After the Uttar Pradesh police lathi-charged and thrashed women students protesting against the inaction and victim blaming in the alleged molestation of a fellow student at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), vice chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi made certain unfortunate statements. It appeared as though he did not realise the diginity of his position or his intellectual stature. He spoke like a loud-mouthed corporation councillor who, when confronted about the problems in his constituency, presents its geographical vastness and growing population as excuses.
Tripathi, in an interview, recounted the area of BHU in acres, the number of students enrolled, the number of teachers and the different institutes the varsity regulates. What he could not – or perhaps chose not to – say was why despite being a resourceful central university for the past ten years, the institute has failed to become the focal point of knowledge and upholder of liberty in the Purvanchal region.
Many people refer to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as an ‘island’ in Delhi, with a culture that is in contrast with its surroundings. I too believe that JNU is an island – of knowledge, wisdom and freedom – outside which, the society is still a dark and vast ocean of ignorance, imprudence and feudal feifdom. Despite the conflict between the culture in and outside JNU, the varsity still stands strong, struggling against all attempts to bring it down.
In a developing society or a country, centres of knowledge and education, universities and research institutes alike, are such ‘islands’ of thought and intellect. They are expected to bring forth significant ideas and vital discoveries of progress, knowledge and civilisational development before the society, which is inflicted with backwardness, narrow-mindedness and superstitions. The founders of JNU, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or Indian Institute of Management (IIM) had envisioned this when they set up these institutes.
The founders of BHU too must have had similar aspirations to educate the society, even though Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, one of its founders, was not ideologically broad-minded. Malviya was an active leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. Soon after BHU was established, acclaimed Hindi poet, thinker and writer Mahadevi Verma, was not given permission to pursue an M.A. in Sanskrit in the university for being a woman and a non-Brahmin. This goes to prove the narrow-mindedness of its founders.
Later, efforts were made by some senior professors to shed the inherited burden of conservative ideology and to rise above it. Several prominent scholars and intellectuals joined the institute. A sign of the change is the university kulgeet (song), composed by scientist and BHU professor Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar: ‘Madhur Manohar Ateev Sundar, Yeh Sarvidya ki Rajdhani (So sweet, serene, infinitely beautiful; this is the presiding centre of all learning’).
During 1950-60, several positive efforts were made but did not continue for long. As expected, the varsity failed to emerge as the island of knowledge, intellect and freedom. The primary reason was that its leadership was dominated by a casteist, communal and upper caste Hindutva (manuwadi) ideology, similar to the one prevalent in villages and cities around it, which is why Dalits, Bahujans and women remained marginalised on the campus and were subjected to cruel persecution if they spoke of justice or equality.
India aspires to lead the world with campaigns like ‘Digital India’; however, its ‘esteemed’ BHU allows non-vegetarian food in the boys’ hostel, but not in its girls’ hostel.
Incidents of molestation and misconduct towards girls on the BHU campus are not new. But this time, women students from different castes, classes and communities came together to strongly protest against it. They came out of their hostels and staged a dharna at the front gate of the university. Such an act is nothing short of a rebellion. At the time of admission, girls are handed over ‘guidelines’, which among other things, says that they will not participate in any political activities, protests or dharnas.
A few people referred to the BHU protest as a ‘JNU-like’ protest – a phrase that was used several times in the local dailies of Banaras. Even the vice chancellor said, “We will not let Kashi’s great Hindu university become like JNU at any cost.” He knows very well the kind of psyche and thinking that prevails on the JNU campus – one that constantly works on tearing down walls built upon caste, religion and conservative ideology. For JNU, knowledge is associated with the larger aim of development of a better society. It constantly reminds its students and teachers the commitment to constitutional resolutions of development of scientific attitude, democratic thinking and secular mood. For this reason, desperate attempts have been made in the past three years to destroy JNU. Suggestions are made to establish a Border Security Force post on campus or to place a war tank to give the alleged nationalist – upper caste Hindutva – ideology recognition among students. But the current regime cannot dismiss JNU’s academic status despite all its hatred. JNU still holds the one of the top positions in the country, according to the latest evaluation index of the Union human resource development ministry. From India’s foreign secretary to its industrial development secretary, JNU alumni sit on dozens of major policy-making positions in the existing government of ‘nationalists’. Even calling JNU a ‘hub of anti-nationals’ was made possible with the talent that emerged from the varsity.
When the tyrants ruling BHU claim that they will not let their university become another JNU, it only means that they will not allow BHU to become a centre of coherent thought and knowledge, upholding great human values of freedom, fraternity and equality free from casteism, communalism and feudalism.
The tragedy with BHU is the decades-long ideological stagnation of the socio-political atmosphere outside it. There was a time, especially between 1960-80, when several cities of Purvanchal, including Ghazipur, Azamgarh, Banaras and Mirzapur, showed signs of growing awareness. But soon enough, the eagerness for change and rising public momentum came under attack by the upper-caste-feudal supremacy, dominating for centuries, riding on caste-based discrimination, emergence of criminal gangs and a nationwide wave of communalism. The wave had a couple of major centres in the country, of which Purvanchal was one. The communal controversy in Ayodhya and the Babri demolition had the most damaging impact on the political culture of the region. The little awareness that sporadic movements had created among the masses, seemed to vanish. A new wave of Hindutva once again gave rise to an atmosphere of ignorance, arrogance and superstitious beliefs. It destroyed all opposition to the upper-class feudal supremacy by dismantling all rising mass movements. Despite immense possibilities, Purvanchal could generate neither an influential leadership nor an effective mass movement. The possibility of a major change at the grassroots collapsed. Had Purvanchal taken a big turn with new energy during 1970-80, the atmosphere at BHU would have been different. It was the time when a new forward streak was witnessed among the youth in Allahabad and Banaras and it was felt that BHU might change after all. Student movements then were led by socialist and leftist youth. But religious fanaticism, casteism, and finally, communalism stoked by the temple movement altered the course of the movement.
At its own level, BHU was never an island of new ideas and culture like the JNU. The political scenario of Purvanchal and the dynamism of its society could have inspired it towards a new ideology, but it did not happen. Who knows for how long must BHU wait before it finds progressive leadership and liberal thought.
Urmilesh is a senior journalist and anchor of the popular Rajya Sabha TV show ‘Media Manthan’, India’s only television programme to critique the functioning of the media.