Dalit Agency’? (Patani, Roundtable India, May 2016)
Here Dalit political sacrifices within left organizations – whether in the form of martyrdom or hunger strike – are seen by Patani as forms of oppression running against Dalit interests. By reclaiming her agency in the process of committing to a grand political ideal, Bhojpura’s answer asserts that through declassing CPI(ML) can overcome identity politics and represent discriminated groups – including marginalised castes, minorities, women, tribals, workers, labourers and every other “marginalised section” (Kumari 2016). In her words, this is possible only if the middle-class and upper-caste left leadership can prove that it can transcend its own social status:
Didn’t Babasaheb [Ambedkar] say, “I was born in the Hindu religion indeed, but do not want to die in it”? Likewise, when a person born to the upper castes decides against living and dying as a part and representative of the Brahmanical and casteist order, they come and join the progressive and revolutionary movements and give their lives to it. And I consider such people to be worthy of respect. You claimed that only the Dalits and people from Backward Castes sacrifice their lives and become martyrs. I want to utter some names to you here. [She goes on to list 23 non-Dalit martyrs] (Bhojpura, Roundtable India, May 2016).
Although the performativity of hunger strikes is undeniable, it is not always possible to assess how deeply transformative this otherwise punctual activity is. Beyond fasting, the question about the long-term biographical effects of left self-fashioning have as yet not been addressed. Thus, I now examine to which extent declassed practices endure and evolve beyond the specific time-space of politicized campuses.
The biographical consequences of left self-fashioning: Nonconformist career aspirations and induced risks of political disengagement
Scholarship in the West finds that sustained participation in left political movements has durable transformative effects (McAdam 1990, Pagis 2014, Bosi, Giugni and Uba 2016). Through engaging with the long-term consequences of self-fashioning, I describe how the practice of left politics on campus restricts JNU activists’ professional choices to ‘activist-compatible’ jobs, while not necessarily barring them from accessing established positions. Overcoming this apparent contradiction, the account below shows that left biographical reconfigurations during student days lead to the rejection en bloc of corporate jobs and otherwise prestigious civil service position, while facilitating access to academic positions. I argue that such professional choices are informed by the underpinning of left morality on which declassing practices are grounded. The fact that activists tend not to ‘take up’ certain jobs is an additional sign that left representative claims are legitimate only if their standard-bearers show commitment to the declassed code of conduct.
In 2014–2015, the current and former Marxist activists I interviewed clamoured to reject what many termed “job opportunism.” One of the founders of the SFI unit at JNU recalls: “I remember at the time preparing UPSC [civil service examination for administrative positions at the central level] exams for a comrade was just unthinkable. It was a shame” (Suneet, interview 2014). While government jobs are still the favourite occupational preference of youth despite the furthering of India’s liberalization (Kumar and al. 2017), such prestigious positions are seen by most left activists as a form of selfishness, moral dishonesty and political disavowal. By giving their workforce to the state machinery, controlled by rival political forces and corrupt elites, they would have to repudiate their own ideals. When asked in an interview (1998) if the aspirations of JNU activists were similar to those of the youth of their generation, pro-CPI(M) and emeritus JNU Professor C.P. Bhambri provided an answer in the negative: “The communist men on campus are deviant from the dominant socio-political system and will remain that way. In fact, these qualities make them stand out in the crowd” (Times of India, 1 November 1998). Whether sociologically accurate or not, such self-perceived deviancy echoes the various understandings of declassing, as they all reject the tenets of middle-class careerism and consumerist social aspirations.
The few students who had decided to continue into full-time left political activism after their studies were likely to put forward their declassed identity. Some of them remain unmarried – or married exclusively to a comrade – and relied on meagre allowances that their party puts at their disposal. In March 2014, during a field visit to an SC/ST (government designation for Dalit and Adivasi communities) student residence in Bhojpur district in the state of Bihar), Arathi (in his mid-30s) confessed to the difficulty of being a full-time member. As national vice-president of AISA, he had embraced the ascetic activist framework.
I live out of the donations of fellow comrades… of course my parents did not want me to join Maley [colloquial reference to CPI(ML)], they said that there is no career… Building the left movement requires a lot of efforts… it requires a lot of space. Finding a partner is not necessarily incompatible but the person needs to give you that space. Some have succeeded in finding somebody out [outside] of the Party [i.e. to marry] but it’s not necessarily easy (Arathi, interview 2014).
Several individuals who had become full-timers in their parent communist party (i.e. after their time on campus) told me they had abandoned the comfort zone of a stable and correctly paid job which is otherwise promised to them as JNU graduates. Arathi admitted that the declassing Marxist student leaders have few prospects; political careers at a national level are nearly impossible, they cannot join “capitalist-based” office jobs or exploitative businesses, and work in the public administration is regarded as political treason. As shown in the case of Arathi, I would like to emphasise that many left activists find their professional aspirations to be in conflict with the expectations of at least some relatives and the wider Indian society at large. The continuation of declassing practices after university years thus often leads to what sociologists Goffman (1961) and Becker (1963) termed deviant professional careers.
Not only was employment in government and private companies demonized among the left JNU activists I interviewed, but so also was involvement in mainstream politics. I often heard them making the following semantic distinction: the selfless political activist is different from the politician who seeks a career in a national apparatus such as the Indian National Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party. One such example is given by Ronald De Souza, a former JNUSU office bearer who differentiates the bad public figure seeking “self-gain” and “personal aggrandizement” and the good public figure who acquires “heightened or radical consciousness through ideological engagement and praxis in order to transform aspects of society through the political process” (De Souza 2004). I found that members of more mainstream student organisations could be more ambitious with their personal aspirations, preparing for public service exams and looking for highly-paid careers that come with hierarchical positions of power (Bharat, interview 2014; Gyan, interview 2014; Saharsi, interview 2015; Kashif, interview 2015). This required espousing mainstream values recognized by the family and the wider socio-professional environment.
However, the declared willingness to embrace declassed careers was not always concretized among left activists. First, in the history of JNU student activism, few but important left leaders left their organization in the past couple of years to join hands with the Indian National Congress or other national “mainstream parties,”  causing much dismay among activists (Martelli 2018a). Although these cases are often labelled as political opportunism, political turn coating might also exemplify the difficulty of sustaining in the long run declassing representative claims. Second, a significant section of former left activists holds (as of 2020) teaching positions at public and private universities both in India and abroad. My account of the 105 former office bearers (1971–2018) of JNU Students’ Union who are not currently students (see Figure 1) show that they ended up working in academia (49 percent), professional politics (19 percent), and journalism (11 percent) (Martelli and Ari 2018). Nearly 6 percent of office holders are social workers and 15 percent have other types of professional activities.
The social prestige attached to professorship is undeniable (Jayaram 2003) and faculty positions are regarded in India as enviable professional outcomes. Thus, the reluctance by student activists to take up certain positions does not necessarily lead to professional disqualification and the rejection of ‘establishment’ occupations. This suggests a form of professional and moral bargaining on the part of many activists. While not engaging in ‘corrupting professions’, the majority does not renounce the opportunity to secure job security and a stable income, especially if that enables activists to sustain a certain degree of political commitment after graduation.
