That premier universities of the country are discussing ways to sift students from “rowdies” and considering asking the police to keep the peace on campus is disquieting. In a webinar attended by representatives of JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, senior administrators reportedly mulled steps to curb “deviant behaviour”, which included maintaining “files” on students “with different mindset”.
The JNU chief proctor rued that the campus space was being used to launch “political agendas” and called for “segregating” certain students; the BHU chief proctor said that the limited exposure of young people to “beating and scolding” was a challenge. This bureaucracy of controls might work for an institution which believes in herding students away from independent thought. It has no place in a university, which, by definition, is a space that must open itself to many new worlds of thoughts and ideas, including and especially if they collide and contradict each other.
Profiling a cohort of students as “rowdies” for their political choices will corrode the fundamental trust young people place in a university. A place of learning ought to be a safe place that allows a student an opportunity for many transformations, without judgement or calumny, rather than one which labels and marginalises her. The belief that politics is a job best left to politicians and not a contest in which students and intellectuals have a vital stake, or that good students do not do politics, are both shallow ideas that play into self-serving establishments. While lawkeepers ought not to be demonised, neither the police nor policing has any place on university campuses and it is up to administrators to defend that wall, not breach it.
The record of the ruling BJP government at the Centre, when it comes to safeguarding the right to debate and dissent in a university, has been far from inspiring. Be it the protests over the death of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) or the crackdown on JNU students accused of sedition in 2016 or the police action on anti-CAA protesters in AMU, Jamia and JNU, the government has used a false opposition of nationalism versus intellectuals to progressively narrow the space for views that are at variance from those promoted by the ruling establishment. But the safeguarding of safe spaces for ideas is also the work of universities, who have the autonomy and the intellectual power to back themselves up and defend their freedoms. While students have not flinched from speaking truth to power, university administrations also need to step up to their role and responsibility.
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