University and Democracy

JNU row: Varsities are now compelled to fight Right-wing muscle power-oriented nationalism

University and Democracy
In a matter of two months, students of two major universities of the country have exploded in anger. In January, University of Hyderabad found its student, a dalit, commit suicide over discrimination while arrest last week of a students’ union leader in JNU in Delhi has brought into sharp focus issues of patriotism, justification for continuing with a draconian sedition law under which Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested. Both incidents attracted nationwide reaction. There were unsavoury incidents too like the violence in Delhi.

Modern universities are always called upon to contribute to the nationalist project as envisaged by the state. That compulsion has recently deteriorated into the requirement of such institutions to conform to a one-dimensional, hegemonic and aggressive nationalism.  If earlier such a call was to contribute to knowledge building for the nation, it has now become a demand for full devotion to the ideology of the state, more so to the government in power.

Universities can in general perform either a conforming role with respect to the ideology of the state or create knowledge possibility of critiquing and challenging it. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has kept the second possibility still alive, though such endeavours have receded from the scene in many universities, except for a handful like Hyderabad Central University, etc.    

The character of the university is imagined as a “protected, almost utopian place,” as Edward Said puts it, “only there could collective learning and the development of knowledge occur.” JNU has been such an institution standing for the pursuit of knowledge in an open, democratic way, in spite of many constraints. The idea of a university as an autonomous entity from the state also involves a notion of its linkage with the wider society in an organic manner in initiating and furthering political dialogue, dissent and resistance.

It envisages a continuous possibility of speaking truth to power. The transgression of the boundaries of the university by the state and its ideological and security apparatuses goes against the very concept of the autonomy of the university. Such attempts have been resisted in the past, and the events unfolding in JNU stands testimony to its continuing propensity to stand up to such interventions. If resistance is not offered by mustering all courage, the academic community would be compelled to mould their epistemological conduct under constant state surveillance and in the process, independent thinking would be the greatest casualty.

There has been a concerted campaign against JNU for quite some time now, whose pitch has been raised to the highest level in recent days. Immediately after the election victory of the present political dispensation in New Delhi, a newspaper article by an office-bearer of a Right-wing think tank wrote: “One of the key areas of the Modi-led NDA government has to be the cleaning up of the Augean stables of that hallowed institution called the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which over the years has become a den of secessionism, Maoism and terrorism… Can one imagine any other democratic country in the region allowing such anti-national activities?.. Academic campuses should have freedom but not licence to say and do what they want, even if it’s detrimental to national interest (sic).”

Panchajanya, the RSS’s ideological mouthpiece, published a special issue on JNU, terming it again as the “den of anti-nationals.”  BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has also been speaking about the necessity to “clean” JNU or shut it down for a few months. The slogan-shouting on February 9 is just a foil that is utilised to undertake such well-orchestrated cleaning-up process. Whether the students have raised “anti-national” slogans or not, the real intention of the charges of sedition against them has been to force conformity.

As jurist F S Nariman, has said: “When a person is dubbed anti-Indian, it is distasteful to India’s citizenry, but then to be anti-Indian is not a criminal offence, and it is definitely not sedition.”

Fear of debate

The fear of debate and democratic culture and the urge to limit the intellectual domain and freedom of expression has been the hallmark of the growing militarisation of the mind under the current aggressive nationalist order of things. The unleashing of fear by the use of force in campuses points towards such a tendency.

The agitations after Rohit Vemula’s death in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) opened up new possibilities of political rethinking in university campuses. The requirement to further democratise institutions like HCU and JNU with more sensitive and deliberate attempts at inclusivity is placed high on this academic-political agenda. The calculation behind the timing of the current series of actions of the government and its ideological machine on JNU might have been to overcome the moral and the political debacle they faced in Rohit’s case.

The tragedy is that instead of moving forward with the above-mentioned new politics of democratisation of universities, those in universities are compelled to devote more time and energy in responding to and fighting against the lies and propaganda and the whole range of use of far right muscle-power-oriented nationalism that is unleashed against students and teachers. It becomes all the more imperative to respond to them as the overall social fabric of the country is vitiated by ultra-nationalism. Such responses are an existential matter for JNU and universities in general as militaristic monocultural nationalism stifles free speech, rationality, intellectual pursuits and democratic dialogue, all of which are integral to a university.

The JNU struggle has already exposed a series of lies and doctoring of materials and events that were indented to sustain sedition charges against the Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar and other students. The peaceful gathering of around 10,000 people, comprising of students, teachers, workers, artists, filmmakers and members of various political parties and organisations last Thursday at the heart of New Delhi in support of JNU in the midst of the “anti-national” propaganda and threats by goons, has lifted the spirit of many in challenging the shrinking of democratic space in several spheres of national life. The bold move of unleashing youthful energy against the culture of violence and hate has provided us an opportunity to regain democratic sensibility.

The violation of the autonomy of universities like JNU by the state using police and repressive measures like sedition charges on the one hand and the curtailing of democratic spaces through the use of mechanisms of control and force in our society on the other hand are reflections of the same malaise. The assertion of the autonomy of the university and the democratic ethos of society is the need of the hour.

(The writer is Professor, School of International Studies, JNU)


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