JNU has been a controversial university for quite some time. Professor Nurul Hasan, as HRD Minister, made sure that it became a bastion of the Left. Faculty who had alternate views were not hired or encouraged and sometimes hounded out. Wherever the Left has tried to assert itself, it has sought to infiltrate and control universities to ensure it dominates intellectual discourse.
Based as it is on an exclusivist centralised dogma, it left no room for new thoughts and vibrant debates and sought to shut out all voices except its dogma. The Left Front rule in West Bengal is a classic example of the capture of universities and their decline as centres of vibrant intellectual thought. Today, universities in West Bengal are a pale shadow of what they once were.
This strategy was also based on creating student unions which espoused the Left cause, and created a cadre of storm troopers in case of need and future cadres for the party. Since the Left itself is splintered, the extreme left - the CPI (ML) - tried to dominate student unions based on its espousal of causes which were archaic, often violent and always extreme.
There was no shortage of causes in India as there were issues of caste, land, disparity and much else. Much of the faculty were Left sympathisers who enjoyed the freedom and perques of a secure government job with almost no accountability and a ready cadre of students on whom they could work.
Students were often the worst sufferers as studies were sidelined. The faculty and the students always held themselves out as liberals except that they did not allow the flowering of alternate views, nor outsiders who could challenge them. They were a shut shop, a world in themselves. With a sympathetic government, they even rewrote our history. There is no better example today in India of the capture of a university by an ideology than JNU.
This is not to say that we need the Right to now capture universities and do the same. What we need are universities which are more open, where faculty is hired on merit not ideology, and where there is a healthy interaction of ideas and views. There should clearly be no single ideology or view which will dominate very much the principle on which our civilization is based.
In India, JNU is on top of the totem pole of Left-captured institutions, based as it is in Delhi, the heart of political power in India, funded fully by the government and focused on social sciences. A closed state-controlled economy provided the ideal environment for much angst within. Liberalisation in 1991 opened JNU to a changing ecosystem in India and, soon, globally. The decline of the Left all over the world, the increase in jobs for students, a growing media which asked questions, and economic prosperity started changing the equation. The Left has been in decline in India too with the advent of a thick layer of the middle class which is socially liberal and economically conservative, and which does not believe is the distant promises of failed revolutions.
The recent incident of Leftist student unions indulging in "anti national" activities, shouting slogans against the Indian Union, calling the hanging of Afzal Guru a judicial killing is symbiotic of an out-of-date ideology trying to regain its prominence. JNU is changing, becoming more open, collegial and more universal, and the Left is resisting change, using students to provoke extreme action by the State to keep itself alive. Students and their future have become a pawn in this ideological fight between a declining Left and an assertive Right, specially after the Right has come to power.
Prodded by an enraged public opinion offended by the anti-national slogans, the government's response has been unduly harsh, slapping sedition charges on students, arresting the student union leader and sending the police into the campus.
Of course now the Congress, the Left and the JD(U) have waded in, clearly showing this as an ideological fight, dividing the faculty and the students. The Congress seems to have lost its moorings with its Vice President Rahul Gandhi supporting those who call the Afzal Guru hanging a judicial killing, knowing fully well that its own government executed the hanging.
One would have hoped that the government would be more magnanimous, allowing the university to enquire and take any disciplinary action, rather than wading in and arresting students, thereby escalating this conflict. Such arrests are worrisome because we do not want any government to intrude on our freedom of speech or our freedom of association even when people have "extreme" views - so long as there is no violence or a call to violence.
A sedition charge is outdated in a liberal democracy. The US has tackled such issues much earlier, even stating that the freedom of speech includes the freedom to burn the national flag! This has not hurt the US in any way but has considerably enhanced personal freedom. We need a more mature state in India, irrespective of government, where citizens can freely dissent, even promote archaic declining political ideology, so long as there is no violence, threat of violence etc.
As for JNU, it is time the government asked students to pay the full cost of education; in case students wish to focus on politics and not on their studies, there is no case for taxpayers to subsidise extreme views or an archaic Left. Freedom does not include the right to misuse tax payers' monies. Further, the faculty issue also needs to be tackled. Too much of the faculty is indulging in politics, forgetting their primary duties - note the quality of research going down. Universities have to be held accountable for their output and research, not judged on their political ideology or political activism.
(Mohandas Pai was the CFO and then the head of HR at Infosys. He is now Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners.)
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