The vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who, less than a month into his job, allowed the police into the campus to arrest a student, could perhaps take a lesson in exercising autonomy from his counterpart at Jadavpur University.
Professor Suranjan Das protected his students – both the peaceful and the disruptive – by not allowing the police to enter the Jadavpur campus. He neither criticised nor condoned the actions of his students, some of whom raised slogans like “Afzal mange azaadi”, “Kashmir mange azaadi”, “Manipur bhi boli azaadi” during a march to show solidarity with their counterparts in JNU. Professor Das told reporters later that it was not “Jadavpur’s tradition to file FIRs against its students.”
Compare this to JNU’s M Jagadesh Kumar, who, by permitting the police to enter the campus in Delhi, essentially gave them a free hand to raid its classrooms, hostels and dhabas in search of “anti-national” students.
In doing what he did, Professor Das has not only lived up to the history of Jadavpur University – which was founded to impart education through which the “nationalist spirit could be propagated” – he has defended the right of all universities to function with autonomy as domains of intellectual freedom where even the political “project of nationalism” is open to debate.
The difference between JNU and Jadavpur is, therefore, instructive: leadership matters. Kumar failed to protect JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar from being arrested on campus. But Professor Das and the Jadavpur faculty asserted the right of universities to encourage students to speak freely and challenge the way institutions function. In doing so, they supported the idea that academic freedom cannot be bound by narrow political agendas.
There is, however, growing pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party to act against Professor Das and the faculty and students at Jadavpur. Statements by BJP leaders at the national and state levels display mischief. While BJP national secretary Siddharth Nath Singh accused the vice-chancellor of acting like a Trinamool Congress appointee by protecting conspirators against the nation, its state president Dilip Ghosh said he wanted to pull “anti-nationals” by the collar, and throw them into jail.
Taking a cue from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh – who said JNU’s “anti-national protests” had the support of Hafiz Saeed, an accusation the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief himself denied – former BJP West Bengal president Rahul Sinha said Jadavpur students had links with “foreign terrorists” and demanded an investigation by the anti-terror National Investigation Agency.
What happens next at Jadavpur, however, is uncertain. It depends on how long the West Bengal government can hold the BJP at bay. Should the BJP decide to lodge an FIR, as has been done in the JNU case, the situation could turn nasty. The role of the West Bengal governor will be important. KN Tripathi, who was an active member of the BJP till his appointment, is the Chancellor of Jadavpur University by virtue of his office. Tripathi has asked Professor Das to “take appropriate action” against those who raised anti-national slogans in the campus last week.
With the state due for Assembly elections in a few months, the ruling party wants to tread carefully which perhaps explains why Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been uncharacteristically silent so far. The Trinamool Congress can neither be seen to join the BJP in branding educated youth “anti-nationals”, nor can it side with the Left-Congress, where a political adjustment seems to be emerging.
The Jadavpur vice-chancellor is a historian of the freedom movement and colonial rule. He knows just how restrictive the legal regime can be as is evident in the use of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with charges of sedition. But if the political dynamics change in West Bengal, Jadavpur University could be the target of vicious attack.