Stran­gling Our Uni­ver­si­ties

In­no­va­tion is linked to in­tel­lec­tual free­dom, some­thing be­ing de­nied in our higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Supriya Chaud­huri

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.

In Cri­sis

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

Dark­ness vis­i­ble

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