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Opinion | The Jamia violence and its fallout on campus culture

University autonomy and the pursuit of intellectual freedom always work in favour of democracy

The force used by Delhi Police in their crackdown last week on students of Jamia Millia Islamia, which triggered widespread protests, will remain a subject of discussion for years to come. Students of various other Indian universities, as well as renowned institutions of higher learning such as Oxford and Harvard, have shown solidarity. However, its larger ramifications are yet to be assessed and its potential to bring about a paradigmatic shift in the Indian political discourse remains an open question. This is partly because of the ideological orientation of India’s present regime and apparent efforts to portray expressions of dissent or criticism as the unwarranted acts of its political opponents.

The university administration at Jamia appears hopeful of persuading the Indian state to set up a high-level inquiry into last week’s incidents so that a resolution can be found. However, the country’s track record of such inquiries and their recommendations is not particularly inspiring. Two facts cannot be denied. First, by the administration’s account, Delhi Police entered the campus without permission. Second, unprovoked violence was unleashed on students who were studying in the Jamia library’s reading room.

Jamia is an institution that is nearly 100 years old and was set up during the early years of India’s freedom movement with a clear objective to promote secular, multicultural values. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were active patrons of this university that was expected to serve as an alternative to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the 1920s, when the latter was seen to be turning into a bastion of Muslim separatist thought. Gandhi’s commitment to Jamia was such that he sent one of his sons to study at the university and a memorial lecture named after his son is still held on the campus as a mark of honour. Today, however, both Jamia and AMU find themselves on the same page.

As India celebrates 150 years since the birth of Gandhi, the modern world’s greatest apostle of non-violence, it is tragic that one of the institutions he played an active role in setting up has become a site of violence. Going by media reports and the accounts of those who suffered, the police did not exercise the restraint that we should expect of law enforcers. My student Mustafa has put out an account, now available online, of how he was dragged, beaten and seriously injured. When he was taken to a local police station and requested the police to take him to hospital, as he might die otherwise, he recounts that a police officer said, “Let three or four of them die. How does it matter?"

A spokesperson of Delhi Police explained their illegal entry to Jamia on the grounds that they suspected that some miscreants behind the arson attacks of the day were hiding on the campus. However, the protest site, where protesters allegedly set a bus on fire, was more than 2km from the library, the epicentre of police brutality.

The distance apart, it is not at all easy to access the place. Any student who wants to enter the reading room of Zakir Hussain Library, named after a former President of India who also served as Jamia’s vice-chancellor, has to pass through multiple security layers, starting at the main gate, which is very well guarded. One also wonders why Delhi Police did not seek the administration’s permission to enter the campus if they had the aforementioned suspicion. It is no secret that the police and the Jamia administration have been working in tandem for years on various issues of law and order, both on and off the campus.

While we await an inquiry and its report, grave damage has already been done to the idea of university autonomy and the pursuit of intellectual freedom in a safe space. The security that students, other scholars, and faculty members took for granted has given way to a sense of apprehension.

Student activism in Jamia has grown in recent years. Recently, when the department of English was hosting a conference on Gandhi in which I presented a paper titled Gandhi And Kashmir, I found a lot of students protesting in front of the administrative block. The venue of the conference had to be shifted for the proceedings of the next day. Such protests do cause disruptions, but these processes also contribute to the politicization of students and encourage them to take positions on a wide range of issues of public importance. It prepares them for life in a democracy, one in which they expect to be heard as long as they remain wedded to the idea that all points should be made through argument and with respect. This, in addition to degrees, is what they earn along the way.

One of the reasons for the qualitative decline of our political culture since independence, regardless of party affiliations and ideologies, is its lack of exposure to what students think. Consequently, there exists a general contempt for public life among the country’s youth. Many see politics as the last resort of scoundrels. This cynicism also makes space for the perpetuation of dynastic politics.

These trends have contributed to what might be termed the de-democratization of Indian society. It would help if the country’s political leadership were to not look at demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act through a partisan lens. Protesters have a lot of concerns and this is not simply a Bharatiya Janata Party-versus-Congress story.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi; and is editor of ‘Rise Of Saffron Power: Reflections On Indian Politics’

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