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Aligarh/Varanasi: Campus politics in Indian universities is not new. Many of today’s prominent political personalities like Arun Jaitley, Ashok Gehlot, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar have all risen from the cradle of student politics. What is new is the changing nature of campus politics in recent years where student wings of national parties have brought into the campus, the ideologies and idiosyncrasies of their parent organisations, leading to violent unrests and protracted protests.
This has brought forward a new generation of student leaders becoming politically active outside the campuses as well. This is probably best exemplified by Jawaharlal Nehru University’s doctoral student Kanhaiya Kumar, who is the CPI candidate from Begusarai, Bihar, in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. Kumar hit national headlines when he was arrested on sedition charges after ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, launched a vehement protest against some JNU students organising an event against the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.
File image of BHU students protesting against victim shaming of a girl who filed a molestation complaint. PTI
Kanhaiya’s arrest sparked widespread student protests that spread to at least 18 major universities across India. Some even termed it as the biggest student protests since the 90s protests against the Mandal Commission report. But the ABVP has continued to protest other campus events, even literary events, like the one in Delhi University’s Ramjas College, for inviting researchers like Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, who had joined the Jammu and Kashmir People's movement (JKPM), a political party started by former IAS officer Shah Faesal, forcing the college to cancel the event.
Fear of violence from ABVP activists over events they do not agree with, is now being increasingly seen in other campuses, with external interference becoming insidious and the clash between ideologies taking a violent turn. For instance, the Panjab University administration warned students against organising a seminar on rising fascism, fearing an ABVP backlash. While down south in Karnataka, ABVP members in a private engineering college forced an assistant professor to kneel and apologise for his "anti-India" Facebook posts. The ABVP’s ire was also turned on noted historian Ramachandra Guha, who had to say “no” to Ahmedabad university fearing a backlash from the BJP-backed student political party.
To some extent, some campus activities are beginning to reflect the larger currently ongoing Lok Sabha campaign rhetoric over battling terrorism, national security and caste politics, where the BJP is facing accusations of being anti-Dalit. For instance, the suicide of Rohit Vemula, a doctorate student of Hyderabad University in 2015. Vemula, an active member of the Ambedkar Students Association, killed himself after he and four other Dalit students were suspended for allegedly assaulting an ABVP member. Even though a university-appointed proctorial board inquiry had found no substance in the allegations, the suspension came after the ABVP wrote to Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya alleging that ASA members were indulging in "casteist" and "anti-national" activities.
Dattatreya had passed on the letter to the then HRD minister Smriti Irani and the suspensions followed. But apart from the media outcry against the action, little else happened except claims and counterclaims on whether Vemula was actually a Dalit.
Similarly, protests in four TISS campuses last year against the decision to withdraw financial aid given to SC/ST and OBC researchers despite being eligible for such financial aid under the Government of India Post-Matric Scholarship scheme also evoked no response from the university authorities or the government.
File image of NSUI students protesting outside BHU. PTI
The BJP government has often been accused of "saffronising" universities by appointing known supporters in senior positions. Like with the appointment of actor-turned BJP worker Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) when protests by students and others forced the government to back down.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen had also highlighted the issue accusing the govt of 'academic interference' after he resigned as the chancellor of Nalanda University. He had said that four years back he had never before seen the kind of academic interference that was happening.
“The Nalanda University Board unanimously wanted me to continue as Chancellor, but the government’s advise was clear: under no circumstances,” he told the media on his resignation from the post.
The increasing government interference in academic affairs was highlighted in a report by a nationwide collective called the People’s Commission on Shrinking Democratic Space in India (PCSDS). It pointed out the drastic cut in funding for universities, leading to a shortage of teachers and a steep hike in course fees. Other key findings were centralisation of the admission process; privatisation of institutions through policy changes; distortion of history and syllabus; appointing loyalists as university heads; the rise of Hindutva forces within campuses; suppression of dissenting voices; and use of legal measures to curb students’ protests.
To quote from the report: “Testimonies presented by students and faculty revealed a socially exclusive and unjust system prevailing in the higher education institutions, designed to replicate the marginalisation in society”.
Recent happening in two of the country’s best-known universities — the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) — highlight the depth to which these issues have seeped into Indian campuses.
