By Akhil Oka:
As the protest marches continue to fill the streets of the capital as well as other cities, it seems that there is a clear drift this time around. In fact, it is an unusual phenomenon, for the people rallying are students and not just politicians. Since the death of Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad (UoH) campus, many opinions have been shared from all possible quarters. It was followed by yet another incident rocking the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus further intriguing fellow citizens. The role of the Central government and police has been called into question. These issues became so heated, that even the mainstream media took up positions for and against. Overall, they serve as a perfect example of where the discourse has gone awry.
If we look at the first incident, it is indeed an unfortunate one. But, the response to it was quite problematic in itself. For starters, the most abhorrent thing that happened within hours of Rohith’s death was the circulation of his alleged suicide note. Immediately, there were open proclamations on the social media splashing the contents and declaring the cause of his death! The main point here is: how unethical can we get in sharing something as critical and sensitive as a suicide note? How did we know that this was indeed written by him? And even in that case, do we have the right to peep into personal moments and memories of a family?
Some people will definitely point out that nowadays, nothing remains personal when it comes out in the media. To them, the perfect riposte will be to point out what transpired next. The ugliness ensued resulting in some of the opposition party leaders descending like vultures on the family, making political capital out of a young man’s death, while the ruling party conveniently emphasised on a part of his suicide note, in which he blamed no one. Further, the excessive emphasis on his caste meant that his identity as a student and a young man took a backseat. This gave momentum to the other side, who then questioned his caste as this was the easiest way to downplay the incident. This indicates that jumping to conclusions in haste can indirectly result in sidelining the issue at hand, which was the tragic act of a student taking his own life on an university campus!
The Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry is on weak ground when it comes to the facts of the case. Caste indeed might have played a role. The letter written by a Union minister to the HRD ministry with respect to some students in UoH is under question. However, not just the caste discrimination angle, but a student politics viewpoint has also surfaced. The rivalry between two student unions might have actually precipitated the entire incident.
The worrying factor here is the increasing blurring of boundaries between student and real politics. Should a Union minister interfere in student politics simply at the call of its student wing? It is a very dangerous precedent irrespective of whether the letter had an impact on the case or not. Also, doubts over his caste status are simply irrelevant as, ultimately, a young man, who had a bright future, has passed away. There is another aspect which effectively links this to the JNU incident. While at UoH, the complaint was regarding the eulogising of Yakub Memon, it were the names of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat that resonated in the JNU campus.
The arrest of the JNU Students’ Union President and other students as a result of anti-India slogans being shouted and the beating up of students, journalists by some lawyers has been witnessed by everyone. The debate has been hovering around the validity of sedition and the label of ‘anti-national’. Let us go back to the actual incident. Firstly, we should be very clear about the fact that we have the right to dissent. It is guaranteed by the Constitution and most importantly, it is a very natural reaction. We all agree and disagree on certain topics. So, on purely technical grounds, one has a right to an opinion on virtually any issue. A plain examination of the events so far indicate that we have only been reacting on sporadic videos coming out. There is huge disagreement on every point, right from the presence of the students at the venue to the shouting of the slogans. So, for the BJP and other sections to pass judgement on the students without scrutiny is totally uncalled for. Calling it sedition, thus, might be far-fetched.
There is enough agreement that the actual slogans do cross the line. While criticism of the government is welcome, these slogans go against the very ethos of the state. We do have some clarity over the organisation of the event on 9th February. The poster and purpose of the event gives us an idea that while the organisers cannot be fully responsible for the anti-India remarks, they cannot duck the possibility of not having anticipated such outbursts of emotions. What I am emphasising here is that, there should be a platform for debate on all kind of issues, but care needs to be taken that the discussion is held within an amicable framework with open minds. As Ph.D. students, the organisers are expected to have a more nuanced focus on facts and objectivity.
At the same time, arresting them and branding them anti-national is no recourse. This is because anti-national can mean several things for several people. For some, money laundering or corruption might be anti-national. For some, going against religion might be anti-national. Hence, there is enough ambiguity in the term to use it so loosely.
The arrest of the students is not just ethically and pragmatically but also politically ill-advised. Students who have certain opinions might reconsider them on dialogue. But, police action will simply harden the feelings and can have an adverse impact. It is baffling that the Modi government, which ironically came to power on the premise of winning over the youth is resorting to this. The Prime Minister’s absolute silence on many of these incidents is hurting the cause tremendously. Mainly because the 2014 campaign was a fought like presidential contest with a focus on the PM. So, for the ruling party to now defend the silence by quoting established standards of past prime ministers does not sound convincing at all. Even some of the honest attempts of the PM like Mann Ki Baat have become bureaucratised. The disconnect between government euphoria and the reality is increasing.
On closer scrutiny, the focus is on three aspects – students expressing their opinions, the world of student politics and the ‘left’ versus ‘right’ debate. The key element here is, that any student or individual needs to introspect on how much he factually knows about the cause he fights for, whether he feels strongly about it and whether it is an issue relevant enough to pursue. Only having made an informed choice should one join or start a cause. It is easy to join the bandwagon, but difficult to hold on to your own opinions. Secondly, student unions need to maintain a certain distance from political parties. Otherwise, their actions no longer remain within the domain of student politics. The left and the right also need to reconcile with the fact that both sides have been equally liberal and intolerant over the years. So, it is plain fallacy if one side tries to claim higher moral ground.
While we have discussed at length about the students, their role in democracy, their right to free speech, it is necessary to concentrate on the situation of our universities today and their relation with students. The ground reality is far from the politicians’ understanding. For example, in Rohith’s case, there was a huge outcry with respect to the Vice-Chancellor and his lack of contact with the students. But, isn’t it the truth that the students hardly have any connect with the V-C in the majority of cases? Forget the V-C, there is a huge gap between the entire setup and the students most of the time. One thing that deserves mention here is the wholesome support of the JNU faculty to the students in this time of crisis. Such a bond is very rare and the mutual trust which both the students and the teachers share, contribute to the making of an institution and the building of confidence in the students.
But leaving this aside, we must think about whether our universities are really student-friendly. Do you know that it is entirely possible that a university may not even have a students grievance cell? There is scarcely any mechanism for a majority of the students to lodge complaints in case of ragging, harassment or against their teachers. This is just a small estimate of the kind of problems plaguing our prestigious universities. So, for all the bravado shown in fighting for the right to dissent over distant issues, how many of us, as students, can really feel comfortable raising our voice about the practical issues that affect us in our universities? Awareness and ready availability of a counsellor could have saved a life in UoH.
Hence, we need to look at a scenario where students individually need to be empowered to redress their issues. It is time that we learned to transcend the realms of idealogy and parochial attitudes and concentrate on improving the experience of student life to avoid such incidents in future. It is this very point which both the mainstream media and our politicians should be raising. Only when students are truly given a voice, will change be possible!