A besieged life of the mind

Attacks on Nivedita Menon, Rajshree Ranawat show the decline of state universities, perversion of student politics

Written by Apoorvanand | Updated: February 10, 2017 12:10 am
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The reports of attacks and a hate campaign in the form of agitations and police reports against academic Nivedita Menon of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Rajshree Ranawat of the Jai Narain Vyas University (JNVU), Jodhpur, must concern us all. We cannot simply shrug it off when the university administration itself is filing criminal reports against academics for their “anti-national” remarks on its premises. FIRs have a life of their own and can have serious consequences. Books have been pulped, recalled from shelves, writers and artists have apologised for something they have not done, jobs have been lost. So, it is not amusing to learn that teachers are facing a “popular” agitation, bad press and possible arrests for their scholarly work, be this in a lecture at a seminar, an article or a book.

This attack is not an exception. A similar assault had taken place at the Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur, some time ago when the organisers and speakers of a seminar in the department of philosophy were targeted with criminal cases and a “popular” agitation. The case of the teachers in Haryana Central University, attacked for staging a play, is still fresh in our minds.

In these cases, nationalism is used as a weapon against knowledge and free enquiry. This article, however, is not an attempt to defend Nivedita Menon and Rajshree Ranawat or the English department at JNVU, which invited Menon to speak at a conference on “History Reconstructed Through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture”, where she made allegedly “seditious” remarks questioning India’s claims over Kashmir.

Menon has since clarified, in great detail in a post on Kafila.online, that statements attributed to her are falsehoods and half-truths. She is not a coward, so she does not disown her remarks. But clearly, most of what is being blamed on her is not what she said but what the agitators imagined she had. This is an occasion to deliberate on the sad decline of state universities, the perversion of student politics and the irresponsible reporting by the Hindi
media, which borders on instigation and hate campaigns.

We know the sad story of the destruction of the once-outstanding Jodhpur and Jaipur Universities. They have been killed by starving them of funds and the non-appointment of faculty. Reduced to examination machines, they lack even the ambition of contributing to knowledge creation.

The divide between the state universities and central educational institutions, in terms of finances and knowledge, is huge and daunting. The sheer insensitivity of state governments and political parties towards the young is demonstrated in the way they treat and maintain universities. Vice chancellors are selected not for their ability
in academic leadership, but their loyalty to the government of the day. Departments are empty, libraries impoverished and laboratories non-functional.

In such a dismal scenario, conferences like the one Ranawat and her colleagues organised are audacious acts, pulled off in extremely adverse situations. They also serve as oases, a rare opportunity for students and faculty to be exposed to and interact with the best minds in the academic world. Such conferences provide an opportunity to the faculty and students to break free from mechanical, examination-driven classes. But it is clear that the university authorities are ready to sacrifice them at the very first provocation.

The quality of the corporate life of a university is something we need to think about. When unions of teachers and non-teaching staff members turn against their own colleagues, it gives a signal to other teachers that they cannot be adventurous and would be left alone to fight their battle. The behaviour of the ABVP, in such cases, has been
uniform. Instead of engaging intellectually with its ideological opponents, its members have indulged in threats, physical attacks, destruction of public property and public agitation. One expects student organisations to promote a culture of dialogue. It is disappointing to see some of them using their physical prowess and proximity to power to make their point.

The role of the Hindi media in the JNVU and other such cases has been dangerous. It does not engage in a balanced reporting of the facts. A team from the editors’ guild, which investigated Hindi media’s role in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, found that it has turned into a propaganda machine for Hindu right-wing politics. The reader and viewer solely dependent on Hindi media are not only malnourished, they are being fed intoxicants in the name of news and opinion.

The cultural life of what is known as the Hindi heartland is becoming dangerously narrow. This is definitely a loss for teachers, but more so for young minds. As socioloist Satish Deshpande argues, universities are the only spaces, in our otherwise highly segregated and hierarchical society, where the youth get a chance to participate in intellectual discourse in an egalitarian manner. This is an opportunity for them to experience a freedom which is unavailable in wider society. This applies especially to first-generation college and university goers.

To restrict or close down such spaces is to deprive them of their only source of intellectual and cultural nourishment. Here, they learn the art of dealing with differences and the art of persuasion. When a Rajshree Ranawat organises such a conference, or a Nivedita Menon speaks in it, they do not do so merely to exercise their right to free speech, but more out of their sense of responsibility towards the youth. They are being told that this is a soldierly duty, fraught with real risk, that they have been in the line of fire from the enemies of intellect, who, by being so, become enemies of equality, freedom and humanity.

The writer teaches at Delhi University
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