India Reels Under Attacks On Bastions Of Higher Education

India, which has proudly considered itself world’s largest democracy since its independence in 1947, could be facing one of its sternest battles to safeguard the safety of its people yet.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India’s most prominent contributions to the world’s academy in modern times, is in the throes of being stripped of its identity, and unfortunately, this is not the first academic institution in the country to come under such brazen attack since India’s ruling party, BJP, came into power under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Last year, Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the country’s best film institute by far, was the site of whirlwind protests after BJP allegedly appointed one of its workers, Gajendra Chauhan, as the head of the institute. Chauhan, it would be interesting to point out here, beat off competition from some stalwarts of the film industry– most notably Indian directors Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Adoor Gopalakrishnan and famed Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan — to become the chairman of FTII, according to Indian Express.

The decision to point Chauhan was met with fierce protests by FTII students, which lasted a remarkable 139 days, according to The Hindu. Students went on hunger strikes and went to hospitals, film institutes and personalities from all around the world extended their support to the protesting students, social media went into overdrive; but not even the most remarkable of protests could prompt Prime Minister Modi to speak a word about the matter, let alone recognize the agitation of students as a valid reaction to Indian government’s decision to appoint Chauhan in the first place.

A few months later, another Indian academic institution — Hyderabad Central University (HCU) — was caught in the midst of another battle when one of its students, Rohith Vermula, committed suicide after allegedly being harassed by the administration for being a Dalit — the lowest rung of India’s rigid caste system. The death of Vermula prompted countrywide university strikes, solidarity movements, and deep questioning from the students of India about the intent with which the Indian government was actively involved in shutting down channels of dissent. And yet, after all the protests and politicization of the matter, the PM of India did not speak a word, choosing to remain quiet.

And now, only a few days later, JNU, arguably India’s most premier institution for Humanities and Social Sciences, is being targeted not only by the ruling regime, but its students have become targets for nasty smearing campaigns on social media. Public opinion against students of JNU has been built by some sections of the the mainstream media by airing doctored videos — allegedly showing some JNU students shouting pro-Kashmir and pro-Afzal Guru slogans on February 9 — on news channels. The president of the university’s students union, Kanhaiya Kumar, has been arrested under the pretext of “sedition”, an archaic and colonial law that the Supreme Court of free India greatly modified way back in 1962.

Other students have been branded “traitors”, “terrorists”, and “anti-nationals” in a fabricated rhetoric that reeks of Indian political establishment’s romance with its colonial past.

The arrest has prompted worldwide protests, with universities like Yale, MIT and Oxford expressing solidarity with protesting JNU students. And yet, the PM has chosen to keep quiet.

So what has been India’s Prime Minister doing all this while?

If dissidents are to be believed, PM Modi has been busy transforming India’s image in the world. He has been busy visiting countries — allegedly to foster friendships with nations — for a more prosperous country. He has been meeting entrepreneurial geniuses like Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley revolutionaries to help India take a step forward in the digital world. He has been busy creating platforms for foreign investments in the country. But, he has not as much so cast a glance at his own country’s students, who have been seething and raging in the hope that their voices will be heard.

In the meantime, India’s ruling party has quietly cut down investment in India’s public education by a massive 17 percent margin; scholarships for Indian students coming from weaker backgrounds have almost been completely terminated; India is said to be on the path of a digital revolution; and yet, when the country’s own students are crying foul over what they believe are orchestrated attacks on bastions of higher education in India, the country’s PM has preferred to keep quiet.

Can we expect it to change in the coming days?

As a student who has been part of both FTII and JNU, I have been terribly disappointed by the way student voices have been completely ignored by the ruling regime. For a country which seldom backs down from boasting about its democratic principles, there seems to be very little sense in the way the BJP think-tank has handled (manhandled?) the protests from large sections of its students.

Every day, more and more Indian — and in fact foreign universities — are beginning to express their solidarity with JNU, HCU and FTII students. It is possible that, in the coming days, more Indian academic institutions may join the protesting students. It is even possible that the Indian academy, its students and its people may finally have to come down on the streets in great numbers to show their defiance across ethnic, gender, caste and class boundaries. Will the Indian Prime Minister speak then?

I sure hope so. Because if the higher echelons of the Indian administration do not take the necessary steps to address the situation in a fully democratic way, the ruling regime may well be actively digging its own grave.

It it time the students of India are given their due.

[Photo by Mohit Priyadarshi]