Professor Samuel Divekar, former CPI all-timer and JNUSU vice-president office bearer (1978-79), describes the transition between student activism and teaching activism as natural: “Those of us who wore jeans as students, wear them as professors.” A figure of JNU activism, former Students’ Union president (1974-75) and Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) Lok Sabha candidate in 2014, Professor J.P. Kashi, told me that the consequence of his time on campus was to remain politically active throughout his life (interview 2015). Another former president (twice, 2002-4), Professor Amarendra Mishra, tried to be a full-timer for three years before becoming a JNU professor in economics. However, he did not see this shift as a renunciation of activism, “that doesn’t mean the politics has disappeared… the kind of things I teach, the kinds of things I write… are all political.” Even as they wear two hats, some scholars such as Zach Murti (JNUSU general-secretary 2001-02 and former Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library) still distinguish between the roles of politicians and academics: “Before I was 50 percent politician, 50 percent academic… but it is impossible to keep both when you are campaigning on campus.” In contrast with Zach’s account, many professors and senior activists did not see any discontinuity between the fields of politics and academia. For them, one informed the other, and when not constrained by administrative and other faculty-related responsibilities the two could be conducted hand-in-hand.
The discrepancy between the declassing declarations of activists and the privileges that they have in terms of access to certain teaching positions – which are granted by their intellectual status and their ties with activist-academics – is spectacular. The paradox is deepened by the fact that while on campus, active student activists are required to prioritize politics rather than studies. The self-development of the activist profile involves regular participation in protests and decreased opportunities for diligent academic research. Student activism at JNU appears to be, on the one hand, a form of sacrifice, while on the other it becomes a professional advantage, as such behaviour facilitates their access to sections of Indian academia in which left faculty members are still influential. Left self-fashioning shapes therefore both career aspirations and representative claims but, as outlined below, such outstanding ‘politics of the self’ is not always consistent and continuous over time.
Though examining left activism from the point of political disengagement within the JNU campus space, I emphasize the long-run versatility of left self-fashioning among youth during those intellectually formative years. The difficulty of sustaining declassing practices over time is an indication that the individual retributions for such activism are fluctuating and lodge at an intimate level. The fact that the declassing modality is sometimes renounced or renegotiated by its exponents – independently from the rest of the student group – stresses that left self-fashioning is more than just a mechanical strategy for achieving political representation. Involving both material costs and moral rewards, it also constitutes for individual activists a central identity marker that is at stake when shifting political attitudes.
On campus, I met ‘declassed activists’ who, in the course of my fieldwork, were disengaging themselves from active politics, thus “turning passive.” Among them was the aforementioned Akbar, a 23-year-old activist of AISA who had been elected joint-secretary of the Students’ Union the previous year. In January 2015, after confessing his disarray to me, he had already stopped working for the organization and acknowledged he was compromising certain ideals he had previously professed. Below I display quotes from two interviews conducted eight months apart.
[Akbar, Thursday 13th of May 2014] I am so addicted to this ideology… I can work, bring change for a small population. I already declassed myself, used to go to mall, now I just want to cover my body. I have shoes [i.e. not flip-flops] but I barely ever wear them. I go to Pizza Hut with my gamcha. At one level it’s a stand against consumerism, at another level it’s about working with the people.
[Akbar, Thursday 22nd of January 2015] I want to make white money, contribute to socialism…not going on the streets but making monetary contributions… I will maybe turn out as a Bourgeois.
Expressing his will to make money on his own, Akbar – an OBC Muslim student from a modest semi-rural family of small traders in Jharkhand – had broken with the imaginary of the full-time party worker while retaining an attachment to the idea of benevolence. He declared wanting wealth not for itself but in order to redistribute it among progressive activists. An interpretation of this could be that, for cash-starved Akbar, sacrificial duties had been partly replaced by the fantasized desire for generosity and largesse. Reasons for this move away from the declassing mould were many and involved both intimate conflicts with former comrades and exhaustion over the limited prospects of AISA politics.
His appearance now contrasted greatly with that of his activist days. He had replaced a kurta full of holes with a shirt and a hand-woven (khadi) jacket bought in a branded shop in Connaught Place, a place where relatively affluent Delhiites go shopping. Chappals were replaced with branded shoes, and instead of his gamcha from Jharkhand he had put on a brand-new shawl. He had gone with me to a glittering mall next to the campus. He was relieved because he had shaved his beard and looked clean, so that he would not feel gazed upon when going through the security gate. He bought for the first time a blazer and complained about the fact that discount sales came exactly when he had no money left. On the way back to campus in the auto-rickshaw, he would chat on the new iPhone his brother had sent him from Saudi Arabia, where he works as a truck driver.
Akbar’s case illustrates that the intensity of declassing behaviours evolve over time but still continue to impact the long-standing aspirations of activists. Since declassing practices involve significant personal commitments, some of these sacrifices appear difficult to sustain when taking a distance from activism. It can be assumed that declassing practices raise the cost of high-level participation for leftist students at JNU and beyond, and therefore create obstacles to prolonged political commitments. When asked about their intention to move to full-time political activism after graduation, several senior leftist campus leaders expressed doubts. The common answer was “I don’t know” and may have reflected their hesitation towards devotional forms of political commitment.
The episodic indecision and fluctuations in terms of commitment might be best exemplified by Gowda Kishore, former JNUSU president (1998-99) and now high-profile joint-secretary of the CPI(M)-led All India Kisan Sabha (peasant association). After a decade of teaching in Bangalore, he decided to go back into full-time communist politics. After mentioning salary issues and problems related to organizing a decent wedding ceremony for himself, he admitted that the implications of declassing are always on his mind:
Yes it requires a lot of sacrifices… nobody wants your offspring to follow the path of Bhagat Singh [a freedom fighter martyr] even when you become an all-timer… It is a continuous questioning. But on the other hand, you are convinced you are not doing anything wrong (Gowda Kishore, interview 2015).
This example shows how personal and intimate declassing practices are for the left in India. It exemplifies how one of the main political forces standing in the way of the increasingly dominant Hindu nationalism in the county anchors its representative claim around the notion of social downlift. In a context in which religious forms of self-sacrifice – especially Hindu – are systematically brought forward in the public space, the next section distinguishes the left modality of asceticism from its saffron counterpart. It subsequently summarizes how such specific ‘asceticism in a secular uniform’ uses biographical reconfiguration as a way to put forward universalist representative claims. It also engages with how, for female left activism at JNU, the advertised removal of one’s class can be accompanied by another removal: of one’s femininity.
Ascetics in a secular uniform? Fashioning, (de)gendering and the left representative claim
Declassing the woman’s way: Feminist defeminization and its critique
As in most social practices, the experience of declassing is coloured by gendered identities. Indubitably feminist in scope, left activism at JNU aims at female empowerment (Barkaia 2014, Shipurkar 2016). More generally imagined around the lines of a proletariat-cum-peasant ideal and pitched against the many avatars of female exploitation, declassed feminism is envisioned as being anti-elitist in scope. However, I suggest that this praxis also entails at times a burden of conformation on women left campus activists. Because specific self-practices of defeminization and desexualization are repeatedly mobilised to mark separation from the elite bourgeoise, such fashioning tends to flatten out the multiplicities of female expressions into the uniform framework of the selfless comrade.
