A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning, said former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. This beautiful thought is usually the guiding force when universities are set up, but that spirit is at risk of being lost forever from the campuses in India, thanks to sectarian politics and spineless university administrators.
The first fires were lit last year with the de-recognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT-Madras and then came the events at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. In January, it spread to Hyderabad Central University (HCU) with the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. In this farewell letter — it would be unfair to call it a ‘suicide note’ — Vemula wrote of how he was “reduced to his immediate identity” at HCU.
Though Vemula did not blame anyone for his death, he did not mince words on the institutionalisation of caste violence at HCU and how students like him had to face fire during a political face-off with the ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, because the university administration backed the ABVP.
Next was Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where the ABVP clashed with Left-leaning students, leading to the arrest of three students on charges of sedition. The battle between the two groups soon morphed into a debate on the larger issue of freedom of speech. Even as normalcy returned to the JNU campus, the situation in HCU flared up after vice-chancellor AR Podile, who was accused of abetting the suicide of Vemula, returned to the university on March 22, even though he is yet to be cleared of the charges.
Instead of tackling the situation on its own, the HCU administration accused the students of violence and went the JNU way: Police were called in; they beat up students; molested girl students and arrested 36 students and two faculty members. Unashamed, the administration then isolated the protesting students, stopped water and closed down the messes.
In both cases, university administrators have over-reacted to issues that could have been tackled in the campus. Instead of lending an ear to the aggrieved students, they opted to listen to political directives, leading to protests. This protests-arrests-protests could become a never-ending cycle in India’s campuses unless administrators realise that a university has to be a just and an egalitarian space, and that they must let a thousand flowers bloom.