Salute to university, citizenship of knowledge

The beauty of democracy appears in these moments of surprises where vulnerable groups challenge the state to remind it of the ideals it has forgotten. It’s reason enough to guarantee the quiet dynamism of an institution we often devalue — the university campus .

Salute to university, citizenship of knowledge

These protesters realise that they are not mere critiques of the illiteracy of citizenship, the students are the vanguard of a new politics which is finding resonance worldwide. PTI

Shiv Visvanathan

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, in fact the BJP regime, have always been wary about the university. It was not just that JNU was a particular antenna, the university as a value frame with its cosmopolitan search for meaning and its genetic tolerance of dissent was something that eluded their grasp. They could meet it with the language of threat or subversion, but they realised intuitively that the openness of the university was a gestalt, a worldview alien to the national security state and the parochial idea of citizenship they were creating. Their fears turned out to be true and the institution they sought to emasculate revolted against their ideas, recapturing the spirit of diversity, dissent and democracy.


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As an expert observer put it, “If the struggle had only happened at Jamia, the regime would have gotten away.” Yet the sense of solidarity, the spirit of friendship was acute as students from Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Tezpur and Delhi joined the rallies, telling the BJP regime it had little idea of citizenship or the citizenship of knowledge that the universities shared. The rituals of rebellion were not mere acts of protest. They will serve as turning points to a political process that has been one-sided. The BJP juggernaut discovered that secularism, cosmopolitanism, citizenship were not timid ideas but potent worlds, waiting to perform. The protest also called the humanitarian bluff of the regime.

Modi tried to act as saviour to all the Hindus he found persecuted in neighbouring countries. In this, he was imitating the Israeli scenario where Israel offered a refuge to all Jews post the Nazi Holocaust. Yet what pretended to be an act of humanitarianism turned out to be flawed at several levels. At one level, the act, as DMK’s Stalin pointed out, forgot the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Once again, the BJP regime demonstrated its illiteracy about Southern history and politics, showing that it is not the South that has seceded from India, but Delhi, which is oblivious of the stories of pain and trauma in the South. The genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka is as poignant a story as that of the Bangladeshis or the Rohingya. But the students were not protesting only the parochialism of the regime, they were wary of its attempts to damage the cosmopolitan frame, the very ecology of constitutional morality that gave the law its meaning.

To exclude the Muslim was to violate the very principles of constitutional morality and to literally argue that a particular group had a patent on suffering. The universities as sites of knowledge taught Shah and Modi political lessons they should have internalised in their limited sojourns at the university.

But I think democracy, secularism and pluralism as worldviews went further. Though Christians were included in the list, many Christians, and especially the Jesuits, objected to such a listing. They showed that the regime had made the category of minority an arbitrary one, a label they could offer or remove from anyone they chose.

But it was not just a conceptual act that showed the Indian university was still the home of pluralistic values. It was the deep sense of democracy. One did not wait for stereotypical party leaders to start a movement. Ordinary students became leaders, facing a battery of policemen with courage and clarity. One senses the maturity, the responsibility of these acts of protest. These protesters realise that they are not mere critiques of the illiteracy of citizenship. The students realise that they are the vanguard of a new politics which is finding resonance worldwide. Secondly, it is showing that civil society has had enough of the authoritarianism of the nation-state. Civil society, as embodied in the university, senses that if democracy has to be invented beyond majoritarianism, the moment is now. The level of sympathy and support the students are getting is heartening. It is a moment of hope in a climate of darkness.

At this moment of celebration, which is still a spark of hope, one must salute the plurality of the university and a campus as a site for such dramas. The same litany of hope was enacted during the Emergency. The very structure of the academe was a drama of ideas which makes it plural. Therefore, it is not surprising that the syllabus was much a target to tinker with, as the Constitution. The campus protests against the citizenship Act showed the creative reciprocity between the syllabus and the Constitution.

It demonstrated that students still believe in the sanctity of ideas, the ideals of the Constituent Assembly, even if the BJP treats it as garbage. The beauty of democracy appears in these moments of surprises where vulnerable groups, hospitable in their openness, challenge the state to remind it of the ideals it has forgotten. This, more than anything, is a reason to rewrite the education policy to salute this movement and guarantee the plurality, the quiet dynamism of an institution we often tend to devalue — the university campus.

— The writer is a noted academician

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