Accordingly, many female activists – who in total represent one third (29.8 percent) of those affiliated to political organizations on campus (Martelli 2018a) – engage with the notion of sartorial social downlift through squandering those attributes of femininity attached to varied elitist social symbols – including short hair or lipstick. Barkha for instance, a former pro-Maoist activist, recalls that at protests she would:
Make a conscious choice to fit in… I mean to wear a Kurta which I never used to wear, and simple jeans too. Declassing is quite hard… on that point, I had an issue…I had miles to go. I tried not to use conditioner… and not to put too much kajal (eyeliner), not to wear comfy shoes and fancy clothes… but honestly, I couldn’t handle this too much. I would skip some of those [political] trips you know because I thought I could not adjust, I would not know how to deal with the situation (Barkha, interview 2015).
Undeniably, the left commitment to those self-transformations that emulate the aesthetics of popular classes circulate widely across gender divides. Such refashioning by female respondents is mostly emphasized as a resolute political attempt to depart from gendered and patriarchal social representations set by the family and society at large (e.g. Pallavi, interview 2014, Panipati, interview 2015). Through echoing similar left discourses outside campus, female activists at JNU refer to their substantive freedom within activist collectives, expressing strong aspirations towards emancipation (Roy 2009), transformation (Barkaia 2014) and even wilfulness (Ahmed 2016).
Nevertheless, on an everyday basis, an empirical tension emerges between individual-based feminist assertiveness and feminist selflessness in the name of the toiling masses. Indeed, while female activists from self-perceived radical sections of the left tend to perform declassing as a form of desexualisation, others prefer expressing attachment to the downtrodden through juxtaposing visible attributes of femininity with the popular ethos. For instance, SFI activist and JNUSU office bearer Devika declares:
Of course, when I wear a handloom saree some comrades call me a savarna [forward caste] Marxist and a savarna feminist. They don’t understand that in Bengal it is the cloth of the poor class of the country (Devika, interview 2018).
Through voicing an association of her colourful saree with popular classes, she exemplifies the possibility of asserting one’s attachment to ‘the masses’ through subverting the meaning of a precious garment otherwise associated with traditional values of respectability, elegance, and married womanhood – especially in urban Bengal (Mount 2017, Guha 2018). As a result, not every female activist ascribes to the otherwise dominant aesthetic of defeminization. As a sign of their assertion of a distinctive public self from male comrades, they hesitate less to publicize personal prose, jokes or insights on their online profiles in a distinctively more intimate and personal manner. Moreover, on festive occasions they might wear earrings, makeup or a saree. Moreover, they also consistently extend solidarities with queer activists wearing feminine attires (Martelli 2020).
Overall, declassed feminism tends to be fashioned not only against patriarchy, but also against feminisms associated with dominant classes, consequently labelled as elite, bourgeois, savarna or freethinking. Their concerns are portrayed as narrow, because blinding the structural violence exerted on female labour, which eventually sustains an “oppressive class-divided economy” (Kavita, interview 2014) as well as an “oppressive ideology of beauty” (Krishan and Tanweer 1997).
Finding in the moral economy of the deprived a counter-model to the liberal commodification of female agency, recurrent left activist discourses at JNU suggest that elite feminism is in many aspects the accomplice of capitalist exploitation. Those feminists involved exclusively in the eradication of paternalist moral policing (Martelli 2017) are occasionally criticized or silenced, thus triggering public debates. For instance, PhD student Drumi (interview 2015), who argues in favour of co-ed residences as well as the installation of condom dispensers and the possibility to drink alcohol in public campus spaces, reacted bitterly against left student organizations who had decided not to support such agendas – i.e. through dubbing these as upper-class concerns.
We must understand that in the garb of calling something ‘elitist’ probably there exists a deeper kind of Moralism. The working class becomes the forbearer of this Moralism along with revolution. Can the Left therefore begin to think of an immoral revolutionary? (Indecent proposal pamphlet, 15 April 2015).
The vilification of stylized upper-class womanhood is at times complemented by an invisibilization of individual grievances by female cadres, especially when those are perceived as ‘dividing’, ‘distracting’ and ‘diluting’ the organizational effort towards the strengthening of the organization (Nair 2019, Amita, interview 2019). In extreme cases, the ideological targeting of elitist womanhood can even go to the extent of questioning the relevance of women’s sexual liberation for the advancement of the revolutionary project. For example, in late 2015, a group of JNU pro-Naxalite activists defending the right for unmarried activist comrades to have live-in relationships – they were also fighting against the shielding by their organization of a case of sexual harassment – were singled out publicly by a sister organization in Allahabad University (Uttar Pradesh) (Lahiri et al. 2016) and accused of expanding “capitalist brothels”:
Boys who come from villages they have feudal and patriarchal values, but when they come to the cities, they counter it with liberal capitalist values … one of the consequences of this … is coming in the form of uninhibited sexual relations. And in many places this has become a big problem for [our] organizations. When boys and girls join these kinds of organizations [pointing at the JNU unit], they don’t concentrate on work, they concentrate more on their relationships and they also consume drugs … In fact, consent and compromise [referring to live-in relationships as opposed to marriage] between two unequal persons cannot be considered democratic. In this form of consent, the powerful person will be in the advantageous position. This consent has always been a tool for strongmen [thakurs] in the villages and towns for physical/sexual exploitation of men and women. The only difference is the upper-class women do not consider it as their physical/sexual exploitation [i.e. sharerik shoshan] but the middle class and working women realize it sooner or later… Lenin considers this relation as an expansion of capitalist brothels (Inquilabi Chhatra Morcha, official social media post, 2015).
Grounded in egalitarian principles, the positioning of activists as anti-elite does not eradicate gender-based tensions within left collectives on campus. In fact, activists’ advertisement of selflessness is not experienced solely as a liberation and constitutes at times a moral constraint as well. Beyond Barkha’s earlier emphasis on the difficulty of adjusting to the declassed modality, others mentioned that attempts to remove one’s signs of social status were accompanied by occasional forms of patronization by male activists, who “preach about women rights and empowerment … but behave differently with female friends” (Minu, interview 2014). Following a phase of political demobilization, Draupadi (interview 2014, 2018) denounced publicly the intimate pressures towards rejecting elitism that were imposed by her then boyfriend within the organization.
He would mentally harass me saying that I was elite, have a good house in JNU and am not worthy of doing left politics. He would ask me to wear tailored clothes, and not Fabindia [brand] kurtas, to speak in Hindi and not in English… I used to emphatically say that I am also learning, that can’t he take a stand for me in front of people? That why can’t I wear Fabindia when my parents can now afford it after struggling with finances for so many years? (Draupadi, #MeToo social media post, 2018).
Peripheral markers of declassing: Disowned linguistic elitism and guilt-driven morality
In the previous account, Draupadi’s flaunting of her English – the medium of instruction at JNU but only one of the languages of everyday conversations – appears to her boyfriend to run contrary to the plebeian mould of left activism on campus. While reflexivity over various aspects of the declassing practice could be privately articulated in any conversant language, the public expression of everyday politics on campus has since the 1990s been predominantly Hindi (Kavita, interview 2014). Its use signals the need for activists to reach out to the non-cosmopolitan sections of students hailing from North India – whose numbers have significantly increased with the progressive implementation of reservations on campus.
