By Saundarya Jain
Earlier this year, when terrifying video clips of masked assailants barging into Jawaharlal Nehru University, attacking students and teachers alike, had taken social media by storm, it unnerved a vast numbers of citizens. This could have been the final nail in coffin to put an end to the protests washing over the capital at the time, but fortunately, intimidation has a brief shelf life. This incident ended up uniting students across major cities in the country. The movement became more than an expression of censure against a questionable law; it saw a stirring spectacle of democracy unfolding itself, with students at the forefront.
On Tuesday, eight months after the protests broke out, representatives from Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Hamdard participated in a webinar organised by JMI called “Discipline in Universities” to discuss how to discipline “rowdy” students who participate in “non or counterproductive” activities. This is absurd, given that students protested peacefully and were terrorised by goons in the middle of the night, subjected to tear gas by the police. The protests were surely vociferous in their dissent but never violent. Turning a blind eye to this, the representatives also discussed the need to have “more interactions with the police.”
By looking into the subtext of their conversation, we can understand the burgeoning delegitimisation of dissent by educational institutions. In the webinar, terms such as “deviant behaviour”, “problem creators” were pervasively used for dissenters, reminiscent of the fictional language, Newspeak, from George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. Newspeak, “devised to meet the ideological needs” of the establishment, was created to eliminate “undesirable” vocabulary and subversive concepts such as self-expression and free will. As negative connotations are being attached to dissent, it conveys that to reason, to scrutinise, to oppose is something anomalous which must be corrected. In a democracy, this spirit of inquiry should be the norm, not a deviance.
Furthermore, the webinar meant to address, as expressed in a press release by JMI, how students are indulging in “activities that are non or counterproductive and carried out at the very cost of learning.” This should make us question if learning is limited to the classroom curriculum. What sort of standards of productivity deem the participation of students in democratic debates, such as scrutinising acts being passed by the Parliament, non-productive?
The JNU chief proctor mentioned how initiating “political agendas” on campus are a “serious challenge.” When universities and colleges attempt to squash conversations under the guise of promoting an apolitical environment — something I have witnessed as a student as well — ironically, this becomes an agenda in itself. When the management doesn’t find it befitting to challenge the status-quo, it sides with the establishment and inadvertently dictates the politics of the campus.
The culture of snubbing anti-establishment opinions in the Indian education space has implications beyond politics. The intent of discipling students and keeping them in line is really a means of subjugating independent thought. The task of “character formation” that educational institutions take up, seemingly harmless, is another way to cure students of “deviant behaviour” and instil monolithic ideas of acquiescing to the status-quo. But, as students across the country have robustly displayed, we are not even close to relenting. If campuses will shun debate and protests, there are other spaces and platforms – online and offline. The country’s young dissenter are more than ready.
While students are being charged with baseless FIRs, let us remember the legacy of our forefathers: Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s trial under the Sedition Act and his ensuing imprisonment, and then of Gandhi’s and that of Nehru’s and the entirety of that India which exemplified that dissent is the most important commodity being manufactured in our country, exclusively by its people, for its people, of its people. Students are only trying to contribute to that legacy of Make in India.
The writer a final-year student of Bachelors in Mass Media Ruia College, Mumbai
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