Singapore, March 3, 2016 (Alochonaa): Founded in 1969, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is one of India’s best known universities for social science and language education. JNU is popularly known as the last bastion of leftist politics, especially in northern India, and it has produced many prominent mainstream leftist leaders, such as Sitaram Yechury, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party of India. Since 2014, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ascended to power with a thumping majority for the first time in three decades, there has been an effort by the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to recalibrate the ideological scale in favour of the Hindu right on university campuses.
The ideological battle is being waged against the academically dominant left (electorally side-lined all over the country, retaining only the north eastern state of Tripura) by installing pliant directors of mediocre calibre at the Indian Council for Historical Research, and the Film and Television Institute of India, as well as clamping down on Dalit student groups in Hyderabad Central University. This has created some troubles at JNU, however, before these troubles there was a precursor episode at Hyderabad Central University.
Dalit Student Leader Rohith Vemula, an aspiring science writer like his icon, Carl Sagan, committed suicide when he was evicted from his hostel and suspended from his PhD program. He came from a poor agrarian family where his paltry scholarship supported both his education and family. His Dalit activism led his scholarship to be paused due to pressure from a senior BJP leader on the federal Human Resources Development Ministry. Rohith died, distraught, because he was structurally shut off due to his activism.
On the 9th of February, at a political event on the JNU Campus it was alleged that some anti-India slogans were shouted. The JNU Student Association President, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested on a sedition charge. Sedition is a colonial era legal instrument and he was not even present at the event. His leftist compatriots, tribal history PhD student Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya, are also in police custody. Kanhaiya Kumar is a son of a poor Aaganwadi (community health centre) worker, who has done very well for himself academically.
A culture war is occurring in India right now and JNU is both a metaphor and a battleground for India’s values. Certain sections of the electronic media are also playing up dispute for TRP ratings by hyping the allegedly anti-national activities of students. Any narrative which is not mainstream (such as on Kashmiri or Manipur/Naga insurgency) is considered anti-nationalist blasphemous. JNU is a rare channel where these alternative voices have found space against the cacophony of nationalistic jingoism.
The JNU episode has triggered a tirade against subsidized higher education which is non-STEM oriented. The illustrious Indian Institute of Technology and Indian Institute of Management are also heavily subsidized and have produced famous alumni, such as Google CEO Sundar Pichai. When these taxpayer subsidised graduates leave for work overseas, it is not considered anti-nationalistic act but when a PhD student engages in an activist conversation on an Indian campus, it is considered wrong because it’s a diversion from education.
In the words of Mr Mohandas Pai in a NDTV article (http://www.ndtv.com/opinion/dear-jnu-students-we-fund-your-studies-not-your-politics-1277417), activist student’s waste money and subsidies are meant for education. According to Mr Pai, students are supposed to treat their opportunity at JNU as a social elevator and train themselves to be productive employees. Taxpayer cash is not only the prerogative of supposedly more productive STEM majors, who will be ‘Bangalored’ (in the words of President Obama) for fulfilling headcounts for North American IT outsourcing projects. The criticism of student activism is an attempt to reduce students to ’employee’ and ‘consumer’ status, rather than nurture citizens who should understand and aspire for a better polity.
I have friends with right wing leanings who have blatantly said that politics is not for students who have poor families. They also believe that politics is a contact sport and the state has the right to hit back against those with contrary views given that it feeds them with scholarships.
This series of events has raised some important questions, not only from commentators sympathetic to the leftist perspective, but also a new right wing school of thinking pioneered by Hindol Sengupta, Sanjeev Sanyal, Tavleen Singh and Swapan Dasgupta. The new idea of India is now being debated from different lenses, and nationalism is being debated and reframed.
Author Hindol Sengupta recently wrote an article posted on Medium (https://medium.com/@hindolsengupta/india-the-battle-between-champagne-socialists-and-nationalists-who-brunch-68a03d5333c6#.nrqpeanu6) :
“The ideas of India actually are getting created while we are debating the ‘idea of India’.”
It should not take sedition laws to reframe the debate.
*Manishankar Prasad is a social change communications researcher and writer based in Singapore. He blogs at changethinker.com
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