Long before Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), there was Maharaja Sayajirao (MS) University, Vadodara. Named after one of the most enlightened rulers of princely India, the university was seen as a much cherished space in Gujarat for genuine academic and cultural freedom, its fine arts department in particular nationally recognised for its creative and plural ethos. In May 2007, a group of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists stormed into an exhibition being held in the university by a fine arts student, Chandramohan and physically assaulted him while claiming that his paintings offended their religious sentiments. The police entered soon after and arrested the artist. When the faculty intervened, they too were threatened with arrest. The Vice Chancellor refused to file any First Information Report (FIR) or extend any support to students. Instead, the student and faculty were served with suspension notices while the VHP activists were let off by the police.
Sounds familiar? Truth is, the impunity with which a mob of masked goons ran amok in the JNU campus recently even as a timid and partisan administration chose not to act is not without precedence and only suggests that a model of ‘controlling’ universities through untrammeled state power has moved from Vadodara to the heart of the national capital. Gujarat in particular has seen a calculated attempt in recent times to stifle all forms of dissent on the campus in the name of enforcing discipline. The conscious de-politicisation of the campus has not been done with the idea of raising academic standards but in ensuring a stultifying regimentation that prevents the student community from mobilizing on contentious issues.
Student union elections are held irregularly and often without the competitive zeal that marks such elections in north India. For example, Gujarat University has not held student elections for the past four years and only last week, the authorities have reluctantly agreed to hold the elections, tentatively scheduled for March this year. The Central University of Gujarat held its maiden student elections only last year, a decade after its formation: until then, the university had a Students Council where the members were directly nominated by the faculty.
Even more glaring is the manner in which vice chancellors are chosen to head the universities. Vice chancellors to state universities are appointed solely on the basis of their loyalty to the ruling party: a former Gujarat University VC became BJP spokesperson after his term ended while the current pro Vice Chancellor is also a party functionary. A BJP media cell member is a VC of the Kutch University as is the case also with the North Gujarat University. It is true that vice chancellors have often been appointed based on their political allegiances by previous regimes too but the sheer brazenness in choosing a party member to head a university makes nonsense of any claim to ensure autonomy of institutions.
Even private universities in Gujarat have been unable to resist political pressure. Ahmedabad University, for example, set up through a private, non-profit trust, was forced to withdraw the appointment of renowned historian Ramachandra Guha as a distinguished professor after the political leadership reportedly vetoed it. Guha has been a critic of the BJP/Sangh Parivar in his writings but that a formidable intellect and Gandhi biographer would be denied the opportunity to teach in the land of the Mahatma because of his ideological views only reflects the distance that Gujarat has travelled from the tolerant, accommodating spirit of Gujarat’s greatest figure.
Ironically, it is the students of Gujarat who first lit the spark of anti-establishment anger that would eventually build into a wider nationwide protest movement against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the 1970s. Narendra Modi himself claims to have been a part of that student’s revolt, the Nav Nirman Andolan, which began in 1973 when students in a local Ahmedabad college went on strike in protest against a 20 per cent hike in hostel food fees. Within weeks, the students were joined by workers and professionals as the grievances spread to concerns over rising prices and corruption in public life. In March 2016, the Gujarat assembly was dissolved after an agitation in which more than 100 people died.
Today, it is likely that the student protestors of the 1970s would be dubbed by the Modi government as ‘urban Naxals’, ‘tukde tukde gang’ and ‘anti-nationals’ who need to be packed off to Pakistan. Where once the space for dissent was valued and even supported, today, any contrarian view attracts instant vilification. Where once a government would be open to an unconditional dialogue with students, today there is a disinclination to engage with them. Where once taking a political stand was encouraged, today, students are being pushed to abandon any form of political activity by the same netas who claim to have emerged from the embryo of student politics.
The lame excuse being offered by the ruling elite for the need to ‘control’ the campuses is that this was precisely how their opponents behaved when they were in power. The Left Front’s culture of violence and intimidation in Bengal during its long rule in that state is often cited as the original example of how coarse politics can lead to a sharp decline in higher education standards. Indira Gandhi’s clampdown during the Emergency is also mentioned in the context of the shrinking autonomy of universities.
Truth is, the argument that, ‘if they could do it, why can’t we’ is morally flawed and politically tendentious. The BJP has prided itself to be ‘a party with a difference’ and the Modi government has won two successive electoral majorities on the premise that it would break the status quo and offer a ‘new’ India vision on the back of a ‘Gujarat model’ of governance. This model was meant to offer ‘ache din’ or good days to India’s gen-next, not divide the student community between right and left in a manner that would leave our campuses bloodied. Indeed, this is not a case of right versus left but simply a matter of right versus wrong.
Post-script: While left and right wing student groups in JNU engage in a blame game over who initiated the violence, spare a thought for the faculty. Why has no one from the government or JNU administration bothered to even visit the injured faculty? Is it ‘Bharatiya Sanskriti’ to hit teachers? And if teachers are not safe in a campus, then who is? Don’t forget that it was a long-serving MS University faculty member, Prof JS Bandukwala whose house in Vadodara was ransacked during the 2002 Gujarat riots. No one from the Gujarat government or local administration till date has even met the professor to empathise, perhaps only because he was seen as a fierce critic of Hindutva politics. Is this then a classic case of what Gujarat thought yesterday, the rest of the country must think today?