My memories of university life are associated with two institutions. I grew up on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as my father (Rasheeduddin Khan) was one its founding professors. In JNU, I witnessed a culture of political debate and dissent. The evenings would be spent at the Ganga dhaba where two people would stand up and debate some issue. At the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) at Jamia Millia Islamia, where I did my masters, we didn’t interact much with the rest of the university but the MCRC itself had a very political atmosphere. We were documentary filmmakers in training and being aware of politics was a very important element of our education.
So, now when I see visuals of Jamia students walking with their hands up, it’s something I can’t get out of my mind. For me, that’s like a tipping point. How can you prevent students from protesting peacefully about what they feel is wrong? There is this whole debate about outside elements being there, but we’ve seen students being pulled out of libraries and beaten up. It’s unbelievable. And why is it happening in one university after another university in India — JNU, Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University?
Students are the conscience keepers of the country. As we grow up, we all get a little corrupt, blasé, laidback and indifferent about issues. But students don’t. They have idealism. Often, we fear that our youth is becoming apolitical, that they are losing interest in the world around them. Now when you see them reacting to political developments, you should be happy that they care about our country. How can you not let them protest? You should be able to debate with them, and not send the police to beat them up, ransack hostels and libraries. If you don’t promote protests among students, then it’s going to be a sad day for the country because the youth is our country’s tomorrow. The Jamia incident is the culmination of so many wrongs that we’ve been witness to.
The greatness of a country is reflected in how good its universities are. One of the strengths of the US, even though they have a host of other problems, is its strong university culture and its ability to breed leaders. Similarly, in India generations of leaders, nation builders, opinion makers, thinkers and administrators have come out of JNU, AMU and DU. We have to make sure that an enabling atmosphere flourishes in universities instead of labelling students as part of a “tukde tukde gang” or putting them in jail.
At present, there appears to be an atmosphere where dissent is not welcome — it’s seen as anti-national. That we can all criticise and question our government means that we are a flourishing democracy. In the last six years, a narrative has been spun that a government is equal to a country; that if you question the government, you are questioning India. This is dangerous. A government has never been equal to a country. Governments will come and go.
We are living in a healthy democracy till the day anybody, from any strata of society, can get up and question the prime minister, the home minister or any minister over any decision. Otherwise, what’s the difference between democracy and dictatorship? At JNU and Jamia, we would have leaders from different parties coming and debating with the students. If a student is not able to openly stand up and put across strongly what he or she believes in, then let’s not pretend that we live in a democracy.
I have never been more aware of my Muslim identity than I am today because it had never been never rubbed in my face before. I’m an atheist. For me, my religion is part of my culture and heritage. My religious identity has zero bearing on my life, as I go about doing my work and interacting with people. Religion should be very personal. Today, everything seems to be getting discussed through the prism of religion.
I grew up believing that India is an inherently secular country. Today, I question myself: Am I being naïve? I refuse to believe that the majority is comfortable with what is going on. If I start believing that, it will destroy the concept of India for me.
As a filmmaker, even when I make mainstream movies, I believe a political backdrop has to exist. Mainstream cinema is a powerful medium. I can forgive a bad screenplay, editing or cinematography, but I can never forgive bad politics. Every choice that a filmmaker makes needs to reflect its politics. This is the medium through which I will continue to make statements or ask questions in a format that is accessible to the audience. The chicken song in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), which lots of the children love, is very political — it questions the beef ban.
Not everyone speaks out. Our celebrities are more fearful because they are more vulnerable. Many of them have political views and feel strongly about certain issues. However, I cannot sit in judgement and ask them why don’t they speak up. I can only hope that more and more people will speak up. In the Western countries, maybe there are certain safeguards in their system that are actually working. Those safeguards, which we used to have in our society, are perhaps breaking down here.
A strong, independent media does not really exist in India today. The one institution that stood up for citizens was a free media. If anything made the establishment wary of coming down on anybody wrongfully, it was the fear that the media would go after it. Today, we can count on our fingers the newspapers and television channels that have a space of their own. If media, that’s supposed to be the watchdog of our society, disappears or cows down, it will be very unfortunate.
The only way that we can protect ourselves is if civil society continues to be vocal, be it by coming out on the streets and demonstrating, expressing themselves on social media, or being able to speak to the media. Students are a part of civil society. We don’t all have to become political activists. We should just be able to express our opinions as normal citizens, without fear. We need to speak up whenever something goes against our country’s ethos. We need to protect our country. Our country is larger than anything else.
Khan is a filmmaker and studied at the Jamia Millia Islamia
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