New Tryst with Freedom | Editorial | Economic and Political Weekly


The attack on students, this time in JNU, is part of India’s unresolved culture wars.

In a deplorable, if not entirely unexpected, move the administration of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has taken strong disciplinary actions against students it had identified for alleged indiscipline and for breaking university rules. Students have been fined from ₹10,000 to ₹20,000 and some have been rusticated for different lengths of time; one student has been declared out of bounds from the campus for five years. These are unprecedentedly harsh measures. The only time similar measures were taken was in 1983; unlike then there was no violence from the students this time.

Despite having had the process of an enquiry before handing out these punishments it does appear that the punishments are unfair and, more importantly, driven by the saffron political waves trying to drown out the island that has been JNU. The students and teachers of JNU had raised serious questions about numerous procedural lapses in the entire process—the very constitution of the “High Level Enquiry Committee,” the random, yet deliberate, manner in which some students were targeted, the sending of “show-cause” notices, the charges of “indiscipline,” spreading “casteist” and “communal” feelings, etc. That the university addressed none of these and punished about a score of JNU’s politically active students, while ignoring that its students and teachers were charged and physically attacked on the basis of forged videos and palpably false testimonies, cannot but suggest political play to any independent observer. The students have decided to reject the punishments, not pay the fines and go on an indefinite hunger strike demanding their withdrawal.

However, the actions of the JNU administration are not an isolated case. In institution after institution of India’s relatively vibrant public higher education system, the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led students’ group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad have ignited a war against the students and faculty. IIT Madras, the Film and Television Institute of India, Jadavpur University, the University of Hyderabad, Allahabad University, JNU, Aligarh Muslim University, the list goes on.

This battle promises to be a long one and it is unlikely that either the government or its political mentor, the RSS, will give up easily. Every trick of the political trade—hurling accusations of “anti-national”—will be matched by coordinated state action—foisting cases of sedition. Various governments of almost all parties, both at the centre and the states, have often used state power to push their academic–cultural agenda in universities. However, the present moment seems different. There is a co­ordinated push to a specific ideological agenda which seeks to rewrite not just academic content but also reshape academic culture as well as the very purpose of the university into one which conforms to the ideology of the party in power.

What is remarkable is that the determination shown by the student protestors is also somewhat unprecedented. Who would have thought that in Allahabad University—the heartland of Uttar Pradesh where the NDA had won 73 out of the 80 parliamentary seats less than two years ago—a diminutive woman president of the students union would organise such a popular resistance to Hindutva politicians? Who would have thought that despite deploying the heavy artillery of cabinet ministers against five Dalit students of the University of Hyderabad to suppress their protests against discrimination on campus(es), the issue of discrimination will actually come alive in universities all over the country? Who would have thought that despite being branded anti-national, a few thousand students of an “elite” university would galvanise a countrywide debate on nationalism and its discontents?

Just as the JNU protests are not merely about that university but a reflection of students standing up to defend the public university as a site of debate, of contestations and of pedagogies of subversion and empowerment, the students’ protests all over India are not just about students and universities. They are part of the spreading rebellion of the young against the “tradition of all dead generations weigh[ing] like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” It is a part of the rebellion against patriarchal oppression—the demand for bekhauf aazadi raised by women (and men) protestors in Delhi after the December 2012 gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Pandey is not too different from the “aazadi” slogans in JNU. It is part of the rebellion of the oppressed minorities—ethnic, caste, religious or regional—of the Indian state and its ruling caste-classes; of the determined stand of non-political young men and women who are willing to face death to live their love.

It is no accident that aazadi has become the rallying cry of this rebellion. The NDA government backed by the RSS have set the full force of their authority and state power, Canute like, against this rising tide. This journal has always stood in solidarity with progressive, radical voices; it has stood for critique and freedom of thought and expression. We are confident that even if we are in a dark hour, this country will awake, surely, into a dawn of ever-widening freedom of thought and action.

Source: New Tryst with Freedom | Economic and Political Weekly

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