As someone who cut his teeth in journalism by reporting campus unrest in the 1970s and 1980s, I’m struck by how much Indian universities and the police are still stuck in the 1970s mindset when it comes to responding to student protests. Watching scenes of unprovoked police attacks on unarmed students in Jamia Millia, and their tactics in JNU where policemen stood by while vandals went on a rampage was like watching a frame-by-frame rerun of an old movie. Similarly, the response of university authorities, particularly at JNU, was straight from the 1970s playbook.
Nothing, it seems, has changed in the past three decades with the “jackboot” approach (an expression that one frequently heard from senior Delhi police officers then), which is still the default response to any hint of “threat” to law order. An approach embarrassingly out of sync with modern practices in more sophisticated liberal democracies, where in recent years a lot of effort has gone into sensitising both university administrators and the police in dealing with students.
It’s hard to imagine a British university campus descending into the sort of mayhem witnessed at Jamia and JNU. Heads in Scotland Yard would have rolled if its men had behaved the way Delhi Police did. And a British VC accused of allowing their campus to become a playground for cops and vandals (as JNU VC is) would probably be looking for another job.
Policing in much of the West is governed by “consent”, which means that police derive their public legitimacy from transparency about their powers, their integrity in exercising those powers and their accountability for their actions.
Police Conduct (IOPC) which sets and enforces the standards of police behaviour. Incidents like those at Jamia and JNU would have been automatically referred to it. There is no such independent body in India to oversee and enforce standards of police behaviour.
I’m not sure even if standards of police behaviour exist in a codified form. Or if they do, whether they’re in line with the internationally recognised standards of transparency —and demands of a modern liberal democracy committed to right to free speech.
The truth is that for all the constitutional trappings of a liberal democracy, attitudes both in universities and the police are still governed by the colonial adversarial view of protests —as defiance of authority to be met with maximum force.
Most VCs see a protest it as a direct challenge to their personal authority which they
must repulse to uphold discipline. India’s old “guru-shishya parampara” where pupils are expected to unquestioningly submit themselves to the authority of the guru remains deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. Indian academics often struggle to adjust themselves to the more challenging environment in Western universities where student attitudes are less reverential.
All this is compounded by a rampant culture of impunity which means that nobody is ever held to account; and since people know they can get away with it they don’t really care. Accountability is alien to a system that’s really a network of mutually dependent interests propped up by political patronage. A desi version of the Old Boys’ network really.
So, you have a VC with reportedly close links to the ruling political establishment who is still in office and remains defiant after bringing his own university into disrepute. (Who wouldn’t if they know they have official protection?) And a police commissioner who seems to be missing in action. Indeed, his boys may even get a pat on the back after the I &B Minister Prakash Javadekar praised them for their “findings” that Left-wing students were responsible for the JNU violence.
“Police has brought reality in light. It is clear that left wing students’ outfits were involved in the attack,” he said while other senior ministers have waded in to defend police conduct.
Lastly, there’s a cultural issue at the heart of an almost instinctive aversion to student activism: the uniquely Indian concept of universities as “temples of learning” which must not be allowed to be polluted by political activities on the campus.
The idea that “students come to university to learn, not to do politics” is one that is deep-rooted in the Indian academia. I’ve seen even otherwise progressive VCs complain about “too much activism”, or what Swapan Dasgupta, BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP, has denounced as “over-activism”. Sunil Gavaskar has criticised students for “being out on the streets” and said their “main duty” is be in their classrooms. “That’s their main duty. They have gone to the university to study, so please study,” he said while delivering the annual Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial Lecture in Delhi.
In 2016, Delhi High Court justice Pratibha Rani, while ruling on former JNU students union leader, Kanhaiya Kumar’s bail application in a case of alleged “sedition”, took a swipe at such activism likening it to an “infection”, which needed to be controlled before it became an epidemic.
Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu used her observations in an article (ET March 05, 2016) to claim that they “vindicate the stance taken by the BJP that such acts are unpardonable and ...also highlight the urgency ...to act to restore universities as temples of learning”.
Yet, historically universities the world over have been at the heart of great political movements (anti-Vietnam War protests, anti-apartheid campaign, the Tiananmen Square protests) nurturing future leaders .
A politically disengaged youth —indifferent to threats to constitutional and cultural values—is the worst that can happen to the world’s largest and “vibrant” democracy. We should celebrate —not demonise—our politically aware youth. For starters, let’s roll back the 1970s “jackboot” culture.
(Hasan Suroor is a commentator and writer. His most recent book is ‘Who Killed Liberal Islam’)