A besieged life of the mind

Report of  attack and hate campaign in the form of agitation and police reports ,against fellow academic Nivedita Menon of the JNU and Rajhashree Ranawat of the Jay Narayan Jodhpur University must concern all of us. For, you cannot shrug it off when the university administration itself is filing criminal reports against them for their ‘anti national’ remarks at its premises. FIRs have a life of their own and can be serious. Books have been pulped, recalled from shelves, writers and artists have apologised for something they have not done, jobs have been lost. So, it is not amusing to learn that teachers are facing ‘popular’ agitation , bad press and a possible arrest for their scholarly work, be in it in form of a lecture in seminar,or an article or a book.

It should put us on alarm because this attack is not an exception. A similar assault had taken place , in the same manner in Mohan Lal Sukhadia University of Udaipur sometime back where organisers and speakers of a seminar in the department of Philosophy were targeted with criminal cases and popular agitation. The memory of  case of teachers of the Haryana Central University attacked for staging a play is still fresh.

In all these cases nationalism is being used as a weapon against knowledge or free enquiry.

This article , however not an attempt to defend Nivedita Menon and Rajashree Ranawat of the Department of English of the JNJU who had invited Nivedita to speak in a  conference on History Reconstructed Through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture where she had made ‘seditious’remarks questioning India’s claims over Kashmir, suggested it to give up Siachen, questioned the integrity of the soldiers by saying that they join forces to earn their bread, insulted the nation by displaying its map upside down, etc, etc, as reported by the Hindi newspapers.

Nivedita Menon has since clarified, in great detail , in her blog post at KAFILA that statements attributed to her are falsehood and half truth. She is not a coward, so she does not disown  what she has said but clearly most of what is being blamed on her is not what she actually said but what the agitators wanted her to speak.

This is yet another occasion to deliberate on the sad decline of the state universities, the perversion of student politics and the irresponsible reporting by the Hindi media which borders on instigation and hate campaign .

We know the heart rendering story of the destruction of the state universities like the once outstanding Jodhpur and Jaipur Universities which share their fate with their counterparts in other states. They have been  killed by starving them of funds and non appointment of faculty. Reduced to the state of examination machines, they lack the ambition of contributing to the creation of knowledge.

The divide between the state universities and central educational institutions in terms of finances and knowledge is huge and daunting. The sheer insensitivity of the state governments and political parties towards their young gets demonstrated in the way they treat and maintain their universities.The vice chancellors are selected not for their ability of academic leadership but their loyalty to the government of the day. Departments are empty, libraries impoverished and laboratories non functional.

In such a dismal scenario,conferences like the one Rajashree and her colleagues organised are audacious acts , pulled off in extremely adverse situations. They also serve as oasis in the otherwise desertified university landscape, a rare opportunity for the students and faculty to be exposed  to and interact with the best and excellent minds of the world of scholarship.

Such conferences provide an opportunity to the faculty and students to break free of the confines of the syllabus and are breathing spaces where you get relief from the mechanical examination driven classes. But it is clear that the university authorities are not interested in defending these enterprising teachers. They are ready to sacrifice them at the very first provocation.

The quality of corporate life of university is also something we need to think about. When unions of teachers and non teaching staff members turn against their own colleague, it gives a signal to other teachers that they cannot be adventurous and would be left alone to fight their battle.

The behaviour of the ABVP in such cases has been uniform. Instead of engaging intellectually with Its ideological opponents by entering into debate with them or critiquing them through writing, its members have unexceptionally indulged in violent acts of threat, physical attack, destruction of public property and public agitation. One expects student organisations to enliven campus life by initiating and promoting a culture of intellectual dialogue but it is very disappointing to see them using their physical prowess and their proximity to power instead to make their point. It is sad comment on them that they are feared and shunned because of their capacity to create nuisance and not respected for their intellectual strength.

The role of Hindi media in this and such cases has been criminal.It does not do reporting anymore. As was found by the team of editors guild which investigated its role in the Ram Janma Bhumi agaitation, Hindi media has turned into a propaganda machine of the Hindu right wing politics.it does not shy from publishing baseless, unfounded and often concocted stories. It writes to instigate and mobilise Hindu and nationalistic anger and hatred. The reader and viewer solely dependent on the Hindi media is not only malnourished, it is being fed intoxicants in the name of news and opinion pieces.

The cultural life of What is known as Hindi land is thus getting dangerously narrowed down and deadened. It is definitely a loss to the teachers but more so to the young minds. As our colleague Satish Deshpande argues, universities are the only spaces in this otherwise highly segregated and hierarchical society steeped in the culture of inequality where the youth has a chance to participate in intellectual discourse in an egalitarian manner, on an equal plane. This is an opportunity for them to experience freedom which is unavailable to them in the wider society. It applies especially to the first generation college and university goers. Torestrict or close down such spaces, is todeprive these young of their only source of intellectual and cultural nourishment. Here they learn the art of dealing with differences, to enter into a dialogue with them, the art of persuasion. The delight of the magic of ideas, the way they turn into real force helps them get initiated into the membership of the republic of imagination. When a Rajhashree organises such a conference or a Nivedita Menon speaks in it, they do not do so much to exercise their right to free speech , but more out of their sense of responsibility towards this youth. They are being told that this a soldierly duty, fraught with real risk,that they have be in the line of fire from the enemies of intellect all the time, who by being so become enemies of equality, freedom and humanity.

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