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Lessons to learn from attacks on institutes of higher learning

In 1978, the Establishment raised eyebrows about calling a ‘Pakistani’. However, the Students Union stuck by its guns, Faiz came and was feted by the JNUSU, defying both Indian purists and the Pakistani state.

Written by Seema Chishti | Updated: February 16, 2016 6:26:44 pm
JNU, JNU president arrested, JNU campus, JNU afzal guru, JNU anit india slogans, JNU protests, JNU afzal guru, JNU afzal guru event, jnu protests, afzal guru jnu protests, jnu arrests, delhi news, india news File photo of ABVP students protesting at JNU. (Express Photo by Renuka Puri)

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru would be proud of the University named after him which is among India’s foremost, prestigious institutions.

Many of its alumni define the country’s Establishment, the steel-frame of India, including some of PM Modi’s most trusted bureaucrats — the man charting India’s foreign policy, S Jaishankar, the CEO of Niti Aayog Amitabh Kant, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, OSD on Counter-terrorism Asif Ibrahim, the head of the CBI Anil Sinha, the Chairman of IDSA, Jayant Prasad. They hold at least a post-graduate degree from JNU; they breathed in its late night air, read, wrote, argued, debated and framed a vision of the world — Right, Left, Centre and a hundred versions in between.

A few years after it was established, and under pressure from its students’ union, JNU had invited Pakistan’s revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Faiz had been charged with sedition by the Pakistani state, jailed and llved in exile; his immortal poetry and words still move generations to love, to stand up for what is instinctively wrong and to speak truth (Bol ke lab azad hain…).


In 1978, the Establishment raised eyebrows about calling a ‘Pakistani’. However, the Students Union stuck by its guns, Faiz came and was feted by the JNUSU, defying both Indian purists and the Pakistani state.

Panchjanya, the RSS mouthpiece in its November 2015 issue prominently carried a long piece on JNU which described it as ‘anti-national’ and much more. This was rebutted sharply by then Vice Chancellor SK Sopory, students, alumni and teachers. However, it didn’t receive much public traction then as other seats of higher education were in the news with the new government’s top-level appointments of camp-followers, strictly from within the Sangh fold.

The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) had seen one of the first such attempts when a little known artiste Gajendra Chauhan was appointed its Chairman. Despite a long and well publicized protest by FTII students, filmmakers and actors, the government has stuck to the appointment.

Then there were efforts – mostly following letters written by BJP leaders — to curb ‘political activity’ by the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT, Chennai, IIT Pawai, and the rustication of student activists that led to the suicide of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad Central University (HCU). With JNU now the latest battleground, the evidence increasingly suggests that the Centre is happy to expend rapidly depleting political capital to battle for political space at higher educational institutions.

The underlying thinking behind the RSS-led campaigns — the whisper campaigns, the violent incidents involving even lawyers and party MLAs, the use of the ABVP (RSS’ student wing) to try to suppress all questions and resort to violence – is to ensure that academics of different persuasions are purged.

Control over universities, colleges, is a key objective in the RSS’ brand of attempting to re-engineer India, in their quest to control those who shape and mould public opinion and constitute the intellectual elite. The attempt to replace rational and scientific belief with its version of ‘Indian’ discoveries is increasingly emerging at the heart of all small struggles and fights in universities be it over appointments, termination of contracts, curbing Dalit activism and or using the ‘anti-national’ card to end all dissent.

The ruling party is aware of the importance of the massive demographic dividend in India — 231 million young persons or about 19.1 per cent of the population. Alongwith unemployment and rapid social change, there is the reflexive tendency of the young to be anti-establishment which make it a challenging constituency. After the BJP acquired impressive electoral gains – a majority for the first time in 90 years of its existence — the RSS seems intent on using the opportunity to flex its muscles to push for control places of learning. Recently, they held a seminar in Nagpur, defining their concept of ‘Shodh’ and how everything or everyone not with them, was ‘un-Indian’ and therefore needed fixing.

Student activism has fuelled many revolts and cries for change in the world, including in India. The freedom struggle was powered by young people and even the anti-Emergency movement — the NDA made a point of marking its 40th anniversary last year — is said to have had its seeds in innocuous student protests over mess-bills in Gujarat.

And that is something the current dispensation needs to balance with its desire for idea-dominance in educational institutions. As Allahabad University Students’ President Richa Singh said recently, “Students are ready to defy muscle and money power. Women are becoming assertive and not ready to accept traditionally defined roles. Male students are supportive of that – many times, they’re at the forefront of these struggles. Electing a woman president in a university like Allahabad is a marker of that change. The assertion of under-privileged sections is another positive trend. New solidarities are emerging among students across campuses”

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