“I am against the sedition law being slapped on people”: Anand Ranganathan
Anand Ranganathan, veteran scientist and a famous columnist, is well-known for his witty, yet strong views on social and political developments. His political savviness is often portrayed in his tweets, making his twitter handle a hub of opinions.
Referred to as a man of varied interests, Ranganathan regularly writes for various news platforms in India such as Swarajya, Newslaundry, DNA, and The News Minute. Simultaneously, he is also a scientist who has immensely contributed to the fields of molecular medicine and biotechnology while being an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi. He has also authored three books, all novels: The Land of Wilted Rose, For Love and Honour, and The Rat Eater (co-authored with Chitra Subramaniam).
The Manipal Journal had an opportunity to interview him during his visit to Manipal for Article-19, School of Communication’s official media event, where he addressed a gathering of students.
You have always been a strong advocate of Dr Ambedkar’s policies. You have also stressed time and again on how Dr Ambedkar saw Gandhi in his true light and how he was the original Mahatma fighting against a man pretending to be one.
In the backdrop of the current scenario, where there is greater freedom of expression, do you feel that Dr Ambedkar’s arguments would stand stronger against Gandhi’s, considering the dominance of social media? Do you also think, social media would catalyse and help Ambedkar to sketch his points in a comprehensive way, which would weaken Gandhi’s case?
Yeah! I think it is probably true to a large extent because, as we know, Ambedkar was very scathing against everyone and he was an equal opportunity offender. Very clearly, the case in our country is that nobody likes people who offend them, even though it is very healthy criticism. This was one of the main reasons why the Congress (Indian National Congress) did not like Ambedkar, as simple as that. For forty to fifty years, his policies; his thoughts were all dedicated towards the upbringing of the backward. You have people who talk about Dalit rights, Dalit emancipation, and liberty for everyone but here was this man who was not only preaching these concepts but was actually following them. Even after all his great contributions, Ambedkar was honoured with the Bharat Ratna only after forty years of his death. I mean, what more can be said about how this nation has treated him.
Even though social media is now becoming a dangerous echo chamber of our opinions, with all the generous availability of information and knowledge through the internet and books, it would be very easy for people to understand the intricacies of his contributions. For example, there are websites like archive.org, Google, and millions of books that are easily available and I think, this is what would catalyse the comprehensive understanding among people all over the country. Anybody can read anything that holds importance in the context of the society, and then take a snapshot of what he or she just read and put it on the internet to reach hundreds of people. So yes, social media is a strong catalyst but the real seed for this has to be the free availability of knowledge and the ability to express oneself better.
Previously, you have said that a lack of objectivity is prevalent in the Indian media these days and the media giants in our country are inclined towards certain ideologies. In an interview, you also claimed, “Propaganda is getting busted on the hour, let alone months or years,” and that questioning the government for all mishaps after 2014 is just a strategy/propaganda. Do you think this selectivity and labelling is the reason behind blaming the current government for everything?
I mean, partly true as you said but I would rather correct you a little bit about questioning the government after 2014 being a strategy. In my opinion, everyone is absolutely free to question the government and I think everyone should do so. It is wrong only when no one does. The problem only starts when people start projecting that all these mishaps are happening for the first time.
So, you are absolutely free to criticise. You should, in fact, blast the government because it deserves it. The current government has done good things but that is only a precious little compared to all it promised. It definitely does not live up to the mark. So yes, you should be critical of the government but to say that all these things are happening for the first time in India is absolutely wrong. For instance, especially in today’s day, you cannot say that freedom of expression has been curtailed only after 2014 and that it has never been affected before. That is wrong. I think that the media has learnt this lesson the hard way, mainly because it has been taught this lesson by social media.
There was a recent public litigation against the age-old practice of the Sanskrit prayer at Kendriya Vidyalayas, and in response the Supreme Court has ordered an inquiry into this issue, owing to the fact that the school is a state-funded institution. You have questioned the wrongful interpretation of this whole issue. Could you elaborate further on this?
This particular prayer does not worship any God. It talks about a journey from darkness to light and from ignorance to knowledge. Which school would not want its pupils to have such thoughts? I think it is totally ridiculous to tag something like this to have any sort of communal inclination. You should see the inscriptions under the emblems of all our institutions starting from Satyamev Jayate in the Supreme Court, which simply means where there is dharma, there is a victory. This is the Indian tradition and I think it is something to be celebrated. Let me also say this here as there is this misconception that India is a secular state. It is not. It is a plural state. If you look in the Indian Constitution, there are so many articles that placate or give freedom to various religions. Secular means that the state is totally out of religion and the corollary here is also true. If the religion should be out of the State then the State should also be out of all religions. Now there are lakhs of temples that are under State control. How is that not separatist? Such questions constantly come up when dealing with this hypocrisy and I am glad that this issue has come out in the open so people can discuss it.
