The violent clashes between the right-wing ABVP and the Left-leaning student groups at Delhi University's Ramjas College are just a reminder of campuses turning into political battlegrounds, or are they also reflective of the premier educational institutions losing their academic freedom?
While the ABVP has drawn brickbats for the 22 February fierce clashes that left injured over a dozen people, including teachers and journalists, not just the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's student wing, but confrontational politics has created unrest in the campuses across the country.
From the national capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to the Jadavpur University in Kolkata to Hyderabad University, student issues have often boiled over, leading to violent clashes between rival groups.
The ABVP's bid to dominate campus life in the country has seriously infringed academic freedom, Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand Jha told IANS.
The incident at Ramjas College is not an isolated one, rather there has been a concerted campaign by the ABVP's student and youth activists to dominate campus life in India in the name of nationalism.
The ABVP has been harassing teachers, students, thinkers. Its activists are attacking institutions which are not to their liking, ideological or otherwise. This is happening not just in JNU or DU, but on campuses across the country. There are numerous instances where ABVP threats, agitations, frivolous police complaints have led to cancellation of events, Jha says.
Enraged over the invitation to JNU student Umar Khalid – arrested last year on the charge of "sedition" – for a seminar, ABVP activists not just foiled the Ramjas College event, but went on a rampage assaulting students and others.
Jha says the BJP-RSS's politics of causing fear has robbed the campuses of their atmosphere of free debate, along with academic freedom.
"Today, my academic freedom has been curbed. As a teacher, I am apprehensive of giving my views on a subject. Would I be attacked or called an anti-national or an FIR be filed against me," Jha wonders.
“As a teacher of nationalism, it is my duty to expose my students to different interpretations of nationalism. But in order to ensure my safety, I will censor myself. I don’t know which of my thoughts or words would be taken as anti-national and a case be filed against me,” said Jha.
DU Professor Rakesh Sinha, though squarely blames the Leftists for "vitiating" the campus atmosphere and says free speech at the cost of nationalism can never be allowed.
"Like violence, there is also no place on the campus for those who live in India, but talk about breaking it. These people are more dangerous than external forces. When the government is taking steps to strengthen national integration, these people who talk about Kashmir's 'azadi' are actually strengthening Pakistan's bid to internationalise the Kashmir issue," Sinha told IANS.
“This is not just condemnable and should be vehemently protested, but also warrants legal action,” Sinha said, justifying sedition charge against Khalid. Rubbishing allegations that the ABVP resorted to violence on the campus, Sinha accused the Left-leaning student activists of being intolerant.
"RSS academicians have not been given space for the last 50 years, so who is curbing free speech? Are non-Leftist academicians invited to give their views in JNU?" he asked.
"It's the leftists who are intolerant. Opposed to their monolithic views, there is this alternative narrative emerging. When their feudalistic ideas are challenged, they are protesting, accusing, alleging and resorting to any other means in their bid to stave it off," added Sinha.
Refusing to get into the nationalism versus free speech debate, former JNU Vice-Chancellor Sudhir Kumar Sopory expressed his anguish over the Ramjas College incident. “Campuses are for debates and discussions. Attempts to curb them are unacceptable,” Sopory told IANS.
"The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and also lays down restrictions. So, in the name of free speech or nationalism, violence cannot be tolerated. Surely it's the academics that suffers," he added.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International India too has expressed concern over the “threat to free speech in Indian universities”. A Jamia Millia Islamia professor, who wished not to be named, deplored the nationalism narrative to promote hatred.
"In the name of nationalism, people should not be made to kill other people or hate other people or promote prejudices. That is not nationalism, that is something dangerous," the professor told IANS.
"Nationalism is great when it is for promoting brotherhood and love for the country, but when it is used for communalising or spreading hatred, then that is not nationalism. Except for law, no one can call another unpatriotic or anti-national. It is for the judiciary to decide," he added.
(This article has been published in an arrangement with the IANS. Anurag Dey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.) )