COLONISING THE CAMPUS
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