By Arunoday Majumder
A new semester in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has started. Civil dissents and governmental high-handedness busied JNU and India for a large part of the previous semester. In the midst of hateful saffron brigades and messianic student leaders, what suffered most was reason – a faculty that universities are mandated to foster. As hostels refill and classes resume, it is imperative that fallacies inimical to intellectual life on campus are recognized. At stake is the interrogative spirit in one of the most prestigious universities.
The first instance of student unrest in JNU was a reaction to the October 2015 proposal that suggested discontinuation of the “Non-NET Fellowship”. The recipients of this curiously titled fellowship are students enrolled in research programs – M.Phil and PhD – in central universities such as JNU and in institutions with officially recognized “potential for excellence”.
Willy-nilly proposal to cut fund reeked of Tughlaqi attitude on the part of the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry. However, the response from political parties in JNU was outrageous, too. It was designed to flatter the numerical elite at the cost of distinction for the academic best.
The demands that followed from political parties in JNU included withdrawal of the proposal, a positive revision of the paltry fellowship amount and extension of the Non-NET fellowship to all public universities and therefore to any student enrolled in them – in either M.Phil or PhD. The first demand is non-negotiable. The second demand is also much needed. But the demand to extend the Non-NET fellowship to one and all in research programs was immature at best and sinister at worst.
Expansion of higher education in India is seldom prompted by academic considerations. Livelihoods doled through administrative jobs and teaching positions satisfy ‘khas’ sections. The result is perilous. The ‘khas’ status is based on either social advantage or social disadvantage. Ideological affiliation is also considered. But ability and performance are rarely recognized. Even JNU is no exception in this regard. That this glorious university has often harboured the “less capable” did not go unmentioned even in opinion pieces that fought the malicious sedition charge. The most glaring example of such affliction was the declaration of the Irom Sharmila Scholarship 2016. It was awarded by the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) to JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) and to Rohith Vemula “posthumously”. Both selections are fraught with political motivations.
The Irom Sharmila Scholarship has unique eligibility criteria. Significant among them are that applicants must be from an area under “armed conflict” and must be enrolled in a postgraduate course in New Delhi. JNUSU does not hail from regions under armed conflict such as Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Manipur or any other such part in India. Moreover, JNUSU is not an exclusively postgraduate students’ body as it has undergraduate students from the language programs. Most importantly, JNUSU has made no academic contribution, in terms of research, to merit a scholarship.
The case of Rohith, who studied in Hyderabad Central University (HCU), was more unfortunate. It was unethical to select a deceased scholar when it was unclear how, if at all, he had applied for the scholarship. Rohith was bold enough to rise above little rewards. That he quit the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) to join the lesser known Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) was ample indication of this. In its play to the gallery, the JNUTA forgot the difference between an academic scholarship and a public award.
If criteria to judge academic achievement can be so easily violated in a university that is always under limelight, then the level of breaches elsewhere is imaginable. The logic was not lost on the political parties in JNU. Yet they demanded that the state should invest in the research of everybody enrolled in M.Phil. or PhD in every public university. This was nothing short of a call for sponsorship of substandard research and rampant plagiarism that plague the academia in India. In other words, it amounted to demand for funding waste and crime.
Good researchers exist in universities other than the select fifty and a system must be designed to select and support them. But the clamour in JNU was ‘for one and all’ which, of course, soothes the anxieties of the less capable. It was like telling athletes that the same trophy is reserved for everyone irrespective of performance. At the heart of this demand was calculation. The political parties in JNU were aware of the electoral gains that the ‘politics of provision’ ensures. They chose to indulge in it even to the further detriment of higher education in India.
Rohith Vemula committed suicide in January 2016 in HCU. Rohith left behind a poignant note. Only parts of it were read and shared. Inconvenient sentences remained buried. Days after the suicide note appeared, a cancelled portion was deciphered and reported. The silence around it demonstrated little difference about the much idealized campus politics.
The struck-off portion reads, “The Ambedkar Students Association, the Students Federation of India, anything and everything exist for their own sake. Seldom the interest of a person and an organization matches (sic). To get power, to become famous or to be important in between boundaries and to think we are up to changing the system, very often we overestimate the acts and find solace in traits. Of course I must give credit to both these groups for introducing me to wonderful literature and people.”
If the suicide of Rohith is “institutional murder”, as political parties in JNU call it, then these sentences implicate the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and the Students Federation of India (SFI). That Rohith may have struck off the sentences as an afterthought is no defence. The twin institutions of university and government may then get away with “institutional murder” by citing the last sentences from the suicide note. Rohith penned, “I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself (sic). No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this. Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.”
It is possible that ASA and SFI drove Rohith to disillusionment. It is hard to believe that Rohith was unaware of the difficulties of confronting ‘khas’ individuals and their backers in the saffron government. Solidarity with the organization is crucial to face the might of the state. But political parties might have disappointed Rohith through their self-serving praxis. They might have alienated him from hope. They might have delivered him the lethal moment of “Et tu, Brute?” They may be responsible for his fall.
India has negotiated with calls for ‘azadi’ in Kashmir for decades. ‘Azadi’ has several meanings among myriad stakeholders. India has used dialogue and military to negotiate political and terrorist interpretations of it. Some citizens echo ‘azadi’ without as little as acknowledgment for regional and geo-strategic complications. They assume freedom from all responsibility to maintain status-quo in the nuclear tinderbox that South Asia is – characterized by a militarized Pakistan and an expansionist China. The prolonged chess of international affairs may not realize the dreams of the fireflies. But it has certainly avoided nightmares that can annihilate a region extending many miles beyond the tiny Kashmir Valley.
In times of quacked videos, it is unlikely to be concluded who raised what slogans in the February 2016 event to commemorate the hangings of convicted terrorists Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat. But that the freedom to such supposed verbal fireworks has support from some quarters in JNU is largely uncontested.
The political movement in Kashmir has had no dearth of heroes who have inspired without recourse to violence. It is more than odd that a dozen bristles on JNU campus chose none of them but Guru and Bhat to shout ‘azadi’. Guru, Bhat and others of their ilk are the faces of a fear which a citizenry overcomes every day in a crowded market, an underground train, an eatery or an airplane. It is the duty of the state to ensure safety and security of the citizenry and therefore the state must disagree with such rogue rhetoric. The Constitution of India has well-defined procedures for the state to disagree. But the government in charge of running the state made a mockery of procedures – forcing everybody to join hands against immediate repression.
The final fiasco in JNU saw a number of remarkable get-togethers. Hapless inheritors and parliamentary communists were in attendance. The second variety in particular is not exactly emblematic of freedom of thought. Higher education in West Bengal, during the communist regime, was hammered and sickled to mediocrity in the name of countering elitism. Yet almost anybody had to be hosted because the immediate situation demanded that marauders of the right to dissent be shown their place first.
As flags of all hues welcome a batch of fresh minds, it should be remembered that JNU stood together not because the Pied Pipers galvanized it but because the Hitlers dared it.
Arunoday Majumder is a doctoral candidate (provisional) at CSSS, JNU and an independent media practitioner. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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