This being said, the comradely critique of the inappropriate use of English in everyday life, as well as the overall reluctance of left activists to address public speeches in English (even in the presence of non-Hindi speakers among students) indicates an overall unwillingness to be associated with an urban-based cultural elite incompatible with the declassing imaginary. Hence, the avoidance and disowning of symbols of high status, privilege, distinction, caste-class entitlement, upward social mobility and “anxious aspiration” (Deshpande 2019) such as English proxies attempts to associate exclusively with India’s underbelly. For instance, Venu, a Tamilian son of a CPI(M) trade union leader and former JNUSU president, comments on a congratulatory praise on his political journey he received after passing his PhD viva: “In Tamil Nadu we oppose Hindi like anything. But when I joined JNU I had to learn Hindi real fast, it is the language of politics here, it is the language of common people” (Venu, interview 2017).
Although JNU is a progressive space not only from the point of view of multilingualism, but also from the perspective of gender inclusiveness, the wider field of politics in South Asia remains the quasi monopoly of men. As female cadres enter the predominantly male field of JNU student politics, tensions between certain individual desires and aspirations towards activist respectability do emerge. Across gender divides, such ambition to be a ‘good’ activist seemed to be always intertwined with moral and ethical considerations. On many occasions, current and previous students appeared to ground their ambition to be active politically to the need to escape a pervasive sense of guilt associated with the enjoyment of social advantages. Criticizing the self-centred motive behind ‘pro-deprived’ politics, the late Xaxa, a JNU tribal activist wrote once in a poem:
I am not your data, nor I am your vote bank / […] I am not your field, your crowd, your history, / your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory / […] I make my own tools to fight my own battle, / For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi [tribal] self! (Xaxa 2011).
Overall, left activism led by relatively non-discriminated sections of the JNU community often emerges as both the inspiration and the instrument to neutralize and subvert such a sense of internalized guilt through actively dissociating with one’s lofty origins. Hence, subaltern stands, such as the denunciation of gender discrimination against lower classes and castes is for some left activists not only the result of an empathetic quest for radical alterity, but the spin-off effect of the rejection of perceived undue privileges attributed to the self. For instance, Rita, a former DSU activist, discusses the centrality of social guilt in building a radical political narrative, while, at the same time, acknowledging how it might result in the disempowerment of a genuine feminist critique of popular classes.
Activists suffer the guilt. …When you come from a better-off family there is [one]. There is a friend of ours… she used, to give a guy money. She wrote on Facebook, she was sympathetic to him …He was jerking off in front of her in one instance …The guilt is, since you have so much, and the person doesn’t, then it becomes alright [for that person to indulge in sexual harassment] …It works in two ways. From middle-classes, you have the guilt of spending much because your parents have not actually seen the luxury. You suffer from that guilt in one class, for the better-off is the opposite [mechanism]. You can be trapped in that guilt, by justifying things that are wrong. …Like the bourgeois upper caste thing, when there was an incident in JNU, about a Dalit guy raping a Dalit woman. Most of the left parties did not speak about it. …They romanticize poverty, see them as victims. Every small gesture will become a big gesture. That criticality is not there. Patronizing. …Why people become activists, particularly in radical circles? I think there is a sense of guilt that travels with them. For instance, people in JNU who have left Kashmir long ago. They speak radically about Kashmir, even more than Kashmiris. …Charity is letting off this guilt. Charity, it is less demanding than asking radical questions. It’s not what they live what they say, sometimes they very earnestly do it, sometimes they believe in what they say, but after five years the they get back to the fact that is not the life they want to really live. That feeling of you being connected to that kind of politics at some point of time sustains with you for really the longer time. That’s one of the characters that sustains with JNU (Rita, interview 2019).
The exogenous moral strains experienced by activists in the process of moulding themselves into the declassing paradigm inevitably raise the question of its authenticity: is it a self-driven process or rather an imposed one? Encounters with former carders and student leaders who displayed forms of “reclassification” after leaving campus seem to reinforce the understanding that left selflessness is more a prescribed posture than a genuine practice of the self. However, turning one’s back to active left politics does not necessarily mean that one’s previous active declassing ethos has been altogether embraced at a superficial level. Some are like former JNU art student Anjali, who aspires to a comfortable life but keeps labelling her current job in a private gallery as a moral betrayal, thus coining herself as a “sell-out”. Others are more like Salim. As an erstwhile activist, who first moved to journalism and then commercial advertising, attempts to soften his “capitalist” commitments and former ideals through giving time to morally-compatible leanings:
You know after these years in SFI, I was basically lost, confused and frankly disappointed. For two years I did basically nothing … then I ended up in Tehelka [an investigation magazine], I did a story on a Coca-Cola plant in Andhra [state] which was polluting the ground badly, although they were obviously denying it. I went to talk to complaining farmers … In fact, because of that story, I contributed to the shutdown of the plant, which was a big victory. …Two years later, it was the irony that was big: I ended up shooting a commercial for Coca-Cola … I was driving on the highway that goes to that very same plant … and there, do you know what I saw … on a big billboard on the side of the highway? My own fucking advertisement… Frankly, better not to boast too much, you never know where time takes you to. …But now that I joined capitalism… twice a year I try to do something just and socially conscious. Now I am here to write a supportive piece [for a left leader contesting for a Member of Parliament seat in Bihar] … I really want him to win. … Some time ago I joined a food caravan on its way to Palestine. …When we were in India it was all about Lenin and Bhagat Singh, then it got hijacked by Islamists within our group and we ran into a lot of troubles (Salim, interview 2019).
Thus, even when veering away from active participation in left politics, former activists find it relevant to position themselves vis-à-vis declassing. This indicates that declassing is not exclusively a contextual, transient and instrumental projection onto the public realm of a set of rhetorical gimmicks; in varying degrees of intensity, the practice carries an indexical value and continues to inform self-construction beyond the pale of left campus activism. Salim’s techniques to mitigate and neutralize the contradictions of his “reclassed” social trajectory exemplify the empirical difficulty of coining declassing as a superficial posture only. Because the sometimes drastic transformations of former activists’ selves away from the ideal of selflessness are cluttered with feelings of continuity, contradiction, guilt, irony or nostalgia, they paradoxically underline the centrality of the paradigm in the forging of self-representations. A former AISA cadre who has now emigrated to teach in South Korea admits: “I will always be a JNUite, declassing is an ideal for all of us … in fact I would like to be like martyr Chandu [Chandrashekhar], but I can’t… way too hard: even Pratap [aforementioned] couldn’t keep on declassing and ended up joining Congress: imagine that! [he repeats that twice]” (Santosh, interview 2018).
The cases presented complement the argument of Dasgupta (2018), who indicates that ascetic tropes are constitutive of communist self-making. While active commitment towards left self-styling is transient for many, its life course variability does not completely override the emotional and ethical commitments towards such practices. Amidst processes of reclassification, declassed desires and aspirations can continue to inform self-perception as well as understandings of society. Additionally, as examined further below, the declassing claim by the Indian left is inseparable from an instrumental aspiration for political representation. Because the declassing praxis relies on a mimesis of the popular classes, it aims at abolishing the aesthetic distance between the people and their representatives (Ankersmit 1996:25). All-in-all, commitments towards declassing are not only personal understandings of political participation; they are also more broadly performative narratives contributing empirically to the daily legitimation of the left representative claim.
