Like the Birla-Ambani report, 2000, from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s days, like the report of a World Bank task force on Higher Education in Developing Countries (of which Manmohan Singh was a member) and like the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations of 2006, the TSR Subramanian panel’s report on the new education policy takes up several pages to recommend the restriction of campus activism.

The Subramanian panel, which submitted its report to the Ministry of Human Resource Development last month, imagines that the “silent” majority of students are adversely affected by student activism.

It then recommends what amounts to a restriction of the Constitutional liberties and freedom of association. It seeks a “large public discussion” on the question of restricting such freedoms – but a discussion in which, strangely, it 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 statutes governing the universities and institutions.”

Curbing dissent

How do we read these recommendations in the light of recent events? The government of the day had chosen to brand Ambedkar Student Association – of which Rohith Vemula was a part – and Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle as “casteist”, while the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which violently imposes casteism, patriarchy and Hindu fundamentalism on students, is deemed “nationalist”.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government has made no secret of its hostility to free speech and dissent, even as it has nurtured hate speech.

The Subramanian panel report, then, sits well with its agenda of delegitimising dissent on campuses by branding such student movements as a “distraction” while a fictitious “silent majority” is projected, with no basis in fact, as victims of the movements.

Turning a blind eye

The panel has aired its bias against student activism without bothering to look closely at issues raised by such recent agitations.

In Delhi University, students made their voice heard in referendums against the politically imposed Four Year Undergraduate Programme and Choice Based Credit System that were destroying the quality of education.

In Jawaharlal Nehru University, agitations over the years have secured and safeguarded socially just admission policies, measures against casteism and sexual harassment as well as hostel and library facilities. They have also helped implement labour laws for campus workers.

In Banaras Hindu University, students are currently agitating for 24/7 library facilities. In the University of Hyderabad, students are protesting against deeply entrenched casteism. And in various colleges in Patna, students have made their voices heard against sexual harassment and casteist or high-handed principals.

Further, the Hok Kolorob protests of 2014 in Jadavpur University and the recent movement against the crackdown in JNU have seen thousands of students from other colleges and universities joining in the demonstrations spontaneously. On what basis, then, has the Subramanian panel said that a “majority of students” are against such agitations for equitable education and for democratic rights?

The 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, fee hikes, wars, and 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, Chile and Mexico.

Questionable choices

Ironically, one of the members of the TSR Subramanian panel is JS Rajput, who was the National Council of Educational Research and Training director during the Vajpayee regime (1998-2004). In 2005, a report by an enquiry committee that was investigating 201 complaints filed against Rajput during his tenure at NCERT found him guilty on 128 counts of "nepotism, irregular appointments, favouritism... and [an] authoritarian style of administration".

The enquiry committee, headed by retired bureaucrat S Sathyam, said that Rajput had caused "avoidable embarrassment to the Ministry and NCERT" by reprinting old history textbooks of Class 10 even after he was cautioned about errors. The committee pointed out that Rajput then introduced new textbooks under the National Curriculum Framework for School Education 2000 in a hurry, without examining them for errors, as a result of which there was a huge stock of unusable books.

Why then has the current Human Resources Ministry allowed Rajput, with his track record, to be on a panel shaping the new education policy?

Rajput was one of the architects of saffronisation in the Vajpayee regime. Today, the junior minister for human resources development 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 Film and Television Institute of India to National Institute of Fashion Technology – under the control of those who lack even a pretence of qualification and are chosen solely for their bhakti, or devotion, to the BJP and RSS.

In spite of their public sparring, the Subramanian-led panel and Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani are united in their contempt and fear of students and teachers who demand respect for their vision of 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 fighting for a better world. And the world over, rulers are afraid of public-spirited, thoughtful 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. Education policy should be shaped by youthful hope, not by the rulers’ fear.

Kavita Krishnan is a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, secretary of the All India Progressive Women Association, and a former joint secretary of the JNU Students’ Union.