World

Why Universities Are a Key Battleground for Human Rights in India

Caste discrimination is the ugly underbelly of India's higher education system.

Photo Credit: Saikat Paul / Shutterstock.com

The year 2016 began for the government of India with a huge hiccup. Rohith Vemula, a research scholar who happened to be a Dalit (or from the so-called untouchable caste), committed suicide on January 17. He took this step after his university administration failed to respond to his recent letter to Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile of the Hyderabad Central University, in which Vemula complained of the deep-rooted discrimination driven by caste that still corrodes the atmosphere of India’s universities.

Today, nine months after Vemula’s death, eight more Dalit students from yet another central university—the Babasaheb Bhimarao Ambedkar University in Lucknow—are asking: “Will another Rohith Vemula have to commit suicide to open the eyes of university officials?” Eight Dalit research scholars, two of them toppers who ranked first and second in the PhD entrance exam, have been suspended and thereafter expelled without due process since Sept. 8, 2016. The professor responsible is Kamal Jaiswal, who was found guilty by a university committee of habitually sexually exploiting female students. He was first removed and then inexplicably reinstated in his position of power. The expelled students allege he was responsible for discriminatory behavior and casteist (read racist) abuse of the students. One of the eight students, seriously ill from liver cirrhosis, was also made to suffer the humiliation of being forced to vacate his rooms without consideration, and his medicines and ultrasound papers were thrown out.

In the prime minister’s own constituency of Varanasi also lies the prestigious Banaras Hindu University, run presently by a man who believes that women should not study at night, dress as they please or eat food that is non-vegetarian. The vice chancellor, Girish Chandra Tripathi, belongs to the same organization where Narendra Modi cut his political teeth, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Indian media has been conspicuous in its efforts to avoid commenting about the conversion of this large campus of north India into a citadel of a police state.

A month before Vemula took his own life, he wrote to Podile, “Supply sodium cynanide and a rope to every Dalit student." Though Podile was initially suspended in the outrage that swept across campuses as protests against what has been described as “an institutional murder” grew, the Modi regime thought it fit to bring back a man suspended for his non-responsiveness to the campus while an official inquiry against him was still on.

Deploying policemen in an act of brazen authoritarianism, the Modi government ensured that 32 people—29 students and three professors—were jailed and humiliated for over a week. On March 22, 2016, while student protests against Vemula’s death were still on, the suspended Podile was inexplicably brought back flanked by the police. Student and faculty protesters were beaten, manhandled, arrested and jailed. Though law and order is handled by the state government of Telangana where the university is located, the premises of the central university fall under the federal government, and the police acted on orders from New Delhi.

The incidents generated outrage with alumni of the university from all corners of the country and world who wrote to express outrage as basic amenities and rights—water supply and free movement—were stopped within an institution of higher learning, and law enforcement officials were deployed against India’s youth.

Caste abuse that includes ostracism and humiliation at best, and violence and denial of rights at worst, often also encompasses gendered violence. While this has been thoroughly documented, it is not openly addressed in India. Caste discrimination, like communalism, is the dark underbelly of the Indian polity. India’s political and economic elite, hailing as they do from what they believe to be superior strata, prefer not to admit to it. But politics cannot ignore it, given the logic of numbers. Yet political parties, even those deemed liberal and left, have been accused of adopting patronizing attitudes on issues of caste discrimination.

Come 2014, however, the situation has changed drastically, given the ideological sway of the party in power. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), driven as it is by the ideology of the supremacist RSS, is keen to woo Dalits to their lot. They accomplish this aim by appropriating this section to their version of the Hindu undivided family and glossing over embedded discriminations and exclusions—including the abhorrent notion of untouchability premised on being “too impure to even touch or the shadow fall over.”

Never prone to tolerating free discussion and dissent, the supremacist core of the ruling dispensation is particularly concerned about the raw independence that is expressed by young men and women on India’s campuses. The chain of command played a significant role in the episode of authoritarian suppression at the central university. In almost all cases, the youth wing of the RSS, the Akhil Bharaitya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), played the part of agent provocateur, with the backing of the office bearers of the ruling party.

It was an office bearer of the BJP who wrote to a junior minister in the Modi cabinet calling the Ambedkar Student’s Association (ASA) “anti-national” and “casteist.” That led, in turn, to the senior minister of the ministry writing not once but five times, putting pressure on the vice chancellor to act. Action meant humiliation of bright young Dalit scholars, each due a stipend for their research. The money was stopped, defying rules and procedures, and they were humiliated and ostracized, thrown out of their rooms into the cold.

For Vemula, the humiliation proved to be too much. There is also a criminal case under the Atrocities Act pending, though for months now, little progress has been made to ensure accountability from the university vice chancellor and others who may have been responsible.

The ABVP bears a sinister similarity to the Jamiat-e-Talaba of Pakistan. “If you want to change a country, change its students,” noted American journalist Dan Brooks in an article in 2011. The RSS wants to “change India” just as the Jamaat-e-Islami (IJT) is trying to “change Pakistan.” If the ABVP is the former’s instrument for “changing students” in India, the IJT is the latter’s tool for “changing students” in Pakistan.

