Bidyut Chakraborty, vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, could have chosen to defend his critical remarks about the Constitution’s Preamble. This is what academics and heads of educational institutions are expected to do, to argue out the defensible and non-defensible positions they take on various occasions. Chakraborty, however, has gone ahead and done the very opposite. The vice-chancellor has punished the student who recorded the speech he delivered at a function on January 26.
Addressing students on Republic Day, Chakraborty said the Preamble of the Constitution, which has now become the “Vedas” for the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters, was drafted with the support of a “minority.”
“Today, those who are opposing the CAA are reading the Preamble. But this Constitution was drafted by ‘minority’ votes…Now that has became the Vedas for us (sic). Preamble has become the Vedas. But if we do not like (the Preamble), we, who are voters and form Parliament, will change it. But the process to change does not mean a wave (of protest), hurling abuses,” Chakraborty said.
His comments drew criticism from teachers, constitutional experts, and academics, even as university authorities rushed to identify the undergraduate student who shot the video. The authorities subsequently interrogated the student and asked him to leave the hostel.
Chakraborty’s arbitrary handling of the controversy generated by his own comments is of a kind with what is happening every day in different parts of the country. In a civilised society, people in positions of authority, especially those claiming ownership of knowledge, have to be able to defend their positions. They need to engage in a debate even on controversial issues. Chakraborty could well have explained his remarks. Instead, he chose to retaliate against the student.
The vice-chancellor’s remarks were doubtless aimed at getting back at protesters among his student body. In the absence of further clarifications, his comment sounds more like political sniping than historical rebuttal. Sugata Bose, professor of history, told The Telegraph, “The Preamble may be called the Vedas because it encapsulates the spirit of our democracy. I can’t understand what he (the VC) meant by ‘minority’. If he refers to religious minority, that is not right as there were very few Muslim members. The Constitution was passed with majority votes.”
A clarification on Chakraborty’s remarks finally came – not from the vice-chancellor himself but the university’s public relations officer, Anirban Sarkar. “By minority, our VC meant that those who framed the Constitution were elected on the basis of restricted franchise as the franchise was based on educational qualifications and the share of property tax unlike today when it is based on universal adult suffrage… Many sections of Indians thus remained unrepresented,” said Sarkar.
One does not have to think hard to understand the reasons for Chakraborty’s peevishness with regard to the Preamble. Across the country, protesters are reading aloud the Preamble to remind the government of how the CAA violates its very spirit. In Chakraborty’s own state, this Republic Day, thousands of people formed an 11-kilometre human chain in Kolkata and read the Preamble. As did the women protesters in Kolkata’s Park Circus and Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. People are reading and discovering the Constitution.
An adversarial relationship
On the whole, students and women are at the forefront of the ongoing protests. As college and university students become more and more restless, heads of institutions adopt increasingly arbitrary measures. The JNU experience shows us that a complete breakdown in communication between the student community and the vice-chancellor is not an impossibility. JNU vice-chancellor Jagadesh Kumar has set a dangerous precedent. He has institutionalised – with the backing of the Central government – a culture of presiding over an educational institution whose administration is in constant conflict with its student community. The adversarial relationship between the university establishment and student and teaching communities on campus has led to numerous incidents of violence.
As apparent, protests against the CAA are not showing any signs of petering out. Neither are the protesting students backing down. On Wednesday, the IIT Bombay administration issued a circular asking students to stay away from “anti-national activities” on campus. The circular banned speeches, plays and music, even if faculty was part of the gathering, without the prior approval of the dean of student affairs. The circular, emailed to the students, listed 15 rules as part of the code of conduct. The students are expected to subscribe to them at all times. Any violation will attract strict disciplinarian action. “Residents shall not participate in any anti-national, anti-social and or any other undesirable activities,” one of the rules dictated. The students on this campus have been protesting CAA for weeks.
The question of what constitutes “anti-national” activity is left unexplained. And deliberately so. The objective is to keep the students anxious about the nature of such “anti-national” activities. A word here, a line there, could attract the charge of sedition. The police could be at your doorstep.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath recently declared that raising azadi slogans would attract the charge of sedition. “… the government will take strict action. It can’t be accepted. People can’t be allowed to conspire against India from Indian soil,” he said.
The fundamental message is simple. Like the Visva Bharati vice-chancellor, IIT Bombay authorities too, are warning students to stay away from the anti-CAA protests. In recent days we have seen more and more students – even in IITs and IIMs, usually considered apolitical spaces – joining protestors. As the push back from protesters grows, so do retaliatory measures. The scope of what amounts to “anti-national” activity widens every day. The longer the list grows, the more opaque and absurd it becomes.