The myth of the apolitical campus

Educational institutions and students can’t be insulated from politics and they shouldn’t be

March 03, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 10:02 am IST

Demonstrators protest against the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi, in Kolkata, in February. REUTERS

Demonstrators protest against the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi, in Kolkata, in February. REUTERS

In 2020, following nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens there was a chorus to keep students out of politics. In December 2019, at the height of the agitation, Union Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ said political parties should keep educational institutions out of their politics. This is despite the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s own student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, conducted rallies and meetings in support of the new law. The political elite of the Congress too advised students to depoliticise after independence, Professor Ghanshyam Shah writes in in Social Movements in India .

Today, several colleges and universities in India have rules mandating that campuses be apolitical spaces where students should focus on studies. Students participating in protests on these campuses are liable to be suspended or dismissed.

Recently, following the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi, this idea surfaced once again. Reports stated that parents are worried about their children’s social media posts on contentious issues and participation in protests. The concern possibly stems from a fear of the government and its frequent attempts to crack down on dissenters, a belief that the rough and tumble of politics is not suited for the young, the association of protests with lawlessness, and often a combination of these.

Idea of education

In India, 18-year-olds are allowed by law to drive cars, marry (if they are women), and in some States, drink. Most important, they are allowed to vote. Ironically, while campaigns are held before every election to increase voter turnout, especially among the youth, young adults are routinely advised to stay away from politics. How can they be expected to make an informed choice at the ballot box if they are not allowed to freely express their opinions on issues that concern them, or participate in protests, which is their democratic right?

In the traditional understanding of a campus in India, students who focus solely on academics are seen as role models, achievers and good citizens, and student protesters as rebellious, unruly, and bringing their institutions into disrepute. Such lazy categorisation ignores the very purpose of education and the conceptualisation of a campus. In Tagore’s words, an educational institution should not be “a dead cage in which living minds are fed with food that’s artificially prepared”. Institutions are not merely spaces where knowledge is imparted to passive recipients; they are spaces where there is debate, discussion, contestation.

Moreover, it is fallacious to say that educational institutions are apolitical spaces when administrations and curricula, especially in the social sciences, are changed by the government of the day. We saw this in the case of Delhi University dropping A.K. Ramanujan’s celebrated essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas, from the history syllabus in 2011 and in the more recent case of the CBSE removing 30% of the syllabus for students of Classes 9-12, including portions on federalism, citizenship and secularism. It is not participation in protests alone that politicise the youth; it is equally the education they are — or are not — imparted.

Being apolitical, according to the dictionary definition, means to not be interested in politics or connected with a political party. While many citizens fall into this category, it is impossible for us, even the youth, to not have political views. To illustrate: A child who has grown up near a river into which sewage and industrial waste were continuously dumped may grow up fighting for clean water and air. He may not be a supporter of the BJP or the Congress or the regional parties, his knowledge of their ideologies and policies may be limited, but he may still attend a protest against the government’s inability to tackle pollution.

Like him, many of us have views on how to tackle inequality, what model of development is appropriate and just, who should be taxed and by how much, food habits, rights and their restrictions, and so on. Much like sending WhatsApp forwards, expressing our views to family and friends, and posting on social media on politics, these views make us political. As Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak once said in an interview, “Wherever there’s power, there’s politics.”

However, only those privileged across the categories of gender, ethnicity, caste, class, religion and social status can afford to remain silent on many of these issues. The luxury for some of being “apolitical” comes from the fact that they are not the targets of contentious policies — they, their families and communities are unaffected by unfair citizenship laws, agricultural policies, caste discrimination on campuses, bans on certain food, displacement from their lands, and so on. Some studies such as Ross (1969) also note that privilege is the reason why some students also participate in agitations: they protest because they are protected by wealth and influence. Social and economic privilege is why some may not have reason to protest; it is equally the reason why many can afford to speak out.

Result of sustained demands

Over the years, across nations, it is sustained demands by citizens that have earned us many of the precious rights we enjoy today, including the eight-hour workday, women’s right to vote, and equal pay. We also see around us the consequences of turning a blind eye to some of these protests. Reni village in Uttarakhand, which was the centre of the Chipko movement in the 1970s, bore the brunt of the landslide that killed 62 in the region recently. Many of the women who live in Reni now were children when they hugged the trees protesting against commercial logging. Scientists have time and again questioned the model of development in the region, including massive dam projects and rampant deforestation.

When a government passes laws with little deliberation and discussion with the stakeholders concerned, it is but natural that people, many of whom elected that government to power, will protest. From Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam in Hong Kong to Greta Thunberg in Sweden and Disha Ravi in India, it is the youth who seem fearless and outspoken, and willing to take risks. In the past, too, it is the youth who spearheaded many movements in India, such as the anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu.

In India, Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees us the right to free speech, the right to assemble peaceably without arms, and the right to form associations. The right to protest is a manifestation of these rights. For the youth, the stakes are even higher in speaking out: policies and laws concern not only the rights, lives and livelihoods of citizens today, but have far-reaching implications for the future of the nation too.

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