Fostering sincerity, access and legitimacy through declassing
As the argument goes, left self-fashioning and political representation are woven together in a manner that emphasises the squandering of an activist’s privileged credentials. While declassed modality can be labelled as ascetic if we use the term in a general sense, I suggest that such asceticism of a particular kind should not be assimilated with its political enemy and religious counterpart: Hindu asceticism, embodied and represented by the figure of the sadhu or sannyasi (both Hindu religious ascetics).
First, the Hindu renunciate – in the pursuit of religious truth – is usually required to abandon society by living at its margins (Bouillier 2014) and therefore can be considered an “outclass” rather than “declassed.” Second, while declassed activists and sadhus may share the abandonment of part of their previous life, their reasons for doing so appear to be opposed. Indeed, the sadhu apprentice, with the help of a guru (Hausner 2007), pursues self-salvation while the middle-class left activist, with the support of comrades, defends the salvation of the depressed classes, advocating for their collective liberation from oppression.
It clearly appears that the ‘ascetic modality’ used for political reasons by sections of left activists is devoid of religious feelings, and in that sense, differs greatly from other traditions calling on renunciation, such as that of the pracharaks (preachers) or saints of the Hindu right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – or the National Volunteer Corps). While the RSS – the Hindu nationalist’s main incarnation today – has often called upon pracharaks to become sadhus first (Jaffrelot 1999:40) and remain celibate, the type of asceticism it promotes is also veering away from traditional religious self-salvation, targeting instead the collective salvation of the Hindu nation through social and organisational work (ibid:43). Thus, while remaining fundamentally different, ascetic tropes in left and Hindu nationalist practices might have one aspect in common: they have both in their own way adapted and transformed existing socially accepted traditions to their own organisational interests, thus “acquiring a sanctity of [their] own” (Gold 1991:563).
Distinct from other streams of political asceticism, the figure of the declassed left is correctly understood as a strong reaction to the pervasiveness of hierarchy in Indian society and not as an enactment of strictly religious ideas. Because the practice is firmly grounded in the sentiment of class-awareness, it is undoubtedly Marxist in character, but also finds inspiration in the revolutionary repertoire of secular icons such as the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh (Jaffrelot 2011:151–155, Moffat 2018), who is by far the most popular political personage in JNU political pamphlets – he is mentioned in 1 151 pamphlets among those I collected and digitized.
While Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar appear to be role-models, Gandhi and the ideology he represents, are an enemy for communist student activists. However, through constituting the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the practice of political asceticism in South Asia, part of the bodily protest repertoire Gandhi advocated has found itself reinterpreted by young left leaders at JNU. They have indirectly inherited his practice of frugality as an activist technique for the sake of representing the poor and challenging the hierarchical stratification of Indian society. I therefore suggest that the self-fashioning described here corresponds to a larger form of “subalternism,” in which various political traditions such as workerism, the cult of martyrs, and the selfless generosity of a few comrades (e.g. Bankuri, interview 2015; Arathi, interview 2014) take a crucial role.
The declassing practices presented here do qualify as a set of moral postures and the expression of sincere engagement – a “commitment towards a particular dream, in which you learn to distinguish between your needs and your desires” (Berhampuri, interview 2014) – rather than a systematic political strategy. However, the ethnographic material presented in the above section indicates how these postures, though contested, serve as a tool to appear distinguishable from the common student and politically legitimate to all and sundry. For instance, it has been described how a declassed dress-code serves as a tool for middle-class and elite activists to embody the cause of popular sections of the JNU population, how the praise of martyrs translates into calls for action, and how the fasting ground becomes a centre of gravity in campus political life.
While relevant for the conduct of contemporary left politics at large, declassing self-fashioning does not everywhere override coexisting forms of activist self-presentations. The declassed modality acquires meaning when confronted with “mainstream” practices of youth politics in India of which the left is also a part. As for other forms of power-centric politics, student activism in areas in which the left is a dominant force will more frequently showcase aspiring middle-class leaders who relate only marginally to declassing tropes. Some of them in Northern India are found busy reproducing their power at the local level, notably by generating revenue streams that involve channelling contracts for businessman and seats for students in private universities (Jeffrey 2012). Declassing politics can be perceived as marginally relevant for those activists such as AISF activist Dhananjay (interview 2018) who admittedly decided to join AISF because it traditionally dominates student politics in his hometown of Begusarai (state of Bihar). Selfless cultivation can also be at times peripheral in the political repertoire of Kerala Marxist student politics (cf. Ullekh 2018). For instance, Lukose (2009) notes that the public nature of student activism led by the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) in small colleges attracts young men indulging in masculine sociality, including what one of her informants calls ‘chethu-fying’ (i.e. acting like a chethu, a Malayalam word for being fashionable).
Assuming regional and gendered shades, the contrasting ways of being a communist are not necessarily mutually exclusive, yet the designation of such inherent contradictions within left politics informs activists’ notions of political “correctness” and political “deviation” at JNU. For instance, in the words of Devika, self-aggrandisement and careerism among comrades are widespread phenomena that tarnish the authenticity of CPI(M) activism. In her words, such behaviours should be eradicated, thus retaining in the movement only those for whom commitment is driven by genuine political selflessness.
In the first 15 years, CPM [CPI(M)] in West Bengal did great job… but in the next 15 years, they did blunder… they got corrupted. Look at my uncle, when he was young he got a bank job thanks to the party, and then used it to ripe benefits… like no transfer for instance. He is not committed at all to the cause, he is just an opportunist… Back then the party [CPI(M)] offered scholarships to some of his cadres. One of my friends had his PhD tuition at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] in London paid off. Now that we are out of power these things are gone right… The fact that CPM is not ruling West Bengal anymore is good in a way, it enables us to know who our committed cadres are… who is really with us truthfully, who is not just aspiring to reap some personal benefits (Devika, interview 2018).
Understood in dialogue with other forms of political practices, the various shades of declassed self-fashioning are crucial as enabling tools of being and appearing as a ‘truthful activist’, thus granting access to campus students beyond inner circles of supporters. Such confined in-groups can be seen by politically active students as a mere “fan club,” a term that Sharad, one of the main pro-Maoist organizers at JNU, used frequently in our late-night discussions. As indicated in the following quote, declassing is for him a way to avoid the danger of being both elitist – which is an obstacle for mass party building – and individualist – which is a danger for the cohesiveness of the organization. When asked how to overcome these obstacles, Sharad gave me the example of a comrade of his, who went empty-handed to settle in a tribal village in a conflict zone and accepted the idea of starving to death in front of a family’s house in order to gain the owner’s trust. He affirmed that the lady of the house had refused to give him food for two days, and though he had a gun, he would refuse to force her to feed him, accepting the possibility of death by hunger. Sharad concluded the story saying that through setting these standards of commitment he ultimately won the trust of the household, who even in the face of “white terror,” ultimately decided to feed the comrade. The outcome of such a story – whether authentic or romanticized – illustrated for him the importance of declassing as a tool to gain access and promote one’s politics: “You have to be part of the suffering of people, withstanding humiliation, and in that process, you show how humane you are. That is how you win over confidence.” He then says:
You are talking to yourself, you have study circles, naturally, when you end up meeting with yourself… then there is room for stagnation… Some way down the line you tend to develop a form of cynicism. You also start getting slowly disinterested. You are more interested in getting PhD, tutorials, and naturally after some time you are not able to expand… It is a certain form of elitism, that makes you aloof… you are not organizing the students, you are not at all accessible. More and more students can join your organization, provided you are accessible, you are legible enough… you are less pedantic in your ways, also you develop a way of communication that is more accessible to the general students… One important aspect is the elitism in the campus, it is visible, not only among the students of a certain organization. The elitism gets into your politics as well. Along with this elitism comes the kind of socialization that happens in the campus…they are influences of a bourgeois sense of joy, freedom and individuality. What I am saying… the individual becomes important, too important. The individual self becomes the organization, instead of serving the organizational interests (Sharad, interview 2015).
