Using Violence to Silence Students

By Atul Cowshish

It is no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party has not been finding it easy to change the character of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi from being a ‘bastion’ of the Left to one of a Right-leaning ‘nationalist’ seat of learning. However, efforts in that direction seem to require less effort in the much older and larger Delhi University. JNU has been deemed ‘Left’ almost from its beginning over 40 years ago: its students as well as most of its teaching staff have been known to be ‘Left-leaning’ while the presence of the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has been strong in Delhi University for nearly the same length of time.

But while students union in Delhi University has been dominated by ABVP with a large base among students, its campus has not been bereft of Left and Liberal influence among both students and academics. In fact, the ABVP could never assume a cakewalk in students’ union polls in Delhi University in contrast to the fact at the JNU where RSS-affiliated student bodies have always struggled to snatch some posts from the Left-affiliated unions.

The ruling party has made no secret of its dislike for ‘Left’ dominance in institutes of higher learning in the country. Administratively, it launched a systematic programme to install men and women of its choice in all the major educational and research institutes, rejecting objections which were raised on the competence or qualifications of the persons chosen. This task was being executed with missionary zeal under Smiriti Irani who used controversies as her pick-me-up while serving as education minister with educational claims that the opposition demanded to be examined.

Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his buddy from Gujarat Amit Shah as the president of the party, the BJP has clearly set the goal of cleaning university campuses and other institutes of higher learning of all vestiges of Left and Liberal influence. It is a move for a ‘radical’ change and as would be expected in such a case the beginnings have been made with plenty of violence.

Incidents of violence in JNU—and Hyderabad University earlier—have been echoing across the country for more than a year. Some other centers of education in different parts of the country also saw clashes and protests between the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’. Now a college on the campus of Delhi University, Ramjas College, has experienced a nasty incident in which the ABVP members and sympathisers had allegedly attacked their ideological adversaries even as the police failed to avoid the ugly clashes in which a number of people—students, teachers and journalists—were injured. Inevitably, it led to a country-wide uproar which will not die down quickly.

The bone of contention appeared to be participation of a student from JNU at a seminar in the college. His views are dubbed ‘anti-national’ by the ruling dispensation and, hence, he is a persona non-grata. Obviously, the seminar would have heard a variety of views, both ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’. By using its muscle power to get the seminar cancelled or postponed, the ABVP sympathisers and members had underscored their proneness to intolerance.

But it can also be viewed as their inability to counter an opposite narrative with arguments and reason. That is a dangerous trend because using force to silence different and even disagreeable views ultimately harms the country.

The method chosen by the ruling party to transform the character of campuses in the country has attracted criticism because the change in outlook is designed to be injected through intimidation and force. The favoured ideology of exclusiveness has no room for dissent and critical thinking among the young and impressionable minds.

The BJP has overlooked the fact that it is difficult to expect the youth to conform to one view and ideology. ‘Student power’ has shaken many regimes in the world. One of the most famous instances in India was the ‘Nav Nirman’ movement that started from Gujarat and then to other places via Bihar and guidance of late Jayaprakashnarayan.

Young minds by nature tend to be rebellious and like to experiment with different ideas. The average Indian student, it is true, is rather docile compared to his or her western contemporary. But there are always a few among them who take on the mantle of being student ‘leaders’ following different strands of political beliefs and ideology. Often they are ‘guided’ by their mentors—be they politicians or academics.

Centres of higher learning including campuses in India have a history of dominance by what may be called Left and Liberal thinkers who have not been shy of expressing their opinions and influencing many of their young wards in colleges and campuses. They made their mark as ‘anti-establishment’ brigades which were no favourites of the pre-Modi regimes but were tolerated nevertheless.

The ‘Right’ thinkers have had comparatively little presence in the field of higher education even as student bodies affiliated to the RSS began to grow across the country. The BJP has always been uneasy at the ‘Left and Liberal’ influence on the college campuses because it was viewed by it as undermining Indian ‘culture’ and going against the grain of ‘patriotism’.

Now that Indians are being asked to wear their patriotism on their sleeves it is hardly surprising that the BJP and its affiliates are in a hurry to erase the ‘alien’ influences on the campuses so that their students emerge as blue-blooded ‘patriots’ who do not question the present government which is dedicated entirely to ‘nationalist’ causes, unlike all the previous ones.

The BJP has assumed that this goal can be achieved easily now that it has established itself as the undisputed ‘champion’ political party which is capable of vanquishing all rivals despite facing some ‘demonetised’ moments. The triumphant arrogance can prove harmful in a country of vast diversity and complexity like India.

Forcing ideologies and beliefs down the throats of hesitant populace can lead to more unrest in the country than it has seen so far. Howsoever much the BJP may deny it, a large section of the population in the country, notably the young Dalits and the Muslims, feel marginalised and discriminated against under its rule. The anger among the younger lot in these two communities has been amply visible in the last two and a half years.

When its energies should be devoted to narrowing its distance from the dissatisfied sections, it is unwise of the ruling party to demonstrate strong arm tactics to mould the country’s youth in one ideology. The BJP has to decide what is ‘right’ for the country and not for its expansion.