Never in its history has the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) been recognised for its expertise of handing out merit certificates to academics. But, mysteriously, Ahmedabad University (AU), a private university that boasts of an impressive faculty, appears to be suddenly beholden to the ABVP’s views on matters intellectual. The RSS student wing has objected to historian Ramachandra Guha’s appointment to the university, calling him a list of names (“anti-national”, “urban Naxal” and “Communist”) that reveals, among other unflattering things, a complete incomprehension of the academic’s wide-ranging work. But the alleged pressure brought to bear upon the university led to doubts about Guha’s physical safety on campus, and apparently forced Guha, a consistent critic of the BJP government, to pull out. By now, the strain of anti-intellectualism in Indian politics has a standard operating procedure in place: Cry offence, call inconvenient academics/writers/historians unpatriotic and shut one more window of liberal thought. It is, as if, there is an unspoken ease of intolerance index that is being nurtured by our political class.
But that begs the question: What is the role of institutions such as Ahmedabad University (AU) in such a scenario? A private university, with some of the most acclaimed academics and writers on its roll, AU appears to have simply capitulated. The top rung of the university administration has remained silent about the circumstances that led to this embarrassing situation. More importantly, there has been no attempt to dispute the canards being hurled against Guha, an acclaimed biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, who had been chosen to chair a programme of Gandhi studies in a city where the Mahatma sharpened his political acumen.
India’s ruling political establishment has a fair amount of blame to take for the fact that abuses such as anti-national and urban Naxal now are terms filled with political menace, and pressed into service whenever the government’s critics have to be answered. This is now, unfortunately, a project on auto-pilot, when freelance armies of lumpens feel empowered to take down scholars and popular writers whenever they are perceived to be against the ideology on the rise. But the university’s gatekeepers cannot simply walk away from battle. AU has the intellectual, financial and academic heft needed to stand up to the liberal values it claims to profess. It must ask itself why it did not find the courage to do so. Institutions, especially universities, need to stand up to the bullying.