India’s economy has been expanding by seven per cent which is the fastest among major economies. But in hindsight, according to the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) leaked report, the employment rate in India has decreased drastically, to the lowest in 45 years. However, the central government and the BJP have denied these statistics based on the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) reports, thus contradicting the facts of a trusted source and a ministry organisation. It is also said that two NSSO officials have also had to resign for “uncertain reasons”.
Do you think that the government could have taken it in a more positive way or handled it better? Also, should institutions like NSSO consider only public sector jobs for the data on job creation or do you think private or self-employment can also be taken into account?
First of all, I think it is scandalous that the government did not release the report. Not just this report, they did not release the Annual Labour Bureau Survey as well. They were actually caught with their hand in a cookie jar when someone asked for the data in the Lok Sabha and hence the Labour Minister (Santosh Gangwar) had no option but to actually disclose the data. But otherwise, they were hell-bent at not disclosing any data and that is absolutely scandalous. Especially because when you are looking at the employment rate, there are two aspects to take into consideration – job creation and unemployment figures. Now India does not have the absolute data as to how many jobs were created and the data of the exact unemployment number because we lack a defined system to determine these numbers. Also, in India, we do not have unemployment benefit schemes like there are in the West. In the West, it is easy to find exact numbers, as you could say that if one million people have taken the unemployment benefit, it means those many people are unemployed. This NSSO report is a survey on one lakh households within the country when our total labour force is 475 million. This means you have to take its result for a pinch of salt.
You can also see how demonetisation devastated the employment scenario of the 91 per cent of our labour force that is in the unorganised sector. Now, the government insisting on the EPFO data is meaningless as it caters only nine per cent of the total workforce that is in the organised, formal job sector. 91 per cent of the total labour force is in the unorganised sector, so only a survey like NSSO but nothing else will be able to count those jobs in. NSSO has been there for 40 years with a trustworthy reputation. So, withholding this data was totally wrong. But at the same time, I strongly believe that job creation and unemployment are actually coexisting in India which is not the case in other countries. There, you can question how unemployment is increasing while job creation is also being increased simultaneously. But with the data available in India, this can happen as one is a survey and the other one is the source. Out of 475 million workforces, you are only interviewing one lakh households for a survey purpose so you know there are differences. The government should be brave enough to accept this situation instead of countering and denying it. I think, the revised GDP figure now shows that during demonetisation, India’s GDP was the highest. How is that possible, when you take away 80 per cent of the cash when the Indian economy was overwhelmingly dependent on it? Overnight, millions of jobs were lost temporarily. Of course, the nation has recovered, but you have to be honest about that period too. So you never know what the government has in its mind.
So, do you think all these numbers are somehow controlled?
Well, yes. It is funny saying this but if any data is contradicting what the government is thinking, people are more likely to believe in that. Both NSSO and EPFO are the government agencies – so you know, it is your pick and what you choose, and that is where the selectivity comes in play. I think that if you believe one set of data, you should be open-minded about all other data as well. If it is good for the government, then say it. If it comes out that the government is looking bad because of the data, then, say it as well.
In continuing with the previous question, should surveys and reports like NSSO and EPFO consider private sector employment and self-employment into the report? What do you say about this?
They already do. As I have mentioned before, it is a survey of one lakh households. They go to each of these households to verify their employment records. Of course, there are jobs being created. I mean, Nitin Gadkari (Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Shipping and Water Resources) himself said it. All this is not being considered into account, which is infuriating, because it does not bring in any data. (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi promised in 2013-14, that he would create one crore jobs. Congress still says that he promised two crores, but at least as far as I know he said one crore jobs. Now, Gadkari, a couple of months ago said that he has created almost one crore jobs just within his ministries and department alone, which is amazing. I mean it is quite possible because his departments mostly depend on construction. But give the proof if you have created. The narrative will obviously shift from job creation to unemployment because you are not giving proof of the numbers. I am sure more than one and a half crores of jobs might have been created in the past few years. You include these BPOs like Amazon, Ola and the like; it might come to three crores, you never know. The government can send a mission to Mars but they cannot gather all this data and tell me how many jobs have been created in the country? So I totally blame the government, in this case, for not gathering the right data. They deserve this.
Now talking about the upcoming general elections 2019, many surveys have suggested a hung assembly. In this case, if the BJP or the current NDA falls short of the majority, do you think that the RSS and the BJP might push it together or do you think there will be some other names into consideration for the Prime Minister’s post? Do you see such a situation arising, and if yes, who all will be in the race?
The BJP does have many partners and this is something that is true in (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s case, which was not there in (Former PM Atal Bihari) Vajpayee’s case. It also happens when suddenly leaders become very powerful, are projected as very powerful or seen as very powerful, they do not get very many friends. Let us remember that one of the biggest allies that they have also came to them accidentally – Nitish Kumar, who wanted a ‘Sangh Mukt Bharat’, but now you know where he is (laughs). Other than that, the Shivsena is constantly with them. The only option I see right now is for them to get a majority or it is a total hang of parliament as we may be looking at five years of instability or even a decade as what was the case in the 90s and late 90s.
