Strangling Our Universities
Innovation is linked to intellectual freedom, something being denied in our higher education system
Few would dispute that universities are under threat today, though we may not agree on the nature of these threats. Recent events at Delhi’s Ramjas College are the latest in a series of intimidations, attacks and coercive measures faced by universities in India over several years. So it is worth noting that the incidents of February 21-22, because of their dramatic, open display of hostilities with party lines clearly defined, make for a somewhat reductive analysis of the larger crisis.
This is not to abdicate the responsibility of taking a stand on those incidents, which seem to me a fascist attempt, on the part of a politically affiliated student body, to claim the ‘nation’as its exclusive property, to prevent the free exchange of views among fellow citizens, and to use physical violence to muffle dissent. That a muffler was actually used in the near-strangulation of a Delhi University faculty member — a spokesperson for the role of the humanities in public life — appears in retrospect a chilling, almost uncanny, concretisation of metaphor.
Disappointingly, the most visible muffler-wearer in Delhi — though he has minimised this sartorial accessory following corrective throat surgery — has seen fit to comment mainly on the role of the police, rather than on larger questions of academic or civic freedom.
This is unsurprising, since all over India, central and state governments have made common cause in curtailing intellectual freedom and silencing opinions critical of state power. It was during the UPA regime that a narrowly managerial vision of the modern university began to be projected as a desirable ideal, with several Bills brought before Parliament to regulate higher education and transform India into a ‘knowledge economy’. The principal means to that end were severe restrictions on the autonomy of all public universities while opening up the higher education sector to private or foreign players licensed to charge high fees and compete for students and faculty.
Bills on Backfoot
It seemed as though, after long neglect and apathy, the central government had just discovered its human resources in higher education, and, backed by a pot of money accumulated through the education cess, was determined to bring them under its direct control. But the regime changed before most of the Bills could be passed, and the new BJP government initially turned its attention towards ‘saffronisation’ of academic bodies, research councils and text books, together with police measures for the ‘protection’ and surveillance of university campuses.
Still, going by the provisions of the draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2016, the process of strengthening a central control mechanism continued unabated. Despite the vague language of the document, one sinister commitment is reiterated from earlier NEPs, that of creating an “Indian Education Service (IES)”, which “will be an all India service with HRD as the cadre controlling authority”.
Meanwhile, the Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal put through a Higher Education Act (2017) cancelling the administrative autonomy of state universities, with far-reaching interventions in the academic domain. Another recent Act makes mere participation in a rally a ground for possible criminal proceedings. These measures, of course, are notionally directed towards the objective of creating ‘world-class’ institutions, a pleasing dream for those who do not understand that innovation is linked to intellectual freedom.
If this is the background, the foreground is the site of a vigorous territorial battle, fought partly by political cadre, partly by students, intellectuals and academics of all persuasions, for physical control of university spaces. While this might seem a repetition of past battles, there are some new and disturbing features.
First, both within and outside the university, the term ‘nation’has been appropriated by the ruling party and its cadre as its exclusive possession, so that all those who hold opposing views can be called ‘anti-national’. Though the colonial sedition law was invoked as far back as 2010 against writer Arundhati Roy, the terms ‘sedition’, ‘anti-national’, ‘pro-Pakistan’, and possibly ‘beef-eater’, have regularly figured in the current rhetoric of rightwing ideologues, prone to fascist interventions in what people think, how they behave and what they eat.
If we recall the murders of prominent rationalists, the attacks on writers and the lynching of individual Muslims and Dalits by self-appointed cow-protectors, it is to guard against the dangerous illusion of the university as an ivory tower, a ‘safe’ space where ideas can be freely exchanged irrespective of political realities — like those of Kashmir or of Bastar, both at issue in the Ramjas encounter.
The public university in India is an open space, a space of contestation and struggle. With higher education itself in crisis, these struggles are even more tangled in the webs of politics, caste, class and gender. Therefore, Rohith Vemula’s death on the campus of the Hyderabad Central University (following HRD Ministry-directed action against him), or Najeeb Ahmed’s disappearance from JNU, or the arrests of students on sedition charges, or the police action at Jadavpur University, or the Ramjas incidents, must be seen as linked phenomena.
They are irruptions of violence that bring to light a more insidious effort to strangle the public university system and make it incapable of producing critical thought. Recent proposals for any kind of creative activity on campus have been met by the immortal line from Marathon Man, a film shadowed by the Holocaust: “Is it safe?” The answer is, “No, it is not safe.” The public university itself is not safe.
The writer is Professor Emerita, Department of English, Jadavpur University