Friday, April 22, 2016

JNU/HCU/IIT and all that

This post is a bit late. On the other hand it is perhaps better to wait till the dust has settled down to write on controversial topics. The last six months have witnessed turmoil on several academic campuses, with strong similarities between the incidents that occurred on each one.

The saddest case occurred on the Hyderabad University campus,with a  tragic culmination in  the suicide of the young and promising Dalit student, Rohith Vemula. What started as a simple case of a scuffle between two student groups, and the consequent rustication of one student group, went out of hand due to mishandling and political interference, and resulted in the loss of a young life. Subsequent events were even more bizarre, with reports of vandalism on campus, the entry of the police,  the arrests of students and faculty, and verbal and physical violence towards protesting students.

The story at Jawaharlal Nehru University involved `anti-national' slogans raised at a student event involving Kashmiri students, the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the student union, subsequent attacks on him at the courts, and the hunt for  those who were actually involved in the incident, who may or may not have been the students finally identified as the culprits.

The incidents at IIT were milder, as befits its sober and nerdy image. Arguments between  students belonging to two student societies, resulted in the withdrawal of recognition  to one of the concerned parties, allegations and denials of political interference,  and the subsequent restoration of the status quo, albeit with more restrictions on the organisations than existed  before.

What is startling is the similarity between the incidents on widely separated campuses, which could have been handled peacefully within the rules of the academic institutions, provided they had been applied with some vision and concern, and the opportunity they provided for outside interference. Even more startling is the reaction of the general public, which  includes berating students for taking interest in societal and political issues, questioning their academic and familial credentials, and even going to the extreme of estimating the cost of their student stipends and recommending that they start `earning their living' and stop being `a burden on society'.

 There are several broad issues involved here, and many of these have already been discussed threadbare in public fora. We would only like to focus on one here. Universities and academic institutions are meant to be places where notions of society, state and culture are discussed, and to provide platforms for opposing points of view. The norms and regulations of academic institutions are supposed to have evolved to a point where differences of opinion can be sorted out in a democratic, orderly and peaceful manner. It will be  best if politicians and the public allow them to do so.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.     

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