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Demonstration at the Chomsky seminar

In 2009, I attended a three-day seminar at the University of Pondicherry organized by their department of Philosophy on “Noam Chomsky and the Contemporary World”, but this is not an account of the proceedings. It is about the anti-Chomsky demonstration that demanded the cancellation of the seminar. And no exaggeration, it is indeed this that I remember best of that seminar today.

It must be noted that the Pondicherry seminar was the first, and in all probability, as of now, the only, seminar held in India on Noam Chomsky’s work exclusively. During his two visits to India, in 1996 and 2001, he lectured mostly on political matters. Very few of his talks were on linguistics. And his lectures were very well-received. No surprise there.

Eight years after, there was a demonstration against him. Or an idea of his, if you like. But to me, it makes no difference. Being a Yeats fan, I believe that separating the dance from the dancer is a pointless exercise. Incidentally, the Pondicherry demonstration is the only demonstration in India against him. Doesn’t that make the seminar memorable?

In the evening on the second day of the three-day event, we, the delegates, were told that that in the morning some local activists had organized a demonstration at the University gate to protest against the event. Chomsky, they said, had been consistently anti-India and that he had gone to the extent of calling India “a terrorist state”; it was entirely unacceptable to them that the university was honouring him by organizing a national seminar on his work. The organizers looked visibly worried, apprehending that the situation might worsen on the third day. That same evening, there was a press release by the University to the effect that the seminar was not eulogizing Chomsky’s thoughts but was evaluating them and that many delegates were actually sharply critical of his ideas. This must have pacified the protesters. There was no demonstration on the following day.

In the seminar, there had indeed been some uninformed Chomsky bashing by one or two delegates, who had commented on his linguistics, not politics. They were no experts on his linguistics and no linguist there who was familiar with Chomsky’s technical linguistic work had taken their views seriously. Now, the irony of ironies was that it was their views that had helped the University on that occasion. The seminar survived. In fact, those delegates received a good deal of publicity in the media, but let it not be said that things were stage managed in order to save the seminar. To say that would be weird.

By the way, the bashing of Chomsky’s linguistics is neither new nor restricted to India. It is part of linguistics folklore that the eminent structural linguist, Charles Hocket, denounced in desperation Chomsky’s pathbreaking “Aspects of the Theory of Syntax”, calling it “aspects of the theory of nonsense”. 

Now, some participants knew about Chomsky’s comment about “terrorist state” from news reports, but it had invited no discussion in the seminar. His saying about some state or the other as being a terrorist state must be seen in the context of his very concept of “terrorist state”. For him, all states are terrorist states; all states, to repeat, be they totalitarian or democratic. From one point of view, this notion of terrorist state divests it of semantic content. A word has its meaning in the context of contrast. “Dark” is meaningless without “light”, “hard” is meaningless without “soft” and “swarga” is meaningless without “narka”. Now, if very state is a terrorist state, then there is nothing to contrast it with; there is nothing like a “non-terrorist state”. What sense do we make of this notion then? This apart, such a concept virtually makes terrorism part of the defining characteristic of a state, like territory, population, government, etc. Now, this concept of a “state” is obviously problematic; no state will ever accept it as a characterization of the concept of “state”, to say the least.

By 2009, cross border terrorism had become a reality and India had become a victim of such terrorism. Now, if every state is a terrorist state, i.e., by its very nature, a state is terrorist, then doesn’t this view kind of condone cross border terrorism? Chomsky may have his reasons but disturbing questions do arise from his concept of “terrorist state”.

In the seminar, there was considerable discussion on Chomsky’s political ideas and his work as a dissenter. His work was appreciated and even those who were committed to ideologies not in tune with Chomsky’s thinking – both rightist and make no mistake, leftist as well – did not reject or trivialize his contribution to the relevant field. I do not remember if anyone was sympathetic towards the demonstrators, but some felt that if Chomsky indeed had said that India was a terrorist state, it was understandable that some people had taken offence. At the same time, no one was keen about meeting the demonstrators and explaining to them that since for Chomsky all states are terrorist, it just logically followed that state X or Y is terrorist. They were aware of the limitations of academic arguments to deal with such situations.

Quite understandably, the University did not construct its response – not at least strongly – around things like the individual’s right to speak, academic freedom, and its social responsibility to encourage free discussion of ideas and issues in an academic manner. What it did to justify the seminar was say that the seminar did not eulogize Chomsky’ work and endorse his ideas; it only discussed them and strongly rejected some of them.

But who can fault the University for this – which university wants additional problems, as though it does not already have plenty? The result of the University’s stand was good. The seminar was not disrupted. There was no unpleasant incident in the campus.

The problem over, in the dining hall that night, some of us were asking whether we lack in self-confidence. Why do we get so upset about an individual’s opinion, no matter how high his status and how great his reputation? Is it because the person is an outsider? Aren’t we then still looking for a good word for what we are or what we do from outside? From another point of view, doesn’t it mean that we might say whatever negative things we wish to say about ourselves but will not tolerate a negative thing from an outsider? If this is true, then it’s a mindset out of sync with the liberal outlook that we must necessarily encourage, for the collective well- being of our plural society, our plural world, if for nothing else! 

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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