Universities are spaces for dissemination of knowledge and values, but today many have turned into political battlefields. The protests over CAA and NRC in JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University are in the news — students all over India have been protesting against the attack on a prestigious Delhi university by masked men wielding sticks on January 5. From “Hokkolorob” (make some noise) in West Bengal to “Justice for Rohith” in Hyderabad, from “Students Against ABVP” to the recent CAA-NRC protests, student crusades are spotlighting pressing issues, influencing government decisions and initiating policy change.
India has a long history of young radical thinkers like Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and George Reddy and, more recently, Kanihya Kumar, but over the past few years, more and more young people are becoming involved in political activity. The recent student protests have exposed the murkier side of student activism – vandalism, arson, and destruction of college property. One wonders if universities have turned into war zones.
‘No place for violence or vandalism’
Krishank Manne, student leader of Osmania University, Hyderabad, feels student activism should take the form of debate and discourse. “Osmania University saw five years of intense student movement but the students never resorted to damaging college property. Whoever practices any form of violence or vandalism shall not only be condemned but also banned. It cannot be considered Freedom of Expression as it is unlawful.” He adds that extreme Left-and Right-wingers have ruined the atmosphere of the college with petty politics rather than activism. “Ideological bankruptcy and youngsters presuming that student politics means maintaining gangs aren’t right,” he asserts.
The Right to Dissent
Gopi Swamy, Convener Ambedkar Students Association and Students Union General Secretary, UoH, says students have strong opinions on issues like fee hike and hate crimes. Umar Faruq Quadri, president, MANUU-SU, feels, “For the last few years universities like JNU, HCU AMU, JMI and MANUU have become targets of the BJP-led government backed by the RSS. To suppress voices of dissent, this government has started attacking universities and students. The murder of Rohit Vemula, the ‘disappearance’ of Najeeb Ahmed from JNU and the attack on the minority status of JMI or AMU are cases in point. The government even formulated a new policy of cutting the funding of various universities across the nation. They have also appointed pro-government VCs and professors to suppress dissenting voices.”
Since 2014 students have led movements against lynching, hate crimes, Article 370, the Babri verdict, and now, the movement against CAA-NRC and NPR. “Universities are at the core of resistance to government attitudes and policies. Take the example of the Telangana movement. It started from the Osmania University and Kakatiya University. Later, HCU joined in. The government had to bend. But I don’t think we were ever involved in disruptive activities on external issues, except in the case of JNU,” says Swamy.
Universities have always played a historic role in providing a vent for expression of dissent and widening the liberal space through dialectics and social movements. “While it would be a case of being in denial to say that universities shouldn’t be political in terms of voicing opinions and ideas or expressing solidarity on various issues confronting the nation and civil society, yet, the issues need to be handled with caution by the stakeholders, lest things gravitate towards a situation where mainstream political parties merely use universities for recruitment and for furthering their agendas. The failure to address problems could be aggravated by the subversion of scholarship, radicalization and segregation on party lines,” says R. Radhakrishnan, a JNU alumnus. “When universities are used to manufacture consent for the State or for generating unrest in the name of expression of dissent, there is a threat. So, universities have to maintain their distinct space as sites of contestation, where diverse opinions are nurtured in a democratic way,” he adds.
Right Vs Left
“In many universities across the country, including JNU, Leftist organisations are continuously and violently targeting students who dare to disagree. In the current probe by the Delhi Police, the name of four Leftist organisations have been revealed — AISA, AISF, SFI and DSF,” alleges Matta Raghavender, national leader, ABVP.
Condemning the attack on ABVP activists in JNU, Nidhi Tripathi, national general secretary, ABVP, says “We request the Delhi Police and JNU administration to take all possible measures to bring the situation on the campus under control, assuage the concerns of the traumatised students, and ensure everyone’s safety.”
Taking an all-round view of the situation, there is no doubt that protests can be an important vehicle for social change, undue political activism not only distracts students from their primary goal of the pursuit of knowledge, but also poses a threat to them.
The present situation calls for reclaiming the university as a part of civil space and making it serve its primary objective — democratisation and dissemination of knowledge in an egalitarian manner....