JNU last year, DU now. What lessons are there to learn from such outrages on our campuses? If nothing else, one thing is abundantly clear — no one in the mainstream media seems quite to be getting it. The issue is not of FoE (Freedom of Expression), mine versus yours. Nor is it the muzzling of dissent on Indian campuses. Unfortunately, our captive mindsets so conveniently slot reality into what we already know, thus being unable to frame questions properly, or seek correct answers. If we care to examine these outrages dispassionately, without a prior investment in one politically determined outcome, a totally different picture might emerge, not only of what’s actually happening in India, but also how our analysis is the prisoner of category confusion.
Let’s start with ABVP, vaunted to be the world’s largest student organisation. Clearly, the cadres fell too easily into a well-laid trap. The first thing they should learn is not to charge like enraged bulls every time a red rag is waved in front of them. That red rag can be “anti-national” slogans, a beef festival or the denigration of a Hindu god(dess). Such provocations cannot be taken at face value; they are planted with the intention of causing unrest. The deeper pattern behind them should be exposed.
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Speaking specifically of Ramjas College, the two invited “radicals,” Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, neither of whom eventually spoke, possibly succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in destabilising. Evidently, they wanted to stir the proverbial hornet’s nest, transplanting the roils of JNU, HCU and Jadavpur to Delhi University, an ABVP-dominated campus. Some Left-sympathising teachers also propped up their cause.
But what they accomplished, without even going to Ramjas, was a veritable coup — the plan to incite student unrest across the country, especially during election time, almost fructified. Radical student bodies, whether ultra-left, Ambedkarite or Kashmiri separatist factions, always hope to create a wave of turbulence out of a whimper, a movement, if not a mountain, out of a molehill. The objective — to attack the Indian state and/or Hindu society, unleashing student discontent against the Modi sarkar, with the support of other political parties. In that sense, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid seem to fit the classic definition of agents provocateurs. Such persons inflame their enemies into making mistakes, committing illegal acts, thus compromising their own cause. The whole organisation — this time, ABVP — ends up discredited.
But does this exonerate ABVP? Clearly not. When will they learn that resorting to fisticuffs or bending the law is the worst possible strategy to win public sympathy? I can think of a hundred other ways to fight such battles: The best would be to take on their political opponents in an open debate. But, assuming that they have neither the time, nor the intellectual inclination to do so, does that mean they would have run out of all other options? Why couldn’t they take a leaf out of their opponents’ playbooks? For instance, blocking the entrance to the college, lying down on the steps of the seminar hall, outshouting and outsmarting the separatist slogan-shouters?
The biggest takeaway for ABVP from this fiasco is that they need a complete makeover, including smarter spokespersons, more female faces and, above all, much better strategy on how to counter their ideological opponents. Why not learn from their senior partners, the BJP, who have effective envoys and image-makers at all levels? ABVP ends up as a motley, scruffy crew of rabble-rousers, who, barring a few notable exceptions, miserably fail to articulate their point of view. Worse, they make a virtue out of their ineffectiveness by denying they were tricked — some even thump their chests, proudly justifying their lumpenism.
In the ongoing fracas, what cannot be ignored is the incapacity of the left-liberal media to come to grips with the problem. Just to illustrate, let’s imagine what might happen if the boot was on the other foot: What if a morcha were taken out in Srinagar, Aligarh, even in Kolkata, in support of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Or a campaign organised on the premises of Muslim-dominated institutions against Muslim personal law? Culinary festivals highlighting porky delicacies? Even a procession with students shouting “Bharat Mata ki jai!” — would such operations be framed as freedom of expression vs the muzzling of dissent? Or, as unnecessary provocations inciting hatred?
Not long after Ramjas, Jamia Millia Islamia students did not allow an eminent invitee, Shazia Ilmi, to speak on triple talaq. Earlier, for years, they had blocked their vice-chancellor from discharging his duties, even visiting the campus, over allegedly controversial remarks in favour of Salman Rushdie. I never heard a single anchor hector his guests against the illiberalism on such campuses, citing how some unpopular motion in favour of pacifism was carried at the Oxford Union long ago or how, during the Iranian hostage crisis, in America, anti-US demonstrations were allowed under police guard. It’s a different matter that both in the UK and the US, hundreds of hate crimes are reported each year, some fatal: None of these societies is a model when it comes to guaranteeing the freedom of speech of non-celebrity dissenters.
Student organisations such as ABVP, the police, the political powers that be, the media, and we, the concerned citizens, all have lessons to learn from Ramjas. But if there is one common denominator, it is this — restore academics to our campuses and get party politics out. IITs, IIMs and other technical institutions seem to thrive without it. The then Bombay University banned student elections in 1992, following the murder of an NSUI candidate; they seem none the worse for it. Student government is wonderful for young people to learn leadership. But party-driven politics of the sort we have seen at our leading universities is like the kiss of death. Time to make a nation-wide change?
The writer is professor, Centre for English Studies, JNU
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned the Ramjas Student Union was dominated by AISA. In fact, the President of the Union is a member of ABVP. The article has been updated as per.