The Gujarat model comes to Delhi, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
Long before Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), there was Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara. In May 2007, a group of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists stormed into an exhibition being held in the university by a fine arts student, Chandramohan, and physically assaulted him, while claiming that his paintings offended their religious sentiments. The police entered soon after, and arrested the artist. When the faculty intervened, they too were threatened with arrest. The vice-chancellor (VC) refused to file any First Information Report (FIR) or extend any support to students. Instead, the faculty was given suspension notices while the VHP activists were let off by the police.
Sounds familiar? The truth is, the impunity with which a mob of masked goons ran amok in the JNU campus, even as a timid and partisan administration chose not to act, is not without precedence, and only suggests that a system of “controlling” universities through untrammelled State power has moved from Vadodara to the heart of the national capital.
Gujarat, in particular, has seen a calculated attempt in recent times to stifle all forms of dissent on the campus in the name of enforcing discipline. The conscious de-politicisation of the campus has not been done with the idea of raising academic standards, but in ensuring a stultifying regimentation that prevents the student community from mobilising on contentious issues.
Student union elections are held irregularly. For example, Gujarat University has not held student elections for the past four years, and only last week, the authorities finally offered to hold elections in March. Even more glaring is the manner in which VC are chosen to head the universities, solely on the basis of their loyalty to the ruling party. A former Gujarat University VC became the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson after his term ended, while the current pro-VC is also a party functionary. A BJP media cell member is the VC of the Kachchh University as is the case also with the North Gujarat University. VCs have often been appointed based on their political allegiances by previous regimes too, but the sheer brazenness in choosing party members to head a university makes nonsense of any claim of autonomous institutions.
Even private universities in Gujarat have been unable to resist political pressure. Ahmedabad University, for example, was forced to withdraw the appointment of renowned historian Ramachandra Guha as a distinguished professor after the political leadership reportedly vetoed it. Guha has been a critic of the BJP/Sangh parivar, but that a formidable intellectual and Gandhi biographer would be denied the opportunity to teach in the land of the Mahatma only because of his ideological views reflects the distance that Gujarat has travelled from the tolerant, accommodating spirit of the state’s greatest figure.
Ironically, it is the students of Gujarat who first lit the spark of anti-establishment anger that would eventually build into a wider nationwide protest movement against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the 1970s. Narendra Modi himself claims to have been a part of the Nav Nirman Andolan, which began in 1973 when students in a local Ahmedabad college went on strike in protest against a 20% hike in hostel food fees, an agitation that rapidly spread across the state.
Today, it is likely that the student protesters of the 1970s would be dubbed by the government as “urban Naxals”, “tukde tukde gang” and “anti-nationals” who need to be packed-off to Pakistan. Where once the space for dissent was valued, and even supported, today any contrarian view attracts instant vilification. Where once taking a political stand was encouraged, today students are being pushed to abandon any form of political activity by the same leaders who claim to have emerged from the embryo of student politics.
The lame excuse offered by the ruling elite for the need to “control” the campuses is that this was precisely how their opponents behaved when they were in power. The Left Front’s culture of violence and intimidation in West Bengal during its long rule in that state is often cited as an example of how coarse politics can lead to a sharp decline in higher education standards. Indira Gandhi’s clampdown during the Emergency is also mentioned in the context of the shrinking autonomy of universities.
But the argument that, “if they could do it, why can’t we?” is morally flawed and politically tendentious. The BJP has prided itself on being “a party with a difference” and the Modi government has won two successive electoral majorities on a “new” India vision premised on a “Gujarat model” of governance. This model was meant to offer “acche din” to India’s gen-next, not divide the student community between Right and Left in a manner that would leave our campuses bloodied. Indeed, this is not a case of Right versus Left but simply a matter of right versus wrong.
Post-script: While Left and Rightwing student groups in JNU engage in a blame game over who initiated the violence, spare a thought for the faculty. Is it “bharatiya sanskriti” to hit teachers? And if teachers are not safe in a campus, then who is? Don’t forget that it was a long-serving MS University faculty member, Professor JS Bandukwala whose house in Vadodara was ransacked during the 2002 Gujarat riots. No one from the Gujarat administration till date has even met the professor to empathise, perhaps because he was seen as a fierce critic of the Hindutva politics. Is this then a classic case of what Gujarat thought yesterday, the rest of the country must think today?