Girish Karnad essayed the role of a young, idealistic dairy technologist in Manthan, an inspiring movie on the politics of starting a dairy cooperative in Gujarat. The local overlord, played by Amrish Puri, attempts to win over Karnad by offering him choice liquor, which our young man firmly refuses. Puri then, with a sarcastic laugh, states that he is very fond of idealists, since they are bound to lose their idealism one day. I don’t know how many of the actors on the prosecution side of la affaire JNU, our recent box office hit on television, have seen this movie. Even if they haven’t, they would probably have done well to have taken a leaf from Puri’s book and treat the entire JNU episode as another case of boyish spirits which merited at most a mild rap on the knuckles and a word of reproof, with a knowing nod of the head, that “boys will be boys”. By throwing one of the more draconian sections of the Indian Penal Code at the students of the University, the government of the day unwittingly conferred a distinction on these students and willy nilly dragged itself into a controversy that led to international condemnation as well as a suspicion in the public mind that there was a political agenda behind the entire imbroglio.
My generation passed through the portals of higher education during the days of the Emergency of 1975-77. Even prior to that, there was considerable ferment in idealistic sections of the student population. The exploits of Che Guevara in Latin America, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests in the USA and the distant rumbling of the Naxalite uprising in Bengal were all beacons of hope for sections of youth that had come face to face with the unravelling of the post-independence Nehruvian consensus. Scores of students from the neoliberal environment of Delhi University left their studies to pursue their dreams of a classless society. Severe state repression and the vortex of violence the movement spawned led to a fairly early disillusionment with the Naxalite movement and the homecoming of the chastened prodigals. Their future careers in academia or the civil services (almost the only two job openings at that time) would have been severely jeopardised had the then Government of India not had the sagacity to overlook their youthful enthusiasm and withdraw possible prosecutions against them. Many of these potential “revolutionaries” went on to outstanding tenures in the civil services and the academic world, especially as teachers in the university that is at the centre of the present controversy (some have moved from Trotsky to the Temple, but that is another story). There was (and is) a deep humanism and liberalism informing the approach of many of them to social, political and economic issues. The Emergency represented the darkest phase of Indian democracy, but it also had one redeeming feature: it sensitised the youth of my generation to democratic values of freedom and human dignity and developed in many of us distaste for authoritarianism of all hues. Freedom to us meant freedom of thought, speech, association, profession of any religion (or no religion) and culinary choice, to name the prominent ones. Colleagues of mine in the Indian Administrative and Police Services stood up to excesses of different political formations when they attempted to trample on the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the name of religion, caste, ideology, ethnicity or region.
I stress this cherishing of fundamental human values, because I am aware of the educative role of the university in developing the thinking individual in each of us. It is made all the more poignant in view of the recent calls by many highly qualified persons to students to concentrate on their studies and not on politics during their stay in the university. Proponents of this school of thought seem to view the role of institutions of higher learning as producing technology zombies of the sort popularised in the Dilbert comic strip, rather than alert, aware citizens who will participate actively in the ongoing process of social transformation. Unfortunately, this betrays a highly technological view of the roles of discussion and dissent in public discourse. Any discussion on issues relating to the human condition and efforts to better it are inevitably political in nature. It would appear that significant sections of the intelligentsia still view the development of the critical faculty in individuals from an authoritarian perspective. Probably, this has its roots in the parental and social (including educational) environments which stress conformity rather than curiosity. From personal experience, I can certainly aver that independent modes of thinking and functioning evolved only when I entered college. Nor can I claim that my true education came from the classroom: rather, it was the product of hours of discussion after class on diverse issues ranging from politics to social issues and values.
V.S. Naipaul characterized India as a land of a million mutinies over forty years ago, easing somewhat the resentment of Indians over his earlier reference to the country as an area of darkness. If Naipaul was right then, we would have to term this as the land of a billion mutinies now. Assertions of identities by disadvantaged castes and communities, not to mention the struggles of the female half for their rightful place in the Indian sun and the refusal to be denied their economic opportunities, have led large sections of the population to question the traditional, patriarchal social structures. The university has served as an avenue for upward mobility and for questioning the existing power structure. Any political party which seeks to assert the monopoly of its ideology and restricted worldview over institutions of higher learning, through manipulation of teaching processes and educational curricula, is pursuing a chimera. As Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan affirmed in a recent speech at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai “The first essential is to foster competition in the marketplace for ideas…This then leads to a second essential: Protection, not of specific ideas and traditions, but the right to question and challenge…it is by encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels that society develops.” Governments learn this lesson far too late – the Congress government in 1977 reaped the consequences of the denial of free expression to the student population in higher education institutions for twenty months.
Ultimately, the Argumentative Indian will have his say. Having had his say, he will then move on to the basic business of earning his livelihood. Governments in a democracy need to provide a pressure valve to a population, many of whose members still suffer from myriad economic and social deficiencies. Ignoring this reality can prove fatal for a government when it next goes to the hustings. The first requirement for a successful, popular politician is a keen sense of irony laced with good-humoured forbearance, a quality sadly lacking in most of the political class in India today. The first generation of Indian political leaders was jailed by the British; the second generation of political leaders was jailed by the Congress. It would be truly ironic if the third generation of leaders of independent India were to emerge from those currently being jailed by the present government. Who can tell, every cloud may have a silver lining!