India Today - - UPFRONT - ZOYA HASAN

In­dian uni­ver­si­ties face a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to the cul­ture of dis­sent and de­lib­er­a­tion due to a con­certed at­tempt by the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment to in­flu­ence the ori­en­ta­tion and cur­ricu­lum of pub­lic and pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties to ac­com­mo­date the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Pari­var’s ide­ol­ogy of Hindu na­tion­al­ism. Gov­ern­ment in­tru­sion in uni­ver­si­ties is not new, it gath­ered mo­men­tum in the past 25 years, but the in­ter­fer­ence that we see now has never re­ally hap­pened on this scale. It has now reached a stage that could spell the end of aca­demic au­ton­omy for pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties.

The Modi gov­ern­ment’s plan is clear: press ahead with sub­stan­tive changes in ed­u­ca­tion through long-term changes in pro­grammes and pri­or­i­ties, and mak­ing key ap­point­ments of per­son­nel who will call the shots in the fu­ture. To this end, the gov­ern­ment has put

Sangh loy­al­ists into po­si­tions of con­trol and author­ity in cen­tral and state uni­ver­si­ties, re­search, tech­nol­ogy and cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and so on.

These are not the first in­stances of a regime plac­ing its favourites in po­si­tions of power and in­flu­ence. Still, in the past, in­sti­tu­tional heads or mem­bers of aca­demic bod­ies had a sem­blance of pro­fes­sional at­tain­ment to their credit, whereas the record of most in­di­vid­u­als favoured by the cur­rent dis­pen­sa­tion is dis­mal, with­out the slight­est pre­tence of ex­per­tise or achieve­ment. Any crit­i­cism is brushed aside as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated be­cause of claims that the gov­ern­ment is rec­ti­fy­ing an ear­lier bias in favour of Left in­tel­lec­tu­als. This is not a con­vinc­ing counterarg­ument be­cause the gov­ern­ment has been se­lect­ing Hindu na­tion­al­ists with du­bi­ous aca­demic cre­den­tials to key po­si­tions in ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and uni­ver­si­ties.

A good ex­am­ple of the neg­li­gi­ble bench strength of the Hindu right is the ap­point­ment of the US-based Hin­dutva ide­o­logue Ra­jiv Mal­ho­tra as an hon­orary fac­ulty at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity’s Cen­tre for Me­dia Stud­ies. Apart from be­ing ac­cused of prop­a­gat­ing fake news, Mal­ho­tra is not known for his me­dia ex­per­tise. Iron­i­cally, his­to­rian and bi­og­ra­pher Ra­machan­dra Guha, re­cently ap­pointed to the fac­ulty of Ahmed­abad Univer­sity (AU), a pri­vate, non-profit in­sti­tu­tion estab­lished in 2009 by the Ahmed­abad Ed­u­ca­tion So­ci­ety, can­not join the univer­sity be­cause of cir­cum­stances be­yond his con­trol. He posted a tweet on Novem­ber 1 that makes clear why he had to back off: “A bi­og­ra­pher of Gandhi can­not teach a course on Gandhi in Gandhi’s own city.” Two days later, there was news that the gov­ern­ment had re­placed at least three of the Nehru Me­mo­rial Mu­seum and Li­brary (NMML) So­ci­ety’s dis­sent­ing mem­bers, who had op­posed its de­ci­sion to set up a mu­seum for all prime min­is­ters in the Teen Murti premises, and ap­pointed four non-dis­sent­ing mem­bers, in­clud­ing TV an­chor Arnab Goswami.

The rea­sons for these ap­point­ments and dis­ap­point­ments are the same: shrink­ing space for dis­sent and a strong pref­er­ence for the Sangh faith­ful. In the case of Guha, the Akhil Bharatiya Vid­yarthi Par­ishad (ABVP) ob­jected to his ap­point­ment, call­ing him an “anti-na­tional’, which tilted the scales against him even as the univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion kept quiet. This con­forms to a stan­dard pro­ce­dure adopted in var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties from JNU to AU. Changes in the NMML So­ci­ety mem­ber­ship, on the other hand, are driven by the de­sire to ex­tend the po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence of the rul­ing party.

The right to dif­fer and ex­press dis­sent­ing views has suf­fered one more blow from the NDA gov­ern­ment’s re­cent at­tempt to im­pose Cen­tral Civil Ser­vices (Con­duct) Rules on univer­sity teach­ers. Cen­trally funded univer­sity teach­ers can­not par­tic­i­pate or speak at any antigov­ern­ment protest or write or do re­search crit­i­cal of the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. This will trans­form pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties into gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and re­strict the space for re­search, es­pe­cially in so­cial sciences, arts and hu­man­i­ties.

To­day, the is­sue is not only gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence but also the in­ter­fer­ence of Sangh Pari­var ac­tivists. The BJP has no un­der­stand­ing of the crit­i­cal role of uni­ver­si­ties in so­ci­ety and democ­racy and, yet, is more ob­sessed than any other po­lit­i­cal party in tak­ing con­trol of aca­demic cam­puses, which has turned them into po­lit­i­cal bat­tle­grounds in the past few years. No other stu­dent or­gan­i­sa­tion uses in­tim­i­da­tion so freely against oth­ers as the ABVP. Both these trends have re­sulted in the ero­sion of demo­cratic space and are part of the process of push­ing so­ci­ety to­wards fas­cism.

The med­dling has reached a stage that could spell the end of aca­demic au­ton­omy for pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties

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