In his piece on the lessons the Ramjas College incident holds (IE, March 4), Makarand Paranjape makes a seemingly non-partisan plea for the restoration of academics to campuses. He calls student activists invited to speak at an academic seminar organised by the college’s literary society agent provocateurs, gives advice on public relations to the ABVP, and, what is more dangerous than his paternalistic tone will have you believe, concludes that campuses in the country need to be cleansed of progressive student politics.
First, he deliberately misleads the reader in saying that the student union in Ramjas College is led by AISA. It is not, it is an ABVP-led union. He then accuses Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid, serious research scholars in their own right, of inciting student unrest all over the country, when they were not even present at the event. He sees their presence as a “red rag” at which the ABVP charges like “enraged bulls”, and suggests there is a “deeper pattern”, making it sound as if organising a seminar on Cultures of Dissent were something sinister. Wonder why an academic should think so badly of mere seminars! He does not ask why the ABVP unleashed violence upon all attending the seminar when the two weren’t even in attendance. He does not ask what it is about discussions on Bastar, Kashmir, women’s rights, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh (and countless other seminars and discussions and film screenings on social issues that the ABVP is well known for violently disrupting) that “inflames” the ABVP into “making mistakes”. Even as he says they have “neither the time nor the intellectual inclination to do so”, he does not tell you that the politics of the ABVP stands in firm contradiction to democratic values, that they cannot organise seminars and discussions to present a different viewpoint, precisely because they are modelled on the paramilitary wings of fascist parties in Europe, whose primary function is to destroy democracy, with intimidation and brutal violence. Instead, forgetting his own deceptive intention of sounding like the kindly uncle remonstrating unruly children, Paranjape offers public relations advice to the ABVP. Yes, he has the freedom to do so, but as an academic, he is expected to demand intellectually motivated rigour from his mentees. This he fails to do.
He says the ABVP needs a “complete makeover”, with “smarter spokespersons and more female faces” making violence unleashed by the ABVP against innocent students merely a matter of public perception. But putting lip gloss on a Rottweiler does not make it a fluffy kitten. Professor Paranjape, how will it help the ABVP to have more “female faces”, when the organisation has consistently stood by its parent organisations in supporting violence against women and minorities? What will you say to Satender Awana of the ABVP who threatened Ved Kumari, dean of the law fin DU with “dire consequences” last year, or to those ABVP goons who dragged women students by their hair, called them prostitutes, hurled rocks at and beat them up as they peacefully protested the ABVP’s disruption of the seminar at Ramjas?
Equally worrisome is his all too familiar stance of victim blaming. Anyone who has followed the innumerable incidents of violence against women, for instance, will recognise this immediately. His assertion that “ultra-left, Ambedkarite or Kashmiri separatist factions always hope to create a wave of turbulence out of a whimper, a movement, if not a mountain out of a molehill”. This is disturbing precisely because, in one sentence, Paranjape writes off all the atrocities against Dalits and other lower caste groups, against women and minorities, and against the ordinary Kashmiri whose face bears the indelible marks of pellet guns. This daily mountain of brutality is for the professor a mere molehill. Sadly, the professor has also not spared a thought for our colleague Prasanta Chakravarty, who was nearly strangled, and kicked, and beaten by ABVP goons, and suffered grievous internal injuries.
Paranjape blames the “left-liberal” media for what he thinks is a problem of perception, adding that the ABVP should emulate their “senior partners” (in crime, he forgets to say) and get themselves “effective envoys and image makers” at all levels. Again, this is disingenuous, to say the least. The image makers of the present government, among others, have been the corporate media. Despite ample video footage in the Ramjas incident for instance, the media has chosen to call this a clash between two student groups. Several prominent news channels played Goebbels (Hitler’s propaganda minister) when JNU became the focus of the BJP last year, and carried out the mission of not only painting JNU, but all progressive institutions and debates in the country, as “anti-national”.
The most dangerous bit of Paranjape’s piece is his conclusion: That institutions of higher education should be cleansed of student activism. He quotes the case of the then Bombay University, which banned elections in 1992 following incidents of violence. He chooses to not mention, however, that through the new Maharashtra Public Universities Act of 2016, student union elections have been duly reinstated, and have been welcomed by a spectrum of organisations, including the ABVP. Here is why Paranjape’s conclusion is dangerous. He suggests that because the ABVP does not have the mettle to hold its ground with fair and democratic methods, then politics should be banned entirely from campuses, where students and teachers will not be allowed to express their opinions on burning social issues, even as vice-chancellors are allowed to join election road shows of the ruling party, and the RSS is allowed to hold shakhas on campuses, as has been amply illustrated by the current situation in BHU.
Further, Paranjape is advocating a purge of progressive student politics across campuses because it has gradually emerged as a counter to the criminalisation of student politics that was the legacy of some mainstream parties. Student activism has fought for democratic admission policies, for student rights on campuses, for the equitable right to education, and have consistently thwarted successive governments’ attempts at the blanket privatisation of higher education in the country. Brave student activists have built among students a deeper understanding of progressive people’s movements around issues of caste, gender, class, land, and minority rights. They have revitalised the idea of the university as a space for learning about commitment to one’s society, making education the first step towards creating a better society for all, as against protecting the privilege of a small elite. Viewed in that context, Paranjape’s piece is very far from being a defence of academics in the face of “party driven” politics.