The reactions of university administrations to the BBC’s documentary about Narendra Modi and the 2002 Gujarat riots show that vice-chancellors have become stooges and spokespersons of the majoritarian regime.
Najma Akhtar, the VC of Jamia Millia Islamia, called in the police to prevent students from watching the BBC documentary. The internet was shut down, hundreds of police personnel surrounded Jamia and the gates of the university were locked. Reports suggest at least 12 students were detained. Akhtar issued a strong statement that peace prevailing in the university environment would be maintained at any cost. The VC does not mind if the students are beaten up or arrested to ensure this peace. According to her, there is peace on the campus. A majority of the students only want to study and give exams. Just a handful of students, who are political and do not have any followers, want to create trouble on campus. They cannot be allowed to have their way.
On the eve of Republic Day, the detained students spent time in jail because they were practising what the Indian constitution guarantees for every citizen: the right to free speech. How else does a citizen express her commitment to the constitution on Republic Day? Lighting incense sticks in front of the constitution is one thing but putting oneself in danger to fulfil its promises is quite another. So, on behalf of the entire country, I salute these students of Jamia.
But what should we do with the VC? She knows very well that there is no peace in the university, at least among the students and teachers. Their hearts are throbbing with anxiety and anger. The BBC documentary gives them an opportunity to share their angst. This film reminds us of the violence in Gujarat, far away from Delhi, 20 years ago. But that violence never ended. In the winter of 2019, the students of Jamia remember the violence that the police inflicted on them. As a matter of principle, the VC of Jamia should have resigned after that. But that can only happen when any sense of principle remains.
There was at least a pretence of this dignity when three years ago, the VC demanded an inquiry into the police violence and said that she was with the students. But as time passed, she felt that to live the life of a VC, she needed to shed even this basic concern. While it may be difficult to live like a human being without this dignity, it is impossible to remain a VC with any trace of it left. You have to cure yourself of that disease. That’s why she buried it somewhere deep.
Before the actions of the Jamia VC, her counterpart at Aligarh Muslim University, Tariq Mansoor, wrote an article against the BBC film to express his loyalty to the majoritarian rulers of India. He knows that an autocratic ruler is not satisfied with silent loyalty. He has to hear its announcement, loud and clear, repeatedly.
That’s why AMU’s VC, writing like a spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, called this film an unnecessary attempt by the “White media” to scratch old wounds. The vice-chancellor scolded the makers of the documentary and said that his own community does not want such self-styled “false godparents”. According to him, his community has left 2002 far behind. According to him, the community, especially Muslim women, has great appreciation for the prime minister.
We do not know who expressed such feelings to Mansoor. But we do know Zakia Jafri and Bilkis Bano, two Muslim women who are still crying out for justice, even after 20 years have passed. The VC seems to have missed them. Or maybe it was to insult them that he felt it necessary to mention the gratefulness of Muslim women to this Islamophobic regime.
Let us put aside the Muslim community and the regime for a second to talk about the university he heads. The VC has turned AMU into a theatre of terror. If any teacher is critical of this government, he is immediately reprimanded from above. An attempt was also made from above to stop the literature festival organised by the students. In 2019 when the police entered Jamia and attacked the students, AMU students were also subjected to the brutality of the police. Though only three years have passed since then, the VC has consigned that violence to the past. Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that the violence of 2002 is a truly ancient memory for a person like him.
There is no need to be surprised by all this. Akhtar, the Jamia VC, had released photographs after getting the post, in which she was taking blessings from the person appointed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to placate and co-opt Muslims.
The reason the regime is angry with the BBC film is that it asks whether a person who was acquitted by the state agencies of all charges should also be absolved by us, the citizens. Our vice-chancellors are also very careful not to let their students hear this question, leave alone raise it on campus. That explains their over-enthusiasm for banning the film.