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Home > 2023 > Alert students amid spineless vice-chancellors | Avijit Pathak

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 8, February 18, 2023

Alert students amid spineless vice-chancellors | Avijit Pathak

Friday 17 February 2023, by Avijit Pathak


I have no hesitation in saying that the way the Government of India has responded to the BBC documentary — India: The Modi Question — is pathetic. It reveals the essential paradox of all ‘powerful’ regimes. Yes, this sort of power and associated cult of narcissism or seeds of authoritarianism breed chronic psychic anxiety and existential insecurity — say, the fear of critical interrogation by those who dare to differ and dissent.

No wonder, a documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots so unsettled the government that it had to invoke emergency powers under the IT Rules, 2021, and block multiple YouTube videos and nearly 50 tweets that shared the first episode of the documentary. Not solely that. We were reminded by the government authorities that the documentary was just ‘a propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative’, and it was an attempt to ‘cast aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court.’

After this sort of panic and nervousness, is it surprising to understand why India’s position in the World Press Freedom Index is continually declining?
Yet, amid this all-pervading fear of freedom, what arouses hope is that some of our students from leading public universities are refusing to accept this official narrative. And despite a joint statement by more than 300 former judges, bureaucrats and other ‘prominent’ figures accusing the BBC of pushing a ‘British imperialist agenda’, these alert students seem to be eager to screen and watch the documentary, trust their own judgment, evaluate the pros and cons of it, and form their own opinions on a terribly violent event in the history of post-Independent India.

Why should they accept blindly what some bureaucrats from the foreign ministry, or those ‘prominent’ figures dictate? After all, the real dharma of studentship is to think, reflect, debate and, if necessary, raise uncomfortable questions that might unsettle the status quo.

However, what is really tragic is that the academic bureaucrats we see around — or, the bunch of politically appointed and, hence, intellectually/morally insecure vice-chancellors — have lost the spirit of debate, dialogue and academic freedom. Instead, their fascination with ‘law and order’, or their urge to satisfy their ultra-nationalist bosses robs them of the creative skill of negotiating with intellectually and politically alert students, and create a peaceful environment conducive to the spirit of free enquiry.

Imagine the way some of these academic managers responded to the situation. While the Jamia Millia Islamia authorities chose to prefer the ‘legitimate’ violence perpetrated by the Delhi police and the Rapid Action Force to prevent young students from screening and watching the documentary, the JNU administration, as it was alleged, decided to cut off electricity supply and Internet facilities to prevent the screening of the documentary. And the administration of Delhi University thought that it would be illegal to screen a ‘banned’ film in a public sphere. Moreover, as we were told, the plan to screen and watch such a film was nothing but to ‘disrupt universities’.

Not solely that. The vice-chancellor of a leading Central university was prompt in writing an opinion piece in a national daily. He reminded us of the danger implicit in the ‘white media’s burden’. In fact, he wants us to believe that Indian Muslims — particularly, women — are quite happy with Narendra Modi. No wonder, he asserts that ‘BBC’s agenda-driven journalism’ fails to understand that ‘India’s relations with the Islamic world are better than ever before.’ For him, this documentary as the ‘white man’s burden’ is a ‘distasteful disaster’ filled with ‘loads of misplaced victimhood.’ And yes, this vice-chancellor does not forget to assure us that for Indian Muslims, Modi is not the question; instead, he is the ‘answer that is undoing many of the injustices against Muslims.’

Yes, the intellectual and moral impoverishment of some of our academic bureaucrats shocks me, and even shatters my faith in the possibility of a vibrant university culture that celebrates critical thinking, dissenting voices and rigorous debate on the issues that shape our collective destiny. In fact, when hyper-nationalism becomes the order of the day, brute majoritarianism is seen to be a virtue, political appointments destroy the rigour and ethos of the intellectual milieu, and sycophancy is considered to be the easiest path to achieve ‘success’, everything is possible.

A vice-chancellor can behave like the spokesperson of the ruling regime; critical voices can be suppressed as ‘anti-national’, and attempts can be made to transform studentship into docility.

The irony is that the way the government and its hired agents are feeling threatened by some informed students reveals that not everything was fine in Gujarat in 2002. And the horror of Gujarat, or the way people were killed in the name of religion, and that Modi — the then Chief Minister of the state — was reminded by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the need to perform ‘raj dharma’ will continue to haunt us.

And for creating a better future, or nurturing the grand dream of a truly civilised India enriched by diversity, heterodoxy, and peaceful coexistence amid religious pluralism, the new generation must know about the damage caused by all sorts of communal violence or ethnic cleansing. Not an escape from the harsh reality, but the courage to face it for nurturing a new vision is the need of the hour. And this is possible only with the kind of education that nurtures the spirit of fearlessness and critical thinking.

Even though some sensitive and alert students realise it, I am not very sure whether it is possible to educate these heavily compromised academic bureaucrats.

[The above article first appeared in The Tribune and is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use]

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