The chilling effect on India’s academic freedom

The language of anti-nationalism has worked to put forth a monolithic vision of the nation state, and simultaneously sought to erase diverse voices from the discursive space.

Mohan J. Dutta
22 March 2016
Kanhaiya Kumar, March 16, 2016.

Kanhaiya Kumar, March 16, 2016. Wikicommons/ Hemanth5432. Some rights reserved.Since 2014, Indian universities have been subject to the authoritarian impulse of the state, with the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Narendra Modi seeking to fundamentally transform the character of these universities, imposing unqualified administrators that are close to the party line, implicitly supporting party-affiliated student groups such as the ABVP, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) (translation: All Indian Student Council) to silence alternative voices, and deploying both violence and disproportionate punishment to silence student protest against the state’s authoritarian policies.

The ABVP has been reconfigured to establish the BJP agenda on university campuses, serving as both the mouthpiece of the BJP as well as an information source for surveilling over and controlling thought that is seen as critical of the BJP agenda dedicated to Hinduizing India. Moreover, the ABVP has been at the vortex of cooking up trouble and inciting violence across campuses in India.

These active measures of intervention into higher education taken by the Modi government have been orchestrated toward achieving the broader agenda of cleansing the universities of critical voices, instead reconfiguring universities to serve the right wing agendas of further privatization and saffronization of education. The education agenda is being reworked, and turned toward the teaching of Sanskrit, the discoveries of Vedic science, and the reformulation of teaching as practical skills-building.

At the epicenter of the recent state-led majoritarian attack on universities is the hallowed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

On February 9, 2016, a small group of students at JNU had organized a poetry reading session titled ‘A Country without a Post Office’ to interrogate the unjudicial hanging of Mr. Afzal Guru, who was allegedly involved in the attacks on the Indian parliament in 2001.

Based on accusations that anti-India slogans were chanted at the event, the President of the JNU Student’s Union, Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and charged with sedition for his alleged involvement in shouting anti-India slogans. Apparently, the Vice Chancellor of the University had given permission to the Delhi Police to arrest the student and remove him from campus.

The arrest was made primarily on the basis of a video broadcast by a TV channel that now stands challenged, with evidence suggesting that the video was doctored up. TV channels such as Times Now, Zee News, and News X have played an instrumental role in fanning the flames of public outrage, recirculating grainy videos that are difficult to decipher on screen. The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, who was later released on bail, was followed by the arrest of JNU students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya.

Even after the veracity of the videos had been questioned and subsequent investigations have revealed that the videos were doctored, the media houses did not issue an apology or correct the misinformation, instead feeding the media witch-hunt by stoking the charges of anti-nationalism. 

The students had already been marked in media and public discourse, with a section of the public issuing violent threats to the students. In spite of the dubious nature of the evidence that was used to file the case initially, the charges of sedition have not been dropped. Two of the students, Umar and Anirban, continue to be in police custody although the emerging evidence not only questions the veracity of the tapes but also suggests that the JNU row was a concerted effort to discredit the university as a place of thought. For instance, later investigations suggest that Shilpi Tiwari, former aide of the Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, played an instrumental role in planting and circulating the doctored videos. Similarly, the BJP spokesman Sambit Patra played the doctored video(s) on network television.

When Kanhaiya Kumar was presented at the Patiala Court in New Delhi, lawyers and BJP supporters attacked the students and professors of JNU that had attended the event in solidarity with Mr. Kumar. They were chanting “Glory to Mother India,” and “Traitors leave India.” Professors and students at universities such as JNU have emerged as the targets of online-offline lynch mobs. The anti-national label has been drummed up to silence diverse voices across the country. The Indian media have been stoking the flames of mass hysteria, further orchestrating witch hunts when others speak up on their behalf. More recently, media houses such as Zee News have turned to attacking the noted JNU political scholar Nivedita Menon and the well-known Urdu poet and scientist Gauhar Raza.

Responding to the JNU events, Home Minister Rajnath Singh warned, “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on the nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared,” while Education Minister Smriti Irani said: “The nation can never tolerate any insult to mother India.” The BJP-affiliated politician Subramanian Swamy demanded a temporary closure of the university and a complete cleansing of the university. Such announcements point towards a concerted effort to delegitimize the university and to undermine spaces of thinking that interrogate the monolithic communal free market development narrative that the state seeks to pursue. But not only this. Interrogating the role of the armed forces special powers act in what are termed ‘areas of disturbance’ such as Kashmir and the Northeast, the rapes by the army in Kashmir and the Northeast, or the development model of India can be quickly labeled as anti-national.

The anti-national propaganda campaign has been strategically directed at portraying students, professors, and their university as a threat to the nation, feeding into a national media and public frenzy to shut down debate, conversation, and difference. The most recent attack on JNU is part of an ongoing campaign against universities, witnessed earlier in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Hyderabad Central University, and more recently, Allahabad University.

The case of Rohith Vemula

The language of anti-nationalism has worked to put forth a monolithic vision of the nation state, and simultaneously sought to erase diverse voices from the discursive space. The JNU incident comes in the wake of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit (meaning “oppressed” in South Asia, a broad category comprising the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other oppressed groups) student leader at the University of Hyderabad, who committed suicide after having been unjustly treated by a university administration held hostage to the BJP government at the Center.

Rohith was a member of the Ambedkar Students Association, a dalit student group that drew attention to various forms of injustices in Indian society, and was protesting the hanging of Yakub Memon, a convict in the 1993 Bombay bombings. At the event, a confrontation had broken out with activists of the ABVP. Because of the alleged intervention of the BJP leader from the region, Bandaru Dattatreya, and the pressure exerted by the BJP government, Rohith’s fellowship was withdrawn and he was expelled from the hostel, which ultimately led to his suicide.

Over 10,000 students marched to the capital on February 24 to protest Rohith’s death. In their protest, the students draw attention to the disenfranchisements of Dalits in a Brahminical education system and the attacks on Rohith that was systematically orchestrated by BJP-ABVP. The protest of the students is a protest against the chilling climate of control being exercised by BJP on university campuses throughout India.

The attack on Universities across India is reflective of a broader authoritarian agenda directed at silencing difference and critical thought at sites of learning. Science and engineering curricula and research programs are being redone with an agenda for promoting Vedic science. History is being re-narrated to articulate a Hindu narrative of the nation state, devoid of evidence.

The attack of the Hindu right on universities such as JNU is an attack on the fundamental idea of India as a democracy that thrives in its pluralism and celebrates a culture of argumentation, as Amartya Sen so poignantly depicts in his book “The Argumentative Indian.”

The Narendra Modi government’s attack on Indian universities is an attack on thought, an attack on critical engagement, and an attack on learning as asking questions. Freedom of academic thought is under threat across India as the Indian state continues its attack on universities, teachers, and students.

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