Urgent need to save our knowledge institutions from majoritarianism

What happened in JNU on the 5th is now a matter to public record with several eyewitness accounts surfacing in the public domain. The questions that must now be asked are who will take responsibility for the calculated dereliction of duty of the police, has there been a failure of administration and governance by the Vice-Chancellor and who pays the price of this violence. 


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]VER the last 30 days, students at three Indian Universities – Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI), Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and now Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – were brutally attacked and assaulted inside campuses.

In JMI, the police attacked and lathi-charged students who were peacefully protesting against a patently unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act. Even those studying inside the library were not spared.

In AMU, security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to silence student voices. Thousands of unarmed students were arbitrarily and even-handedly booked by the police under several sections of the Indian Penal Code.

And, only last night, over 50 masked goons belonging to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), students’ wing affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, unleashed terror and murderous attacks on JNU students and professors.

According to media reports, the goons barged inside the JNU campus, uninterruptedly, armed with sticks, iron rods, acid, sledgehammers and stones. According to RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj, who was present outside JNU last night, the goons even attacked a team of doctors and nurses who reached JNU to give first aid to injured students and professors, but the police did not intervene despite being present in large numbers.

“Several people pleaded with the police to come and help, but no police persons came to the spot,” Bharadwaj recounts. “The police opened the pedestrian side of the JNU main gate and some men, with helmets or faces covered, exited the campus.”

That the Delhi police just stood as mute spectator while hundreds of goons had a free run, while all street lights leading up to the gate were purposefully switched off, and that not a single arrest has been made so far indicate a clear connivance of the ABVP, JNU administration, Delhi Police and the Home Ministry in the violence.

Home Minister Amit Shah’s December 26 call to “teach a lesson” to the tukde-tukde gang is already in public domain. What do we then make of the silence of the Delhi Police, which comes directly under the control of Amit Shah?

The violence on University campuses in the national capital tells a disturbing tale: that the ruling dispensation is leaving no stone unturned to silence the knowledge institutions of our constitutional democracy (including universities and centres of higher learning).

Detaining unarmed students for criticizing government laws and policies, filing charges of sedition for mere sloganeering, and the recent expulsion and deportation of Jakob Lindenthal, an exchange student at IIT Madras, for participating in a student-led protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, are nothing but few glaring examples.

Knowledge institutions have an important role to play and are a vital component of our constitutional, representative democracy. India is not run by monarchs or autocrats who can claim a monopoly over knowledge and facts and use them to their own advantages. Knowledge and dissemination of it must be free.

Recent episodes of severe violence on students suggest that the government at the centre does not want students and professors to have opinions on law and policy or to democratically express them in the public space. The kind of pressure and violence that has been unleashed on our knowledge institutions under the Modi government strike at the very root of our democratic foundations and have a chilling effect on academic freedom and freedom of speech and expression at other Indian universities as well.

In a participatory democracy, one of the primary roles of universities and academics is to show the mirror to the powers that be, disseminate information, spread knowledge and awareness and educate and empower other members of the public.

Any effort by a majoritarian government to intimidate and silence our knowledge institutions should have ideally been responded to with an iron fist by the guardians of our Constitution. However, as we saw in the case of Jamia violence when students turned to the Supreme Court (and the Delhi High Court) with prayers, both courts acted with callousness and failed to protect the students’ constitutional and fundamental rights.

At a time when public trust in the judiciary is gasping for air, the violence on JNU students is a fresh opportunity for the Supreme Court to rise to the occasion and make reparations to some of the damages that have been inflicted on Indian students in the past few weeks. The court must immediately take to task the Delhi Police Commissioner, the Home Ministry and the Vice-Chancellor of JNU and send an important and strong signal that it still has the spine to stand up to the government and police excesses.

Republic Day is a day to celebrate the Constitution of India and to cheer for some of the core human values that the drafters of our Constitution lived and died for. The importance of the Supreme Court in ensuring the supremacy of constitutional and democratic values cannot be said or repeated enough. We, the people of India, should have a good reason to celebrate the 71st Republic Day on January 26.


Note: The views expressed in the post are solely that of author.