The AMU which admits a large number of Muslim students from across the nation has been targeted over its minority status while BHU has seen a rising culture of intolerance, moral policing and violence, brought to the fore again with the murder of a BHU student last month by four gun-weilding, bike-borne men. In September 2017, the university was in the national news when a large number of students indulged in vandalism and violence over victim shaming of a female student for lodging a molestation complaint against three bike-borne boys while going to college.
File image of students protesting outside AMU campus following the Jinnah controversy. PTI
The entire campus was on the boil for days which saw police with several companies of the paramilitary force camping within the university premises to bring the situation under control. Dusshera holidays were advanced and all students were asked to vacate their respective hostels as the Varanasi police registered FIRs against 1,200 students. In fact, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on a trip to his constituency, faced the prospect of girls sitting in protests demanding to meet him, the prime minister's security detail decided to change his route.
“Today, everything has been politicised here,” said Sashi Bhusan Singh of the university’s Ayurvedic department. He blamed the politicisation of the campus on former vice-chancellor GC Tripathi and the presence of outside anti-social elements in the university.
“It was during his tenure that the girls protested against the university’s policies,” said Singh.
A judicial committee set up to conduct an inquiry into happenings also said that “anti-social elements” and political parties provoked the students. Singh alleged that under Tripathi, particular groups were favoured and that the former vice-chancellor himself had said that he had taken some decisions under pressure. Tripathi was removed in November 2017 and a new vice-chancellor was appointed in March 2018.
Singh was scathing in his criticism of the university administration and its proctorial board members. "If they see students, especially boys and girls together, they confront and harass them. But at the first sign of any violence, they run away and the district magistrate and SP have to come to calm things down. Even when a student was killed in broad daylight by some bike-borne men, nothing was done. And it is mainly students from one hostel who are responsible for most of the violence in the campus,” he claimed.
But Akhilesh Diwedi, ABVP Oudh region president, insists the student body is not directly linked with any political party, but "when it comes to nationalism they stand together".
“The ABVP never raises any political issue. People say that ABVP has got the backing of the ruling party but the fact is the student outfit acts more responsibly when the government of the same ideology comes to power. Playing the blame game is easy, but the ABVP never endorses violence, vandalism and other anti-development activities," he said.
Professor RR Jha, a senior political science professor pointed out that great leaders have emerged from the university’s student politics, however, he rues over the polarisation of education campsuses. "It is good for the nation that students are involved in politics,” said Jha, adding, "but political parties take advantage of the student leaders. I will not name any political party giving more importance to any specific student group but every group is actively working on the ground. There is increased polarisation of educational campuses by political parties. Take the case of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) as there the polarisation would help one specific party.”
File image of AMU students protesting following the Jinnah controversy. PTI
That, unfortunately, is the additional problem that AMU faces, besides the problems of outsiders and anti-social elements in the campus, as with the BHU. Already fighting a legal battle over its status as a minority institution, AMU in its appeal had said that the minority character of the university, the oldest Muslim University in the country, means a lot to Muslims. But the university continues to be faced with one controversy after another, in which the government is blatantly not in their corner.
AMU had been at the centre of the controversy involving the portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the central hall of the university last year.
BJP MP from Aligarh Satish Gautam had objected to this while the university said that Jinnah was a life member of the university’s students union. In the end, the portrait had to be taken down as the arguments threatened to get out of control. This year, several right-wing groups — including ABVP, Hindu Jagaran Manch and Bharatiya Janta Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP — observed the "anniversary" of the defeat of "Jinnah-lovers".
Barely a few months ago, in February, BJYM members had accused several Muslim students of attacking them in a scuffle that reportedly took place between the students of AMU and a news crew from Republic TV. Fourteen Muslim students were booked under the sedition law, which is a serious charge that can be punished with life imprisonment.
Ashar Saeed, a BSC student from the AMU says many questions have been raised on the credibility of the university and it is affecting the education as well as the students studying here. "These controversies are taking a toll on our education. A few days ago, sedition charges were pressed against our seniors which turned out to be false but it disturbed us all," says Saeed.
"AMU becomes an issue for communal forces who target the Muslims and AMU just to get the Hindu votes,” says Janib Hussain, a student in international studies. "These people are trying to divide the society on communal lines by targeting AMU and this has created an atmosphere of fear,” he adds.
The authors are Aligarh and Varanasi-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters