Students’ protest

Published September 14, 2019
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.

FOR reasons more than one, it is truly ironic that the authorities of Aligarh Muslim University should have objected to the protests voiced by its students from Kashmir at the outrages perpetrated by the government of India and its stooge, the governor in Srinagar, on their land. The students would have been false to Aligarh’s glorious tradition if they had kept supinely silent.

Before and shortly after independence, the university’s campus was the stamping ground for diverse political ideologies — the Congress, the Muslim League, communists and the Jamaat-i-Islami. It is far too late in the day to demand that they confine themselves to the lecture halls and their dormitories. Such a diktat would go against the global trend of expanding the frontiers of academic freedom.

The supreme court of India has held that a prisoner remains a citizen even in the confines of his jail and is entitled to fundamental rights permissible in the circumstances. Surely a student does not stand in an inferior position to a prisoner.

Expression of dissent on campus should be protected.

Since judicial dicta do not help much, statutory rules are required. What we do need as a ‘permanent feature’ is a provision in all our university acts along the lines of Section 43(1) of the British Education Act, 1986, which reads thus: “Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for member students and employees of the establishment and visiting speakers.” The right to free speech belongs to all.

The Sangh Parivar’s men break up meetings on campuses at which visiting speakers critical of the Sangh’s ideology and policy are invited to speak. Even employees are entitled to the right. The right can be exercised through meetings as well as students’ journals. Protest meetings on campus should be protected. The British statute also protected visiting speakers, and for good reason.

The student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, is notorious for breaking up meetings on campuses and outside organised by those opposed to the RSS. It is one the most — if not the most — powerful student bodies in the world. Most of the top BJP leaders rose from the ranks of the ABVP. Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, K.N. Govindacharya and Sushil Kumar Modi were all members of the AVBP. In 1995, the ABVP had working units in 415 out of a total of 483 districts of the country. Of India’s 167 universities, 121 had branches of the ABVP.

The ABVP’s map imagines Pakistan, parts of Tibet and Bangladesh within India. The RSS goes far beyond that. It includes Afghanistan and Southeast Asia as well.

This is not a students’ body. It is a students’ front body of a political body, the RSS, like its political wing, the BJP. The intolerance and bigotry of the ABVP have harmed the cause of students’ movements.

Fifty years ago, the diplomat-scholar George F. Kennan was embroiled with students who campaigned violently against the Vietnam War, who were intolerant, even abusive, of those who disagreed with them. It is important to identify and isolate such elements — for they are politicians on campus, not students.

The student, on the other hand, is dedicated to the values of scholarship and asserts his right to protest, to expression of dissent as a member of the academic community with political convictions. He is no stooge of politicians outside the campus.

We in India at least are far from such a dispensation. A college can be set up by a registered society. A university can be established only by a statute. And statutes are enacted by politicians through legislatures. Vice-chancel­lors are not academics but politicians; namely governors of the state amenable to the diktats of the centre. That explains a lot — especially the lot of students.

The culture of academic freedom, however, cannot be divorced from the political culture of the community, in which the university exists. If autonomy of institution, the existence of a free media, and the civil rights of citizens are questioned, the university cannot escape. The struggle for academic freedom is, therefore, part of a wider struggle for freedom in the country as a whole.

Men who are used to subverting freedom generally will not spare universities. This is where the students’ right to protest comes in. If the student is encouraged to exercise his right to protest at a young age, he will grow up as a citizen spirited and committed to defending freedom in his country, and perform the duties of a citizen alive to his own and others’ rights. In this struggle, the student shall not be impeded but his worth should be viewed with sympathy, for he is performing his duties to the society in which he lives.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2019


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