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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 12, March 23, 2024

Growing Spectre of Hate in University Campuses in India | Narender Nagarwal

Saturday 23 March 2024


The horrifying imagery of brutal assaults on innocent Muslim students in Gujarat University, Ahmedabad while they peacefully engage in their prayers is utterly gut-wrenching, enough to evoke profound anguish and outrage. It seems that Indian university campuses have become hubs for the expression of bigotry and sectarian conflicts in recent years. This horrible illustration involves the mob attack on international students who were offering Namaz in a hostel premises during the holy month of Ramadan once again reaffirming the notion that hate has dominated the Indian educational institution and freedom, equality and justice are almost dead words in the campus premises. On March 17, 2024, a Hindu mob with iron bars and stones attacked Muslim students on the campus of a university in Gujarat.
Among the victims were foreign nationals who were receiving government scholarships to study in India. During the holy month of Ramadan, foreign students from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, South Africa, and Sri Lanka were offering namaz in their hostel when suddenly a violent mob stormed the hostel and attacked the foreign students as the violent mob objected to the students praying namaz on campus. According to GS Malik, the Ahmedabad police commissioner, at least two people were injured in the violent attack on Muslim students enrolled in the state university as part of a government push to promote cultural exchanges with other nations. The purpose of this analysis is to examine the causes of this kind of intolerance, the effects it has on the world stage, and the pressing need for corrective action to preserve India’s standing as a welcoming and varied country.

Overview of Incident

The incident in question unfolded within the confines of a university hostel, where foreign national students were targeted while performing namaz during Ramadan. The assailants, driven by communal sentiments, unleashed violence upon the students, violating their right to practice their faith freely and without fear. This egregious act not only undermines the ethos of academic institutions but also strikes at the heart of India’s secular fabric. The incident also exhibits the growing intolerance and environment of hate in Gujarat state, the western state of India.

The National Education Policy 2020 is aimed at making universities more peaceful, tolerant, and inclusive institutions of study. However, recent events such as the violent attack on Muslim students at Gujarat University in Ahmedabad suggest that this objective has not been fully realized by the state university. It is important to understand that a university is not just a place for academic learning, but also a platform for fostering holistic development, humanism, openness, and the free exchange of diverse perspectives. The fundamental goal of higher education is to nurture critical thinking, empathy, and inclusivity and multiculturalism where all voices, faiths, and views are respected. When this freedom is restricted and universities become a breeding ground for hate and bigotry, it undermines the very essence and purpose of higher education.

The recent incident has led to a discussion on whether the university system in Gujarat state provides an equitable learning environment for students of different religions, castes, communities and races. The students who were victims of the incident were lawfully performing their religious duties according to their customs and traditions. They enrolled at Gujarat University Ahmedabad with the expectation that universities are inclusive spaces where individuals from diverse backgrounds come together to learn, grow and constructively challenge each other’s beliefs. Such exchanges of ideas are essential for intellectual growth and societal progress. Universities foster an atmosphere of openness and freedom, encouraging students to explore new perspectives, question traditional knowledge, and engage with diverse viewpoints. Furthermore, universities play a crucial role in shaping well-rounded individuals who are not only academically proficient but also compassionate, tolerant and empathetic towards others. By promoting a culture of humanism, universities instil in students the values of empathy, kindness, and respect for all individuals, regardless of their background or beliefs.

Freedom of religion doesn’t end at university premises

Freedom of religion is a fundamental right that must be respected and preserved within the premises of university campuses. This is crucial because the exchange of diverse opinions and perspectives is the foundation of intellectual exploration and progress. When universities restrict or censor certain beliefs or ideas, they limit academic freedom and hinder the pursuit of knowledge and truth. On the other hand, when universities embrace freedom of expression, they create a safe and empowering environment for students to express themselves and engage in intellectual discourse. However, if freedom of religion is curtailed, secularism becomes restricted and universities can become breeding grounds for hate and bigotry. This undermines the entire purpose of higher education, which is to foster critical thinking, empathy, pluralism, and secular ideas. In such environments, narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and discrimination can take root, perpetuating social divisions and undermining the values of democracy and pluralism. Therefore, it is imperative that universities uphold freedom of religion and create an inclusive and respectful environment that fosters intellectual growth and exploration.

Furthermore, promoting hate and bigotry within the university system not only harms individual students but also has broader societal implications. It contributes to the normalization of intolerance and undermines efforts to build a more inclusive and equitable society. Moreover, it tarnishes the reputation of the university and erodes public trust in higher education institutions as bastions of knowledge and enlightenment. The incident of mob violence underscores the deep-seated communal hatred prevalent in Indian society. It reflects a dangerous trend wherein individuals are targeted based on their religion or ethnicity, fostering an environment of fear and mistrust. Such polarisation not only jeopardises the safety and well-being of minority communities but also impedes the free exchange of ideas and perspectives essential for academic discourse.

Impact and diplomatic fallout

The recent mob attack on foreign national students in India has raised concerns about the country’s image on the global stage. The coverage of international media on this incident has severely dented India’s image as a responsible player in global politics. The incident has drawn criticism and condemnation from the international community, which has led to apprehensions about India’s reputation as a welcoming and tolerant nation. Such incidents have the potential to strain bilateral relations and erode trust in India’s commitment to upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms. It highlights the need for proactive measures to address such incidents to avoid inviting scrutiny and censure from the international community. The government and civil society need to work together to promote a culture of respect, inclusivity and diversity, which will not only enhance India’s soft power but also help establish it as a progressive and inclusive democracy.

Concluding remarks

The incident of mob attack on foreign national students offering Namaz in a university hostel serves as a stark reminder of the growing intolerance and communal hatred pervading Indian university campuses. It highlights the urgent need for introspection and remedial action to stem the tide of religious extremism and polarization. Failure to address these underlying issues not only threatens the safety and well-being of minority communities but also undermines India’s standing on the global stage. India prides itself on being a sanctuary for diverse religious beliefs, a testament to its secular roots and commitment to pluralism ingrained within the Constitution.
This ethos has fostered a rich tapestry of cultures and faiths coexisting harmoniously. However, despite this foundational principle, instances of communal and racial violence against Muslims persist, tarnishing India’s reputation on the global stage. Such incidents not only betray the core values of secularism and multiculturalism but also undermine India’s credibility as a responsible member of the international community. They cast a shadow on the nation’s commitment to upholding human rights and fostering inclusive societies. In a world increasingly interconnected, where perceptions matter greatly in diplomatic relations and global discourse, these acts of violence erode trust and respect for India as a nation that champions diversity and tolerance.

In conclusion, universities should be places that promote holistic development, humanism, openness, and freedom of expression for all voices, faiths, and views. When these values are upheld, universities serve as beacons of intellectual inquiry and moral enlightenment, helping to create well-rounded individuals and advancing the cause of knowledge and understanding. However, when universities promote hate and bigotry, they betray their purpose and render higher education meaningless. It is therefore the responsibility of universities to uphold the principles of academic freedom, tolerance, and respect for all individuals. Only then can they serve as agents of positive social change and progress.

(Author: Narender Nagarwal teaches at Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi)

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