The moral sickness and thuggery on display in the aftermath of Gurmehar Kaur’s brave Twitter post is too nauseating for intellectual analysis. The patterns are depressingly familiar. Young women cannot express independent political views without being subject to misogyny, violence and political intimidation. This form of casual brutality may almost have the character of a social pathology but it is also empowered by a total lack of political outrage. An otherwise prudish culture seems quite comfortable with open talk of rape threats as an instrument of politics.
Second, Kashmir remains the mirror in which Indian nationalism dare not look itself in the face. It is still nearly impossible to have a holistic, free and frank discussion on Kashmir in all its aspects: From state oppression to militancy to the plight of the Pandits. How much intent there is to suppress all dissent is an open question. But Kashmir is an issue on which the suppression of dissent wears the garb of popular imprimatur. With other universities canceling events on Kashmir, this trend is likely to continue. Third, there is the sheer institutional bloody mindedness. If our cabinet members spent half as much sincere moral outrage acknowledging the complexities of the Kashmir issue as they spend on fueling conflicts on campuses we would be far better off.
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Finally, there is the organised attempt to delegitimise what remains of the public university system. An organised pattern is emerging. Use the “JNU pretext”, as it is now called, to unleash the ABVP or, in some cases, university administrations, to harass, intimidate and engage in violence. Once the spark is lit, there will, of course, be other perpetrators of violence who will get into the mix, which will then also allow the ABVP to play victim. My sense is that the point of all this is not captured simply by the idea of suppressing dissent. The ideas and people sought to be being suppressed get more publicity: That is the paradox of modern censorship. It is rather to create conflict itself. Conflict is used to mobilise political support around nationalism. Conflict is convenient because it allows everyone to present themselves as victims. By a strange alchemy all of this will end up with the “Right” presenting itself as the victim. So the core issues of violence, appropriateness of institutional norms and misogyny will soon be forgotten.
It is not that difficult to make the case that universities have betrayed their own principles very often. But the tragedy is that instead of restoring those principles and healing the university, we want to use it as a pretext for more control and destruction. Indian universities long ceased being spaces for a genuinely liberal education. The professoriate for the most part, in the eyes of the public, cuts a sorry figure; university leadership has, in most instances, become a postbox for the government. The destruction that governments of all political parties have wrought on the university system is now coming to bite us. For those who have engaged with the history of higher education in India, this phase is relatively mild yet. But it has deep echoes of the 1970s.
We forget that from the late-’60s to the ’80s, many university campuses were politicised to the point of becoming dysfunctional. In many cases, there was sheer thuggery. But the broader politicisation of universities had four large undercurrents. First was the demand for vernacularisation. Almost all the great national universities across the nation, from Rajasthan to Osmania, were provincialised and became regional universities. Materially, this was a demand for local representation. But culturally, it was a revolt against a national elite which regional identities sought to supplant. That sub-nationalism may or may not have made the universities more inclusive in the right way. But they, for the most part, destroyed intellectualism. Most nationalism is poisonous for intellectualism. The second trend was a shift in politics. With the polity becoming more deeply politicised in the ’60s, with the Congress struggling to perform the mediating function, many new political groups saw their opportunity. The Left wanted to displace the Congress and there were pitched and violent battles, of which Calcutta was the most extreme example. The third was an economic crisis that made student politics the most potent means of social mobility. Finally, there was the Emergency and the spectre of authoritarianism that deepened the politicisation of the university.
This settled into some kind of equilibrium, but at the cost of most state-level universities becoming hollow shells. There was also more of a sense in the students that disruption was harmful. But now the old trends are returning in three ways. Central universities will now experience processes similar to those that destroyed state universities. There has been a shift in the ruling politics. So the ABVP will use state patronage to violently oust the incumbents, especially the Left. And where the Left has shards of power in Kerala and Bengal, it responds in kind. This move is also congruent with BJP’s project of creating an ideological state apparatus, like the Left did.
Second, just like regional politicians and forces managed to portray the universities in their states as elitist, exclusionary and out of touch with cultural identities, the BJP and ABVP will launch an assault on what they regard as elitist, privileged, culturally distant cosmopolitanism. Nationalism is the perfect wedge by which to highlight this distance. Growing up, the first political slogan I ever heard in the then-excellent Himachal University was “Himachal for Himachalis”. Now there will be the search for the “authentic” Indian to represent the Indian universities. The complicated sociology of Indian campuses, the fact that many students on these campuses feel alienated from intellectual life, for linguistic or social reasons, makes this a resonant cry. The relative optimism that characterised a lot of Indian campuses over the last couple of decades, about jobs may also be coming to an end. Perhaps that optimism was always misplaced. But imagine a scenario where students are no longer confident about their job prospects. What might that do to university politics? And finally, the fourth element: The spectre of authoritarianism will deepen the politicisation.
Politicisation can be a good teachable moment. The last wave did wonders for many political careers. But it ensured that the conversation about universities became about everything except the university, its practices and its pedagogy. The bubble of social forces and the organised way in which the BJP will continue the time-honoured practice of assaulting public universities, will once again ensure a corrosion of liberal and intellectual values and just plain decency.
The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’