In protesting against the mess at the University of Mumbai, the one thing we need to ensure is that we do not unwittingly place the leadership of the students’ cause in the hands of lumpens.
The group at the forefront of the agitation in the name of students, the Yuva Sena, is illiberal. Two years ago, it bullied the university into withdrawing Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, from the syllabus, thus attempting to destroy values that are at the core of the education system. It represents the opposite of free thought, upon which all education is based, and believes in intimidation, threats and violence, all of which will further ruin a university already in decline.
Above all, it does not represent the aspirations and dreams of lakhs of students, and it does not reflect their real anxieties and concerns.
Students want education that broadens their horizons, allows them to pursue academic, and thereafter, professional or entrepreneurial excellence, pulls down artificial walls and prepares them for a key role in the global economy.
The Sena pursues the opposite: it wants to disrupt normal life, to enforce Mumbai bandhs that cost the city and the country crores of rupees, to destroy public and private property by its acts of violence and to establish an order that makes muscle and power the founding principles of society, not the order of merit and excellence that has to be the basis for a just and democratic society.
We must take some responsibility for things coming to a pass where such a group now appears as the most vociferous highlighter of goof-ups the varsity has been guilty of. We, who are outside the university, have made the mistake of seeing it as distinct from the rest of Mumbai’s society, and not as an institution linked to the city’s growth and to its destiny.
We have failed to see that the state of the university reflects the state of the city, and vice versa. Graduates from across the city have a voice in the university in the form of their own representatives, but how many of us ever vote in the election? We have withdrawn ourselves from the varsity’s affairs completely, and the result is the influence that lumpens wield.
The university’s recent slip-ups are indefensible, whether it is the last-minute change in exam centres, the wrong paper given to students, or a paper leak via SMS. But these are mere symptoms of an illness the varsity caught years ago.
The decline began in the early 1990s, during the tenure of Shashikant Karnik as vice-chancellor, and successive vice-chancellors have not only done nothing to reverse it but have contributed to it. The least Prof Rajan Welukar could do now is to restore a measure of transparency and accountability, but those who are calling him an autocrat now are the ones who set him up as one, and their response to his assurance of a probe — the ruckus in the Senate — shows their disregard for democratic processes.
Action can be taken on the basis of a probe (provided the probe has a deadline and does not drag on forever), but medieval minds perhaps want people thrown off the edge of a precipice, something that no institution, least of all an educational one, can permit.
The way to bring the university back on track is to turn the clock back, but not in the way the Sena wishes to. The university has a glorious 150-year-old history, and among its leading lights have been giants such as Dr BR Ambedkar, the scholar-philosopher-teacher Me. Pu. Rege and the teacher Ra. Bha. Patankar. They have shown that the path ahead is a commitment to learning and enlightenment, and the cleaning up of processes in such a way that these remain the institution’s highest goals.
Perhaps Step One should be to re-start a course on aesthetics which the late Prof Rege had helped to launch, and which was shut down eventually. A commitment to aesthetics, after all, is a commitment to civilisation, and a refutation of all that lumpens at the University’s gates, either in the form of so-called student groups or unaccountable and corrupt officials, represent.