Sharad summarizes the main argument of this study: left activists do perceive their declassing practices as ‘enablers’, facilitating their access to to-be-represented Indians from various social strata while appealing to potential new recruits. As conventional wisdom would expect, these are not the only strategies put in place by certain sections of activists in order to gain political ground. As in every political movement, individuals routinely use a whole set of means to achieve their goals. Thus, when asked about what makes JNU activists successful, SFI activist Sundar evokes the qualities of hard work, oratory skills and “connection; the ability to relate with people and a [Students’] Union that can reach the majority of students.” Declassing is a legitimizing practice that must be accompanied by a truthful ability to build on a sustained interaction with the people you aim at representing. As for other grassroots movements, political socialisation is key to mobilization success and declassing practices are an instrumental aide in achieving political mileage.
Conclusion: Withering away of left self-fashioning?
The analysis has shown that activists’ biographical reconfigurations encode claims of political representation by the left on an Indian campus. The case of left student activism at Jawaharlal Nehru University is an open window to the Indian political culture of declassing, understood in the footsteps of Jacques Rancière as a way to disidentify with upper- and middle-classes social identities. The ethnographic account indicates that campus Marxists are drawing from a reappropriated aesthetic of selflessness in order to express connectedness with a universe of deprivation, thus contributing to the elucidation of the relation between Indian communism and daily self-fashioning practices.
By cultivating the practice of self-fashioning, leftist declassing has become a way to claim association with the Indian underbelly. It has developed as a way to imagine them, represent them and speak in their name. To be the voice of the ‘wretched of the earth’, Indian communists have to become like them, hence the relevance of declassing: to be a peasant, to be a Dalit, to be a poor Muslim, to be an assaulted woman, to be a mining worker in a tribal state, or a contract worker in a production plant.
While declassing traditions are located in the political history of Marxism in South Asia, they are also, at the grassroots level, the expression of varied sociological trajectories. The practice of declassing is preferred by less deprived sections of the Indian population, who use it as a device to emulate the social condition of those who are originally lower in status and wealth. In somewhat opposite fashion, those who actually belong to this Indian underbelly in their pre-campus life are far more sceptical, and even sometimes frankly hostile to the idea of declassing as a real tool of social empowerment. Consequently, declassing does not have the exact same meaning for all the respondents, and the references attached to this practice vary significantly. Contested expressions of selflessness also display distinct gender overtones as they tend to conflate expressions of femininity with undesirable bourgeois selves. In the face of such variability, declassing can be considered a broad conceptual framework containing various specific competing interpretations, depending not only on one’s social background, but also on individual subjectivities and specific traditions of political organizations.
To summarize the argument, it is possible to say that self-fashioning practices among Marxist activists in contemporary India cannot be understood without linking them to the issue of political proselytization. The biographical reconfiguration of being declassed conceptualized here is in part aimed as a language to express ‘total commitment’ to the student community in its entirety, while drawing a visual, ideological and emotional connection with the conditions of the poorer sections of the Indian population. Though contested – protean in its expression and paradoxical in many ways – declassing practices give to left activists a relative access to all the strata of a local community and enable them to pass down a certain political knowledge to the largest number of people.
By chronicling different, and sometimes contrasting personal trajectories involved in Jawaharlal Nehru University campus activism, the declassed performativity appears as visual, corporal, spatial, identificational, moral, oratory, gendered and linguistic. It is a highly demanding activity, emotionally intense, and it leads to professional deviance, but not necessarily to non-establishment positions. Because the task of declassing is arduous, it is often renegotiated when activists demobilize or withdraw from their organization, but often remains a central idiom when framing self-perceptions and interpretations of the larger polity. Taking as evidence the case of JNU left politics in New Delhi, these criteria serve as an operational definition of youth Marxist self-fashioning praxis in India and the larger South Asian region.
Left self-fashioning emerges as the result of cross-fertilization between ideological idioms and sociocultural inheritances grounded in South Asian history. Scholarship will further benefit from extensive comparative analysis; aiming at understanding the extent to which biographical reconfigurations are mobilized by other leftist groups regionally and worldwide in order to gain and consolidate popular support. Consequently, the contribution hopes to initiate additional inquiries about the circulation and emergence of different avatars of self-fashioning in political movements.
Through locating activist’s conflicted engagements with declassing at the crossroads of ideological and social trajectories, the article suggests that higher educational spaces should not be considered solely as illustrations of exogenous and encompassing social phenomena – comprising youth joblessness, consumerist aspirations, muscle politics, masculine assertions, merit-making and caste reproduction. Instead, because this article posits campuses as enabling territories for the formation of political subjectivities, it suggests exploring youth self-making as part of the emerging research agenda on the prefigurative, value- and identity-based forms of youth participation in South Asia (Jeffrey and Dyson 2016, Krishna 2017, Snellinger 2018, Natrajan 2018, Pathania 2018). Such an agenda could engage with the way trajectories towards netaization (i.e. becoming a political leader), invisibilization (i.e. activist’s demobilization) or institutionalization (i.e. professionalization of activism) introduce reconfigurations of the credentials acquired during student activists’ years. All in all, research should not only be about what campuses can tell us about society, but also about how the formation of political subjectivities in campus can contribute to the production of broader sociopolitical practices and ultimately constitute formative steps innerving social change.
Furthermore, the contribution aims at bringing further attention to the long-term implications on the life trajectory of those who have, day after day, attempted to change themselves as part of their political involvement (Fillieule and Neveu 2019). Whenever political participation is upsetting or fueling trajectories of social mobility, longitudinal studies are necessary to unpack the biographical consequences of youth involved in service provision, but also generations of those engaged with ideologies such as Maoism/Naxalism, Environmentalism (e.g. participants in the Narmada Bachao Andolan), Hindu nationalism or Feminism (Martelli and Garalytė 2020a).
From a theoretical viewpoint, the examined streams of left student activism demonstrate the everyday appeal of practices that are part of what Rancière labels as disidentification/declassification, and which give rise – in his own terms – to egalitarian political actions. Yet, the reluctance of sections of Dalit and Muslim communities to undergo declassing – leading them to emphasize instead aspirations for upward social mobility and overall identity assertiveness – points to two potential shortcomings in Rancière’s political philosophy.
