Atrocious attack on academia

Violence of an unprecedented kind flared up at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Sunday evening, drawing recriminations from people across all walks of life, 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 immediately led to a political slugfest between parties blaming each other.

Unfortunately, the condemnation of such acts and the assurances that the strictest action would be taken against those guilty have not made even the slightest impact on the violence and atmosphere of unease that exists in JNU and other universities. Thus, universities and other academic institutions, which traditionally are known to be hallowed halls of learning, are slowing becoming anything but.

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. That such criticism is not even tolerated does not bode well for any society.

Blame game apart, there are a few things that no one will, or should, disagree with. One is that the students of today are the leaders of tomorrow, or at least should be. This is exemplified in the present Central government having two cabinet ministers who have studied in JNU. One of them is Minster for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, while the other is Finance Minister Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman.

The other universal truth is that debate and dissent are key parts of a democracy; a society that does not allow this does not progress, or at the very least has limited progress. This is also reflected in the institutions of higher learning in democratic societies. As Ms. Sitharaman put it after the outbreak of violence in JNU on Sunday evening, JNU was a place for fierce debates and sharing of opinions but never violence. This culture has definitely been smashed, literally, on Sunday evening when close to 100 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 Goods and Services Tax regime. The students and the faculty have also been vocal in their protests against the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the creation of the National Population Register, and the creation of the National Register of Citizens. The university’s students and faculty 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 incorrect actions and ill-conceived policies of all governments, irrespective of the party in power. Students of JNU have also marched to register their protests against governments of other countries, including the US and China. None of those protests have 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 expression of opinion. Decades ago, the Congress, led by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, lost the election after the Emergency was imposed on the country. The Arab Spring is another example, where the attempt to silence protestors backfired. It is surprising that those in government in India have either not learnt any lesson or simply not read history.

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. 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.

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 one 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 Ms. 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. It is incumbent on the government to ensure that the university once again becomes a place of learning.

(The writer, a senior journalist based in Bengaluru, is an alumnus of JNU and a member of the then Students’ Union)