Anjana Ashok, UG22 On October 30th, the Ashoka Distinguished Policy Speaker Series hosted a talk with
By Vinayak Dewan, UG Class of 2018
Rajendran Narayanan, a profound mathematician, grew up in a middle class household in Calcutta, a city with an extraordinary political consciousness — a city which, in his words, “laid great emphasis on thinking about how a society should be.” Barber shops — where politics from Venezuela to France were passionately debated — became the unexpected centres where political views were shaped. Calcutta, a city laidback like no other, even had its music resonate with its spirit — instead of Iron Maiden, the Calcutta of Raj’s youth listened to Bob Dylan.
Unlike Che Guevara, who was radicalized by the poverty, hunger and disease he witnessed during his travels throughout South America, Raj, as he is fondly known, does not have a turning point after which he first started engaging with the world around him. For him, that was a lifelong process: at the age of 7, he asked his father why a person working a desk job got paid more than a coolie; his father, smiling, replied that Raj would be better off in Russia.
Raj, unwilling to assume a superior position in relation to his students, insists on being called by his first name. He had a teacher in his high school who, according to him, “fearlessly stood for a remarkable sense of justice and fairness.” While explaining a Hindi poem describing the tribulations of the partition to the class, the teacher had made a remark that has since been etched in Raj’s memory: “dilli diwali mana raha tha, desh diwala ho raha tha” (Delhi was celebrating Diwali while the country was getting bankrupted). He inspired him such an extent that Raj dedicated his PhD thesis to his beloved teacher.
Raj has worked extensively with social sector organisations, such as Combating Corruption with Mobile Phones (CCMP) initiated by the Program for Liberation Technology. He wanted to work closely with the questions of inequality and justice and there was no better place to think about these questions than the place where he grew up, in a context that he understood well.
On 13 Oct, 2016, The Indian Express reported that Raj, the only professor who signed a letter of solidarity condemning State sanctioned violence in Kashmir — which resulted in accusations from certain sections of the media about Ashoka breeding so called ‘anti-nationals’ — was under pressure to quit the university by the end of this semester. Raj stands by his decision to sign the letter, saying, “India’s engagement with Kashmir has historically not done justice to the people of Kashmir.” Raj describes himself as a pacifist who is deeply perturbed by inequality and considers addressing questions of inequality and justice as a vital part of who he is.
Raj argues that he would not have signed the letter had there not been a disclaimer clarifying that the views in the petition did not represent the views of the entire university. He would also have rethought his decision to sign it had the university intervened during the time that drafts of the letter were under circulation. However, the adverse implications of signing the letter were unanticipated by him and university authorities alike.
Raj believes that the government is extremely insecure, “which is the reason why it is cracking down on universities and places of dissent.” The pressures that Ashoka University faced are representative of the sad times we live in. If a letter, one of the most innocuous forms of dissent, has to face such repercussions, then “god save this country.” Raj, quoting Sahir Ludhianvi in the 1968 Hindi film “Phir Subah Hogi” (It Will Be Dawn Again), remarks with a smile: “in kali sadiyon ke sar se kab raat ka anchal dhalkega?” (when will the shroud of darkness lift from these dark ages?).