Ever since it came to power, the BJP has been desperate to saffronise universities and academic institutions and prop up its students' wing in campus politics through subterfuge and political muscle. The ignominy of finding Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya among those accused of abetting Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide is yet another reminder of the BJP's futile pursuit.
Though a million motives can be attributed to Vemula's decision to end his life, nobody can dispute that his problems began with the ideological tiff with the ABVP. In all likelihood, the rivalry among students would have remained confined to the campus, and could even have been resolved, had Dattatreya — who had no business meddling in student politics — not intervened and written a letter to the Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani that resulted in Vemula's expulsion and subsequent suicide.
As The Indian Express pointed out, from July, the university stopped paying Vemula his monthly stipend of Rs 25,000 (excluding HRA). On 17 August, Dattatreya wrote to the HRD minister urging action and claiming that the “Hyderabad University… has in the recent past, become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”. After a series of flip-flops, Vemula and four others were suspended in September. On 17 December, the decision was upheld. On 3 January, after the sanction was confirmed, the five moved out of their hostel rooms to a tent they set up inside the campus and began a “relay hunger protest”.
Protests, scuffles, ideological debates are part of a healthy democracy. Every day we see hundreds of protests around us by ordinary citizens and political parties. In how many of these cases are protesters expelled, externed, victimised, suspended from work, barred from studying or treated like pariahs? But, Vemula, like German student Sophie Scholl, who was executed in 1943 by the Nazis for distributing anti-war leaflets, was thrown out of the campus for participating in political demonstrations and protests. He ended up paying for campus activism with his life.
Now that Hyderabad and Telangana are boiling with rage, and the political heat is rising in Delhi against Dattatreya, the BJP has another problem of its own making on its hands. The current controversy in Hyderabad is the latest among a series of unfortunate incidents triggered by the BJP's interference in the academia with the aim of influencing the ideology of intellectuals of the future.
In May 2015, well-known scholar Ramachandra Guha had argued the Union HRD ministry was bleeding academia to death with 1,000 cuts. He had listed a series of appointments by the HRD ministry in Indian varsities and educational institutions with the explicit aim of packing them with parivar loyalists, party stooges and Hindutva hardliners.
Since then, the saffronisation agenda has gathered momentum.
A few months ago, the BJP had floated the name of right-wing leader Subramanian Swamy for the role of vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Many suspected the ploy was a trial balloon for testing the reaction to the idea of a planting a Parivar loyalist at the helm of the premier institute that is considered a bastion of Left-leaning students. The current VC of JNU is set to retire soon and efforts are on to find his replacement. Swamy has since dropped out of the race.
The search committee, according to reports, has identified four candidates as possible replacements. But there is growing speculation that the NDA government may reject all these names since the shortlisted members are not aligned with the BJP — a factor that is now considered vital for appointments to such posts.
Last week, the Centre triggered yet another controversy when it told the Supreme Court last week that it was contemplating a review of its earlier decision to support the minority status given to Aligarh Muslim University. Obviously, by trying to tinker with the status of the university, the BJP is trying to play to its Hindutva galleries.
Before that, in October, HRD minister Smriti Irani decided to discontinue the non-National Eligibility Test fellowship scheme, incurring the wrath of students and the hashtag #OccupyUniversity. As part of the scheme, the UGC was providing financial assistance of Rs 5,000 per month for 18 months to MPhil students and Rs 8,000 per month for four years to PhD students. This was limited to research scholars of Central universities (see more here).
The decision to scrap the fellowship was taken immediately after the minister's meeting with leaders of the ABVP, ostensibly to implement it in state varsities. But the real purpose was to ensure the government did not end up supporting research that doesn't suit the Saffron Parivar's ideology.
The Parivar's desperation to influence the academic debate and institutions is understandable. Unless scholars and youth are aligned with its ideology and politics, the Parivar's dream of imposing its vision of cultural nationalism on the country will remain just a pipe dream. So, it wants to ensure two things: Influence of right-wing scholars in academic institutions and the hegemony of the ABVP in youth politics.
India's cultural diversity, complicated caste dynamics — Hyderabad is a case in point — and liberal ethos will never permit the dominance of any single ideology. In the end, the BJP, or anyone else who wishes to impose a particular narrative, will be frustrated because Indians will listen to multiple, even competing, narratives, thoughts and voices and then choose what they find acceptable.
Also, since the purpose of education is to liberate the mind, rid it of dogmas and irrational beliefs, the BJP is pursuing a self-defeating objective.
The faster it realises the futility of interference in academic institutions, the better it would be for Indian campuses, scholars and the BJP.
To begin with, it can learn from Vemula's death.
Left alone, this Dalit son of a poor mother who stitches clothes for a living, would have, in time, left the University of Hyderabad in search of a career, or, as he wrote in his suicide note, to become a writer like Carl Sagan. While on the campus, he may have at best inspired a few followers with his Left-leaning, liberal ideas and movement for the dignity for Dalits.
But in trying to silence his voice, make him kow-tow to its ideology, the Parivar has turned Vemula into a symbol of resistance against the saffron agenda.
In death, Vemula will be a bigger adversary for his ideological opponents than in life.