By Saquib Salim
For the past couple of months, my Facebook timeline has been occupied by comments that argue against wasting taxpayers’ money on social science programs in the public education system. Needless to say, each such assertion is met with a counter claim. It’s wonderful for a democratic republic that such arguments break out loudly and often, but this particular exchange points at an ominous tendency, that the present government is attempting to wrest public funded education from the Indian public.
Viewed as political strategy, this is undeniably shrewd: it subverts the topic of debate and introduces a narrative that the state and its supporters can control.
The bristliest of this bunch on my news feed are those who obtained an education at engineering and business schools – these are the most vocal in their opposition to the funding of social sciences in public education. Many of them argue that there is nothing by way of nation building that such backing will achieve. Instead, they pitch their arguments in favour of technical education. These people fail to understand that to nurture and build ideas is what forms the bedrock of a civilised society – do they then presume the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gita, Gitanjali and Kamasutra were works of technical bent? How many technocrats can they spot in this list: Buddha, Gandhi, Marx, Muhammad and Jesus?
What is more dangerous still is that this attack on higher education in India takes root in caste; a lethally divisive stratagem. A significant section of those involved in the University of Hyderabad agitation, which takes root in the death of the research scholar Rohith Vemula, have chosen to call themselves ‘Dalit activists’.
I am unclear where they obtained this appellation, but it is misleading and troubling. For them, what has transpired at the university is emblematic of the conflict between the upper castes and Dalits. But that is merely what the state wants us to believe. It is laughably presumptuous to believe that all 4,000 students protesting from within confines of the university campus are Dalits or are inextricably tied to the Dalit cause. This creates fissures in the opposition, and is precisely what the government intends.
For the record, JNU’s teachers’ association is dominated by upper castes, and they were the real force behind the movement that ensued in the wake of the arrest of JNUSU leader Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Moreover, those who were subject to the most vicious attacks were the teachers – Apoorvanand Jha, Nivedita Menon, Badri Narayan Tiwari among them – all of whom belong to upper castes.
And there are those who wish that Indian universities be purged of politics. The irony is laughable – many of these people are scornful of unlettered politicians, and bemoan the lack of enlightened, informed debate in Parliament or lament that they are represented at important global summits by crude, uncivilised politicians. Are these keepers of the portals of power then suggesting that India be ruled by unschooled Parliamentarians?
And what of the state? What does it seek? It’s quite clear from recent events that its approach is not as extreme as that prescribed by some of its adherents. The government is content if its flock can read and write, but cannot think.
The author is a research scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU