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Destroying India’s Temples Of Learning

Destroying India’s Temples Of Learning

On 13 December 1947, in a powerful address at a special convocation of the University of Allahabad, the then Prime Minister of India, the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, “ It is necessary for all of us, and more especially for young men and young women in the universities to pause and think for a while on these basic matters, for the future of India is taking shape in the present, and the future is going to be what millions of young men and women want it to be. There is today a narrowness and intolerance and insensitiveness and lack of awareness which rather frighten me.”

Nehru went on to add, “ War has not brought peace and freedom, but it should teach us many lessons. It brought the downfall of what had been called Fascism and Nazism. Both of these creeds were narrow and overbearing and based on hatred and violence. I watched their growth in their respective countries as well as elsewhere. They brought a certain prestige to their people for a while, but they also killed the spirit and destroyed all values and standards of thought and behaviour. They ended by ruining the nations they sought to exalt. I see something very similar to that flourishing in India today. It talks in the name of nationalism, sometimes of religion and culture, and yet it is the very opposite of nationalism, of true morality and of real culture. If there was any doubt of this, the past few months have shown us the real picture.”

Nehru’s words are indeed prophetic as we see what he spoke about more than seventy years ago, unfolding under our very eyes today! India’s temples of learning are under attack as never before: hate, intolerance and violence are being mainstreamed in a meticulous but insidious manner. Freedom of thought, speech and expression; the courage to be critical, analytical and objective; to debate and to dissent, to challenge and to be creative: make up the DNA of great universities in most parts of the world.

Fascism is alive and kicking in India even as it reared its ugly face onto University campuses in different parts of the country; first, it was the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. Following violent clashes during a protest called by Jamia students over the Citizenship Amendment Act during the day, police entered the university campus and thrashed students without discriminating between those throwing stones at security personnel and those studying in the library. That very night (Sunday, December 15), the Uttar Pradesh police entered the campus of the Aligarh Muslim University and beaten up students. More than 1,000 students were booked. This happened following violent clashes during the day during once again a protest over the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Both in the Jamia and AMU attacks, allegations flew thick and fast from both sides with police and right-wing outfits on one hand, and the Left-wing outfits – both engaged in student and national politics – blaming one another for violence and police action inside university campuses. Allegations aside, there is sufficient evidence that in both cases, the violent goons of the Sangh Parivar (particularly from their student wing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) in connivance with the police, are responsible for these despicable attacks. These attacks naturally evoked spontaneous outrage from students and universities across the globe. More than one hundred universities from all over India took out marches or held demonstrations against these attacks. Protests were held in Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford and other Ivy League Universities. No one was ready to accept that a temple of learning could be attacked for whatever the reason!

To add salt the wounds, on 5 January 2020, more than 50 masked people armed with rods, sticks and acid attacked the campus of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. The brutal attack left more than forty students and teachers injured! Those Professors, who tried to intervene and protect the students, as well as ambulances carrying injured individuals, were also attacked. Eyewitnesses stated that policemen within the campus did not intervene to stop the mob. After attacking residents of the University campus for more than three hours, (they did not spare even those living in the ladies hostel); the mob later escaped; none of its members were arrested or detained till today (Jan 10).

Strangely enough on 10 January, in a well-publicized action, the Delhi Police on released pictures of nine suspects in the JNU violence case and claimed JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh was one of them, five days after a masked mob assaulted students on the varsity's campus, (including a ladies hostel) leaving 35 injured, including her; pictures of Aishe’s broken head and bleeding face went viral even as the attack was taking place. No one, of course, is believing the police version of the events; Aishe vehemently denies any involvement in the violence, and there is ample documented evidence to support her claim: once again, in a scenario earlier played out in Jamia and in the AMU, the police and even the JNU administration seemed to be hand in glove with the perpetrators of the attack. In a time tested fascist strategy the victim is conveniently now accused as a perpetrator, which obviously defocuses from the actual culprits.

In a hard-hitting op-ed in the ‘Indian Express’ (7 January 2020) noted social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes,  “The events at JNU are another symbol of the apocalyptic politics this government is playing. It is apocalyptic in a triple sense. At the level of discourse, the normalisation of the phrase “tukde tukde gang” abetted by the home minister, with the help of a pliant media, laid the background conditions for this kind of violence. There is no doubt that many of those who were cowardly enough to assault unarmed professors and students and hit them on the head, see themselves as some kind of nationalist warriors: Avenging national honour by unleashing violence in a university. But the fact that they think in this way has been enabled by the larger ideological climate, something government functionaries have done much to inculcate. There is no getting away from the fact that hunting down your own citizens as anti-national is now part of the ideological construct of this government, as evidenced by the home minister’s speeches. There is no getting away from the fact that the kind of state response that you have seen in UP against minorities, on the heels of the tepid response to earlier episodes of lynching, emboldens the worst elements of our society to act as vigilantes. The state will, directly or through proxies, encourage violence against anyone who is not in tune with it.”

The attack on the JNU has also evoked spontaneous national and international outrage. Universities are meant to be citadels of tolerance, of promoting pluralism, of encouraging the students to challenge the system. For years the students of JNU were encouraged to pursue knowledge which was not tainted in any way, to think independently and creatively, in order to provide the country with a more meaningful and relevant direction. Suddenly this very bastion which should have been held up as a lighthouse for the country, a beacon of hope and the vestibule of truth - has been battered by a group of thugs representing a fascist regime which supports their dastardly deeds.

Attacks on universities and colleges in different parts of the country continue with impunity and of course, with the immunity the goons are cloaked with from the higher-ups.

On 8 January, masked goons armed with sticks entered the campus of the GLS University in Ahmedabad and threatened the students with dire consequences should they not support the policies of the Government; that very day students of the Jyoti Niwas College in Bangalore were threatened that they would face the same music as the JNU students if they did not sign in favour of the CAA. Significantly, on 1 January 2020, students from more than one hundred universities from all over India took a solemn pledge to defend the Constitution of India, at all costs.

Hitler and the Nazi regime could not bear the intellectuals, the academics, the poets, the students who could thing and challenge and raise a voice of dissent. This is exactly the same response from fascist and dictatorial regimes everywhere. What is also doing the rounds at this moment are fake messages put out by the Hindutva brigade of how any form of dissent in JNU in the past was quelled by the earlier Congress Governments. Telling a lie a thousand times till most people start believing it is another Goebbelsian strategy effectively used by the Nazis.

At this moment of our country’s history, Nehru’s address in Allahabad must find resonance in our minds, hearts and souls,  “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duty adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people. But if the temple of learning itself becomes a home of narrow bigotry and petty objectives, how then will the nation prosper or a people grow in stature?”

We don’t have to go far to find the answer which is so obvious: we need our students, we must have our temples of learning with their sanctity, objectivity and independence; we have to go all out to prevent not only their desecration but their total destruction now!

(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact:  cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 13th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 03)