Temples of learning are also places for sound and sustained debates led by students.

It is time for Indian universities to stop politicking and become truly political
Voices Opinion Thursday, February 18, 2016 - 19:08

Along with Marx and Habermas, Kalidas and Pingala, it is time India’s universities become really politicial, grow a spine and think freely and fairly. It is time for our young minds to debate issues that matter to Indians and the world, discuss threadbare our social ills and economic exclusion, including asking why after six decades of independence, there are no new ideas or perspectives, dwindling funds for research and old politicians, running out of time and losing relevance.

Why is this happening?

We live on borrowed ideologies and false fights, which in turn skews our pursuits.  For weeks now, we have been hearing about what Jawaharlal Nehru meant and what Mahatma Gandhi may have missed. This must stop, as must our fawning over borrowed ideologies that are no longer relevant. Marxism and Maoism are passé in their original versions where they originated, so why must we be more British than the British? There is no need either for people to invoke foreign dictators and their atrocities – our favourite Hitler and Auschwitz  - to explain horror. We have enough on our plate – the horror of children dying on India’s streets and villages due to hunger, poverty, indifference and disease is atrocious enough. Where is the outrage?

Universities are where people go to learn, among other things, the luxury of freedom and free thought. I would think students in Indian universities would frame the fight for land rights and tribal rights on the basis of the very enlightened and forward thinking document called the Indian Constitution. Fight the good fight, fight to re-write laws if they are outdated, have the courage to take intellectual leaps and bounds without nets, not the cowardice of jumping over, which is silly bravado. Monkeys can jump over fences and hold placards. Real politics is neither a selfie nor a hashtag – it means using your mind and intellect to convince the opposite party. It means the grace to accept defeat. It means the intellectual stamina to learn, return and re-open arguments with more knowledge. It means understanding the virtue of negotiations and the violence of stone pelting.

In my view, all knowledge is political, but the quest for it cannot be an act of revenge for something lost or snatched by history, family or society. The ruckus around the Jawarharlal Nehru University (JNU) this week has exposed the tellers of stories, chroniclers of history and carriers of politics as intellectual dwarfs, stuck in a time warp no one understands anymore. And frankly, nobody cares. The India that matters is looking for jobs and employment opportunities, a meaning to their existence and not some ridiculous candlelight march and sing-alongs.

Let us also get one thing sorted out. All political parties use their student wings for political advantage. Whether it is the ABVP, SFI, NSUI or another, they are mouthpieces for their political masters. This is a global phenomenon. What is typically Indian though is inbreeding, the vacuous quest among the old and ageing from all political parties to capture young minds under duress and using threats. There are innumerable cases where students pursuing higher studies or doctoral thesis are denied access because they belong to the wrong caste or the unfashionable political thought. Nepotism is rampant in Indian universities and access, not accountability is championed. When Rohith Vemula took his own life, he left behind myriad causes for us to fight for, but our political masters and their mouthpieces narrowed it down only to caste equations. Caste is to India what the American dollar is to the world – the only currency upon which every political candidate is chosen. Merit – huh?

If we were centres of excellence once and find ourselves diminished now, the blame lies with us. If we have allowed stupid politicians to dictate our intellectual debates in universities, it is because our professors and teachers have abdicated their rights. It is time to bring that back. It is time to validate what India stands for without fear or favour. It is time to stop ‘professional students’ and unemployed politicians from driving us further into the ground. For this to happen, we have to stand up together – it can be done. It must be done.

Recently, I watched the critically acclaimed film ‘A Wednesday’ directed by Neeraj Pandey starring Nasiruddin Shah and Anupam Kher. It is a film that invokes daily terror and fear that we have now come to accept as normal. It shows the pigeonholes of suspicion and despair we have boxed ourselves into - an outrage here, a bomb blast there, a few hundreds dead, what’s next. This is the intellectual and moral death we have heaped on ourselves. You don’t have to agree with the film, but here is a line from it, at once scary and empowering, that should make you stop and think. Nasiruddin Shah says, “We are resilient by force, not by choice.” It is a war cry of sorts, and I believe we can turn our forced resilience into a collectively chosen one. Our centres of learning have a critical role to play in this journey we must all take together.

Think about it – if we have survived so many stupid politicians and their nonsense all these years, if we have assisted, by omission or commission, in the destruction of our institutions, surely we have the political wherewithal to tell our leaders and puppeteers where to get off? JNU and Jadavpur, Hyderabad City University, the IITs and IIMs and all others have it in them to turn the tide. India is not asking for anything more, at once.

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