The Spectre of Campus Activism Haunts the Liberalisers and Saffronisers
And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
-- Malvina Reynolds, 1962

LIKE the Birla-Ambani Report of Vajpayee’s days; like the Report of a World Bank Task Force on Higher Education in Developing Countries, February 2000, of which Manmohan Singh was a member; like the Lyngdoh Committee report, the TSR Subramanian Panel report on the New Education Policy has spent several pages recommending the restriction of campus activism. The TSR Subramanian panel imagines that the vast, ‘silent’ majority of students are adversely affected by student activism. It then recommends that the Constitutional liberties and freedom of association be restricted. It seeks a “large public discussion” on the question of restricting such freedoms – but a discussion in which it, strangely, wants “vocal segments of the community who are votaries of ‘free speech’” to be silenced. It further recommends that “student groups explicitly based on caste, religion, or any political party should be abjured through the statues governing the universities and institutions.”

How do we read these recommendations in light of recent events? The Government of the day chose to brand Ambedkar Student Association and Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle as explicitly ‘casteist’, while the ABVP that violently imposes casteism, patriarchy and Hindu fundamentalism on students is deemed ‘nationalist.’ The Government of the day has made no secret of its hostility to free speech and dissent, even as it has nurtured hate speech. The Panel Report, then, sits well with the Government agenda of delegitimizing dissent on campuses. Dissenting student movements are branded as a ‘distraction’ while a fictitious ‘silent majority’ is projected, with no basis in fact, as victims of the movements!

The TSR Subramanian panel has aired its own blinkered bias against student activism – without bothering to look closely at issues raised by any recent student agitations. In Delhi University, common students made their voice heard in referendums against the politically-imposed FYUP and CBCS that were destroying the quality of education. In JNU, agitations over the years have secured and safeguarded socially just admission policies, measures against casteism and sexual harassment, and hostel and library facilities, as well as implementation of labour laws for campus workers. In BHU, students are currently agitating for a 24/7 library. In HCU, students are agitating against deeply entrenched casteism. In various colleges in Patna, students have agitated against casteist and high-handed Principals and against sexual harassment. The Hokkolorob movement in Jadavpur University and the recent movement against the crackdown in JNU have seen demonstrations in which thousands of students from other colleges and Universities too have joined spontaneously. What is the basis of the Subramanian panel’s speculation that the ‘majority of students’ are against such agitations for equitable education and for democratic rights?

The TSR Subramanian report speaks approvingly of “US and the western world.” It forgets, perhaps, the historic as well as recent instances of massive student agitations in the US against racism; against fee hikes; against wars; as part of the ‘Occupy’ movement. It forgets massive recent student marches and campus occupations in the UK against fee hikes. It has not even cast its eye beyond the “western world” – to look at the recent student agitations for the right to equitable education in South Africa, in Chile, in Mexico.

Ironically, one of the members of the TSR Subramanian panel is JS Rajput who was NCERT Director during the Vajpayee regime. An enquiry report in 2005, investigating 201 complaints filed against Rajput during his tenure, had found Rajput guilty on 128 counts, of "nepotism, irregular appointments, favouritism... and [an] authoritarian style of administration." The report by a committee headed by S Sathyam, had also found that Rajput had caused "avoidable embarrassment to the Ministry and NCERT" by reprinting old history textbooks of Class X even after being cautioned about errors in them, and then introducing new textbooks under the National Curriculum Framework for School Education 2000 in a hurry, without checking for and correcting errors, resulted in a huge stock of unusable books. Why has the current HRD Ministry allowed Rajput, with this shameful track record, to be on a panel shaping New Education Policy?

JS Rajput was one of the architects of saffronisation in the Vajpayee regime. Today, the junior HRD Minister in the Modi regime, Ram Shanker Katheria, has openly asserted that ‘saffronisation’ and ‘Sanghwad’ (RSS-ism) will definitely be done ‘for the country’s good’. Katheria is notorious for his speech in Agra calling for a “final battle” against Muslims. The BJP Government is no longer coy about propagating bigotry in the name of education, and placing institutions from FTII to NIFT under the control of those who lack even a pretence of qualification and are chosen solely for their ‘bhakti’ to the BJP and RSS.

In spite of their public sparring, Mr Subramanian and his panel, and Ms Smriti Irani, are united in their contempt and fear of students and teachers who demand a say in shaping education policy. Campus activism is not a ‘distraction’ from ‘studies’, as the Subramanian Panel report claims. The world over, it is a sign of hope - of a younger generation committed to a better world. And the world over, the rulers are afraid of thinking, public-spirited young people who refuse to ‘do what they are told’ by those in power. They are afraid of teachers and students who refuse to see education as a tool wielded by those in power, as a factory of “little boxes” for the assembly-line production of docile minds that “all look just the same.”

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