The ABVP may not, as yet, be able to match the fine record of its Pakistani counterpart. But with the Modi-BJP-RSS-ABVP axis now in place, who can say what lies ahead? In an article on SabrangIndia, Prathama Banerjee reports that in Gwalior, a few days ago, a meeting organized by the Ambedkar Manch involving an Ambedkarite professor Vivek Kumar from JNU was attacked by ABVP members, who went on to not only fire guns at the gathering but even burn the Indian Constitution, perhaps to avenge Ambedkar’s burning of the Manusmriti half a century ago.

The confrontation began soon after the Modi regime swept to power. At the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology-Chennai, a clampdown on the student’s body, the Ambedkar Periyar Circle, was directly imposed by an “anonymous” complaint that this student’s organization was inducing “hatred” against prime minister Narendra Modi and the Hindus. In true surveillance tradition, the Ministry of Human Resources Development initiated an inquiry into the student’s group in May 2015 and shut it down. Protests followed, after which it was allowed to function again.

June 2015 saw a historic strike of the students of the Film and Television Institute of India protesting a Modi sycophant—not known for his creative prowess—being appointed as director. As this protest and struggle attracted media attention, with several prominent personalities from the world of show business and entertainment lending their support, some embarrassment may have been caused, but the government refused to give in. Today, over two dozen students of filmmaking and television face criminal cases and charges in Pune, where the institute is located, and Goa, where protests were staged at an international film festival. It is clear this regime is very uncomfortable with questioning and dissent.

The list is long. Iconic among these battlegrounds has been the struggle at HCU and the Jawaharlal Nehru University-New Delhi, where the central government’s crackdown through a newly appointed vice chancellor sought to convert the iconic campus into a police state. This did not happen. Though student leaders were arrested and charges of “sedition” and “anti-nationaism” slapped against them, the resistance by a seasoned academic community, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association, and a united comeback by the student community pushed back the assault. Today, at least five of the prominent student leaders face criminal cases and are out on bail. The upside, however, is that they—like student leaders from across campuses in India—have emerged as the true challengers to the politics of the extremely authoritarian Hindutva right.

Over the past 30 months or so, under the new political dispensation at the Centre, a peculiar attack on the Indian University has been underway, especially those central universities that came into being with special acts of Parliament that ensured not only their autonomy, but also their being embodied—in theory and practice—with the constitutional values and vision, where equality and non discrimination was key. Every effort has been made by the far right to ensure that the university, rather than a space for intellectual growth and challenge, becomes a battleground for deeply contested notions of nationhood.

The assault is dual, ideologically driven by a narrow, supremacist vision and made worse by acts of affirmative action being cut down through executive measures. One example is the cutback in fellowships and grants promised to students in centrally-aided universities. Though exact estimates are difficult to come by, this author has, through an empirical evaluation, documented that research fellows who hail from the differently abled and religious minorities, and more recently the scholars belonging to Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and indigenous peoples (STs/Adivasis) are being denied their fellowship amounts. It is estimated that over 20,000 research scholars all over the country have been affected by this tardy and insensitive functioning by the central government. This has pushed many student scholars into debt and is yet another contributory cause for the seething discontent within the Indian University.

Over the decades, through a slow and often painful process within these central universities that came into being through key enactments—the University of Hyderabad Act of 1974, the Jawaharlal Nehru Act of 1966 and the North-Eastern Hill University Act of 1973—baby steps toward affirmative action within teachers’ unions and associations have ensured that students from rural, marginalized and discriminated-against backgrounds made it into institutions of higher learning.

Today, however, the dual assault of aggressive neoliberal policies that have ensured a cut in scholarships in institutions of learning, accompanied by an ideological assault of a proto-fascist authoritarian character, have rendered campuses in India the focal points of a resurgent democratic movement. Student leaders and associations that do not fall in line with the majoritarian vision face criminal cases, the worst being the law of Sedition (Section 124-A). Apart from the institutions mentioned above, other universities like the Patna University-Bihar, Jadavpur University-West Bengal, National Law School-Bangladore and the Allahabad Central University-Uttar Pradesh are also witnessing similar struggles and repression.

In any democratic and civilized society, the university is the storehouse of young and budding intellectual opinion and often the bedrock of voices of sharp, critical dissent. We are living an age of homogenization and majoritarianism—whether through the blind acceptance of commercialization or privatization of education, or the imposition of a culturally-homogenous worldview where the Indian state and nation is equated with “one language, one culture,” in effect denying a plurality of existence and citizenship. These trends are not just dangerous but pose a challenge to the very foundation of India. Centers of higher learning within India that have become the battleground for the preservation of Indian democracy and all it stands for.

As we go to press, results of the student body elections at HCU, Vemula’s alma mater, have just come in. The ultra right-wing ABVP did not win a single seat. The United Front for Social Justice (UFSJ), a unique combination of Dalit, left and other progressive groups, has won all posts in the elections. More than any other section of Indians, the youth within India’s universities are posing a singular challenge to the regime. Weeks ago, in the elections to the iconic JNU, too, the victory was for the left-progressive alliance.

Faced with elections in several Indian states in the next year, the government is desperate to recover lost ground in the wake of this widespread student unrest. The war cry against Pakistan is one government answer when rising discontent over rising unemployment, unimaginable prices, agrarian distress and poor growth exposes its bombastic claims of “development for all.”

Teesta Setalvad is a writer, activist, and journalist living in India. She is also the secretary of Citizens for Justice & Peace and a writing fellow for the Independent Media Institute