Education

A University Is Not a War Museum

Defending our borders is important; defending our freedoms is equally important. And that is what a university is for.

Police outside the JNU main gate during student protests last year, when three students were arrested on sedition charges. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh

Police outside the JNU main gate during student protests last year, when three students were arrested on sedition charges. Credit: PTI/Kamal Singh/Files

Partial disclosure: When the Kargil war unfolded between May and July 1999, I was a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), doing my PhD in sociology under professor Avijit Pathak.

Last week, JNU vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar said he wanted to “procure an army tank” that could be displayed at a “prominent place” on campus to serve as a “constant” reminder to students of the sacrifices the army makes. On the podium, in the presence of the vice chancellor, another speaker, Rajiv Malhotra, who has written a book called Academic Hinduphobia, said he was “glad we’re capturing JNU”. “This is not only a victory of taking over Kargil in the external war, but also the victory of taking over JNU in the internal war,” he said.

At a time when Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a a one-time opponent of British colonialism who pledged his allegiance to the British in return for being released from prison, is being projected as a ‘veer’ or hero, we need to question why a university should be considered an appropriate location for an army tank, and why  the suggestion, built on an army-centric narrative of patriotism woven around the insignias of machismo, should have come from JNU’s own vice chancellor.

What next? A splinter of a grenade recovered from a Pakistani terrorist killed on the Jammu and Kashmir border for each primary school in the country? A retired brigadier as principal for each college? An army soldier’s salute as the standard form of greeting one another in all academic seminars?

No battle tank inspired Bhagat Singh to lay down his life at the altar of the idea of India. No army training prepared Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to take a bullet to his chest for his convictions. No military code of conduct moved Rohith Vemula to kill himself to save himself from living a life of daily indignities and to bring to the attention of the nation the kind of treatment meted out to Dalit students in our colleges and universities.


Also read: The VC’s Job is to Enhance the Academic Quality of JNU, Not Promote ‘Love for Army’


For the students of India, can an army tank be any more inspiring than a farmer’s plough or a manual scavenger’s bare hands? Consider some hard facts about the security and insecurity of the majority of Indians.

Agriculture supports almost 60% of India’s total population, the contribution of agriculture to GDP is at around 15%. A sector that provides work to more than half of the country’s population, contributing less than one-fifth to its GDP indicates a clear imbalance. Since 1995, over three lakh farmers have committed suicide in the country. A majority of them were concentrated in five major agricultural states – Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh. Between 1995 and 2003, around 15,400 farmers ended their lives each year. This number increased to more than 16,000 between 2004 and 2012. Since 2003, more than 12,000 farmers committed suicide every year till 2013. Even Punjab recorded as many as 449 farmer suicides in 2015, next only to Maharashtra. These are official figures. The actual count will be higher. The police adopt a narrow definition of ‘farmer’ that limits official data on the extent of cases. Only those farmers who have a land title in their name are considered. So if a farmer working on his father’s plot or a woman working on her husband’s land commits suicide, they won’t be counted. If we add agricultural labourers and tenant farmers, the data will be even more devastating.

Instead of procuring an army tank, should we not place a broken spade near a replica of a twisted human neck inside the university campus to “remind students of the sacrifices” made by our farmers and their families?

Next month, the nation will celebrate the 70th year of its independence. Thanks to the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act passed in 2013, manual scavenging – removing human and animal excreta from streets and dry latrines, cleaning septic tanks, sewers and gutters – is a criminal, non-bailable act.

According to official data, more than 1.8 lakh people who are engaged as manual scavengers across the country are still living a dehumanised existence. They clean 9.6 million dry latrines. It is a 11-hour, six-day week routine that begins at 6 am every morning. They use their hands to scrape the human waste off the road, railways and dry latrines, and collect it either in a bucket or cane basket. Unable to bear the undignified and dangerous nature of work, 90% of workers take to alcohol, leading to adverse health situations. According to independent observers, they end up spending over 60% of their earnings on alcohol, trapping them in the vicious cycle of poverty. They face humiliating discrimination and apathy from their neighbours as well as the government.

A labourer cleans an underground drain. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

A labourer cleans an underground drain. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

In 2014 and 2015 alone, there have been 1,268 recorded deaths of manual scavengers cleaning open sewers – a statistic that should worry every self-respecting citizen of this country. Hundreds across the country, almost all Dalits and most of them women, continue to die in sewers while removing human excreta with their bare hands, even in cities with sewer-cleaning machines. According to an official survey done in 2015 under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act which called for a list to identify and rehabilitate manual scavengers, the number is 12,226.

Instead of procuring an army tank, should we not place a stone replica of a toilet with a human form cleaning it with its bare hands inside the university campus to “remind students of the sacrifices” made by Dalits and their families?

The problem with ‘the army tank in a university’ brand of patriotism is somewhat similar to the problem we have with TV studios where anchors wear olive green camouflage jackets while reporting on terrorist attacks. The image becomes the message; the selfie becomes the saviour; the tunnel becomes the vision. The anchors don’t wear farmers’ clothes while reporting on farmers’ suicides and don’t shed their designer clothes while reporting deaths due to manual scavenging, if at all the channel ever finds time for this kind of reportage. In this age of Facebook warriors and Twitter nationalism, it’s very easy to get intoxicated by the smell of a war and the sight of olive green.

A university is not a parade ground; it is a battlefield for competing ideas and ideologies. A university campus is not a platform to chest beat one’s patriotism; it is a podium to showcase our ability and willingness to celebrate academic excellence, which includes celebrating inquisitiveness and even non-conformism. A university is not a war museum; it is an incubator for an enlightened citizenry willing to fight for justice and equality. Defending our borders is important; defending our freedoms is equally important.