First, by focusing on how the dissolution of activists and protestors’ identities makes the invisible ones (i.e. the excluded, uncounted, dominated, powerless etc.) visible, he invokes figures of alterity but also inadvertently silences them, by claiming universalism while effacing and depoliticizing their historically situated voices (Pribiag 2019:448-49). Hence, declassification can amount to mere political solidarity extended by others, “excluding victims themselves” from the possibility of enunciation (Žižek 2000:230-31). By labelling identity politics as categorically incompatible with any emancipatory stance against the imposed social order, Rancière makes the self-assertion of marginalized communities somewhat problematic (Davis 2010:88, Fraisse 2013:9). The all-or-nothing logic of radical equality in his work builds on disincorporated, transcendental, negative and subtractive identifications. This clearly challenges the attempt by Subaltern Studies’ scholars to make the “subaltern speak” (Spivak 1988), as they locate in lived experiences (Genel and Deranty 2016:50), as well as in fixed marginal identities and their hybridizations loci of power disruption (Bhabha 2004:232-33). The unwillingness to acknowledge that declassification is a sociologically-informed phenomenon leads his concept to – unintentionally – make political equality the preserve of upper and middle classes, for which the removal of one’s identity is a more meaningful and generative political ‘sacrifice’ than for the poor.
Second, Rancière locates emancipatory politics in the realm of aesthetics and ‘theatrocracy’ (Hallward 2006:112), thus conceiving equality as the result of staged, disruptive and dramatic sequences rather than the outcome of substantive and progressive economic and status redistribution. Because he emphasizes singular and sui-generis moments of spectacular (yet ephemeral, sporadic and intermittent) challenges to the status quo as the expression of politics, there is no acknowledgement of progressive, organized, strategic and incremental mobilizations which are necessary for social movements from below to emerge and sustain (McNay 2014:177-192). Declassification unquestionably enables political representation through making the uncounted visible, however Rancière remains silent on the way to sustain contestation and counterclaims for securing durable political change. In this case study, since student activism in Indian universities lacks resources and executive powers for achieving substantive social transformations, the campus left relies predominantly on Rancièrian theatrical forms of political representation in which activists’ self-fashioning assumes a central role.
Further inquiry on the genealogy of political practices would help to map the sedimented historical cross-fertilizations that infuse the ideological idioms circulating in South Asia. As outlined here, the political practice of declassing results from an interpenetration of political and cultural (including religious and artistic) domains which have crystallized into the secular fabric of left activism. The outcome of such interpenetration, resulting from the confluence of different sections involved in the nationalist, communist and Gandhian movements emerges as constitutive of the political protest repertoire of the left – including fasting and martyrdom. Subsequent studies would gain by identifying the particular historical moments foregrounding today’s political practices of the self with regard to such historical cross-fertilizations.
The future of the left self-fashioning practices in India is uncertain for a number of reasons. The deepening of consumerist practices among Indian youth drives away uncritical middle-classes selves – which constitute the core of India’s demographic bulge – from the declassing ethos. Adding to that, the access of declassed politics to the public space is questioned by the rapid privatization of Indian higher education, which results in the criminalization of contentious politics and the naturalization of social stratifications in the name of merit (Lukose 2009, Subramanian 2015). Additionally, amidst stark regional variations, the various communist movements have steadily lost political ground in the past decades in terms of membership and electoral representation. Complementing this historical change, the rising political aspirations of marginalized sections at the turn of the 1990s have led Dalits and other groups to claim representation ‘by themselves’, thus eroding the universalistic representative claim of the left. Even more strikingly, the current ruling party seems to have in many places durably secured the support of the younger rural, poor, lower castes Hindus, attracted not only by its welfare politics, but also by its consistent anti-minorities stand (Chibber and Verma 2019), resulting in a further weakening of the plebeian stand of the secular parliamentary left.
The current dominance of Hindu nationalists in the centre has led to a systematic attempt to criminalize dissenting student politics both inside and outside campus spaces (Martelli and Garalytė 2020b). From 2016 to 2020 at JNU, as in other leading public universities, activists were jailed and received death threats, physical injuries and fines, while compulsory attendance was imposed to prevent public participation in politics until the Delhi High Court decided to suspend the decision (The Hindu, 2018). Overall, professorial opportunities for left activists were also severely curtailed. As indicated by Singh and Dasgupta (2019), the negative image that Hindu nationalism “sticks” on to JNU student politics has been projected as a normative generic representation of the institution on – mainly hostile – mainstream media. Encapsulating the evils of the nation, the public discourse on JNU has been manufactured in such a way by the ruling dispensation so as to advance an illiberal understanding of Indian nationalism while delegitimizing the autonomy and relevance of public higher education. The systematic dismantling of the academic excellence of JNU by its Vice Chancellor, notably through imposing the appointment of underqualified pro-RSS faculty accelerated this turn (Singh Bal 2019). Whereas the array of biographical reconfigurations effectively draws the contours of the left representative claim in contemporary campus politics, its current national impact is being increasingly challenged by its historical political enemies.
Appendix 1. Campus political engagement by socio-economic background of students in JNU
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 Acknowledgements: The argument presented in this article has incubated over a number of years and many have contributed to its maturation. First and foremost, I shall convey my appreciation to the Jawaharlal Nehru University students and activists for their generosity and indefatigable political engagement. In preparing the various versions of the manuscript, I have benefitted from the guidance of Christophe Jaffrelot, Louise Tillin, Nicolas Jaoul, Hawon Ku, Niraja Gopal Jayal, Raphael Susewind, Amanda Snellinger, Raphaël Voix, Anna Ruddock, Harbans Mukhia and from the incisive suggestions of the SAMAJ editorial team on an earlier draft. I would like to record my thanks to Norbert Peabody and two anonymous reviewers of Modern Asian Studies for their insightful and supportive comments. I gratefully acknowledge financial backing from the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche through the research project Challenging Inequalities: An Indo-European perspective (ANR-18-EQUI-0003). For institutional support, I am indebted to the Centre de Sciences Humaines for its warm and conducive research environment. Finally, thanks to Arshima Champa Dost for her critical editing.
 Liberation is published by the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist CPI(ML).
 During that time, I lived in a shared hostel room on campus, attended classes and political events, stayed with activists and travelled with them in their numerous political campaigns both in Delhi and outside the capital.
 Several left groups introduced in the body of the article reject reformism and electoral processes while others tactically accept them (Chakrabarty 2014, Lockwood 2016). A majority of them embrace de facto parliamentary democracy and two national left political parties have experience of administering semi-autonomous states of India. Within that line the Communist Party of India advocated to ally with the progressive sections within the main independence party but also with the then Soviet Union, while its rival and splinter party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) envisioned an intermediate revolutionary phase in alliance with the peasantry, the working class and Mao Zedong’s China (Bhattacharyya 2016). Today, while all of them advocate for secularism against majoritarian Hindu nationalism, they have competing understandings of neoliberalism and imperialism. They fiercely disagree on how to articulate economic (class) and social (caste, gender etc.) inequalities (Vanaik 1986, Naudet et Tawa-Lama Rewal 2018).
 Such biographies include those of E.M.S. Namboodiripad (Bakshi 1993) (CPI(M)), P.C. Joshi (Chakravartty 2007) (CPI), Kanu Sanyal (Paul 2014) (CPI(ML)), Chandramouli (People’s March 2007) (CPI(Maoist)).
