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Feb 18, 2016

The Government Must Learn to Leave Universities Alone

The crackdown on institutes of higher learning on ideological grounds may quickly lead to anger among the middle class.

The crackdown on institutes of higher learning on ideological grounds may quickly lead to anger among the middle class

The government must reconsider going after universities on ideological grounds. Credit: PTI Photo

The government would do well to reconsider its stand on democratic dissent. Credit: PTI Photo

What land is to a farmer, a good education is to the middle class. Simply put, education is about securing the means for a livelihood for many. Which is why the recent efforts by the BJP government to throttle voices at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) should be worrying for India’s growing middle class.

Receiving a ‘good education’ in India is becoming increasingly difficult, akin almost to playing the ‘hunger games’, as one very feisty newspaper headline put in recently when discussing the plight of nursery education in Delhi.

It is also getting clearer that the chargesheet on sedition against the president of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU), Kanhaiya Kumar, is trumped up. Both the Home Ministry and the Delhi Commissioner of Police, BS Bassi, have hit new lows in terms of incompetence. The video of the alleged ‘anti-national’ slogan shouting has thus far been unable to establish Kumar’s involvement in any seditious activities. On the other hand, a tweet, allegedly by Hafiz Saeed, was declared as ‘proof’ that the JNU protests were backed by the terrorist. In a major embarrassment for the government, Saeed declared the Twitter handle bearing his name to be fake. This blunder by the ministry follows another earlier this year when it jumped the gun on the Pathankot attack by officially declaring it over even while an intense fight against the terrorists was ongoing.

Bassi, meanwhile, has added to the unfolding drama by still being unable to account for how thugs in plain clothes along with policemen beat up students on January 30, when they were peacefully  demonstrating  outside the RSS headquarters in Jhandewalan over the death of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. While that enquiry is supposedly still on going, Bassi has wrapped up his investigation in record time by concluding that the video in which ABVP members were seen shouting pro-Pakistan slogans was a fake. While arresting AAP MLAs is another one of the commissioner’s areas of expertise, the video evidence of the BJP MLA along with a muscular set of lawyers viciously beating up a hapless student, however, has been dismissed as a ‘minor incident, which happens’.

Intellectual surveillance

How is the Indian middle class expected to process this tragic comic play between education and national security?  The conventional understanding is to keep the police, paramilitary and security agencies out of the university system and expect them to guard borders and patrol dangerous places. Universities have proctors and other disciplinary bodies who still see punishment, even in extreme cases, as a way to educate students. The BJP government, dangerously enough, by collapsing national security and higher learning into a simple and single narrative around an ideologically-fraught term — ‘anti-national’— has ended up securitising middle-class livelihoods. The consequences will be immense if the classrooms are turned into dangerous zones of intellectual surveillance.

India needs a vibrant education system to meet the demands of a knowledge economy. By many estimates, it is falling woefully short. In 2014-15, the number of Indian students applying and leaving for education in the United States alone increased by nearly 30% over the previous year, to more than 130,000. By September 2014, Australia saw an enrollment of over 50,000 Indian students. Although the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency reported a 12% drop in Indian student numbers for 2013-14, it still let in 17,750. Singapore has almost 3000 Indian students joining its universities every year over the past decade. The costs to India of the increasing movement abroad of its students runs into several billion dollars and has brought forward two very significant potential issues: firstly, the brain drain is obvious, and secondly, for those retuning to the country, often with insignificant degrees, it is adding to the problem of banks loans as non-performing assets. In a recent report, it was observed that  nearly 10%, around 7,900 million rupees, of the total education loan corpus of 79,000 million rupees has been categorised as overdue, or active loans which are 90 days past due. Significantly, the number of education loans disbursements have dropped sharply by 60% between 2009-10 and 2014-15, seeing a gradual decline over years.

The BJP government’s recent attacks on ideological grounds on institutions of higher learning, such as the FTII, IIT-Chennai, Hyderabad University and now JNU, is going to quickly explode into anger, especially among a section of the population – the middle class – who believed they voted  for development and growth. And as the rupee slides further against the dollar, the great Indian education outmigration is only going to aggravate.

Progressive politics must be encouraged

This also requires us to thrash Mohandas Pai’s ill-informed claim that education at JNU can be purified of politics by charging students a full fee. Once again, like Bassi and the home ministry, Pai does not understand what education actually means. I respond with examples. The general secretary of JNUSU in 1973-74, the year CPI(M) leader Prakash  Karat was president, was Gyan Praskash, who is now a professor at Princeton University. Prakash was also a member of the All India Student Federation, like Kumar.

A small sampling of other luminaries bear mention: Anand Kumar was JNUSU president in 1974-75 and completed his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to teach at JNU. Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a much accomplished scholar and political thinker, was the vice-president in 1978-79. Some of the most fantastic work in contemporary Indian economics has been carried out by Surajit Mazumdar and Himanshu, both of whom were president and general secretary of JNUSU respectively, and now teach at JNU. Other office bearers like Rajesh Mahapatra, TK Arun and NR Mohanty are among the most respected newspaper editors in the country. Sajal Mitra, who was the general secretary in 1982-83, went on to become a celebrated bureaucrat, while Pratima Banerjee, the general secretary in 1993-94, is an internationally recognised scholar with books on tribal history and the notion of time. Ravinder Kaur, the general secretary in 1994-95, is now a full professor at the University of Copenhagen and Malavika Kasturi, a former office bearer, now teaches at the University of Toronto.

There are many others who can be named, and the long list of distinguished former JNUSU office bearers only tells us why taking on the JNU is a bad political decision for the BJP and that progressive politics is vital for good scholarship. The JNUSU memebers are not political ruffians but outstanding members of the academic community. They are respected and held with high esteem, and will likely tell you that complex social realities cannot be understood as mere information or reduced to instructions in classrooms. Progressive politics is about understanding power in society through actual practice, experience and honest engagement.

In December 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was awarded an honorary doctorate from JNU. In his acceptance speech, he said:

India is a country with a population of over 1.2 billion people. It is a country that respects freedom and democracy amidst diversity, and upholds human rights and the rule of law. … as countries sharing fundamental values, [India and Japan] must cooperate even more closely in every field.

One hopes Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the BJP, will listen more attentively to the comments from the leader of a major FDI source for the country, and will perhaps  refrain from calling all JNU students and alumni, including honorary alum Abe, ‘anti-national’.

Rohan D’Souza is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University

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