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Mainstream, VOL LV No 18, New Delhi, April 22, 2017

Campus Battles: Ideological Conflicts over Non-issues

Monday 24 April 2017

by Navneet Sharma and Khem Raj Sharma

‘Catch them young’ is the political and philosophical perspective which guides almost all political parties (except the BSP) when they form their students’ wing which functions across the country in university and college campuses. The most famous and sordid revolutions across the world have also seen higher education campuses as their favourite germination turf. Somehow the most prestigious technical, medical and management campuses in India have been bereft of formally functional student wings of these political parties but student politics even in these campuses are guided by these political parties from behind-the-curtain tactics. The recent spate of ideological conflicts across universities, be it JNU, DU or Rajasthan University or Central University of Haryana or Hyderabad Central University is a matter of concern for all stakeholders in higher education.

The incidents of violence, strikes, protest movements in educational institutions, albeit for different reasons, raise certain pertinent questions regardless of their ingenuity. Do we need politics in our institutions? Do the institutions of higher learning enjoy the requisite autonomy, and reflect the democratic ideals that our nation espouses? While student politics per se is not undesirable, politicisation of student unions in India has resulted in many unde-sirable consequences. Apart from the above-mentioned phenomenon, higher educational institutions in India have been plagued by the ills that characterise politics in the country. Frequent student union clashes, boycott of classes, strikes, roadblocks, manipu-lation of voters, display of muscle power, disruption of academics and violence have become commonplace.Those who argue against the politicisation of institutions give innume-rable examples of entire academic sessions going waste. They condemn political violence entering the ‘temples’ of modern India. The answer to all these lies not in disallowing any form of politics in campuses but changing the kind of politics we practise.

Ideology carries the baggage of indoctrination and higher educational institutions succumb to the allure in the guise of making academic orientations. An 18-year-old, just out of the ‘safe’ and pristine confines of a school, with her/ his yet impressionable political mindfulness, is the best catch as the lifelong practitioner or at least sympathiser and votary of a particular ideology. For this ‘prospective’ voter, all ideologies rush for and compete with each other. All pedagogues and educationists firmly believe that these campuses must not turn into a utopian fiefdom but must reflect and contribute to the worldview beyond their boundaries. In this commentary we are not voicing ‘against’ student politics, in fact ‘politics’ is not such a bad word as its practitioners have made out; we only attempt to affirm that a student passing out of the university must have a dream. A dream of what society or times s/he wants to live in, may be utopian but certainly not dystopian.

Religious Nationalism versus People’s Nationalism

A subtle diatribe that I was born Hindu and I am a nationalist has regenerated the hate discourse of religious nationalism. In the Indian context, religious nationalism is akin to Hindu nationalism. The identity-related issues are the staple diet for these tendencies, from temple to Adam’s Bridge or cows to candles or Article for autonomy to Triple talaaq. Patriotism is not only the last refuge for scoundrels but in Indian universities and colleges it has become refuge for the lumpen intellectuals, vandals and ruffians. Anyone who does not agree with their ideology (?!) , is quickly labelled as anti-national, traitor, anti-Indian or as Pakistani, be it Nivedita Menon, Rajshree Ranavat, Gurmehar Kaur, Umer Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Santhel Kumar, Rohith Vemulla or Rajini Krish.

The recent spate in clashes in university campuses is not something new but the manifes-tation of ideological conflicts and contestations. The Right-wing ideology perceives nation, people, women, individuals, self and others through the prism of political Hindutva alone, whereas the Indian schools of thought/ philosophy have always been celebratory of differences and otherness. Political Hindutva being ‘classically fascist’ it is ethnic nationalism which views that people can become members of a nation by ‘cultural assimilation’ (Jo Bharat mein rehna hoga, vande mataram kehna hoga). Anyone with a different and dissenting voice is a blockade or barrier in this assimilation and thus should be snubbed or violently silenced. The university as an idea or a space for dialogue somehow suggests and flags the need for critical thinking and accommodating other’s views. But, ideologies, and in particular the ideology of religious nationalism, are authoritarian, linear and dictatorial in nature hardly leaving any space for dialogue. The recent controversy in Delhi University’s Ramjas College has not been about someone speaking something but someone should not be allowed to speak at all.

Similarly, other campuses in India where a particular ideology, whether of the Right or the Left, gains predominance, it hardly leaves any ground for the counter-view. The ‘other’ in these situations is either converted into meek empathisers or are ridiculed or trivialised to nothingness or non-existence. Even the universities, which are known as ‘red bastions’, hardly accommodate the ‘other’. In JNU, the Left is hardly accommodative of people’s voices or nationalism rising through BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association) or platforms like Anjuman (Voice against 377). Though JNU is one and only place where such platforms can be thought of and made functional, the same cannot be said of other university campuses even with the dominance of the Left ideology. Free speech in college and university campuses has become a game of political football over the last few years. The idea that educational institutions are supremely liberal spaces, which are hostile to conservative views, has given the conservatives an excuse to target the vulnerable students and teachers in the name of pseudo-patriotism.

Issues at hand

Meanwhile, the real issues like hostel facilities, building of university campuses, land issues for the universities and colleges, research funding, etc. have been flattened and skewed by the media into battles between the state versus certain section of students and teachers especially professors. The newly established Central Universities have been facing the issues of land acquisition to build their permanent campuses. For seven years, many of them have been functioning from rented accommodations, and have never been in the eyes of the pseudo-politicians and media personnel. For different reasons, the Indian universities and other higher educational institutions continue to be plagued by high faculty shortages. Nearly 50 per cent or more faculty positions are lying vacant, and the state-run as well as private institutions have been managing with low-paid and usually poor quality part-time and adjunct faculty. Even more worrisome is the fact that this ‘acute shortage’ is foreseen in the near future as well.

