You who have wronged the simple man
Bursting into laughter at his suffering…
Do not feel safe.
The poet remembers.
You may kill him – a new one is born
Deeds and talks will be recorded
Over the last year, we have seen a churning in campuses, from the Film and Television Institute (FTII) in Pune to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai. The ill-qualified Gajendra Chauhan was appointed Chairman of the FTII, Pune, and the students’ resistance to the appointment was ruthlessly suppressed. The ban on the Periyar-Ambedkar Study Circle at IIT Chennai was directly imposed by the HRD ministry. This was part of a pattern of official responses to students’ questioning the saffronisation of their institutions. It was part of a pattern to curb their right to criticise the institutions and society they are part of.
Next, the cultural, academic and scientific communities spoke up, with large numbers of writers, academics, artists, filmmakers and scientists issuing statements and returning their state awards in protest against the increasing victimisation of minorities, and the crushing of dissent.
The churning continues this year. The Ambedkar Students’ Association at the University of Hyderabad was attacked by the BJP student wing, the ABVP, with the strong support of the local BJP MP and the concerned minister. This led to the suspension and ostracism of dalit research scholars. The suicide of one of these research scholars, Rohith Vemula, brought centre stage the continuing caste-based discrimination in our society in general, and in our educational institutions in particular. In a moving letter he left behind, Rohith said, “I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan…”
But this is what this aspiring, yearning young man experienced in real life: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living…”
“My birth is my fatal accident,” wrote Rohith, and this is an indictment of the collective failure to live up to our Constitution that promises all Indian citizens equal rights.
The government and its Hindutvavadi friends have been anxious to downplay this indictment. They quibbled about whether Rohith was dalit or backward caste. (It was reminiscent of the quibbling about whether it was beef or mutton in Mohammad Akhlaq’s fridge last year when he was lynched.)
But Rohith was not so easily forgotten. Nor was the “grand design” of increasing onslaught on the idea of India this nation’s makers have left us. Campuses grew more turbulent. The word increasingly being heard is azaadi – freedom – freedom from caste, communalism, gender discrimination and capitalism.
In an effort to draw attention away from the caste issue, the right wing took up one more mode of attack: imposing a narrow, exclusionary form of “nationalism” on citizens. On the basis of an event in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, students were detained on the basis of doctored videos, and the entire academic community was vilified in a variety of ways.
The students are now out on bail, though the judge who granted student Kanhaiya Kumar bail spoke of their free debate as a “disease” that needed urgent treatment. The pitch increased with the release of Kanhaiya Kumar who spoke powerfully for the young and the marginalised people of this country. Teachers and students of the university organised a path-breaking series of “sit-in” talks on nationalism and freedom. More recently, students Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid have vowed not to accept the report of the so-called High-Level Enquiry Committee which found them “guilty of violating the norms and rules of the University”. While 20 students have been charged with violation of rules, five students have been charged with sedition for burning the Manusmriti, the text that legitimises the Varna system. (The Hindu Mahasabha activists who burnt the Indian Constitution and observed Republic Day as a “dark day” live free of trouble.) The new Vice-Chancellor’s appointment has only helped add fuel to the fire, much like the return of the vicious Appa Rao as VC to the University of Hyderabad.
The fire has spread to many other educational institutions in the country, and the government will find it hard to douse this uncompromising battle for academic freedom. The ABVP has already declared its next targets: Aligarh Muslim University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bombay. This follows the takeover of all public cultural institutions, the latest being IGNCA, by RSS nominees. The issues at stake are many: the continuing discrimination against Dalits in institutions of education; the bullying versions of nationalism and patriotism; the autonomy of universities; the secular character of public institutions; the sanctity of the Indian Constitution; and the liberal character of Indian democracy. India’s argumentative tradition has always had space for dissent despite certain periods of violent conflict.
Here are the dangers we are now facing:
• The nation is identified with the government in power, and defined by its ideology and religious inclination. Anyone who questions these is labelled a “traitor”.
• Even those in power openly challenge the Constitution.
• The State intervenes directly in Universities’ internal affairs.
• Dissent is perceived as heresy and sedition, and public institutions taken over by those without merit because they believe in a militant Hindutva ideology.
These are symptoms of what Umberto Eco called “Ur-Fascism”: a monolithic idea of the nation, “othering” and demonising minorities, seeing dissent as betrayal and opposition as enemy, and hatred of reason and democracy. It is a matter of pride for us that the academic and cultural communities are boldly confronting this growing fascism. We salute our students, the sons and daughters of this nation, who have not fought shy of being in the front ranks.