Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Across India protests have erupted against a controversial citizenship law, enacted in Dece­mber last year. Even though the law is widely being deemed ‘anti-Muslim’, many non-Muslim Indians are also participating in the protests. They see the law — passed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government — as an attack on India’s constitutional secularism, first established in 1950.

At the centre of the protests are thousands of university and college students. One of the most active campuses in this respect has been Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). On January 5 this year, at least 40 JNU students were admitted to the hospital with injuries. According to a January 6 report by the BBC, masked men and at least one woman, allegedly belonging to the student wings of Hindu nationalist parties, attacked students of the JNU and vandalised university property.

For decades, JNU has been one of India’s most politicised campuses. It is often described as a hotbed of radical left-wing politics. According to a study of politics in JNU, published in the March 2018 edition of Economic and Political Weekly, Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khlaiq Parkar wrote that on 33 occasions, radical left-wing student outfits have won JNU’s student union elections.

Even though the student wings of the BJP and the paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are also active there, only once have they won the presidential post in the university’s union.

What makes a university campus left wing or right wing?

The university’s union has remained in the hands of left-wing student groups and alliances, due to what Martelli and Parkar say is JNU’s “dominant anti-establishment discourse.”

The BJP and RSS student wings have lamented that anti-left politics is suppressed at the university. There are also, of course, universities and colleges in India where right-wing student outfits are dominant and left-wing student groups accuse them of repression.

So what makes a university campus left wing or right wing? Recently in the US, conservative think tanks, academics and student outfits have accused their left-wing counterparts of blatantly repressing free speech by disallowing conservative groups to operate on various campuses.

They accuse ‘radical’ left-wing professors of ‘indoctrinating’ students in the name of liberalism and socialism, while, in fact, turning them into ‘left-wing fascists’.

Such allegations are not entirely unfounded. In their 2005 essay for a journal called The Forum, researchers Stanley Rothman, S Robert Lichter and Neil Nevetti wrote that left-wing “ideologically-based discrimination in academic advancement deserves serious consideration.”

Even many ‘moderate’ commentators in the US have not hesitated in pointing out the proliferation of ‘political correctness’, purportedly formulated on ‘left-leaning’ US campuses, as the reason behind the off-campus ‘backlash’ that eventually put Donald Trump in the White House.

But, again, what makes a campus left or right wing? In February 2017, the American journalist Scott Jaschik (in an essay for Inside Higher Ed) analysed four studies conducted between 2007 and 2016.

The studies concluded that faculty members of most American universities leaned left. Professors thus play a major role in shaping the students’ ideological orientation and biases.

I shall briefly discuss cases of some specific universities to elaborate this. Locally, between the early 1960s and 1970s, Karachi University (KU) was seen as a vibrant bastion of diverse student political activity. But a former founder of the erstwhile Pakistani left-wing student outfit the National Students Federation (NSF), Husain Naqi, and another NSF luminary, the late Meraj Muhammad Khan often accused the university’s Vice Chancellor — from 1961 till 1971 ­— Dr Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, of siding with right-wing student groups to curb NSF’s electoral influence in KU.

Naqi told The News International in June 2007, that NSF was popular among KU’s students but Qureshi went the extra mile to change this. Therefore, by 1970, KU’s student union had been won by the right-wing Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) and NSF broke into various factions.

In 1968, KU had been active during the largely left-wing movement against the Ayub Khan regime. But in 1977 it went the other way, by becoming the epicentre of a right-wing movement against the ‘socialist’ Z.A. Bhutto government. Of course, there is more to this than just a faculty turning right and influencing the students but, after 1977, it became tough for left-wing groups to operate at KU without being harassed. The results were tragic.

Another example in this context is of Tehran University. In his book Democracy in Iran, the sociologist Misagh Parsa wrote that, between the 1950s and 1979, student politics in almost all major campuses in Iran, especially the Tehran University, was a mixture of left and right groups.

Most of these groups were opposed to the Iranian monarchy. According to Parsa, after the monarchy was toppled in 1979, the Iranian clergy, under Ayatollah Khomeini, attempted to oust its former anti-monarchy allies on the left. Protests against many of Khomeini’s prescribed ‘Islamic laws’ erupted at Tehran University.

In June 1980, Khomeini ordered a ‘cultural revolution’ to eliminate all ‘Western,’ ‘anti-Islam’ and leftist influences from Iran’s universities. Leftist students were physically attacked by pro-Khomeini groups, and faculty members suspected of being leftists or liberal were expelled, replaced by teachers and professors sympathetic to Khomeini.

Commentators perturbed by the left-right ‘cultural wars’ that have erupted on US campuses, have insisted that when faculty members — both on the right and the left — try to mould the ideological orientation of the students, they are actually endangering the whole idea of free speech and critical thinking.

They are blocking young minds from intellectually engaging with those who may hold different opinions. That’s why the young Indian Hindu nationalists from ‘right-wing campuses’ decided to use iron rods to engage with their left counterparts at JNU. And that’s why, in November last year, left-wing students at California’s Berkeley University went on a rampage and refused to allow a speaker from the other side of the ideological divide to speak at the university. The casualties in both cases were free speech and basic democratic norms.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 19th, 2020