The latest circular from the University Grants Commission to higher education institutions asking them to celebrate September 29 as “Surgical Strike Day” must be rejected by both students and teachers. The most compelling reason to trash this directive is that it is beyond the mandate of the UGC.

The 1956 Act, which governs the UGC, says:

”It shall be the general duty of the Commission to take, in consultation with the Universities or other bodies concerned, all such steps as it may think fit for the promotion and co-ordination of University education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in Universities...”

Clearly, the latest directive does not fall under the category of coordination. Nor does it have to do anything with “the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research”.

Indeed, the UGC, especially for the last four years, has been asking universities to do things that have nothing to do with teaching and research. From asking universities to award academic credits to students participating in Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or asking them to get students to run for unity or erect walls of valour, the country’s premier higher-education body has reduced itself to the role of a courier of political messages of the ruling party. By agreeing to perform this role, the UGC has lost respect among the academic community.

Its preoccupation with extra-academic matters seems to have also resulted in it losing the capacity to think about issues pertaining to the domain of knowledge. The confusion is evident from its constantly changing directives regarding MPhil, PhD or reservation in teaching posts. The UGC has, in short, created a mess. Thousands of teaching positions are lying vacant across universities. Universities are starved of resources for libraries and laboratories, but the UGC is happy asking them to undertake cleanliness drives or make students and teachers run for the unity of India or ask them to act as the advocates of digital transactions post demonetisation.

Its list of academic journals has made academic publishing a joke. By removing reputed journals like the Economic and Political Weekly from the list, the UGC has shown that it doesn’t even understand what is meant by academic standards. Its hasty and shabby decisions that the universities are forced to follow because the UGC controls their funds have ruined academics and created an atmosphere of uncertainty in universities.

The Siachen soldier

The circular in question is condemnable for many reasons. It is not a coincidence that it comes in the wake of the boast of the defence minister about “cutting off” the heads of the soldiers of the Pakistan army. Another minister claimed that by executing surgical strike across the border, India forced the world to take notice. The timing of the circular is bound to raise a suspicion that it is the brainchild of the ruling party and the UGC is again playing the role of the postman.

The ministers don’t seem to care that such statements, on the contrary, paint a very poor picture of India in the eyes of the world, making it seem like a street bully. Unfortunately, to bolster their so-called nationalist politics, the ruling party and the government are using the army in a dangerous way. All sections of the society are being asked to be loyal not only to the nation but to demonstrate their love for the army. The army is thus being placed on a pedestal that is higher than all others, including the parliament and the judiciary. If it continues like this, the day would not be far off when even these two would be asked to show their loyalty to the army.

All governments have viewed schools and universities as captive institutions through which they can brain wash and indoctrinate the young minds. Since the ruling ideology is that of hard nationalism, the youth are sought to be exposed to activities that promote essentially militarist ideas. The image of soldiers dying on the border has often been invoked by various ministers of this government. The Siachen soldier has become a favourite trope not just as a way to define patriotism but as a way to shut down debate. The dissenting students and teachers are projected as idling their time away at the expense of the tax payer, when the soldiers are paying with their lives at Siachen under extremely harsh terrain and weather conditions, guarding the borders of the country. Universities are painted as havens or hiding places for “anti-nationals”, while the soldiers are at the borders, open and exposed from all sides.

Militarising the campus

Earlier, particularly after protests in Hyderabad and Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, an idea was mooted to do area domination exercises in these rebel spaces. It was suggested that installing tanks used in war in the centre of the universities would instil nationalism and patriotism among students, which could be reinforced by inspiring talks by serving and retired generals of the army. Last year, the ministry of human resource development launched the Vidya, Veerta Abhiyan (Education, Valour Campaign) to encourage universities to install a “Wall of Heroes” with portraits of soldiers who have been awarded India’s highest gallantry award, the Param Veer Chakra.

But this time the plan is more elaborate. It involves speeches by available ex-servicemen to “sensitise students about sacrifices made by the armed forces”, while students are asked to “pledge their support” to the armed forces through letters and cards, which the government will use for publicity.

Perhaps the current dispensation sees China or Pakistan as models to follow. Which is perhaps why, while the mind of the society is being militarised, the army is sought to be politicised.

What is truly frightening is that in this vast land, there is not a single vice chancellor who has made so bold as to criticise this move. It speaks volumes about the quality of the leaders of our academic institutions. Can servile minds, subservient to the power of the state and the market, be expected to protect the autonomy and dignity of a space that has been created to nurture critical thinking?