 Rancière gives the example of 19th century French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui who, at his trial, is requested by the judge to give his profession. Instead of admitting to being a journalist, he claims instead that his profession is proletarian, a broad label including the multitude of the oppressed rather than a fixed social category (Rancière 1995:35, 62–63; Rancière 1999:37).
 I also include members of the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Association (BASO), a breakaway group of DSU formed in 2016.
 Acronyms of political organizations are followed by the share and number of elected JNUSU office bearers. The percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding. Source: Author’s fieldwork. The list of all former office bearers of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) was compiled using three independent sources: p.188-189 in Lochan (1996), p.45-46 in JNUSU Document (2004) and select JNU pamphlets.
 Politically inactive students are overrepresented among those residing outside of campus, among those residing on campus solely for the purpose of preparing for civil service examinations, and among those enrolled in science subjects in centres that are located in the peripheries of the campus (Martelli and Parkar 2018). To this group have to be added sections of Indian youth who generally display less concern regarding political matters: upper classes and educated women (Jaffrelot and Van de veer 2008, Kumar 2009, Martelli and Parkar 2018).
 These include protests outside campus, such as in Jantar Mantar (the official place for demonstrations in Delhi); protest marches (juloos) on campus; torch-light marches; effigy-burning of personalities; sit-ins (dharnas, dera dalos); public events especially at night in school canteens; meetings in the school cafés; human chains; presentation of fact-finding expeditions; field visits; campaigning for one’s parental organization; welcoming of political guests; pamphleteering on mess tables at breakfast, lunch and dinner time; campaigning in front of school entrances; meeting for planning events; General Body Meetings (GBMs – school wise voting on a specific agenda, preceded by discussions); UGBMs (same process but at the University-level); cultural events; film screenings; street plays; memorial lectures; political workshops; room, class and mess campaigns; signature campaigns; chanda campaigns (money contribution); one-on-one discussions; personal phone calls to solicit voting or to assist students; reading groups; and increasingly campaigns through social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.
 Chandrashekhar started his activist journey at JNU and then engaged politically at a pan-Indian level. Thanks to the role-model “Chandu,” it was easier for activists to envisage high-risk activism outside the university setting and this was reflected in the way the story of his sacrifice was circulated in JNU pamphlets. In them, we learn that Chandrashekhar started his activist career as a CPI member in Bihar, becoming vice-president of AISF at the end of the 1980s (Collective pamphlet 1997). Soon after his arrival at JNU as a student, he joined the student outfit of CPI(ML), AISA, at a moment when the guerrilla Maoist party was going ‘overground’ by adopting parliamentarian and legal means (Jaoul 2011). After returning to his hometown Siwan in 1997, he was shot dead by a henchman of the Parliamentary Member of the constituency at a street-corner meeting (Friends of Chandrashekhar 1997), which triggered numerous JNU-led protests in Delhi (Janhangir et al. 1997).
 Quotes are presented in the table as concordances, which is the context of a given word or set of words in a text. The left/right context is a set of words placed on the left/right of a given word in a text.
 In July 2019, the JNU Vice Chancellor took the initiative of removing all the posters in the campus premises, putting an end – at least temporarily – to this longstanding tradition of political art making on university walls (Iftikhar 2019).
 These political events include protests in Jantar Mantar (the official place for demonstrations in Delhi) with the police sometimes arresting protestors; protest marches (juloos) on campus; torch-light marches; effigy-burning of personalities; sit-ins (dharnas, dera dalos); public events; meetings in school cafés; human chains; presentation of fact-finding expeditions; welcoming of political guests; pamphleteering on mess tables at breakfast, lunch and dinner time; campaigning in front of school entrances; meeting for planning strikes and reading groups; General Body Meetings (GBMs – school wise voting on a specific agenda and preceded by discussions); UGBMs (same process but at the university-level); cultural events; film screenings; street plays; memorial lectures; political workshops; room, class and mess campaigns; signature campaigns; chanda campaigns (money contribution); one-on-one discussions; personal phone calls to solicit voting; reading groups; and more recently campaigns through Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. Even hunger strikes around different issues, planned ahead of elections, are held to show the dedicated nature of future candidates.
 Studies on the 1960s and 1970s’ New Left in the United States show that former activists continued to embrace left political attitudes while self-perceiving themselves as politically “radical” and “liberal.” They also displayed lower incomes, less matrimonial stability and specialised in helping and teaching professions. For an overview, see McAdam (1989). Unfortunately, no longitudinal study examining the biographical consequences of activism exist in the Indian context.
 However, since 2014, the state repression of anti-government student activism has led to a systematic administrative curtailing of academic opportunities for those graduates who are or were not affiliated to Hindu nationalist groups (see conclusion).
 For examples, cf. Mumbai Mirror, 26 August 2018, India Today, 7 June 2018, The Indian Express, 22 February 2016, Business Standard, 20 February 2016.
 In 1990, the then Prime Minister introduced a national 27 percent reservation (i.e. a positive discrimination quota) in the administration and education sectors for so-called Other Backward Classes (OBCs) – a conglomerate of Hindu and Muslim castes not as deprived as Dalits, but nevertheless suffering from longstanding economic and social disadvantages (Jeffrey and Harriss 2014:154-55).
 This corroborates several accounts of women’s participation in revolutionary left movements in contemporary India, in which radical political engagement is used as a tool of assertive political transgression (Roy 2006). It also indicates overall affinities between left activism in general and queer understandings of gender in university spaces (Dutoya 2016).
 As discussed in the first section of the study, it is beyond the scope of this article to engage with the variability of the self-fashioning practices within the left spectrum in India. However, it is worth noting that in the case of JNU student politics, the author found that occurrences of declassing practices were overall more frequent among activists of DSU and AISA, and among those who self-perceive as “more radical” when compared to AISF, SFI and DSF activists.
 Several left female student leaders pointed out the greater difficulty for women to assume leadership positions within the student left (Kulsum, interview 2015, Minu, interview 2014) and the arduousness of denouncing the gendered division of labor in communist parties beyond the JNU campus, where “women will nurse your wounds in the communist party. You are not in the party as a comrade, you are a courier, a foot-soldier… the wife has to prepare tea for male comrades” (Drumi, interview 2015). For an overview see also Roy 2007, Shah and Pettigrew 2009, Roy 2012, Parashar and Shah 2016, and Shah 2018).
 Naxalites and Maoists are two words used interchangeably to point at far-left wing political commitments in India. Naxalism covers evolving realities since its inception as a movement in 1967, including landless movements in rural North India and youth-based iconoclasm in urban areas of West Bengal. In its current occurrence it is mostly active in the forested areas of India’s ‘tribal belt’, where it develops “relations of emotional intimacy” with populations in quest of accessing state resources, seeking better protection for accessing the forest economy and avoiding persecution from a shifting set of actors, including mining companies, paramilitary forces, hostile local politicians, non-adivasi (i.e. non-tribal) traders and renegade Naxals (Shah 2018, Sundar 2019).
 The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) is a social movement which emerged in the mid-1980s to protest against the human, cultural and environmental cost involved in the project of dam construction on the river Narmada – in particular in the state of Gujarat.