“University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” —Henry A Kissinger
Being an academic himself, the famous American diplomat’s contemptuous dismissal of academic politics gives a historic context to the current campus conflicts in India. When he was President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, student protests in the 1970s against the Vietnam War shook the government and polarised America. Around the same time, fellow academic Dwight Waldo, political science professor at the Syracuse University, published an essay in a collection titled The American University: A Public Administration in which, he wrote: “We can no longer use our little joke that campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small. They are now so nasty because the stakes are so large.”
Waldo’s words of wisdom aptly define the ongoing battle for ideological dominance on India’s campuses. It’s not academic excellence, which is at stake here, but monopoly over mind space. Over 60 student bodies, with a combined membership of over 20 million, controlled by various political parties are active in the country’s 300-odd universities and 45,000-odd colleges. In practice, however, only four student organisations—Congress-run National Students’ Union of India, RSS-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and both Left-controlled Students’ Federation of India and All India Students Federation—dominate academic activism. Their strategy is not just to expand their base but also bring down their adversaries by means fair or foul.
A university isn’t just a collection of concrete buildings with libraries, lecture theatres or laboratories; it’s the tabula rasa of academic awareness. For the past few years, they are in the news mostly for non-academic activities. When students are expected to prepare for annual examinations, a small vocal section of them has hit the roads, agitating not for better facilities or democratising the administration, but to redefine ‘freedom of expression.’
The current fracas began when Delhi’s Ramjas College organised the ‘Cultures of Protest’ seminar to which JNU student Umar Khalid, accused of raising anti-India slogans at an event in JNU last year, and Kashmiri student activist Shehla Rashid were invited as speakers. This choice of speakers and subject incensed ABVP activists, who considered it an avenue to promote anti-India sentiments in Delhi University. The ensuing protest at the venue led to violent clashes involving students and teachers with ideological differences. The kerfuffle escalated to a full-fledged war between the BJP and the Opposition. However, this time, the nature of protest had changed. Before the JNU event, anti-India rhetoric, slogans condemning Afzal Guru’s execution and hailing Kashmiri separatism had no place on campuses. J&K was always considered part of undivided India. Now, dangerously, some students are challenging the very idea of India, promoting a multinational ideology versus nationalist conviction.
Undoubtedly, universities and colleges are still the best places to exercise freedom of expression to promote healthy dialogue on alternative ideologies, ideas and individuals. Law faculties and university campuses are recruiting grounds for political parties seeking future political, corporate and academic leaders. Many freedom fighters were drawn from these institutions. Universities are traditionally arenas of protest, where many dreamers and thinkers delight in the narcotic of imagination before the sobriety of reality sets in. Debating skills are refined as argumentative minds engage in the exploration of dissent. Most of India’s Chief Ministers, Union ministers, senior government officials, artists and scientists were associated with student unions in college.
They were politically-sensitive students, who participated in Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement against Indira Gandhi. Political powerhouses such as Venkaiah Naidu, Ananth Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Arif Mohammed Khan, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Sharad Yadav, Arun Jaitley, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, Ajay Maken, Vijay Goel, Shashi Tharoor et al are names in this illustrious roll call. Most of them were imprisoned for their economic or political ideas and beliefs, and not for seeking a new partition of India, or sponsoring secessionist sympathisers. Peace with terror-patron Pakistan and ‘azadi’ for Kashmir have replaced secularism and socialism as the new romantic narrative in teaching institutions.
Ideological pollination between student unions and national parties remained within the ecosystem of national conversation, in spite of occasional turbulence. In the late 1960s, the Congress party activated the Chhatra Parishad, its militant student wing in West Bengal, to neutralise the Naxal movement. During the Mandal agitation in 1990, the non-Left parties joined hands against PM V P Singh. Delhi University student Rajiv Goswami immolated himself, protesting the Mandal Commission report. V P Singh lost his government and Goswami his life a few years later, though he became the president of the Delhi University Students’ Union. Goswami was a pawn in the elitist caste war against V P Singh.
But the recent spurt in violence, strikes, protest movements in JNU, Delhi University, Film and Television Institute of India and Hyderabad University to name a few have little in common with the student movements of the ’70s. Then, opposition parties used student might to topple Indira Gandhi and humble the Congress. Now, demonising Narendra Modi is an integral part of campus protest. The class combination of anti-ABVP students and their supporters shows that some affluent and upper caste sections of the academic and media world like to use Modi for target practice. The other disturbing difference between student protests in early 1970s and late 2010s is that campuses have become fertile grounds for polluting young minds, by converting freedom of expression into a tool for promoting separatism.
For the first time since Independence, a section of ideologically-perverted student leadership is hailing sedition as a fundamental right. Tragically, the agony of a Kargil martyr’s young daughter was stoked to push the idea of a “disputed” Kashmir and exonerate the massacre of innocent civilians and defence personnel by Pak-trained terrorists. Before 1947, the Congress and its young leadership fought to eject the British from India for true freedom. If the opposition parties are today determined to exploit and foment campus unrest to minimise Modi, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Prime Minister and his bhakts maximise nationalism to curb the manipulation of campus conflicts. Because the stakes are simply too high.