There is an inclination, particularly in the mainstream and social media, that there is an exceptional degree of uniqueness associated with events in India. Throughout the preceding week, for example, the combatants linked with a brawl that began in Ramjas College of Delhi University and then quickly engulfed a daughter of a Kargil martyr, sundry sports personalities and media pundits who find Twitter a convenient handle to air their elementary wisdom, have been engaged in a silly but emotive battle. Although nominally the battle involves the far-Left AISA and the nationalist ABVP, there has been an inclination to extend the scope of the tremors within the student community of Delhi University and, maybe, Jawaharlal Nehru University—an institution that revels in getting into the news for all the wrong reasons.
It is being suggested that the battle on the streets and on social media platforms have resulted from the Narendra Modi government’s determination to cripple India’s universities and destroy their openness. The other side rejects the suggestion but insists that the campuses cannot become safe havens for a “coalition of subversives”—Arun Jaitley’s catchy phrase. It is doubtful whether either side will engage in a civil conversation with the other.
The first feature of this battle that must be borne in mind is that it is not exclusively an Indian phenomenon. In the past eight decades or so, but particularly in the wake of the Vietnam War, a significant chunk of the student community has been inclined towards showy anti-Establishment posturing. In the 1930s, the students of a privileged Cambridge University voted in a debate to never fight for King and country. The outside world was not amused. To be fair, however, when war broke out in 1939, most of the very same students ended up in a uniform fighting against a common enemy. Likewise, many of the devoted Leftists in the American campuses of the 1960s went on to become founders of the neo-conservative grouping in the Republican Party. Indeed a very large part of thinking adults will readily admit to have flirted with zany radical politics during their student days. There is always an important line of separation between what constitutes ‘good fun’ and what is deathly serious politics. I can say with a degree of certainty that most of those who are shaking their fists angrily at the cameras will become good citizens of India and look back at this week’s events with quiet amusement and embarrassment.
The second point to note is that there is simultaneously an explicit political dimension to the troubles. Initially it was imagined by both the English-language media and the parliamentary Opposition that a combination of demonetisation and opposition unity would cripple the Narendra Modi government in Uttar Pradesh. With the votes still to be counted, purely anecdotal evidence of the election campaigns suggest that the Prime Minister’s vulnerability has been grossly exaggerated. What is more, his standing among the youth seems to be relatively unaffected by the unrelenting war waged against him by the rarefied, NDTV-watching classes that have a cultural problem with the present regime. Consequently there appears to be a slight desperation among the professional dissidents to try and steal a page or two from the campaign manual of the angst-ridden anti-Trump protestors in the US. However, imagination being in short supply, the promotion of India’s balkanisation and fraternity with Pakistan seem to be only red rag they can flaunt at the regime.
The posturing in favour of a separate Kashmir and the complete disintegration of India is not calculated to woo public opinion. It is merely aimed at enhancing the internal solidarity of those who equate the campus with the world. Perhaps they should have been left alone to talk and shout among themselves. That they were subjected to counter-demonstration suggests that the ‘nationalist’ side feels (and maybe rightly) that rubbishing the fringe elements actually delights the ordinary people who see the AISA lot as treacherous weirdos.
Finally, there is the issue of the warped sense of freedom that is prevalent in some campuses. This week the Adam Smith Institute in London published a research paper entitled ‘Lackademia’ that documents the alarming extent to which the Left has acquired control over the humanities and social science departments. This phenomenon, visible on both sides of the Atlantic, has fostered ideological conformity, intellectual censorship and political cronyism. Whether the problem that began in Ramjas was less a consequence of student over-zealousness and more due to irresponsible teacher encouragement is worth exploring. However, the activism of the teaching staff is resulting in the campuses losing their versatility and becoming dreary citadels of sloganeering. It is worth exploring how much of this phenomenon is replicated in the Indian campuses, particularly those that have a social science and humanities bias. This is not a prescription for an ideological witch-hunt but a plea for greater diversity so that impressionable minds are not made into cannon fodder for dodgy causes, as happened in the late-1960s.
Increasingly, there is now a crying need to insulate campuses from political activism, not politics. One is a squandering of time in an increasingly competitive environment and the other a part of education.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha