Unlike doctors of medicine, doctors of philosophy love complications. “Too simple” is a devastating put-down in the academic world peopled by PhDs. But sometimes even we academics encounter an issue that is so utterly, undeniably simple that it is impossible to complicate. Violence has no place in a university. That is it, and that is all — no room here for any of the ifs, buts, or on-the-other-hands that we are always eager to invoke.
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Any discussion of what happened at Ramjas College and Delhi University on February 21 and 22 has to begin with a complete and categorical condemnation of the violence that has been displayed on social media and television screens. Students — and even teachers — were beaten, hit with bricks, pulled by the hair and comprehensively assaulted. Many of the injured had to be taken to hospital. Journalists were also targeted, often deliberately. An entire neighbourhood was terrorised over several hours. Contrary to filmy tradition, the police arrived early, but were so ineffectual as to invite accusations of complicity. And all of this happened because of a seminar or, if the defenders of this violence are to be believed, merely because of two specific invitees.
Violence and intimidation negate the very idea of the university and there is no cause large enough to justify them — not subaltern classes nor oppressed castes, or as in this case, aggrieved patriots. The university cannot afford to accommodate violence precisely because it is meant to be an arena for the battle of ideas. This is the sense in which the university is indeed a privileged space set apart from the everyday world. It is not that the rest of the world lacks ideas or intelligence, but that it is permeated by power relations. In the real world, the ruling ideas are those that are dear to the ruling classes and dominant groups. Of course, power relations extend to the university context as well. In fact, all universities — including the ones perceived as radical — are, for the most part, supported by and in turn support, the existing power structure. This has been the historical condition for their survival as predominantly state-sponsored institutions.
At the same time, however, the very design of the modern university requires that it set aside some space for cultivating and professing unconventional, dissenting or radical ideas and questions. Paradoxically, it is this small island of intellectual autonomy that defines an otherwise subservient and conventional institution. If even this island is violently coerced into subservience, the university can no longer play its crucial symbolic role in modern society as the great exception to the worldly rule of might is right.
How, then, do we understand the events of February 21 and 22 at Ramjas College in Delhi University? One way is to see them as the culmination of an ongoing process of regime change, triggered by the landslide victory of the BJP in 2014. As is well known, the ABVP and its parent organisations have been involved in a series of confrontations across several universities in the past two years, the best known of which have been in Hyderabad, Allahabad, JNU, Jodhpur and now Delhi University. The overall effort on the part of the RSS-BJP-ABVP combine is to leverage their new-found state power to enforce their entry into, or consolidate their hold over, university politics.
A second way of understanding the Ramjas College events would be to compare the pattern they are a part of with similar patterns in the past. Two instances that come to mind are those of West Bengal in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and Bihar in the mid-1970s and 1980s. In Bengal, an established Congress regime was being challenged by a then ascendant CPM, itself facing a stiff challenge from Marxist-Leninist groups popularly known as Naxalites. In Bihar, the extended turmoil of Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti transitioned into the Lalu Prasad era of Yadav dominance. The latter case should be of particular interest to the Modi regime. Despite being one of the most astute politicians of our times, Lalu Prasad made the historic blunder of deliberately destroying the university system in Bihar because it was monopolised by his upper caste enemies. He failed to recognise the peculiar fragility of the university as a liberal institution that is easy to pull down but extremely hard to rebuild.
Returning to the immediate context, it is clear that the most chilling aspect of the violence of last week is its deliberate and strategic nature. The stone throwing and manhandling of students on the afternoon of February 21 happened in spite of the fact that the main demand of the ABVP — namely, the exclusion of Umar Khalid from the seminar — had already been conceded by the college authorities. The more extensive mayhem of February 22 was a pre-planned effort to disrupt a proposed silent march in protest against the censorship imposed by the ABVP. This unnecessary and excessive violence can only be explained if it was intended to be exemplary, as a lesson for all universities. If so, it seems to be working. The stormtroopers of the ABVP have sent shock waves through the academic world, intimidating even liberal administrators and faculty into self-censoring themselves and their students.
The irony is that these methods may win some battles, but will certainly lose the war. If the intention is to wrest the university from the enemy, then it is imperative to recognise that capturing it makes sense only if it can do for you what you think it has done for the enemy. But as a powerful yet strangely vulnerable institution, the university is a classic instance of a situation where the means matter as much as the end. Violent means will kill the university ensuring that what is ultimately won is but a shell. The organisers of the seminar which triggered these events can be justly proud of their prescient title — “Cultures of Protest”.
There remains an unanswered question: Are such dire predictions prompted by the high stakes that academics like myself have in the university as a liberal institution — and little else? I would, of course, say “No”, but more credible answers can only come from others located elsewhere.