The Uttar Pradesh Private Universities Ordinance, 2019, cleared by the cabinet on Tuesday, is ostensibly meant to rationalise the many pieces of legislation that govern 27 private universities in the state. Among the strictures in the proposed law, is an exhortation to universities not to allow or be involved in “anti-national activities”. The ordinance will also mandate that universities inculcate notions of “national integration, international goodwill and patriotism”. Institutions that fail to live up to this amorphous set of ideals will face legal consequences. The UP government’s move is problematic on several counts: It betrays a lack of understanding of what a university space is meant to achieve. It over-estimates the power of pedagogy and higher education in shaping young adults. And it seems to be ignorant of the basic principles of crime and punishment, and where the limits of the law are reached.
If an Indian citizen acts against the state, or conspires to do so, there are a host of laws to deal with the matter. Students, faculty and staff at universities are subject to the same laws as other citizens — there are enough provisions in criminal law that deal with terrorism, conspiracy, and waging war against the state. An ordinance that demands that private proprietors and managers of institutes of learning deal with “anti-national activities” is superfluous. The ordinance also seems to assume that patriotism and other “ethical” behaviours can be imposed in a classroom, or through the threat of punitive action. In a world where information and ideas are limitless and practically free, this is a deeply naïve assumption, and will serve only to penalise institutions for behaviour among their students they have no way of actually controlling.
What the proposed law appears to be aiming at is further political control of the higher education space. “Anti-national” is not clearly defined in any legal lexicon. It is, in fact, a term which has been wielded to great effect to further a political agenda, often by demonising universities and students. The BJP members in-charge in UP need only to look back at how the party’s own student leaders were treated during the Emergency. Indira Gandhi, too, had wanted a pledge to the nation and a promise to maintain harmony from students. It is precisely because “anti-national” is so vague and open to the interpretations of whatever political formation holds sway, that it has no place in law.