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JNU students gather at the entrance gate of the JNU before leaving for their protest march from Mandi House to HRD Ministry, (Photo: PTI)
JNU students gather at the entrance gate of the JNU before leaving for their protest march from Mandi House to HRD Ministry, (Photo: PTI)

Opinion | Assault on public universities: don’t mortgage India’s future

Turning universities into homogenized teaching shops would stifle independent thinking and hurt the nation’s prospects

There appears to be a systematic assault on public universities in India that seems to have gathered momentum in the past six months. In the past four weeks, following the passage of the divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, this assault, which has now been transformed from the metaphorical to the literal, has reached alarming proportions.

On the evening of 5 January, 70-100 masked goons, armed with metal rods, sledgehammers, wooden rods and stones, stormed the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in the national capital, thrashing students, beating up teachers, ransacking hostels, vandalizing property and smashing cars. The mob ran riot for three hours and injured 35 students and teachers.

Yet, around 250 police personnel assembled at the campus gate were silent spectators, who did nothing to intervene. Strangely enough, streetlights outside the JNU gates were switched off. In the darkness, the mob walked away shouting abusive slogans, as police personnel watched. It was only thereafter, once the damage was done, that the streetlights were switched on and the police carried out a flag march. Throughout this shameful episode, the vice-chancellor and his administration were conspicuous by their absence, abdicating their responsibility altogether.

The identity of the masked goons has not yet been established. However, their slogans did convey something about their beliefs, if not identity. JNU has been targeted for its intellectual tradition, critical thinking and questioning spirit, ever since 2014. The sedition row three years ago was part of that process. The siege continues unabated. It is shocking that not a single person from the masked mob has been arrested so far. The police inaction during the episode is inexplicable and unacceptable.

This provides a sharp contrast with the events at Jamia Millia Islamia just three weeks ago, when Delhi Police entered the campus, without university permission, stormed the library and mosque, beating up scores of students in a lathi charge. More than 50 students were injured then. This coincided with a similar story at Aligarh Muslim University, where the Uttar Pradesh police went on a rampage on the campus and more than 60 students taking part in an anti-CAA protest were injured in the violence that followed.

The past month has, thus, witnessed a physical assault on three central universities, where the police unleashed the violence in two, and was a silent spectator in the third. However, the assault on public universities across the nation, as a metaphor, has now been discernible for five years and runs deep.

The list is long and extends much beyond JNU to the University of Hyderabad, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), University of Delhi, Jadavpur University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and so on. The political intrusion in universities as autonomous public institutions, though not altogether new, is now far more extensive, and seems to have taken new forms driven by the ideology that is ascendant, and now becoming dominant, in the country.

It is about who can and who cannot be invited to speak at universities, what should and what should not be on reading lists, and what courses should be taught and what courses should be discontinued. These are entirely academic decisions that must remain the prerogative of universities. A significant erosion of autonomy in the appointment of faculty members in universities can be observed, as ideology-driven or pliant vice-chancellors push for appointments of those who seem to conform to the ideology of the ruling party— often without the requisite, even minimum, academic credentials. In a new twist, appointments made through due process, as in the department of Sanskrit at Banaras Hindu University, are effectively set aside under pressure.

Such occurrences negate the essential concept of universities as autonomous spaces, where freedom of expression, exploration of ideas and advancement of knowledge are an integral part of the learning process. Universities are places for raising doubts and asking questions about everything. There are bound to be differences in views, but these must be addressed through discussion, with open minds. In this, there must be respect, not contempt, for the other. Universities are, above all, about reason and tolerance.

It is a serious mistake to think of universities as campuses or classrooms that teach young people to pass examinations, obtain degrees, and become employable, where research does not matter. Universities are about far more. They make students good citizens of society. They nurture intellectuals who can provide an independent, credible voice in evaluating governments, legislatures, or the judiciary. This role is essential in a political democracy.

We must remember that the spread of education in society is at the foundation of success in countries that are latecomers to development. In this process, universities provide the cutting edge of creativity and innovation in advancing knowledge and technology.

If universities are turned into straitjacketed homogenized teaching shops that stifle independent thinking, it will only deprive young people of opportunities to learn and mortgage the future of the nation.

The assault on public universities in India is senseless and self-destructive. It will impose an unimaginable cost on our society in the long term. For those who rule, it will not be without political consequences. There are already widespread protests by university students across India. Over time, governments everywhere have learnt that the anger or wrath of students is something that even authoritarian regimes cannot afford. India is a vibrant political democracy.

Deepak Nayyar is emeritus professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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