In response to what they say is a concerted government attack on universities, teachers from several institutions in Delhi came together to talk about the importance of academic freedom.
New Delhi: What is a university? Kicking off a press conference called by teachers across Delhi on academic freedom here on Thursday with that question, Satish Deshpande, professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics said one of the central functions of a public university is to create a path for social mobility. “India has a deeply, deeply unequal society”, he said. “There is no question about that. We no longer redistribute land… The only equaliser we have in this situation is access to higher education. A country can’t be both deeply unequal and democratic for very long”.
Sunil Kumar, professor of history from Delhi University, traced the current attack on universities back a few years with an example from DU. “You have people pushing a one-sided discourse”, Kumar said. Referring to AK Ramanujan’s essay ‘300 Ramayanas’ being removed from the DU history syllabus as the start to the “tragic” situation universities are seeing now, he argued that “the little bit of freedom universities had is also being taken away”. “There is a crisis in the idea of freedom within universities”, Rukmini Sen from Ambedkar University Delhi added. “The government is intervening in debates and discussions even within the university space”.
Srinivas Burra from South Asian University clarified that a university being autonomous should not be equated with it being closed to criticism. “Universities may have internal problems that need to be talked about, like caste problems. People should be able to talk about that openly. But what we have now is the state intervening in the autonomy of universities, and that is unacceptable”, he said.
Autonomy is paramount
DU faculty member Apoorvanand compared the situation in the country today to Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. “For hosting a seminar or a discussion, you can now have a petition filed against you, followed by charges and a FIR”, he said. “They are creating a sense of fear in universities, to the extent that events certain groups may not like are being cancelled. The context we are in now is different from before”.
Raising examples from troubles at Jammu University and Lucknow University, he argued that this phenomena was occurring all over the country, not just in Delhi and Hyderabad. “There are fewer and fewer university teachers who are not worried”, Rukmini Bhaya Nair from IIT Delhi added.
Answering public criticism of JNU students as ‘overly political’, Rajan Krishnan from Ambedkar University Delhi argued that a university where students and teachers didn’t have political opinions would be a completely sterile environment. Adding that university students are “adults who vote”, he defended their right to think and debate.
Deshpande also spoke up against the view that universities are not for politics, but for creating ‘employable’ adults. “Historically, that is not what universities world over are meant for”, he said. “We have a world that is constantly changing. How do we face a changing society unless students are equipped for it? ‘Training’ is not enough, higher education needs to equip people with the ability to think, to question. And for this, universities need autonomy. Otherwise all you are doing is praising whoever is in power”.
Petition against Sheldon Pollock
The petition of academics against Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock was also brought up in the discussion. Addressing this question, Mukul Kesavan of Jamia Milia Islamia said that there were in fact serious issues around these topics, such as unequal access to publishing and funding for Indian scholars. “But the letter brought up none of those”, he said. The letter, signed by over a hundred university administrators and teachers across the country, focuses on Pollock’s criticisms of the government of India, and faults him for not being ‘steeped in the intellectual traditions’ of the country. “It used almost comic misquotations of Pollock to prove that he is unqualified. That petition was like a gift, a reassurance that we are on the right side of this debate”.
Beyond the university
UGC professor of physics Vikram Soni raised the question of why popular opinion seemed poised against JNU, and universities in general. Deshpande sought to explain this by saying that universities are seen as a ‘privileged space’, hence being a soft target for people’s frustrations when they were unable to articulate the cause of their frustrations. “I agree, universities are privileged”, he said. “But they also serve a social mission. And increasingly, larger sections of society have access to these spaces”, he added, giving the example of Kanhaiya Kumar’s background. “That is something that needs to be understood both inside and outside the university space”.
Apoorvanand added that what really bothered the government was that people were looking beyond their immediate identities. “Rohith Vemula raised political question on behalf of several marginalised groups, he did not restrict himself to student politics”, he said. “They are afraid of the unity that may arise between marginalised sections, that is why everything is being branded as wither ‘ultra-left’ or ‘Islamist’. They are trying to make it seem like there is some nationwide conspiracy between these two groups. It is evident also from the Bastar IG saying that Umar Khalid had a role to play in the attack on Soni Sori. The government is trying to keep minority identities separate”.
“All dissent is the same to them”, DU faculty member Saroj Giri added. “That is why they have this idea of a ‘conspiracy against nation’, and are trying to connect the dots between NGOs, universities and other movements”.