So, if they fall short and they end up having some potential post-poll allies, who do not agree on PM Modi’s name, then who can be his alternative?
See, that is the thing about very powerful people. They deliberately do not keep their number twos. I mean look at anybody who holds great power, who is Mamata’s number two? Who was Jayalalithaa’s number two? That is the way they work because when it comes to this, trust becomes an issue. In this case, you can say Amit Shah is PM Modi’s number two but I do not think Amit Shah would be open to this as he himself has accepted that he is not prime minister material. Then if you have to look at the current cabinet, Sushma Swaraj could have been an option but she is not contesting elections. Piyush Goyal, Nitin Gadkari and Nirmala Seetharaman could be the potential candidates.
What do you have to say about Nitin Gadkari’s name as prime minister, considering the rumours around?
First of all, I personally like Nitin Gadkari because he has this tremendous sense of humour. He is a master troller and he has done quite a lot for the ministries on his shoulders. The man has delivered and there is no doubt about it. Now, he is taking up this Namami Gange project as well and lately, there have been a lot of improvements in this regard. He is a doer, so I think, it would be good if it happens but it all depends on what BJP wants. If they get less than the majority number then I think the one person who would be really pleased with Nitin Gadkari’s name here would be PM Modi. I mean, why should he not be? He has had his share of five years and he has done significant work, no doubt about it. There are schemes where he has really delivered but at the end of the day, you know that if the public does not believe in you then you should be able to step aside. If he does not step aside, the alternative is that the BJP does not form the government. So, I believe, he definitely would.
In the recent past, there has been a particular picture that is being put up by media about Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which has made the public associate the universities to protests and certain ideologies. How would you describe this whole scenario, seeing as you teach there, and are in close contact with the students on the campus?
Unfortunately, one of the major jobs of media nowadays is to exaggerate. So, due to certain incidents at JNU, it has become this hell-bound. There is nothing of that sort. I am saying this as I am always on the other side of this hot zone. Nobody bothers us, scientists, nobody cares about our opinions. But yes, on the humanities side there definitely are problems and there are protests going on constantly. Having said that, I want to say that JNU is a wonderful place and an excellent university and about what has been happening, my personal view is that I am against the sedition law being slapped on these people. It is within the rights of a citizen of India if the laws exist, to use those laws. So now, the problem is not somebody using that law, the problem is the law itself, the existence of the law. I cannot blame if somebody finds whatever I say hurtful. I cannot ask that person not to prosecute me. He will file a case against me because he has various rights to do so. I mean what is the problem in this? The problem is not JNU; it is just that JNU has become a symbol of ignorance for several years against the suppression of knowledge.
I think this has to be said that I am against youth wing organisations affiliated to political parties in a university. All these politically affiliated student organisations like ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), AISA (All India Students Association) and others should not be allowed within the universities. I think, in Delhi University the candidates spend more money during student body elections than the MPs and MLAs. That cannot be right. Also, this is not happening for the first time, but the point is that it is happening and of course it is the government’s responsibility to change this. I am against the charge sheets that have been filed against Kanhaiya Kumar. If you remember, under the UPA regime, there was this protest and in one day the Tamil Nadu Police filed 8000 sedition cases. Sedition is a pretty strong word. Seditious means that you are going against this State. How is it that 8000 people protesting are going against the State and would destroy India? Similar things have happened several times and for the Congress to now be against this is again hypocritical because as I pointed out there are dozens of cases that were served sedition charges on so many people and then they kept quiet about it – including the activists who they are now supporting, were put in jail by the UPA. This is a political game that is going on but the important thing is the wonderful title for this event – Article-19 (derived from the Article-19 of the Indian Constitution) that I have come to attend. We need to purify this article and review all these things because you cannot say that a citizen does not have a right to file charges when the law exists. As long as the law is there, people are going to use it.
So, the last question. You have been associated with two different news organisations – Swarajya and Newslaundry – and if I am right, both seem to be at two opposite ideological ends. So, how is it that you are making a balance with it?
(Laughs) See, I have no ideology except for science. So it becomes very easy for me to say what I have to say, so, this question has never popped up in my mind. But if I was an employee of an organisation that is left-winged like Newslaundry or openly right-winged as Swarajya, I can face a lot of problems that I would experience. This is because people are not very receptive of alternative points of view and I say this, especially for the left. Education has slowly made people realise what all was not taught to them. For example, they now realise that Aurangzeb is not our hero.
So basically, a history that was kept hidden has come up and of course, the world can see that knowledge is the vanguard of opinions. It has been the vanguard of the left. Of course, it is very embarrassing for a left organisation to keep on believing in communism or to keep on believing in socialism. These are failed concepts. Now, if you believe in this and if you are trying to be objective, rational, and logical at the same time, it does not work that way. So there is also an acute embarrassment in a leftist mind as to why there is no trust towards them.
Edited by: Mehul Malpani
Featured Photo Courtesy: Aradhika Jain