A fortnightly column on contemporary society and politics.
In his recently released book, titled Exam Warriors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi advises students how not to not fear examination. The over 200-page carries over a dozen strategies that, according to Modi, would help parents, students, and teachers keep their calm before and after an examination. Interestingly, Exam Warriors was released around the same time that Srilamanthula Chandramohan, a former student of fine arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University, set the vice chancellor’s (VC) office on fire at that institution. Eleven years ago, Chandramohan was suspended from art school and arrested for the “obscene manner” in which he had portrayed Jesus Christ and the goddess Durga in paintings. Since then he has been out on bail.
On February 2, Chandramohan was arrested for a second time. At the police station he told the media, “Mera 11 saal se certificate nahi mila, sir (I have not received my certificate for 11 years, sir.)” Confessing to gutting the Vice Chancellor’s office, Chandramohan claimed that he had “written 30-40 letters to the VC. I was not told the reason for non-issuance of my result or even the grounds for withholding it for 11 years.”
Why did the university take this extreme step of withholding Chandramohan’s master’s degree from him? As a final year student of visual arts, Chandramohan exhibited paintings of gods and goddesses in the nude as part of his coursework evaluation in 2007. Offended by the depiction, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad complained to the police about the paintings. He was released on bail only after spending four days in jail.
But the worst was yet to come. The university not only refused to back Chandramohan, it also withheld his degree. For more than a decade, he petitioned in vain to get what the university owed him. The son of a carpenter, he grew up in East Godavari and was the first person in his family to attend university. In other words, Chandramohan is the quintessential Indian citizen who, from a humble background, aspired for educational qualifications, and hoped that his Master’s degree would break a cycle of deprivation – the very citizen Modi, as ‘pradhan sevak’, apparently is dedicated to serve.
Why does the Prime Minister’s concern for exam warriors not extend to the likes of Chandramohan – who successfully beat examination blues despite their underprivileged backgrounds? I doubt we need to verify Modi’s stance towards individuals like Chandramohan. And his silence toward the injustices they suffer isn’t very different from the silence he adopted when Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at Hyderabad Central University, took his own life to protest the university’s indifference to, and discrimination against, Dalit students.
For an educational institution, denying a student her degree is a serious offence if not a crime. The culpability of the institution becomes even graver when one considers the flimsy and regressive grounds on which the university took such extreme punitive action. Consider the simple facts here: a visual arts MA student is persecuted by a student’s organisation infamous for hounding artists – and others – they disagree with. And the university takes the side, not of their student, but of philistine activists out to suppress his right to express himself.
Ten years passed since Chandramohan was ousted from the university. He recently came under the spotlight again because of his desperation to get the degree denied to him. Failing to do so, he mounted a violent act of defiance not just against the university but against the system as well; against the culture of silence and impunity that punishes creativity. Chandramohan’s narrative is not his alone. Between 2007 and 2017, such incidents of intolerance and persecution of artists have spiralled. Not only has the narrative not changed, it has, in fact, strengthened.
The Prime Minister claims to have changed the system, cleansed it, and made it accountable to the people at large. At a function in Kolkata last September, Narendra Modi said that “janshakti” (people’s power) has enhanced India’s global stature: “Modi said that a wise man had once told him that India will be evaluated by where it is today and not what it was 5,000 years ago or during the times of Lord Rama or Buddha,” The Telegraph reported.
It may be argued that a non-official, honest evaluation of where India “stands today” may not turn out to be very complimentary for the country. The annual Global Democracy Index recently showed that India has slipped to the 42nd position against the backdrop of “rise of conservative religious ideologies” and escalation in violence against dissenters and minorities. Assessing the state of media freedom across the world, this year’s report noted that in India media is “partially” free. Journalists are at the receiving end of government, military and non-state actors and radical groups.
Among such non-state actors is Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the organisation that triggered the university’s backlash against Chandramohan. Over the last four years, such elements have gone from strength to strength. Yet politicians who are at the helm of affairs seem indifferent to the glaring contradictions between speech and reality. The Prime Minister’s apparent concern for students and youth in his regular mann ki baat sermons is delivered entirely in the abstract, disconnected from real issues unfolding around us every day, the real crisis and challenges faced by students. Consider this part of his Kolkata address last September: “There is no better place for creativity and innovation than university campuses… There is no life without creativity. Let our creativity also strengthen our nation and fulfil the aspirations of our people.”
One could say that Chandramohan was only acting on the principle touted by his Prime Minister. He naively believed university to be a conducive space for “creativity and innovation.” So too, in a different way, do students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Yet, over the last three years, universities have become frontlines in the ideological wars India is mired in. Even as he pledges to help young people overcome their fear of examinations, Narendra Modi and his government is repeatedly failing the test.