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.

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.