When Universities Become Objects of Counterinsurgency

Academics and students in India have been facing an immediate, sharp and existential threat since 2014.

While the involuntary resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University may appear different from the persecution of Dr Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh, there are important similarities. It goes without saying that both these men, through their courageous critique, have threatened an authoritarian state or else they would not have been targeted.  And both cases reflect larger structural emergencies – the wholesale attack on academic freedom in the present case and the destruction of adivasi lives and resources in Chhattisgarh in the other.

According to the latest All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report available (2018-19), India has 993 universities and almost 40,000 colleges. Of these, 385 universities and 78% of the colleges are privately managed. Some private universities like Ashoka may claim higher standards and offer better salaries, but by and large, tenure, pay, and academic freedom are scarce commodities in private colleges which are run as business institutions rather than as incubators of learning. Public universities and colleges have their own problems, such as direct state control and rigid bureaucracies. In public universities too, however, contractualisation is becoming an epidemic. What Indian academics need is a joint struggle across private and public universities for secure tenure and freedom from political interference in appointments. Academic freedom is normally defined as the freedom to teach and research as well as to speak one’s mind out as a citizen. Appointment as well as removal of faculty should take place only on academic grounds assessed by peers; almost any other reason is a direct attack on academic freedom.

We also know that across the public-private divide in higher education, the dominant castes and classes are over-represented – already structuring what is said and researched, and what passes for universal knowledge. Certain categories of citizens have little academic voice. According to AISHE 2018-19,  Scheduled Tribes have a gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 17.2% as compared with the national GER of 26.3%. Muslims constitute only 5.2% of the college and university student population, compared with their overall percentage of about 14.2% in the population. A recent petition in the Supreme Court has alleged that 23 IITs are flouting their reservation obligations in recruitment and research degree admission. In the new private universities, there is no reservation at all. Addressing these inequalities is a long term issue on which the academic community must unite, not just because universities are an important site of social mobility for individuals, but because knowledge benefits from diversity.

Since 2014, however, academics and students have been facing an immediate, sharp and existential threat, as shown also by India’s precipitous decline on a global academic freedom index. A companion piece to be published in The Wire provides a detailed catalogue of this.

The government seems to be engaged in a form of counterinsurgency on universities, which is remarkably similar to the one it has waged in places like Chhattisgarh. Indeed, the book on the Delhi riots by advocate Monika Arora and others, which the Delhi Police appears to have adopted as its ‘intellectual’ guide in filing criminal charges against students and faculty, makes the parallels clear. It describes Delhi’s leading universities as hubs of a gigantic foreign funded criminal conspiracy run by a network of urban-naxal-jihadis, using the constitution as a decoy, to engineer violence.  It calls on the “vice chancellors of DU, JMI, JNU and all other universities to take an audit of the use of their campuses to engineer wider disturbances in the city in the eight weeks leading up to the riots.”  The message is clear – critical students and faculty are ‘hostiles’ who must be ‘neutralised’.

The government’s real higher education policy also appears modelled on five standard counterinsurgency tactics: erasure, demonisation and delegitimisation, capture, surveillance and eventually, depoliticisation.  Just as the citizenship of the inhabitants of Chhattisgarh or Kashmir is erased to paint a picture of ‘militant -infested’ war zones in which anything goes, the real work of teaching and doing research in colleges and universities is erased when students and faculty are demonised and attacked. And just as the government has located paramilitary camps across Bastar, the government has embarked on a plan of police surveillance and control of campuses. The desired end result is a populace which is too scared or tired to resist.

1. Erasure: The rise of ‘WhatsApp University’

Universities and their knowledge production are being rendered irrelevant by the organised spread of pseudo ’factual ‘historical’ and ‘social’ information on social media, designed to promote a Hindutva worldview. It is not uncommon for university scholars to be dismissed as biased or plain wrong when they try to correct these narratives. I have had people on trains tell me that Nehru had Gandhi shot or that Gandhi had little role in India’s freedom struggle.  This is not just the anti-intellectualism of those who haven’t been to university (since college education still has a practical employment-generating attraction) but comes from an active denigration of established academic and political consensus, which is common to authoritarian right-wing governments the world over.

The RSS has now acquired a cohort of articulate, even foreign educated spokespersons, and even some who write history books using language like ‘subalternity’.  However, the overall contempt for the social prestige that book-reading confers is evident from the denunciation of the “Khan market gang”, or the references to JNU students as the ‘tukde-tukde’ gang.

The RSS has also waged a silent, if unnoticed attack on traditional scholarship in India’s multiple languages, which is being subsumed in false nationalist pride. There is no room, for example, for the history of satirical narratives in Sanskrit, or the fact that many Sanskrit texts have been popularised through Persian translations.

