Human resource development minister Smriti Irani made a determined attempt last Wednesday to douse the fire caused by the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that she will be able to contain the ugly fallout resulting from the incident.
This is partly due to the fact that political leaders, particularly those who have a score to settle with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are frenetically fishing in the troubled waters of the University of Hyderabad. Whether it is Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal, Rohith’s suicide seems a wonderful opportunity to present a caricatured picture of the Bharatiya Janata Party as an organisation wedded to archaic, reactionary and exclusionary politics. Like in the Dadri lynching incident, the politicians enjoy the backing of a section of the intelligentsia that feels cut off from the power structure. The media, having quite rightly smelt a big story centred on yet another embarrassment for the Modi government, has also jumped in with its usual quota of reportage and sensationalism.
In such an emotionally charged environment it is difficult — if not impossible — to maintain a sense of detachment. The absence of a polemical thrust in any commentary on the issue is almost certainly prone to being interpreted as either an apology for the government or even a defence of caste prejudice. The epidemic of political correctness that has infected almost every democratic society globally is yet another factor that has marred the expression of alternative opinions.
These occupational hazards notwithstanding, it is worthwhile looking at the Hyderabad incident for what it reveals of some socio-political currents.
First, it is apparent that in the past 18 months or so, student politics in India is becoming extremely ugly. This is not because politics has suddenly entered the campuses in a virulent form. Politics or, more accurately, deliberations on national and international affairs, has always been a feature of campus life.
Indeed, it was far more marked in the late-Sixties and early-Seventies when the Naxalite movement and Jayaprakash Narayan’s “total revolution” triggered turbulence and disruption. Subsequently, in 1989-90, the kerfuffle over the Mandal Commission led to a mood of confrontation and bitterness. Compared to those expressions of student unrest, what we have been witnessing in recent months appears remarkably localised and tame.
Yet there are two features of campus turbulence that are relatively new. To begin with, the issues that have created disturbances in campuses appear to be increasingly detached from the concerns of the wider society. Whether it the prolonged agitation over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan to head the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the beef festival in Hyderabad or the never-ending battles involving the students and administration of Jadavpur University in Kolkata, the themes of student unrest very rarely find reflection outside the campus. In short, in the centres of unrest, the gulf between town and gown is becoming extremely sharp.
What is, however, reassuring is that most educational institutions are remarkably disinterested in the issues that preoccupy the minds of student activists. In the vocabulary of intellectualism, “careerism” is a pejorative term because it suggests self-centredness and a desire for personal advancement.
To my mind, however, it indicates a heartening sense of focus and a desire to use the years spent in the campus as a stepping-stone to a more fruitful working life. This does not mean students are less aware of their environment today than they were in the Sixties.
It merely indicates that India is inching forward to becoming more and more an opportunity society and this, in turn, is focusing the mind of students. The expansion of private universities with strong career-centric focus has helped the process. It has also sent out strong signals to policymakers that, along with spread, education in India must also focus purposefully on quality. Alas, this is not on the agenda of activists who are still travelling down the road of ideological and identity politics.
Secondly, there is a disturbing drift towards intolerance in some Indian campuses. Almost every month brings to the fore a fresh incident involving clashes between rival groups of students on issues as varied as a film on Muzaffarnagar, a meeting on the hanging of Yakub Memon and a speech by some individual with very definite views.
What underpins these disruptions and controversies is a belief that the campus is a centre for fostering certitudes rather than nurturing enlightenment through scepticism. Again, this seems a larger global trend — witness the ideological rigidity that has become the hallmark of Western universities.
To mind, both the Left and the Right are equally guilty of promoting a closed mind approach. The Left has traditionally been dogmatic and an enemy of intellectual pluralism but this infection is entering into the Right as well.
What is needed is a conscious move in which university authorities must also play a role to discourage the tendency of those who should know better to tar those who profess different viewpoints with unsavoury labels such as “anti-national”, “casteist” or “fascist”. It speaks volumes about our democratic values when faculty members of a publicly-funded university oppose an invitation to the Prime Minister to address a convocation.
Such values serve as an encouragement to students to use strong-arm tactics to uphold a flawed monopoly of the truth.
In the coming weeks, the bouts of recrimination over the death of a sensitive soul unable to cope with a vitiated campus environment will play out. However, if we are to do justice to his memory, it is imperative that some heed is paid to addressing some of the factors that brought about this tragedy....