Shrinking Campus Spaces In India
By Parvin Sultana
05 June, 2015
University spaces are supposed to be just, equal and free. They are supposed to be spaces where young minds are shaped and their ideas are given wings. The ‘young’ India with a large youth population usually has its first tryst with democracy in campuses. The students as citizens of tomorrow play a crucial role in shaping the political system of the country. And a strong citizenry begins with campus politics. Campus politics acts as an important tool to achieve campus democracy. It is a useful means to give voice to the students’ opinions about issues that concerns them. Students get valuable understanding of the democratic process through campus elections and active campus politics.
However this democratic space in campus has shrunk over time. And under the new government, there has been a systematic assault on this space. Keeping in line with the popular belief that all politics is dirty and students should stay away from it, many colleges don’t even hold elections. As having a student council is compulsory, they are formed by nomination instead of elections. This denies students the right of choosing their representatives and holding them accountable.
Of late the larger politics of oppression have been reflected in the heavy handedness of authorities in academic institutions. Incidents when talks inviting speakers who have spoken on controversial topics being disrupted have been way too many. Talks on Kashmir, Northeast or the violence inflicted by Indian state have been cancelled arbitrarily. Such attitude points towards the intolerance of the administration towards open healthy discussion on certain topics on which dissenting views tend to emerge. State and administration seems to be in tandem in controlling dissenting voices.
A trend is seen in the heavy handedness of the administration. Scholars who have questioned arbitrary state intervention have been harassed on multiple occasions. Problems usually arise when state violence is discussed and questioned. The government also had a free hand in labeling NGOs and Civil Society Organisations as anti national and anti development based on differences of opinions over paradigms of development. This points to the larger atmosphere of stifling difference.
The right to dissent and express that dissent is a cornerstone of democracy. Students in many cases have been rusticated for participating in student protest movements. Student protests are deemed illegal foreclosing any possibility of raising voice against arbitrary administrative steps. Even the response to peaceful student protests has been draconian. Police has been called and students have been arrested. Such attempt of stifling dissent is becoming a norm rather than an exception. The administration is seen following a two pronged strategy:
1. Introduce in a spurt a number of anti-student policy decisions,
2. Scuttling the space to oppose such decisions.
The latest victim of such assault on freedom of expression has been the independent students’ group- the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle of IIT-Madras. Following an ambiguous anonymous complaint against the activities of the group, the Ministry of Human Resource Development directed the administration of IIT-M to look into the matter. The study circle often holds public meetings with scholars on important socio-political issues. The aim is to initiate a discourse on social and political issues that play an important role in shaping our lives.
But in a rather arbitrary manner, the view of a scholar on the present day government was held akin to spreading hatred and communalism. Ironically engaging with questions of polarization was equated to promoting the same. The group was accused of ambiguous charges of indulging in ‘controversial’ activities while the administration did not bother to spell out what they mean by controversial activity. In a rather unilateral decision, the administration decided to de-recognise the group. Even protestors demonstrating against the ban were picked up by the police.
Premier engineering colleges like IITs having such study circles which grappled with questions like caste discrimination, social justice and discussed ideas of Ambedkar and Periyar is a welcome news. These are no exclusive domains of social science students. All higher educational institutions should be a platform where critical thinking and dissent ought to be encouraged, where brave new thoughts are to be nurtured. Young minds should be allowed to engage in societal dialogue in a constructive manner and dissent should not be stifled.
Campus should not imprison thoughts and ideas. There is a need for a liberating space where debates and discussions from various conflicting perspectives is possible. No matter how absurd, every idea should be allowed expression. Campuses like JNU have seen vibrant student politics. While many are cynical about the left rhetoric of such campus politics, it continues to be a vibrant space giving voice to difference of opinions. While many continue to bask in the comfort of utopian ideas, others have graduated from the University acknowledging the limitations of campus politics and continue to take part in the greater society armed with ideas of equality and social justice.
Campus should be the most liberating spaces where young minds must feel free to question. The banning of the Study Circle have set a dangerous precedent which has limited the issues and questions that students can raise. The systematic assault on freedom of expression and democratic values of respecting dissent and differences marks the gradual progression towards an era of authoritarian control and intolerance. If dissenting voices continue to be stifled in this manner, in the long run it will weaken the very foundations of democracy.
Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in Goalpara College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc.
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