Every so often, when a country goes through a dark time, it is its students and the youth who stand up to become its guardians and change agents. This happened in India during the Emergency, and it’s happening now. As dissension swells against fundamentalist Hindutva forces, students are agitating in many parts of the nation to protect their campuses as democratic spaces where different opinions can be formed, expressed and argued freely. Their anger is visible at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, at Jadavpur University and many other places.
Over the last three weeks, agitating students have won support from within the country and outside. More than 400 academicians – including from Columbia, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge – have written letters protesting the Indian government’s use of institutional machinery to stifle dissent on campuses. In mid-February, a statement signed by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, gender theorist Judith Butler, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and 83 others condemned the “shameful act” of invoking sedition laws against JNU students.
Many universities in Canada, Australia and Japan too have thrown in their lot with the students, as also have more than 40 researchers and professors from varsities in Scandinavia. These academics from Scandinavia wrote to the JNU administration urging it to safeguard the interests and rights of the students. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has demanded an end to the “crackdown on freedom of expression” in India.
The snowballing international support has predictably rattled the Indian government, and, perhaps as a response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleged at a recent rally that attempts are being made to destabilise his government. Besides such bids at deflecting responsibility, his government has been trying hard to project the student movement as anti-national.
The same argument echoes in the hate mails that Hindutva supporters have been sending to the international academics who wrote protest letters. A common refrain of these groups is that it is anti-democratic to criticise the actions of the democratically-elected Modi government. Another familiar argument is that the student protest is an internal Indian matter and academics outside should not meddle.
Fight for a democratic India
Yes, no doubt, India is a democracy and the present government came to power through a free election. However, an electoral process in a segmented society can also bring to power a majoritarian regime which works to undermine democratic values.
Since the 2014 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government has been projecting all dissent as the work of forces determined to destroy the country. Its members regularly brands artists, intellectuals and activists as anti-nationals. Hindu nationalists with dubious academic credentials are periodically handpicked to head government-funded institutions.
While students seethe against suppression of dissent, the government wants central universities to fly the Tricolour prominently on their campuses to instil national pride among students. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Indian government also plans to monitor all blogs and social media to counter negative narratives – this could further undermine civil liberties in the country.
A secular and democratic India, which students are fighting for, is critical for global peace and security. Moreover, Indian universities are a major source of foreign students and researchers for academic campuses in Europe and North America. It is estimated that 3 lakh Indian students travel abroad to study, most of them for graduate programmes. There are nearly 110,000 Indians studying in the US, more than double the number 15 years ago. Universities in US, Canada, Europe and Australia recruit large numbers of Indian PhD holders as postdoctoral researchers. In the last few years, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations has established 76 chairs abroad on India studies and visiting professors from Indian universities take up these positions. If nothing else, academic standards in Indian universities is of direct concern for the international academic community.
This is one reason why it is important for the international academic community to continue supporting the students of JNU and other Indian universities in their struggle. The other reason is to uphold the values of free speech and tolerance.
The writer is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.