The row over the legally and morally untenable police action on the JNU campus and the arrests of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya have challenged the very idea of the university. Are universities merely an extension of the state where students rehash existing knowledge, thereby reproducing traditional notions of morality, justice and nationalism, or are they sites where some of these fundamental notions are debated and challenged?
The ongoing controversy should not be viewed in isolation. The BJP government’s high-handedness with institutions of higher learning is symptomatic of the fact that free speech, critical thinking, dissent and the very idea of the university, are being challenged.
While there may be a deep-seated sectarian, political agenda behind targeting JNU, the larger issue is about autonomous academic spaces and intellectual freedom. Academics often find it hard to stretch the boundaries of reason precisely because our political and intellectual imagination is monopolised by the state and its urge to constantly define what is moral and patriotic in conformity with hegemonic notions. When academics venture out of those boundaries, they get called rebellious, if they are lucky, or anti-national, as is the case today.
Universities can’t be expected to satisfy majoritarian notions or the “collective conscience” of a nation’s sense of morality. Not only should every university resist attempts of the state apparatus to force it to reproduce its reason, it should also challenge and question dominant societal values. Our collective belief systems have to be challenged and transformed from time to time, as they always have been, and universities as sites of critical thinking should play a leading role in this process. Once the university is intruded into by the state, the next step would be to dictate the contents of the curriculum — the meaning of nationalism, the content of history books, and culturally appropriate dress codes, behaviour, etc.
There is an under-emphasised pedagogical and moral logic to the idea of the autonomy of universities. The university and its attendant knowledge practices, which necessarily involve the clash of ideas and ideologies, are distinct from the logic of public morality. Students and researchers of politics and law should be expected to do postmortems of judicial outcomes. In that sense, critiquing the hanging of Afzal Guru is well within the academic autonomy of a university community, let alone the fact that there is nothing illegal about it. How does arguing, using logic, reason or even agitation, make one anti-national? The argument that the hanging of Guru was unfair may be unsavoury for many but it is not unconstitutional or illegal.
What makes a university classroom different from other spaces? It is the ability to deliberate on all sorts of issues, from nuclear policy to the bloody evolution of states and Tagore’s critique of nationalism. Just as discussing the Oedipus complex should not be prevented for fear that it runs counter to societal taboos, critically discussing the inherent problems associated with nationalist claims and their modern political forms (states) can’t be disallowed either.
More importantly, there is an undeniable and organic link between the classroom and the rest of the campus. University campuses are extended classrooms where students learn from post-dinner discussions, political activism, protest meetings and mess-hall debates. At the same time, the crucial intellectual demarcation between what happens inside the campus and outside should be appreciated. If we don’t, our unease with what happens on campuses today will end in classrooms and textbooks tomorrow. Therefore, the unleashing of the state machinery on the JNU campus today has the dangerous potential of policing thought in the classroom. When thought is stunted, societies stop progressing.
There seems to have emerged a false dichotomy between nationalists and anti-nationalists: That is, if you are not a nationalist, you are necessarily anti-national. That is a false dichotomy precisely because nationalism is not a settled question in our country. A quick glance at non-heartland India would make it unambiguously clear to any observer. If so, why is questioning specific forms of nationalism deemed wrong? Nationalism is an evolutionary project, not a pre-fabricated commodity to be imposed on the citizens of a free country, especially graduate students who are in the business of debating various nuances of nationalist and counter-nationalist narratives. Mature societies dialogically engage unsavoury thoughts instead of criminalising them.
In any case, our intellectual parameters should not be dictated by a regime-centred logic. As members of the larger humanity, we have every right, and indeed responsi-bility, to think beyond state-centred politics and its monopoly over our imagination of community and nation.
It is important to recognise that there is a multitude of ethical and political possibilities beyond the historical contingency of nationalism and nation-states, which are, in themselves, imagined communities. The Westphalian conception of nation-states based on borders, sovereignty and monocultural moorings has long been inflicting limits upon our worldviews and engagement with the larger humanity.
JNU is under immense stress today thanks primarily to the concerted attempts by certain organisations and the state. And they have used the simplest but most lethal tool in their kit: Calling us anti-national. We will eventually weather the storm. But it’s not just about us, it’s also about the very idea of the university that is under siege today.