As much as the VC is enamoured with army tanks, he should have requested the higher authorities to appoint a TV-studio-loving retired army general as his replacement so as to better  inspire his students.

Full disclosure: I voted for the All India Students’ Association candidates in all the student elections and I feel privileged to count Chandrashekhar Prasad, twice elected president of the JNU Students’ Union and brutally shot dead in Siwan, Bihar, as my friend.

Basant Rath is 2000 batch IPS officer who belongs to the Jammu and Kashmir cadre. Views expressed are personal.

  • kujur bachchan

    “Instead of procuring an army tank, should we not place a stone replica of a toilet with a human form cleaning it with its bare hands inside the university campus to “remind students of the sacrifices” made by Dalits and their families?”

    YES. WHY NOT? And I am sure millions and millions of Indians would agree with Mr Rath.

    What say you M. Jagadesh Kumar and Rajiv Malhotra?

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Well written, Mr Rath.
    The real motive behind the army tank suggestion is revealed (perhaps unwittingly) by Rajiv Malhotra:

    “…but also the victory of taking over JNU in the internal war”.

    So.
    It is not to instill patriotism, but FEAR. An Orwellian “we are watching you and will crush you” kind of fear.
    Because if there’s one thing this government is scared of, it is our young, who are not afraid to THINK, to DISSENT, and EXPRESS that dissent in united solidarity. Who still retain enough humanity to speak up at injustice.
    Hence the tank, not the toilet.

    • Amitabha Basu

      Couldn’t have expressed myself better than you, Ashok ji. Thank you. And, of course, Basant ji for his excellent article.

      • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

        Many thanks, sir. 🙂

  • truthteller

    Equating Rohith Vemula’s suicide to Bhagat Singh and Gandhi is dangerous and irresponsible. Suicide is a mental health issue, something that deserves sympathy and treatment, not to be glorified. Rohith Vemula’s suicide note made clear that he needed help from a community that failed him. Turning him into a martyr and glorifying his death sends a terrible message to other depressed people who may be considering taking their own lives. India’s understanding of mental health issues is woefully inadequate and this is just one example.

  • vikas singh

    Well written Mr Rath, your candour of speaking up will be noted in history. You give us a hope of peaceful solutions. Best wishes

  • Rajeevk1949

    Kerala is the lone and final bastion of the communists in India.They are worried about the growth and acceptance of the right wing ideology as the whole country is going with it.

  • Anshul Satyanand

    Agreed but its shouldn’t be a breeding ground od terrorism and antisocial elements. .freedom doesn’t mean that you can shout ‘ bharat ke tukde kar denge ‘….but as usual this comment will also not be published. ….

  • linda koshy

    ..a subtle reminder of Tianamen Square 1989..?

  • Mainpal Singh

    Mr Basant’s views thank God are his personal and biased views for the following reasons–
    1. Either he is unaware or knowingly omitted reference to military’s connect with JNU which dates back to 1970s when cadets graduating from NDA and Army Cadet College received their degrees from JNU, New Delhi. All three services have officers from JNU and hence it is their alma mater as much as it is for someone doing MPhil or PhD from JNU.
    2. The author sees the greatness in idea of dissent only. There is also greatness in forming a consensus after debating on relevant and real issues. Why only one section of society / one perspective (leftists ideology) has to have a last word. Resentment for purely reasons of having liberty to do so is pure fabricated friction/opposition.
    3. The armed forces have brought glory to the nation with exceptional victories in war. Why should that not be celebrated. How come one tank in one spot will change the culture of a university. I am sure there must be other symbols also at different locations.
    4. The writer with his adversely opinionated mind has used adjectives for veterans faculty showing his personal negative bias towards them. This is being outright discourteous because of self opinionated mind. He could have made his point of respecting other point of view without targeting veterans who in themselves have not asked for this tank to be displayed.
    5. Sorry to see this type of disregard for uniformed brothers coming from a police officer. Shows the basics.
    6. He should also read a letter written by veterans on the plurality of perspectives.
    P S. I am also a student of Sociology.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    You obviously believe that trial-by-media is the only trial that’s required, and have obviously swallowed hook, line and sinker the judgements pronounced by hyperventilating TV anchors falling over themselves to outdo each other in patriotism.
    You obviously choose to ignore the fact that even after one and a half years no chargesheet has been filed by the Delhi Police.
    TV is your court and anchors are its judges, and THEY have decided. So why bother with trivialities like absent chargesheets, isnt it?

    • Anjan Basu

      Yes, the culture of trial-by- the media, where the triumphant anchor happens to be judge, jury, coroner and counsel for prosecution all rolled into one, has far too many adherents today. Here, facts do not matter, nor evidence, because the anchor’s pronouncements are the gospel truth. Manufactured news, fake CDs etc etc are minor issues to be duly consigned to patriotic flames.

      • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

        “Patriotic flames”: Nice play!
        And the strange thing is this: despite the established lack of credibility of mainstream media on many matters and its by now well-known policy of towing the government line with minimum questioning, people still willingly suspend disbelief and gulp down whatever is fed to them by breathless TV anchors.

    • aditya yanamandra

      Understand that communists live in their own world and conveniently target BJP leaders without proving it. We want you to live in the same universe of your thought my friend & we will replace you in West Bengal. Just wait for next elections in WB and this is a state you ruled 35 years. Good luck.

      • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

        Ah – true colors!