The season of dissent that has descended upon universities in the country has touched, though just a wee bit, the University of Mumbai too.
Students from various faculties and student groups protested last month against the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in the Hyderabad Central University. They were joined by students’ unions from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and IIT-Bombay. The protest was the most political of activities in recent years.
Students from an array of institutes gathered once again in the Kalina campus of the University last week to protest the series of events in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. They railed against the arrest of the president of JNU students’ union Kanhaiya Kumar, the social boycott of other students and the police crackdown on the JNU campus. Students who question the Indian government are new targets of pseudo-nationalist forces, expressing dissent is now branded as anti-national, the protestors shouted.
The last “political” act in the University of Mumbai was when the young Aaditya Thackeray had walked into the then vice chancellor’s office in 2010 to demand that author Rohinton Mistry’s novel “Such A Long Journey” be struck off the curriculum because a few lines ostensibly insulted his grandfather and Shiv Sena founder, the late Bal Thackeray. Vice Chancellor Dr Rajan Welukar had promptly obliged. Neither of them came out of it covered in glory.
Kanhaiya Kumar and others charged with sedition, students of Fine Arts at the famed MS University in Vadodara who also have been fighting a battle for democratic space, albeit away from the media lens, students in IIT-Madras and in other campuses have elicited a range of reactions – from unqualified support to extreme contempt and explicit threats to life. A common lament has been that the university life has turned too political and students must focus on studying.
Nothing could be more myopic or ill-informed. Campuses did not suddenly turn into hotbeds of political action and leadership. Universities always had students who were political in character and led popular movements against the regime of the day. From the era of the nationalist movement for independence, campus politics has been the ground for young people to engage with contemporary issues, debate and argue their way through conflicting worldviews, interact with various ideologies, grapple with a microcosm of country’s socio-political ecosystem, and lead or participate in struggles.
In fact, political recruitment often starts from campuses. It follows then there will be fierce rivalry between different political ideologies, from Left-affiliated parties to the Congress and right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. National politics and student politics work hand in glove with one another. In the battleground of ideologies and ideas, students run through the spectrum of political activities – from canvassing support for their own preferred ideology to campaigning for elections to students’ unions, articulating themselves on contemporary socio-political issues and, yes, expressing dissent too.
In independent India, university campuses saw resistance against Emergency imposed in 1975 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Beyond campuses too, students have been involved in political issues. Students in south India rising up against the imposition of Hindi in the 1960s is but one example. Today’s political leaders in most parties were actively or otherwise associated with student politics of their time.
It is ironical then that while BJP-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) spreads its wings and influence in campuses, party leaders and influencers object to student leaders affiliated to other parties, especially to the Left. Kanhaiya Kumar and others are victims of this narrow definition of student politics, “my politics is good, yours is seditious”. They forget that dissent is a vital right, it isn’t a crime.
The massive student community in Mumbai has had a large gap in its education in the last two decades when the University and colleges de-politicised campuses after the blood-spattered kidnapping and murder of a candidate in 1992 during an election campaign. This University, after all, counts as its alumni some of the most illustrious and influential political leaders of the world: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, MG Ranade (who was among the first batch of graduates), Dadabhai Naoroji, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and of course, Dr BR Ambedkar. All of them had dissented with the British regime.
It is time that the University of Mumbai became a place for political education, once again.