Dangerous Times in India: The Country's Extreme Right Is Targeting College Students

IMF Chief Christine Lagarde said, in a major policy address this week in Washington, DC, that India “remains a bright spot, with strong growth and rising real incomes.”

What data set she peered into is not clear. India continues to top the UN Food & Agricultural Organization’s hunger list (195 million undernourished people in the country). On UNESCO’s list of adult illiteracy, India sits on top, with 287 million people. Growth rates might rise, but its advantages sneak into the coffers of the über-rich. Indians will not necessarily lead the names in the Panama Papers, but this is after all only one law firm from one country. “Black money” is a scourge of India, as the current government suggested when it came to office. India’s extreme-right prime minister, Narendra Modi, promised to bring the black money back within 100 days of his administration. Hundreds of days later, the money remains overseas and the acute crises of India jar the country.

Unable to deliver the basic needs of the people, the extreme right has decided to go after “seditious” students. This is the game plan of strong men from Turkey to India. In Delhi’s much admired Jawaharlal Nehru University, the government arrested its student body leaders on the old colonial charge of sedition. In Hyderabad’s Central University, the government’s henchman expelled Dalit (oppressed caste) students, one of whom, Rohit Vemula, committed suicide after writing a powerful cry from the heart.

Rohit Vemula wrote:

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”

Students took to the streets, occupying their campuses and chanting their stardust into the wind. But students are not the only ones under attack. In Nasik (Maharashtra), 100,000 farmers have occupied a major street against the anti-peasant budget of the government. Suicides of farmers continue, as does the immensity of anti-Dalit violence in rural India. As resources shrink and social assertion is blocked, dangerous violence unfolds. Factory workers find it harder to form unions, and when they do the weight of management power gets exercised through a willing and eager police force. Police entered a Honda factory in Tapukara (Rajasthan) to arrest the labor leaders. Workers and peasants do not go quietly. Last year, 150 million workers went on a 24-hour strike against the anti-labour policies of this government. When journalists cover these events, they are beaten. Political leaders of Modi’s party, the BJP, join in the beatings. They are not arrested. Students, workers, peasants and journalists are vermin in today’s India.

Why has the Indian government gone after certain students, in some institutions?

Commercialization of Education

Modi’s government is eager to transform democratic higher education in India into commercial higher education. It follows the general principles of the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which urges countries to open the education sector to cross-border private firms.

In Modi’s first budget, the government starved the public universities of funds. Lacking resources, the quality of these schools would likely deteriorate, making the call for private colleges a self-fulfilling prophecy. The government has said it wants to shift from the broader educational mandate of the public universities to “centers of excellence” that teach mainly management, engineering and science but not the humanities and social sciences. A technocratic worldview would emerge out of this form of education, where critical thinking is considered to be seditious.

The Central Universities Act of 2009 allows the government to destroy the diverse ecology of Indian higher education and place the universities under the thumb of the central government. Already the Modi government has removed judicious leaders of central government educational institutions (such as the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library and the Indian Council of Historical Research) and placed in their stead its own hacks. It is a fantasy of the Extreme Right to be able to control the agenda of education.

Student unions challenge to this new order is seen as reprehensible. It has to be destroyed. Student unions in public universities largely lean left. They are in the gun-sights. Colleges with right-wing unions, such as Delhi University, have been spared the barrage. What the extreme right likes are private colleges, where student unions are absent. The unions of the left have taken the sharpest beatings. Dissent is deplorable to the extreme right. It prefers obedience.

Anti-Dalit Ethos

There is a toxic attitude among India’s middle and dominant castes against Dalit students. This goes back to the attempt in modern India to provide oppressed castes with compensatory discrimination, a set of policies that have been written into India’s Constitution (1950) and to various laws passed since then. As India’s elite moved toward “liberalization” in the 1980s, the question of “reservations” in universities returned to the table. A social democratic government in that decade accepted the recommendations of the Mandal Commission to reserve more seats for students from oppressed caste backgrounds. The protests around Mandal in the early 1990s raised once more the attitude of hatred toward Dalit students.

Large numbers of middle and dominant caste students went into the ranks of the extreme right. If India’s economy was going to open to the world market, then these students rankled at what they saw as their places in college being taken by others. The extreme right conjoined its protests to destroy a mosque with its antipathy to reservations in colleges – a campaign forged around the slogan of Mandir (Temple) and Mandal (the name of the commission). The sensibility against Muslims and Dalits governs India’s extreme right, which has given allowance to sections of the population to exercise their bigotry without embarrassment.

Dalit students at the Central Hyderabad University (CHU) have been periodically expelled. In 2002, then Chief Warden of hostels – now Vice Chancellor – Appa Rao expelled a group of Dalit students on flimsy grounds. He has been the spear of anti-Dalit sentiment. Older Vedic ideas of hierarchy retain their hold on middle and dominant castes, who see in these older ideas new ways to maintain their power which has eroded as India’s economy stumbles forward. It is this power that seeks to humiliate students – eleven Dalit students have committed suicide in the CHU between 2007 and 2013. Rohit Vemula follows this trajectory. When students protested, the administration sealed the campus with the students in their dorms without access to water or food. There was vindictiveness in the siege of Hyderabad University.

Massive social protest has defined modern India. In earlier times, when students went on strike they shared a broad vision with the State and the elites. Secular and democratic nationalism was the ethos. Students would mobilize the full weight of that shared nationalism to their service. Today that is no longer the case. The extreme right has its own version of patriotism; the nationalism of narrowness, governed by Hindutva (Hinduness) and suffocation. Nationalism is now a fragmented force, with its secular and democratic variety weakened. Whatever gains India made from its freedom movement and in its first decades have been eroded. The protests now are fierce, but the crackdown fiercer. There is a civil war of ideas involved here; two diametrically opposed visions for the nature of India.

What saves India is the resilience of its social and political forces: the peasant and worker movements, the Left and the Dalit organizations. Fragmentation in the face of the extreme right is a dangerous outcome. Gaps between the left and the Dalit movements are inevitable as rancor cuts across these important vehicles for the path forward. Dalit groups feel that the Left does not take caste seriously enough, while the left believes that the caste struggle would divide the working class and peasantry. Both are correct, but have not yet found the best way to reconcile their positions. Inevitably, these two streams of the Indian progressive movement will have to find their way to each other. The IMF chief’s exaltation about India’s “strong growth” says nothing to the people of India. A much deeper agenda is needed, quickly. 


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