Amartya Sen recently during his book launch Collective Choice and Social Wefare very aptly pointed out, “India does not have world class universities and the climate of fear (in Indian universities) is detrimental to Indian democracy.”
Sen’s statement comes at a time when freedom of speech and expression in Indian universities is under threat. Coincidently, Noble Laureate Sen spoke about universities on the day when Ramjas College, a University of Delhi college witnessed violent protest where students, teachers and journalists were badly beaten and harassed.
What Really Happened?
A background to the recent uproar is that Department of English, Ramjas College, organised a literary event named ‘Cultures of Protest’. Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, both JNU students, were invited as the guest speakers. The basis of their invitation was the academic credentials they hold. Umar was to address the session named “Unveiling the State: Regions in Conflict – the war in Adivasi areas”, based on his research in Bastar.
Both the speakers were not allowed to speak. ABVP disrupted the program by pelting stones and bricks at the venue. They put forward the claim that Umar Khalid was one of those involved in anti-India sloganeering in the event organized at JNU, now famously known as the ‘9 February 2016, JNU incident’. ABVP also claimed that students were being misguided by such seminars, and that the professors of DU and JNU together, were trying to put forward an agenda against the nation. According to them, the professors were also enacting a policy of ‘divide and rule’ by inviting an ‘anti-nationalist’ like Umar Khalid on campus.
The Gagging of Free Speech
Disruptions to seminars and attacking speakers or organizers is gradually becoming the new ‘culture of protest’, that we are witnessing in Indian universities.
Protests and ideological battles have been a part of university spaces for long, but violence and hatred is a dangerous addition. Attack on teachers is a new and disturbing trend. Shockingly, this is the first time when such fringe elements are being backed by the government in power.
This is quite evident with the deeply disturbing mishaps happening in university campuses. It adds to our disappointment when people in power seem to be more interested in the ‘type of meat’ rather than punishing the real culprits (mob lynching of Akhlaq in Dadri). Rohith Vemula’s caste is given more priority than investigating the circumstances leading to his suicide. There is no trace of Najeeb till date, yet ABVP members remain to be questioned.
The recent spate of events and the serious threat to free academic spaces completes the vicious cycle. It starts from RSS affiliated appointments at the top posts in institutions to the style of functioning.
The Idea of a University Needs to be Revisited
The incidences at JNU or DU capture more limelight than other institutions around the country. However, many other academic institutions face similar turbulence. Heads of these institutions resort to an authoritarian style of functioning, putting forth the agenda of RSS.
It seems the Sangh cadre appointments in the institutions by the Modi Government provide an upper hand to ABVP. At times, they prove to be working hand in hand. Involvement of BJP leader Bandaru Dattatreya in social exclusion of Rohith Vemula, the entry of police in JNU campus, and the dirty play of the doctored videos in the case of JNU, point to the lethargic attitude of administration, and in Najeeb’s case, reflect the collaboration of these two parties.
ABVP backs the JNU administration on the UGC gazette, which a large section of the JNU fraternity believes would bring havoc to research studies in the University.
The case in other institutions is no different: from Jharkhand University to Haryana Central University to Jodhpur University. Recently a premiere journalism school IIMC (regulated by Information and Broadcast Ministry) suspended one of its students for writing a critical piece related to the institute on online media. Scholar Nivedita Menon, also a professor at JNU, was slapped with charges of sedition for her ‘upside down’ notion of India’s geographical map. Another teacher, Rajshree Ranawat, who happened to be the organizer of the same event, was later suspended by Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur.
Sadly, the essence of academic institutions is being ruptured. In the aftermath of the FTII agitation, when Union Minister Nitin Gadkari was asked about the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, he countered the reporter by asking if students would choose the director. He further cross-questioned the reporter, and asked if district reporters would decide the channel’s chief editor. The binary created by the minister, clearly failed to recognize students as the major stakeholders in an institute.
The Urgency of Change
It is high time students and teachers reclaim their academic spaces. The idea of a university needs to be rethought. Our universities are places for debate and dissent. Our campuses should be nurturing ideologies and several perspectives to an issue, which must be discussed and debated. Campuses are meant to be tolerant places where an argument is met with an argument. Vandalism and hooliganism can never serve in an academic atmosphere.
The Peculiar Case of University of Delhi
I use the word ‘peculiar’ because I share a strong bond with this University. DU has restructured my political and sociological understanding. As a small town boy, my DU journey has been like a journey of life. I have witnessed the political culture of the university closely. In my hometown, when newspapers carried feature articles on DUSU elections, highlighting upon the national leadership as a product of DU student politics, it mesmerized me. But, soon I was disenchanted and the recent developments in Ramjas have left me disillusioned.
Money and muscle power has curbed the scope of advantageous student politics in DU. The way student outfits nominate their candidates is largely based on who can spend what amount. I have seen many members going bankrupt, and still unable to get a ticket. Luckily, I had friends in all the organizations, ranging from ABVP to AISA. SFI and AISF have little presence in DU. Largely, the electoral battle is between ABVP, NSUI and AISA. More or less, ABVP and NSUI function in a very similar way. The leadership is based on a Jat-Gujjar nexus. They garner votes via fun food and water park tactics. Caste based voting is plotted. AISA champions for the student issues but lacks election engineering. Undoubtedly, most DU students are indifferent to politics.
If at all, the students in DU wish for free academic spaces to be restored, and all they need is a political consciousness. As we argue for a responsible voting in elections, we need the same in universities too. Universities also have to be the places for producing responsible citizens.
Coming back and focusing exclusively at the Ramjas incidence, where allegedly ‘Bastar mange Aazadi, Kashmir mange Aazadi’ slogans were chanted; it amuses me as a political science graduate from University of Delhi. It’s nothing more than creating a false narrative built upon slogans to get away with the real issue – academic freedom – as we saw in JNU. I believe aazadi or freedom have several notions attached to it rather just literal meaning. One may have different viewpoints on the real context of sloganeering, but how can anyone declare it as a potential threat to disintegration of the country?
Till date, Delhi Police has not filed a chargesheet in the JNU case, and yet Kanhaiya, Umar or Anirban have been proven guilty. But the pseudo news propagated by mass media shapes first hand opinion which is established as truth. It seems as if the fake news business industry has changed the legal recourse of ‘innocence until guilty’ to ‘guilty even if not proven’.
My dear colleagues in universities around India, craft your imagination. I feel proud of your resilient ways to safeguard the academic culture of universities and restoring critical space for academia to flourish. Agitate and Study, Fight Back!
(Rohin Kumar is a freelance writer and a Political Science graduate from the University of Delhi. At present he is pursuing Journalism from The Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)