Students in the vanguard of democratic struggle

Students in Mumbai on Monday protesting against the violent clashes at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus.

Students in Mumbai on Monday protesting against the violent clashes at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus.   | Photo Credit: PUNIT PARANJPE


Socially sensitive students on campuses across the country are acting as a powerful bulwark against Hindutva forces

The conflict across campuses in the country today is over the concept of a ‘student’ and, correspondingly, over the concept of a ‘university’. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government would like ‘students’ to be no more than self-centred, self-absorbed buyers of education, who do not concern themselves with social issues and who concentrate their energies on becoming successful sellers of labour-power on the job market. The alternative concept of a ‘student’ is of an individual who is socially sensitive, and uses education in the service of building a democratic, secular and egalitarian India, as visualised in our Constitution; one who subjects everything, including government policy, to critical scrutiny. The corresponding differing conceptions of a ‘university’ are: a site where skills (which are not the same as education) are sold; or, alternatively, a site where there is intense and informed critical engagement with the burning issues of our time. The students, especially in the front-ranking institutions of the country, see themselves in the latter role.

It is not surprising that the conflict, before the latest upsurge of protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) where students all over India have played a major role, had expressed itself in some outstanding institutions: Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU); the University of Hyderabad; the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) of Pune; the Fine Arts Department of the Maharaja Sayajirao University Baroda, and so on. The BJP government’s effort to convert students into an inert, passive mass of skill-buyers had targeted precisely these institutions where the students had been most socially sensitive; indeed it is this that had contributed to these institutions’ excellence.

Making campuses apolitical

The methods chosen by the government have been many. One is to alter the student composition, by raising fees (as in JNU) so that only rich and career-oriented students come to the university; opening new departments that reduce the weight of critical disciplines like the humanities, social sciences and basic sciences; and doing away with reservations in admissions for students from socially deprived backgrounds, so that campuses cease to have an inclusive character. A second method is to prevent students from participating in demonstrations, and from organising interactions with persons unacceptable to the Sangh Parivar. Yet another method, being increasingly resorted to, is to call the police to the campus to unleash brutality on students or to book ‘inconvenient’ students under one or the other of the draconian laws that exist on our statute books.

All these methods are brought into play by appointing, as heads of institutions, martinets who are Sangh Parivar loyalists. These persons have little sympathy for students, little pride in the institutions they head, and little accessibility to the university community at large. In JNU, for instance, the students’ union has not even been recognised by the authorities despite a government-appointed committee of experts reportedly recommending talks with the union leadership (their report is not made public). Recognition of a students’ union articulating students’ perspective goes against the very conception of a “student” that the BJP government would like to institute.

The question arises: why is the government so keen to populate our universities with apolitical docile students? The answer is: because an authoritarian society and polity requires precisely such students, and the changes being effected in our universities and other institutions are meant to facilitate the transition to authoritarianism.

Confronting unreason

This is especially so at present. The BJP government represents the coming together of two distinct forces, a section of the corporate-financial oligarchy on the one hand and the Hindutva elements on the other whose goal is to push the country towards a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ by overthrowing our secular and democratic Constitution. The entire narrative that is used to justify a Hindu Rashtra is based on unreason, in the sense that it does not accept the role of evidence in establishing its truth-value. We thus have an alliance between corporate interests and unreason, sustaining the current BJP government, as indeed it sustains all fascistic governments.

While resisting this government through class struggle remains the task of the workers, peasants, petty producers, and agricultural labourers, the intelligentsia also has an extremely important role to play in confronting the currency of unreason, which substitutes mythology for history, beliefs for facts, and superstition for science. The students are the most youthful, energetic and hence active elements of the intelligentsia; they are therefore an extremely powerful force fighting against the Hindutva unreason. The BJP government’s aim is to disarm this potentially powerful adversary. Students engaged only in pursuing their careers are no threat to the Hindutva project; but students who are socially sensitive, who are committed to the values of secularism and democracy, are a powerful bulwark against it, for they bring with them not only the energy of youth but also the enlightenment of education.

The desire to privatise and commercialise education is part of this effort to disarm the students. Because of the high fees in private institutions, not only are students from impecunious backgrounds excluded, but even the richer students who fill these institutions remain unaware of social realities to which the proximity of poorer students would have exposed them; they remain socially insensitive. The same fate awaits public institutions if they raise their fees, as JNU proposes to do. The few students from under-privileged backgrounds who join on the basis of student loans are so obsessed with the burden of loan repayment that they scarcely have time for social or political activism. The deadening effect of student loans on political activism is best illustrated by the U.S. where, since the days of the anti-Vietnam war protests, campuses have been relatively quiet; student loans are certainly one reason for this.

In India, fortunately, despite the efforts of the Sangh Parivar martinets, students have not lost their social sensitivity. If anything, they have become even more engaged, going from issues of campus democracy, to broader issues like the CAA and the National Register of Citizens. What is remarkable is that they display among themselves the inclusiveness they would like to see in society. Students from other religious backgrounds fighting alongside Muslim students against the CAA, students from richer backgrounds fighting alongside their impecunious colleagues against fee hike, are excellent examples of camaraderie and solidarity.

But, as the students have refused to be cowed down, the authorities, at the behest of the BJP government, have become more brutal in dealing with them. The brutality at Jamia Millia Islamia was unleashed by the Delhi police which is under the Central Home Ministry. The brutality at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) was unleashed by the Uttar Pradesh police under the BJP government of Yogi Adityanath. The brutality at JNU was unleashed by masked goons from outside helped by internal informers to attack their targets, under the benign eyes of the Delhi police, and with the university’s own security staff mysteriously absent from the scene.

Few things have cheered one up as much as the resilience of the students in the face of this brutality in upholding the values of the Constitution, values upon which modern India is founded and which Hindutva is undermining. This makes one confident that whatever the short-term travails, the future of the country is safe.

Prabhat Patnaik is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 11:44:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/students-in-the-vanguard-of-democratic-struggle/article30496667.ece

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