Teachers come under attack as institutions move to sweep out dissent.
In the wake of the students’ spring that swept the country’s campuses during the last academic year, the Union government is naturally bent on taking steps to stem the tide of unrest.
It was the government, and particularly the HRD ministry, that was at the heart of many of the conflicts with the students – at IIT-Madras, Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), University Grants Commission (UGC), University of Hyderabad (UoH), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and elsewhere – and it is the government that potentially holds the keys to their solution.
However, anyone anticipating a conciliatory approach to meet student demands and resolve the conflicts would be sorely disappointed.
Rather, the government seems to be promising more of the same thing – further appointments of unqualified PM loyalists (like cricketerChetan Chauhan) to head institutions and a proposal on New Educational Policy that wants curbs on campus politics and derecognition of caste- and religion-based organisations (like the SC-ST associations which were active in the movement for Justice for Rohit Vemula).
Political cleansing of ‘Socrates’ who ‘corrupt the youth’
Simultaneously, the HRD ministry, in close coordination with the home ministry and the ABVP – the Sangh Parivar’s student wing – is moving to the next step on its agenda for eradication of all dissent on the campuses.
It looks like a programme for swachh universities, politically cleansed of all divergent ideas. In this phase, it seems that teachers with views against the ruling dispensation will be as much the targets as student activists. The government’s logic appears to be that it first needs to condemn and pluck out the “Socrates” who are “corrupting the youth” against the ruling dispensation.
Indications of these were available in February and March this year. There were police complaints by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) and ABVP against a speech on nationalism at JNU by Nivedita Menon.
And when Rajesh Misra of the University of Lucknow shared on Facebook an article favouring JNU activist Umar Khalid, he had to face violent ABVP protests and notices from the university administration.
Earlier, Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey was sacked in January 2016 from the faculty of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and Prof Saibaba of Delhi University was suspended and even physically attacked for sympathising with Naxalites.
As the new academic year commenced in June-July 2016, the UoH moved, on June 13, 2016, to suspend KY Ratnam and Tathagat Sengupta, two professors who had stood with the students fighting for Justice for Rohit Vemula.
They had, in March 2016, been arrested when they remonstrated with the police during a lathi-charge on protesting students. Their suspension met with strong protests by students and teachers in Hyderabad and other centres and the UoH administration was forced to beat a hasty retreat and revoke the suspension.
Meanwhile, other reports came in of removal of professors at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, another deemed university.
The ABVP has, over the last few months, been repeatedly announcing that TISS was its next target after JNU.
They also met the TISS director S Parasuraman in April 2016 with a list of “anti-social elements” on campus. They even listed to a journalist the leftists in the faculty and boasted of their access to Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports about the activities of TISS fellows.
With such blatantly announced close coordination between central intelligence agencies and Sangh Parivar organisations, pressure on the TISS authorities to remove teachers who were difficult to control was bound to be high.
Bela Bhatia, who has even served on the Planning Commission committee on left-wing extremism, had been edged out in the midst of a course she was teaching in 2014.
Sanober Keshwar, who has taught for seven years and was listed as a teacher in six courses for the new academic year, was abruptly sacked by removing her office phone and blocking her TISS mail access even before telling her, in the second week of June 2016, of her removal. Another teacher, Monica Sakhrani, too has been abruptly moved out.
All of them have been active on democratic rights issues for several years and would be seen as obstacles to the Sangh Parivar plans.
Witch-hunts in academia
As the ruling party organisations and State organs work in close collaboration to target their ideological rivals in the universities, the stage is being set for witch-hunts in the academia. It is reminiscent of the McCarthy era purges in post-Second World War US which were largely done by the FBI under Edgar Hoover. The spread of the IB on campuses is also being supplemented by surveillance by the local police.
In Mumbai, the police zone that covers the TISS has started a survey of all colleges for student and faculty details. While one college head saw this as police interference which was not required, TISS director Parsuraman said it was the TISS administration that had requested police officials to make the rounds of the institute and its vicinity.
Such methods are bound to face opposition from students and teachers alike. It remains to be seen whether such resistance will be able to preserve the much needed democratic space in our universities.
By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira