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A time for radical hope

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This is a transcript of Usha Iyer’s speech on Jan. 17 at the Stanford Rally Against Violence on Students & Anti-Muslim Discrimination.

Thank you to the student organizers of this Rally. It’s only fitting that an attack on students and on educational institutions in India mobilizes support from students across the world.

I’m not really much of a public speaker, but this is a time for all of us to speak up. I’m reminded of the many protest signs I saw in Bombay that read, “It’s so bad the introverts are here,” “It’s so bad the Parsis are here,” “It’s so bad I braved the Bombay traffic to be here!”

This is a key moment — for India, for the US, for a world that is (rightly so) in a state of panic, about economic precarity, about climate disasters. We’ve seen the rise of authoritarian right-wing leaders here and there, and everywhere in between. But this is a key moment to change that narrative. We could be on the cusp of a big change. And this is what is most inspiring about this moment.

I just returned from India a few days ago, from protests in Bombay, from non-stop conversations with friends, from non-stop arguments with some conservative family members. Many said, “Oh, what a dreadful time to have been there; things are so bad.” But honestly, I’d have hated not to have been there during this profoundly moving and powerful moment when young women at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi raised a courageous finger against gun-toting police, when Aishe Ghosh, Student Union President of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), viciously beaten on her head with iron rods, returned to campus the next day to join the agitation with renewed vigor, when the brave, brave women at Shaheen Bagh continued their sit-in in this neighborhood of Delhi all day and through cold nights (34 days and nights now) to stand up to a divisive, patriarchal, Hindu-nationalist government.

I read somewhere this week, “When you think of revolutionaries, stop thinking of men! Remember the women. Remember that they hold each other in the cold night in the streets, and they laugh.” These women, who have so much to lose, are at the forefront of this protest, a protest against the government and its actions that are Islamophobic, Dalit-phobic, women-phobic, student-phobic, non-Hindi-phobic, North-East-phobic, minority-phobic, Bahujan-phobic, Adivasi-phobic. And I mean phobia here in the sense of both hatred and fear. Because — make no mistake — they’re very afraid. Things are not going as planned for them.

In 2013, I was guest faculty at JNU for a semester, as I was completing my PhD. That remains one of the most intellectually stimulating classrooms I’ve ever been in, with a crackling energy and fearlessness that redefines the nature of the university. Indeed, a university that nurtures the fiery oratory of a Kanhaiya Kumar, the nuanced political critiques of Umar Khalid & Shehla Rashid and the stunning, heroic courage of Aishe Ghosh offers a different vision, one that is a source of great terror for a narrow-visioned, right-wing Hindutva ideology that is so afraid of critical thinking, diversity of opinion and a culture of dissent.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of Rohith Vemula’s institutionally enabled suicide at the University of Hyderabad. It is a painful and sobering reminder of the violence wreaked on those who dare question majoritarian, upper-caste, upper-class privilege. Today is the 166th day of the internet shutdown in Kashmir, where students were not allowed to congregate and their voices violently muffled on- and off-line.

This is a time to exercise the extensive privilege we have as Stanford faculty and students, and indeed anyone who is here with us at this rally. We cannot sit back and be comfortable with the model of the University as an ivory tower. If we have learned anything, it is that complacency will breed conservatism, the violence of which the most vulnerable bodies will first experience.

We may be far away from India right now, but there is a lot we can do. Here’s a quick list I got off feminisminindia.com:

1. Amplify information — share valuable resources and information on your social media
2. Talk to the people around you
3. Use your creative resources — the outpouring of artwork, music and poetry on the streets in India has been so inspiring
4. Organize information — volunteer to collate resources
5. Offer your professional services
6. Donate to fundraisers
7. Ally with existing organizations
8. Organize talks, film screenings, study circles

And for us, as faculty and students especially, use the classroom as a space of activism. The critical skills we develop of free and rigorous thinking are precisely what are under attack by anti-intellectual, right-wing forces around the world. So, activism and academia, may the two never be far apart.

This is a time to build global solidarities. There are deep, interconnected networks of right-wing conservatism and extremism. To battle this, we need global solidarities between progressive movements — we need to speak up for Kashmir, for Palestine, for Turkey, for the students protesting with moving poetry in Pakistan, for Chile, for Brazil, for America! We know how much work there is to be done right here for racial justice, economic justice, social justice.

When I teach Indian cinema, I open with the observation that India could be compared to Europe in its variety (since that’s a frame that might be more familiar to students), and that it is even more diverse in languages, food, dress, custom, religious practices. Its diversity is hard to hold within the narrow framework of a homogenous nation. And that is what makes it remarkable. As Arundhati Roy said, what they, the government and its allied institutions, want to do is turn a continent into a country. We are all here today to say we won’t let that happen! How dare they think we will let them get away with their narrow, constricted Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan vision!

Again, thank you all for coming here today. May our voices count — here and when we are back in our offices, classrooms, living rooms. Every conversation counts. Talk to students, professors, friends, colleagues, engage with every person who might entertain the doubt that this is not the world we want.

Jai Bhim! Inquilab Zindabad!

—Usha Iyer, Assistant Professor, Film and Media Studies, Department of Art and Art History

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