This comes against the larger backdrop of universities as producers of critical knowledge being overtaken by global consultancies which generate policy knowledge for hire at one end, and India’s vast coaching network for nationwide standardised competitive exams at the other end.

2. Demonisation and delegitimisation

Over the past few years we have seen how campus seminars critical of government policies have been cancelled or not allowed in the first place. In fact, the incidence of such cancellations has gone down, because nobody is even trying to hold discussions on contemporary politics any more or a conscious attempt is made to obscure the real topics of discussion (eg. a debate on the end of Article 370 at a premier Central educational institution was re-branded as a debate on the ‘relevance of federalism’ in order to get past the thought policing).

Students and teachers have been physically attacked and in at least one serious incident (MM Kalburgi), killed for their views and scholarly research. Since the anti-CAA protests began (and now with the farmers’ protests), university faculty and students in Delhi, Aligarh, UP and Assam have been subject to repeated interrogation as if protesting was a crime; and several student activists who have spoken of the constitution and democracy, have been arrested on the grounds that they are ‘anti-national’, ‘seditious’ or ‘terrorists’.  On the other hand, the ABVP activists who attacked JNU in January 2020 have gone scot free.

The worst affected, of course, have been Kashmiri scholars, whose high speed internet use was curtailed for a whole year and more. Kashmiri students and faculty have been arrested within Kashmir; and outside Kashmir, they face attacks from ABVP vigilantes.

3. Capture and militarisation

While delegitimising existing scholarship, the RSS is also in the process of capturing both academic positions and research funds for its own members and projects. Since 2014, a large number of heads of research institutions or universities have been appointed with no qualification, other than loyalty to the RSS. Take for example, Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) chair, Y. Sudershan Rao (2014-17), whose primary qualification was that he was a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, the RSS’s History Wing. He had no peer reviewed publications. Another example was chairman of the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), Braj Bihari Kumar,  (2017- 2019), who was a founding Member of another RSS front, Astha Bharati. Faculty in central universities both long for existing vacancies to be filled and live in dread of fresh appointments for fear that unqualified pro-RSS people will be appointed, as has happened in JNU. Once a bad appointment is made, universities are poisoned for several generations as the new appointees in turn select their successors.

Institutional resources and sanction are being provided to pet projects of the BJP.  For instance, in 2020, an inter-Ministerial funding program on developing products from indigenous cows  (SUTRA-PIC India) was announced; while AIIMs Rishikesh has been asked to undertake clinical trials on the efficacy of the Gayatri Mantra in treating COVID. A national exam on the virtues of Indian cows in comparison to their Jersey counterparts was postponed, but there are plenty of other similar RSS projects for which university staff and students are mobilised. ‘Refresher courses’ which all faculty who want promotions must take, are used as occasions for RSS propaganda.

Not only are campuses being militarized (Manipur University already had an army camp) with proposals for tanks and towering flags and police bands playing frequently, but now army generals are considered experts on historical topics. Why, even the Delhi police thinks that they can decide what PhD students must read. Among their various charges against Sharjeel Imam, a JNU PhD student, is that he read the wrong kind of books for his MPhil thesis on pre-partition attacks on Muslims in Bihar. Citing the noted American political scientist Paul Brass’s book, Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms and Genocide in Modern India, the Delhi police says: “By reading only such literature and not researching alternative sources, the accused (Imam) became highly radicalised and religiously bigoted.”

4. Surveillance

Surveillance is growing with CCTV cameras and biometric attendance being set up across campuses. In 2020, the police have been tasked with keeping a watch on campuses, infiltrating student WhatsApp groups and ‘organising frequent visits of students to police stations.’

Many of the government’s surveillance orders are foolish and unimplementable.  Take for example the order, now fortunately withdrawn after protest by science associations, that all foreign participation in on-line seminars relating to India’s internal matters would have to be referred to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for prior approval. Even if the MEA deployed all its staff for just this purpose alone, it would not have the person-power to deal with requests from academic institutions across the country. The same governance issue affects the renewed order that OCI scholars will have to seek prior permission for research. There is no clarity on how the government expects to deal with the hundreds of requests it will undoubtedly get. However, the purpose of all these is evidently to create a chilling effect.

5. Depoliticisation

The government plan is evidently to depoliticize universities through repression, by closing down avenues for independent thought, by increasing the contractualisation of jobs thus rendering faculty ever more precarious, reducing studentships and hiking fees, prioritizing global rankings and emphasizing job creation as the primary function of universities rather than the creation of knowledge.

However, given the resistance by the young – starting from FTII protests in 2015 to, most recently, the students of Ashoka university protesting the ‘resignation’ by Pratap Bhanu Mehta – this is where the government’s vision may face its most serious roadblock. As always, where there is darkness, there is also light.

Nandini Sundar teaches sociology at Delhi University