Unquiet campuses, citizens’ concerns

Unquiet campuses, citizens’ concerns

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

The National Registration of Citizens and the Citizens Amendment Act that were passed,in haste, by Parliament almost within a week of each other, even if after acrimonious debates, set off agitations in universities and cities across the country. And in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, not otherwise known for political or union agitations, it set off protests that spun out of control, with vehement police response. The police entered the campus and vandalised the library and beat up students who were not involved. That action led to the agitation spilling over to other parts of the city.

The agitation and protests soon spread to other universities like Aligarh and Benares and Hyderabad. The Northeast and Bengal, already exercised over the NRC and the influx of people from other regions, and anyway burdened with the complexity to their own volatile tribal and regional mix, was just waiting to explode. And this has just lit the fuse.

Across the country universities have been in ferment for some time over a variety of issues ranging from the fee structure to appointment of faculty, to regularisation of ad hoc teachers, to the reservation of categories of students, apart from errant faculty behaviour, and that current epidemic that has not spared ministers, or priests or artists or even venerable octogenarians, the deviant behaviour towards women.

The economic slowdown and rising unemployment even among the well qualified, due to the obsolescence to technology innovations, and the complete pauperisation of the countryside, and the experts’ pronouncements like ‘farming is no longer a viable option’ have reached a critical point and all that was needed was some fuse. And the Siamese twins of the NRC-CAA provided just that. And as always happens those at the helm do not sense the mood, or are impervious to the pulse of the people even if they feel they have their mandate. For them it has always been winning elections and anything for attaining that objective. So there is the announcement of tallest temple at the promised site, and three capitals for a state, after the dismantling of a brand new capital.

In the early sixties one of the best run universities was Madras, with Dr Laksmanaswami Mudaliar as Vice Chancellor that attracted some of the best faculty and students. After his reign of two decades, when this distinguished doctor stepped down the rot set in and this culminated in the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965, when the law college hostel was attacked by police with such a show of force that this led to state-wide violence. The ultimate result was that the Congress that had ruled the state since independence was voted out of power in the elections two years later. One young law student went on to defeat the Tamil Nadu strong man K Kamaraj in his own constituency of Virudhnagar. The Congress has never come back to power since then. That was the unintended consequence of the enthusiasm of Hindi votaries like Purushottamdas Tandon and Dr Sampurnanand.

It was the turn of Jadavpur in Bengal in the next decade where there were eminent academics like Dr. Amartya Sen, Buddhadeb Basu and Panchanan Chakravorty in the 1950s whose scholarship and research enhanced the university’s reputation in the arts and science faculties alike. The trouble started when the university had to depend on the state government for funds because of the low fee and the annual expenditure of Rs. 240 crore and thus became subject to bureaucratic interference. The rot set in with the CPI(M) coming to power in the 1970s and packing the faculty with the faithful and grooming students and faculty into election agents. The university had to wait till the beginning of this century for a ‘porivortan’ which Ms Mamata Banerjee brought about.

The seventies were also times of turbulence in Gujarat and Bihar with the reservation and the JP movements that threw up leaders and that led to the eventual overthrow of the Indira Gandhi regime. In Delhi University also with educationists such as VKRV Rao and KN Raj that had the best faculty and the Delhi School of Economics had apart from Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati and Sukumoy Chakravarti and Kaushik Basu. It was around this time that JNU was started by a breakaway group which were more radical by persuasion. Though generalists like PN Haksar and G Parathasarathi and even KR Narayanan of IFS were Vice chancellors it pulled on gamely. There was so much freedom and much healthy exchange of ideas. But somehow it seemed to have lost its focus somewhere in the eighties with the shift in emphasis from liberal arts to science and the digital variation of it.

The IITs and IIMs that were set up with the help of countries like Russia, the US, Britain and Germany in the late sixties and early seventies were never affected by the mundane issues like fees and mess bills. But over the years the stresses of competition and keeping pace with packed curriculum lead to other problems. The tragic suicide of a girl student at Chennai IIT happened around the time of the CAA agitation. In Benares Hindu University there was another controversy, that of the appointment of a Muslim Sanskrit scholar to the faculty.

Ever since the union home minister Amit Shah hinted at the possibility of a nationwide NRC and referred to ‘illegal immigrants’ as ‘termites’ even if it was during an election speech the citizenship act is now being seen in the overall context of the planned nationwide NRC.

Though there is palpable concern over the infiltration or influx of outsiders the legislation is perceived as discriminatory against Muslims even if it aims to fast-track citizenship for persecuted minorities like Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians who arrived in India before Dec. 31, 2014, from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. It is for these immigrant religious minorities that the law has effectively amended Citizenship Act, 1955, that needs an applicant to have resided in India for 11 years. The legislation seems palpably discriminatory because it excludes Muslims from the list, even Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar. Likewise, Sri Lankan Tamils or other marginal sections in Bhutan who face discrimination have been kept out.

In the case of Assam that shares a long border with Bangladesh there is the persistent fear that an ethnic, and demographic shift due to an influx of immigrants, regardless of their religion can completely change demographic profile of the state. The shutdown of Internet in Guwahati and the state as a whole in these circumstances is reminiscent of the conditions that prevail in Jammu and Kashmir.

The NRC, which requires people to produce documents of ancestry to be enlisted as Indian citizens, an exercise, undertaken by the Central government in Assam between February 2015 and August this year, was meant to ‘throw out infiltrators'. And the final list published on August 31, excludes nearly 19 lakh residents of Assam, including Hindus.

It is against this background that the concern that the students of Jamia and Aligarh demonstrated, and which was so heavy handed a manner,needs to be viewed. In the midst of an economic recession and widespread unemployment and pauperisation of the countryside, neither those at the helm nor those in the opposition have any clue on how to handle these vastly complex issues. The easiest way is to hit the streets. These had been witnessed during the Paris uprising of the 1968 and Tiananmen Square in Beijing an elsewhere. Wise rulers need to see the writing on the wall and act sensibly. That is the way to redemption.