Atrocious attack on academia

Atrocious attack on academia

IN PERSPECTIVE

It is incumbent on the varsity administration and the government to ensure that the university regains its lost aura where students can debate issues and still live in harmony.

Violence of an unprecedented kind flared up at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Sunday evening, drawing recriminations from people across the country, including cabinet ministers in the Union government, some of whom are alumni of the prestigious institution, and statements by others that action will be taken against those who have perpetrated the violence. The violence, which led to at least 20 students and some teachers being hospitalised, also led to a slugfest between political parties blaming each other.

Debate and dissent are key parts of democracy; a society that does not allow this does not progress. This is also reflected in the institutions of higher learning in democratic societies. As Finance Minister and JNU alumna Nirmala Sitharaman put it after the Sunday violence, JNU was a place for fierce debates and sharing of opinions, but never violence. This culture was definitely smashed, literally, on Sunday evening when close to a hundred masked people went on a rampage in the otherwise peaceful university, targeting students and teachers who do not adhere to the Hindutva ideology or the views of the government, beating them up and vandalising vehicles and hostels.

The question that thus arises is what makes JNU and some other universities the target of such attacks. The answer is simple. JNU is one of the few institutions of higher learning that have not only held out against the saffronisation of the country but also been at the forefront of criticising every wrong move of the government, be it the ill-conceived demonetisation or the rollout of the unplanned and crudely charted GST regime. The students and faculty have also been vocal in their protests against the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the idea of a nationwide National Register of Citizens. They have also forced a rethink on the hike in fees proposed to be charged by the administration.

That such criticism is not even tolerated does not bode well for any society. However, what is far more incredulous is that those trying to muzzle such dissent conveniently forget that students of these universities have protested against the ill-conceived policies and actions of all governments, irrespective of the party in power. None of those protests evoked such a violent reaction in the effort to silence the students.

What the people perpetrating such violence to stifle dissent and debate should remember is that all such attempts in history, not only in our country but also across the world, have backfired on those who try to suppress the expression of opinion. Decades ago, Indira Gandhi got a taste of this in the wake of the Emergency. It is surprising that those in government in India today have not absorbed this lesson.

It would also be wise to keep in mind that just because some section of the populace does not believe in becoming violent or reacting to violence with violence without giving peace a chance does not mean that they cannot defend themselves. It will certainly be a sad day, not only for the administration but also for the country at large, when students rise up en masse to protect their right to debate, to show dissent, and to do so without any harm, or fear of harm to themselves. This reminds me of a slogan that is often associated with the Left parties in Bengal that roughly translates to “We want to fight to survive!” That is where the students of JNU stand today: a need to survive.

Propagating an ideology and supporting the policies and actions of a government are the right of people who wish to do so. That cannot be denied. However, those who wish to propagate other ideologies or criticise the actions of the government have equal right to do so. As a former student of the university and a member of the students’ union, I can emphatically say that this can be done without any violence. I agree with Nirmala Sitharaman that there were very fierce debates on several topics, not only in the run-up to the elections to the students’ body but also in the everyday life of the university. However, all of us respected each other. This respect was not only limited to the right of others to hold different view but also to the rights of others in other respects, including living in the university without fear of harm, either physical or to one’s dignity. This was taken to the extent that people making catcalls were just not tolerated. From that situation to one where teachers and students are beaten up and the university vandalised is a long and sad journey.

It is incumbent on the varsity administration and the government to ensure that the university regains its lost aura where students can debate issues and still live in harmony.

(The writer, a senior journalist based in Bengaluru, is an alumnus of JNU) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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