A government panel with the mandate to make suggestions for the new national education policy has frowned upon political activity on campus. Among the special restrictions proposed by the T.S.R. Subramanian panel: Colleges and universities should consider derecognising student groups based “explicitly on caste and religion”. Echoing the disdain and discomfort visible in the ruling dispensation with regard to campus politics — except, of course, that of the ABVP — the committee has expressed concern that “agitations, disturbances, gheraos and other disruptive movements are being increasingly witnessed on campuses”, which it thinks is interfering with “normal academic activities”. These recommendations are ill-thought through if not downright anti-democratic.
Historically, campuses have been crucibles of leadership. College and university students are active citizens with voting rights to general, assembly and local body elections. It is absurd and even undesirable to expect them to be immune to, and insulated from, political ideas and debates. Equally, the political behaviour and modes and language of organising of students are likely to be influenced by the political activity outside the campus. The fact is, caste and religion are markers of political identity in India and parties, covertly and overtly, mobilise around them. What is often labelled “casteist” politics has provided valuable space for the expression and assertion of interests of historically disprivileged groups. In its best version, campus politics is a platform for questioning congealed inequalities and prejudices and a force for greater social inclusion. In fact, the absence of debate and agitation over larger social and political issues on campus in an argumentative democracy ought to be viewed as abnormal.
The panel’s report comes in the background of a season of unrest on campuses and a government that has revealed itself to be all too often heavy-handed and authoritarian in the face of difference and dissent. From Hyderabad Central University (HCU) to FTII, Pune, and JNU, students have been agitating on issues ranging from campus autonomy to standards of academic excellence. FTII students have protested Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment because they believe he lacks the professional credentials to occupy the post and his choice has been motivated by political considerations. Issues of social inclusion and the right to freedom of expression are at the heart of protests at JNU and HCU. These protests have echoed and triggered important debates in society — on the freedom of expression and its limits, on what constitutes nationalism. This is not exceptional. For instance, campuses were active arenas of politics and resistance during the Emergency — leaders like Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu and Sitaram Yechury are products of student politics of this era. It is the irony of history that some of these leaders now want universities to be sanitised of politics.