JNU controversy a sign of worse things to come

Located in New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, known as JNU to most, is arguably India’s finest university. It is also an institution known for providing a more open and safe space for debate, dissent and argumentative politics than perhaps any other institution in the country.

For many political leaders, especially those belonging to the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, as also for many common people, however, JNU is considered to be, above all, a hotbed of radical left-wing politics.

They believe that a large number of JNU students and faculty are supportive of and even participate in anti-national activities, including the cause of the independence of Kashmir. Over the past three weeks or so, it is this aspect of JNU that has attracted widespread national attention.

The approximate facts are by now well known to most people. On 9 February, ex-members of JNU's Democratic Students' Union, an ultra-leftist on-campus group that no longer exists officially, organised an event to protest against the "judicial killing" of Afzal Guru – who was involved in the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and was sentenced to death in 2013 on the basis of circumstantial evidence – and to display solidarity with "the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination".

Acting on the complaint of the ABVP – Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or All Indian Student Council, the student wing of the BJP – university authorities cancelled the event. The organisers shifted the venue to another on-campus location where Kanhaiya Kumar, a member of the All India Student Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India, and the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union, spoke.

Kumar was predictably critical of the ruling party. Anti-India slogans were shouted during the event by non-JNU Kashmiris which were falsely attributed to Kumar and a few other JNU students.

The ABVP took up the matter with BJP party bosses and the police. The Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, decided to send the police to the JNU campus to arrest Kumar on sedition charges. This happened with the permission of the newly appointed Vice-chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar, according to a note undersigned by the university registrar.

Since then, the JNU issue has hogged national headlines, led to scores of commentaries by some of the finest minds in the country and even invited strong editorials from leading international newspapers such as The New York Times.

Undermining autonomy from above

An article published last year in the Indian Express described India’s higher education sector as "broken" – both in terms of its physical make-up as well as the quality of its education.

It singled out the long-held practice by ruling parties of seeking to ‘control’ universities from above, typically by appointing their ‘own’ people, usually ‘yes men’, to key leadership positions at higher education institutions and key academic bodies, irrespective of merit, as one of the main obstacles to progress in higher education.

However, as Krishna Kumar, former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, pointed out recently, political influence occurs passively as well where “those in charge of running a university have internalised the ethic of cultivating political kinship” and “actively look for ways to make political leaders happy” without the need for “instructions from above”.

In the case of JNU, Vice-chancellor Kumar had already appointed an inquiry committee to look into the incident. Clearly, his initial understanding of the issue was that it was an internal matter to be resolved by university officials. However, when the government decided to send in the police, rather than stand up for the autonomy of his institution, he stood down for the government.

Many observers have criticised Vice-chancellor Kumar’s decision to give the police a free hand. Only a few days later, protesters at Jadavpur University in eastern India shouted some of the same slogans as those at JNU and put up posters calling for the freedom of Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland. In response, Vice-chancellor Suranjan Das held that students had the “right to protest” and the police had “no role” in a university.

Undermining autonomy from below

The Indian Express article mentioned earlier failed to draw attention to a second related problem, one that has perhaps become more pronounced under the current government – the undermining of institutional autonomy from below, notably at the behest of the ABVP.

Even before the JNU incident, the government had meddled in student politics in favour of the ABVP at Hyderabad Central University, where it put pressure on the university administration to act against members of the Ambedkar Students' Association, consisting largely of Dalit students, on charges of engaging in anti-national activities and casteist politics.

Five students belonging to the Ambedkar Students' Association were expelled. Subsequently, Rohith Vemula, one of the expelled students, who came from a poor, Dalit background, took his own life.

The BJP’s actions at JNU and other places lend credence to the view that the government is determined “to undermine autonomy and control the idea of learning itself”, as Rajesh Mahapatra, executive editor of the Hindustan Times argued recently. So far, it has shown no signs of backing down or recognising that it may be over-reacting. For India’s already-broken higher education sector, it appears that worse is yet to come.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is an assistant professor at the department of humanities and social sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science or BITS, Pilani-Goa, India.