The BJP’s quest for ‘doers’ and hatred of questioners

Why the Bombay University senate election was halted—and why the Shiv Sena and BJP are interested parties

Mumbai police stationed outside the Mumbai University campus, 18 August (Photo: Getty Images)
Mumbai police stationed outside the Mumbai University campus, 18 August (Photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

Last week, almost overnight, the Maharashtra government halted the electoral process in the University of Mumbai, even as nominations were expected to close on 18 August for elections to the university senate on 10 September. Later reports revealed that the order was issued on the basis of a complaint by BJP MLA Ashish Shelar, alleging discrepancies and duplications in the voters’ list.

While that may seem like an innocuous allegation on the face of it, the underlying story seems less so. Being held after a two-year gap, elections to the Mumbai University senate typically involve voters from the academic community, with two student groups poised to dominate the elections this year.

Though bitter rivals, the Bharatiya Yuva Sena (BYS) led by Aaditya Thackeray, son of former chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, and the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS) led by Amit Thackeray, son of Uddhav’s estranged cousin Raj Thackeray, were gaining ground among the graduates and academics who would be voting this year, and the state government seems to have suddenly woken up to the fact that there was no representation from either the Shiv Sena’s Eknath Shinde faction or the BJP in the electoral list.

Is that the actual reason behind stopping the election process? Prominent Mumbai dermatologist Tushar Jagtap, who is also a former senate member, certainly thinks so, confessing himself both “upset and unsurprised that the BJP-led regime in Maharashtra is now training its guns on Bombay University”. Ominously, Dr Jagtap adds, “Whenever a civilisation needs to be destroyed, dictators uproot and completely decimate the universities first. As happened with Nalanda and Taxila.”

The overnight stoppage of the procedure was merely a means to lure away members from the two parties affiliated to the university and get them to join either the BJP or the Shinde faction, alleges Aaditya Thackeray. He could have a point, owing to the BJP’s continued uncertainty about Raj Thackeray’s loyalties, particularly given his repeated needling in recent weeks over what he terms the BJP’s tendency to “steal” members of other political parties, disregarding their own hard-working party supporters. “Build your party with your own supporters rather than populating it with those belonging to other parties,” he told the BJP only last week.

Neither can the BJP be certain of Amit Thackeray, who has seemed to be on the same page as Aaditya Thackeray on various issues concerning the environment, mismanagement by the current government of the city’s development, the Metro rail projects and the bullet train—all of which are also bitterly opposed by their fathers, estranged cousins though they may be.

Not surprisingly, over the weekend, both the Shinde Shiv Sena and the BJP have been approaching members affiliated to both the BYS and the BVS, and inducting them into their own ranks, clearly in the hope that they will be able to muscle their way into the senate.

Interference from political parties in the senate has long been a bone of contention among university officials and academics. Says Rajan Velankar, a former vice-chancellor of the university, “Here I was, trying my best at senate meetings to persuade members to accord more funds and importance to quality courses and teaching staff, and there they (Shiv Sena members) were, demanding more toilets and canteens in every college in the city. I tore my hair off at these meetings but I simply could not persuade them.”

Why toilets and canteens? In the 2000s, as Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray set up the party’s first ever youth wing to launch grandson Aaditya in politics, the Shiv Sena controlled the university graduates list, and thus the senate.

Aaditya was the first ever Thackeray to make it to college. So most Shiv Sainiks, children of party members who had not made it past the school-final level, presumably failed to appreciate the concept of higher education for a brighter future.

So in trying to build Aaditya’s political base for the future, they thought to focus on more toilets and canteens, assuming students would remember the Shiv Sena as the party that built those facilities, and thus vote for Aaditya. However hard the vice chancellor and other teachers tried, party members did not seem to understand that toilets would soon be forgotten in the agony of failing to make national or international grades in the job market for lack of a quality education.

Indeed, if all that Aaditya Thackeray was seen to contribute were toilets and canteens, it could soon prove counterproductive for his future, they were told. But they didn’t quite view matters in that light—toilets were a visible manifestation of good work done.

Education was an abstract quantity. However, with better understanding, Aaditya soon caught on and shifted the focus of the BYS from beating up or blackening the faces of teachers in the style popularised by his grandfather to emphasising quality education and degrees.

Though that shift in focus now has him torn between two worlds—the narrow, parochial one of the old Sena and the one he and his father are trying hard to mainstream with more educated professionals as members—he has stayed the course.

With Amit Thackeray too having passed through some of the best schools and colleges in Mumbai, the BJP is now worried that their grip on young voters might be slipping—with no charismatic youth leaders to match the two cousins. The last-ditch attempt to influence the senate elections could well be a manifestation of this worry.

“This the BJP is doing with a university that does not even rank among the top 10 in India. It is at number 96 [per National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) rankings released by the Union ministry of education], while the IISc Bengaluru is at number one, Jawaharlal Nehru University is second, Jamia Millia Islamia is third and Jadavpur University fourth.

“Are you surprised that these four institutions have been constantly under attack over the past nine years? They continue to resist and maintain their rankings within India, but are slipping internationally. Still, all are in the first 400, while Bombay University is somewhere near 800. Still, the BJP will mess with academics because they do not want anyone to have independent thinking or ask questions. Like in Ashoka University,” Dr Jagtap says.

Charu Satam, who leads a group of intellectuals who regularly debate disturbing events around the country and the means to correct them, says, “In military academies around the world, they want cadets who are reasonably intelligent but do not ask too many questions—‘theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die’.

So if you score 3 out of 10 in your entrance tests, of course you fail. But you also fail if you score higher than seven. If you score 8 or 9 or 10, your IQ is higher and you will ask too many questions and not implement orders that you think are wrong. They only want blind obedience.”

That is what the RSS-BJP is bringing into universities, claims Satam. Producing “street goons like Bajrang Dal” but not researchers and professors with questioning minds. So that a generation down the line, they will be all “4 out of 10 types, not even 7 out of 10”.

Will they get away with it? Not if there is enough resistance, says Dr Jagtap, who is heartened by students fighting back at Ashoka University and hopes students’ wings of other political parties in Maharashtra will similarly oppose what is happening in Mumbai University.

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