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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

Spare the Students

Saturday 12 March 2016, by Kuldip Nayar

Should students take part in politics was the question even before independence. This same debate raged when I was studying law at Lahore. We would skip classrooms on the call of Mahatma Gandhi or some other national leaders to show solidarity with the independence struggle. The agitation was against the British rulers and it never struck us that we were missing studies.

Even when Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, raised the slogan for a separate homeland for the Muslim community, we, the students, resisted the pulls of religion. True, the Hindus and Muslims had come to have separate kitchens, but we ate together and were getting food from both kitchens. The polarised atmosphere had little effect on us.

Today, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) is advocating a soft version of Hindutva in universities across the country. The ABVP is the Muslim League of today. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) may be an island in the midst of a Hindutva sea. Yet, all credit to the university and its students that it has, more or less, preserved the idea of India—democracy, pluralism and egalitarianism. Unfortunately, the struggle to sustain secularism still continues.

A few days ago, some Muslim fundamentalist students, not more than five or six, spoilt the liberal image of the JNU and raised slogans, seeking India’s destruction. The JNU’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Jagdish Kumar, told me that their number was not more than a handful. But they had tarnished the image of the university.

The electronic media, in their attempts to improve TRP all the time, spread the impression as if the JNU was the epicentre of activities by fundamentalists and separatists. It was suspected that even the video clip which was run throughout the day by a television channel was doctored.

Take, for instance, Vishwa Deepak’s claims of grave lapses in the channel’s coverage of the JNU sedition case. The journalist, who resigned from the channel, wrote: “We journalists often question others but ourselves. We fix others’ responsibilities but not ours. We are called as the fourth pillar of democracy but are we, our organisations, our thoughts and our actions really democratic? This is not just my question but everybody else’s too.”

To a large extent, I agree with Deepak. We, journalists, often tend to preach more than practise. In his protest letter to his employers Deepak, while apologising for the use of such words to describe the situation, asks: “Along with Kanhaiya (Kumar), we made many students appear to be traitors and anti-nationals in the eyes of the people. If anyone is murdered tomorrow, who will take its responsibility? We have not merely created a situation for someone’s murder or to destroy some families but we have created the conditions ripe for spreading riots and brought the country to the brink of a civil war. What sort of patriotism is this? After all, what sort of journalism is this?...”

Yet, I do not rule out the audacity of separatists to pay homage to Afzal Guru, who had plotted the attack on the Indian Parliament. It is deplorable. But the question is: should they be allowed to set an agenda for the nation when India’s population has overwhelmingly come to cherish democracy and pluralism? The incident at the JNU should not be allowed to dilute the arduous work done to sustain pluralism when the country was divided on the basis of religion.

In fact, the JNU is like the Oxford in the UK or Harvard in America. There is a liberal atmosphere and even the odd voices against general thinking are taken in their strides. None questions the motive because the basics are never doubted.

When the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, established the JNU, the purpose was to inspire students by her father’s thoughts. A product of the independence struggle, Nehru was the nation’s icon, not of the Congress party which, no doubt, led the movement to wrest our country from the exploitative British rulers. The purpose of Indira Gandhi, his daughter, was undoubtedly to perpetuate his name. But he was the real architect of Modern India and deserved to be remembered and followed.

Bangladesh does not have a similar institution. But Pakistan has Lamus at Lahore, similar to the JNU with the same reputation. My personal experience testifies this. An engineering girl student asked me at a lecture in the campus why partition took place when people on both the sides were similar, ate the same food and wore the same dress.

The student was unbiased and indicated that the atmosphere remained unpolluted. And that was some 40 years ago. Today, the religious parties have hijacked the society to reap political gains. The most unfortunate part is that religion has made deep inroads into the universities.

The RSS, which seems to guide the Narendra Modi Government from its headquarters at Nagpur, is appointing to key posts such persons who are avowed followers of the Hindutva philosophy. Distinguished scholars, known for their secular ideas, have been crowded out because the RSS does not want the students to be inspired by their example of not mixing state with politics. If a democratic polity has to have any meaning, it must stay away from religious identities which are now being refurbished.

Unfortunately, the other fields are getting affected. Take, for example, the incident at Patiala House Courts. A few lawyers, affiliated to the BJP, created rumpus and beat up the student leader and journalists when Kanhaiya Kumar was to be produced in the court. Kanhaiya’s statement that he had nothing to do with the students who raised anti-India slogans did not relent the attackers, some of whom were said to be outsiders, wearing lawyers’ robes.

It’s time that all political parties put their heads together to consider steps which would leave the students only pursuing their studies instead of wasting their time in parochial politics. The nation will suffer if the students, who are idealist at that age, are not allowed to throw up such thoughts which in the long run will help the country to cherish its ethos.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com