Why our universities are in ferment

The Sangh Parivar’s student wing across campuses has been given the responsibility of raising the slogan of anti-nationalism wherever democratic aspirations are expressed, or filing some complaint on an innocuous issue, and the HRD Ministry promptly swoops in to act.

Updated - February 15, 2016 08:34 am IST

Published - February 15, 2016 01:16 am IST

As over two thousand students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi gathered peacefully on Saturday to protest police action on campus and the arrest of the President of the Students’ Union, a potentially dangerous stampede was set in motion at the front, when at Rahul Gandhi’s entrance, media people with cameras rushed unheedingly into the thickly clustered people seated on the ground. The situation was exacerbated by a further push into that space by about fifteen Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists holding black flags and shouting slogans against Rahul Gandhi. Within seconds, however, the students conducting the meeting had organised a human chain to hold back and corral the media and the ABVP safely into one corner, and the human chain was then immediately taken up by the hundreds of teachers present. Until Rahul Gandhi left, the handful of ABVP activists continued their slogans, but they could only be heard by those seated in their immediate vicinity.

This is how students and teachers have always maintained, through the gravest provocations, perhaps the most peaceful campus in the country. Debate and dissent have always been part of its ethos but never violence, an ethos unfamiliar to those who only know violent suppression of dissent.

Storm troopers of the Sangh

Three factors reflected in this account are crucial in understanding the circumstances of many universities that have been in the news recently — the extreme responsibility shown by most students at all times, the matching irresponsibility shown by the visual media in particular, and the role of the ABVP as storm troopers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS/BJP).

Students and young people have been at the forefront of protests across the country for some time now, even before the Modi regime came to power, against land acquisition by relentlessly neo-liberal regimes, corruption, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, homophobic politics, cutbacks in education budgets, anti-worker policies and rampant caste-based discrimination. The Jadavpur University students’ protest against sexual harassment, the nation-wide upsurge after the December 16, 2012 rape, and student support to striking Maruti workers are some instances.

Lately, many of these protests have been against Hindutva-wadi politics — attempts to control the food and dietary habits of large numbers of communities, moral policing of young people, and communal violence set coldly and calculatedly in motion by what Paul Brass has called ‘institutionalised systems of riot production’. These protests have been militant but utterly non-violent, and they have been relentless. These are not elite young people, as they are often portrayed in the media. Thanks to the continued expansion of education, reservation policies, and in universities like JNU, affirmative action through deprivation points, the class, caste and gender profile of these young people is remarkably heterogeneous. Like Rohith Vemula of the University of Hyderabad whose charismatic leadership on the basis of a left-inflected Ambedkarite political vision and powerful suicide letter galvanised the country; Kanhaiya Kumar, the arrested JNU Students’ Union president, in jail for fulfilling his responsibility as elected representative and attempting to maintain peace among ABVP and the other students who organised the controversial event; or Richa Singh, first woman president of the Allahabad University Students’ Union, battling the entrenched patriarchy of the Hindi-belt campuses — most of them come from modest to extremely poor families, having battled discrimination of different sorts at every stage. When they enter public universities that still, in what seems to our older generation to be a doomed era, are affordable to many, offer spaces of learning, lively debate, intellectual growth and political understanding of structural injustices, something magical happens. Young people from marginalised sections see that social transformation is possible, and that they can be the agents of that transformation.

Pattern of misrepresentation

As to the irresponsibility of the media, apart from the mindless competition for pictures of celebrities, political or otherwise, the reportage boggles the mind. On Saturday at JNU for example, I could hear one reporter say in that breathless manner they all affect, “events at JNU have taken a political turn as leaders of political parties arrive” (as if the political turn had not already taken place with the entry of police on a university campus), and another intone “there is an evident split in the student body with ABVP activists showing black flags” (a few thousand students chanting “Stand with JNU” and twenty people showing black flags is an evident split!). During the University of Hyderabad unrest too, the reportage was completely one-sided until Rohith Vemula’s suicide forced the media to sit up and take notice.

Of course, these reporters are young people too, they are doing their job as they know it. One can only hope that somewhere, someone will realise that television can have thoughtful coverage rather than farcical “breaking news” and high decibel meaningless shouting in studios, slanted by the anchor in the direction s/he chooses. One day surely, there will be one channel, at least one programme on a channel, that will not have 24 hour news, but discussion, debate and real attempts to untangle political controversies?

Meanwhile, the third factor mentioned above, the ABVP across campuses has been given the responsibility of raising the slogan of anti-nationalism wherever democratic aspirations are expressed, or filing some complaint on an innocuous issue, and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) promptly swoops in to act. Grants to Panjab University were stopped and salaries not paid after the ABVP filed a complaint with the MHRD alleging irregularities in the hostel funds, despite the vice chancellor having instituted an inquiry committee and submitted all records. In the University of Hyderabad it is well known that the MHRD pushed the VC to take action, not against the ABVP students who attacked the others, but against the Ambedkar Students’ Association.

Elsewhere, the ABVP has filed police complaints on ‘hurting of religious sentiments’ when a hostel warden cautioned against the holding of a ‘havan’ inside a small hostel room, as a fire hazard (JNU); physically threatened the president of the Students’ Union, but her letters of complaint to the MHRD have been ignored (Allahabad University); and in campuses across the country, violently disrupted or tried to disrupt the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, the documentary by Nakul Sawhney that clearly shows the culpability of Hindutva-wadi organisations in the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. The ABVP has also physically attacked organisers of militantly Dalit ‘Beef Festivals’ in campuses in States where cow slaughter is not illegal.

Pliant vice chancellors

Which brings us to a final factor that is critical — university administrations. Everywhere, the role of a pliant vice chancellor and key university officials has been crucial in acting with alacrity on the smallest complaint by the ABVP.

The slapping of charges of ‘sedition’ on the JNUSU president is a matter for a separate discussion. Suffice it here to say that it has been sufficiently established by Indian courts that mere words and speech cannot be criminalised unless used to incite mobs or crowds to violent action. More importantly though, ‘sedition’ as a crime has no place in a modern democracy, there is no justification whatsoever for provisions that criminalise and silence dissent and ethical challenges to the dominant order. These provisions are unconstitutional and anti-democratic. This colonial era provision loyally upheld by India was in the meanwhile repealed in the United Kingdom in 2009.

The Modi regime, in its bid to be a global superpower through a route that transforms ‘Made in India’ to ‘Make in India’, in a re-inscription of the colonial division of labour in which India offers cheap labour to global capital, is right to target universities and young people. It is these that pose one of the most formidable challenges to the savarna Hindu nationalist and neo-liberal vision of India, and which continue to foreground social justice, equality and freedom, the values enshrined in our Constitution.

It is our collective responsibility to continue to be self-critical, recognise the institutionalised ways in which caste, gender and other oppression is entrenched in our universities, and recognise that democratisation is a continuing process, a horizon never to be reached.

(Nivedita Menon, a feminist scholar, is a professor at JNU.)

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