The foyer of the administrative block of JNU, that has since last year been viewed as Tiananmen Square, reverberated with slogans of people’s nationalism. The JNU controversy has been created and fuelled by religious fundamentalists to make backdoor entry into the university’s open spaces for discourse and dialogue, and to gain hegemonic dominance in the people’s mind and movement. The government wanted that people to appropriate the ‘nationalistic’ character of religious fundamentalism without asking the question: what is a nation? Similarly, in Hyderabad, rather than asking the question—in what circumstances is a Ph.D student compelled to commit suicide?—the issue hovered around either to showcase Rohith Vemulla as a Dalit icon and the apathy of the educational system which is still brahminical in nature, or to rob Rohith of his Dalitness and to portray it as a non-issue.

After JNU and Hyderabad, the next battle-ground is concerning the backlash over the dramatisation of the Army scene from Mahashweta Devi’s play Draupadi; this erupted onto the job and life of the professors of the Department of English at the Central University of Haryana. While the play has been well-appreciated by the administrators, the students and teachers have been accused of being ‘traitors’ and ‘Naxals’ by the local villagers, ex-soldiers and the Right-wing students. The actors and directors faced continuous interrogation and media trial. The Dean of Students’ Welfare had to resign on ‘moral grounds’ and Assistant Professors, Snehlata and Manoj Kumar, have been asked to submit a written explanation over the issue. Similarly, in Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, the authorities got so perturbed that they felt the itch to file a complaint with the police that a Professor from JNU, who was invited to speak on “History Reinterpreted: Nation, Individual and Culture”, had spoken something which cannot be said as it tantamounts to a threat to national integrity. Rajshree Ranavat, the convenor of the seminar, has been suspended and an internal inquiry has been initiated. The concepts of nation and nationalism have never been so feeble that they would have been threatened by a seminar. In fact, they grow stronger and mightier with every critically thinking mind and citizen.

However, the intellectuals opined that such activities are essential to “engage university students in a serious discussion on why some of the greatest writers and artists of India have been concerned about the excesses of state violence carried out at the behest of those in power, no matter what their party or ideology”. The professors and students are strategically targeted for espousing their belief that is critical of the state. The campaigns of harassment on these professors and students go beyond the usual forms of campus debate and are being subjected to frontal attacks on social media, namely, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. Their reputation is ruined by making them subjects of mass harassment online. The students have been questioned for their true motivation for learning and the professors are fired for their belief against the establishment. However, the ones who have been targeted are not politicians or even public figures but professors about whom most people have not heard of and the students who rarely have influence beyond their own campuses. And the level of persistence and sophistication used to target these people suggests well-funded coordination of the perpetrators behind the attacks. The consequences of such attacks jeopardise the career of both the professors and students. The silences of the university and college administration quite possibly compel them to commit suicide.

Non-issues at work

The past few years have seen a considerable turmoil in the life of some of the largest universities in India. These universities have become the stage for entry into the centre-stage politics using student politics as a base. According to Louis Althusser, the state always exercises hegemony over its subjects through the repressive state apparatus (police) and ideological state apparatus (like colleges and universities). Students are used as puppets of politically affiliated student organisations to advocate organisational ideology and propa-ganda. Thus, national parties impose their agenda on student unions. Thus issues of students are sidelined over non-issues. The agenda of most of the affiliated student unions today is no longer focused on student issues but, they are instead becoming mere mouthpieces of political parties and increasingly getting embroiled in mainstream political conflicts, and the same is taking a toll on academic standards around the country.

The student organisations affiliated to different political parties are creating havoc in the entire country. In the past, however, these groups have played a crucial role in attracting the focus of the government towards specific academic issues such as admission policies, tuition, academic freedom and student interests as a whole. But, their excessive involvement in politically stated issues has proved to be an evil for the country. It’s time to attack and expose the hands of the puppeteers, not the puppets. Also, it is sickeningly sanctimonious to use pseudo-nationalism to censor the autonomy of the students and professors of these higher institutes of learning.

Martha Nussbaum in her writing has cautioned: “It would be catastrophic to become a nation of technically competent people who have lost the ability to think critically, to examine themselves, and to respect the humanity and diversity of others.” The university campuses cannot be mere producers of ‘citizens’ or ideal natives of akhand rashtra but thinking beings, who not only contribute to the digitisation of India but simultaneously question the appropriateness and need of such moves. The country does not want meek citizens or religious fundamentalists, but as the country’s future is shaped in her classrooms, the country needs universities which, as Newman said, “are Schools of Universal learning—a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country”. A university or campus of higher education should be a place where the likes of Savarkar and Dina Nath Batra either learn to engage with Michael Apple, Nussbaum or Newman or we name our universities as Vidya Bharti or Keshav or Golwalkarpeeth.


Althusser, Louis (2001), “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation” in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, New York: Monthly Review Press. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

Newman, J.H.C. (1999), The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated, Washington DC: Regnery Publishing Inc.

Nigam, Aditya (2016), “Academics’ Letter to the VC, Central University of Haryana, regarding the ‘Draupadi’ Affair” https://sabrangindia.in/article/academics %E2%80%99-letter-vc-central-university-haryana-regarding-%E2%80%98draupadi%E2%80%99-affair

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1997), Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Can be contacted at e-mail: navneetsharma29[at]gmail.com

Khem Raj Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Department of English and European Languages, School of Humanities and Languages, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.

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