In his convocation address to the University of Allahabad in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people”. In 2018, are the universities with the nation and the people? Or should we ask, is the nation and the people with its universities?
On October 31, eminent historian and author Ramachandra Guha announced via twitter that he will not be joining Ahmedabad University in the coming year. Just two days before that, Rajiv Malhotra, a US based author and prominent Hindutva ideologue, was appointed as an Honorary Visiting Professor in JNU. On November 2, Arnab Goswami was appointed a member of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) Society in place of eminent political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta who had resigned from the Society earlier this year. All three events are being widely seen as a part of the on-going saffronisation of higher education and research institutions across the country.
Ramachandra Guha tweeted, “Due to circumstances beyond my control, I shall not be joining Ahmedabad University.” The academic was offered an appointment to join the university as the Shrenik Lalbhai Chair Professor of Humanities and director of the Gandhi Winter School at the School of Arts and Sciences. Since the university made the announcement public on October 16, it witnessed a wide range of protests staged by the Akhil Bharti Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The ABVP submitted a memorandum to the registrar of the university, B M Shah, objecting to the appointment of the historian on the grounds that he had “anti-national” views.
According to reports, after receiving threats from ABVP, the AU administration reached out to Guha on Monday to discuss the possibility of deferring the date of his joining. He was supposed to join AU on February 1, 2019. In another tweet, Guha expressed his disagreement with the decision and said, “A biographer of Gandhi cannot teach a course on Gandhi in Gandhi’s own city.”
Calling the historian a “Communist” for his views, Pravin Desai, secretary of the Ahmedabad unit of the ABVP, said, “We want intellectuals in our educational institutes and not anti-nationals who can also be termed as ‘urban Naxals’. If he is invited to Gujarat, there would be a JNU like anti-national sentiment.”
Dhananjay Rai, an Assistant Professor at the political science department of the Central University of Gujarat told the Indian Cultural Forum, “I think academic freedom is sacrosanct in a way. The binary between national and anti-national is not just precarious but also antithetical to creative imagination and the pursuance of higher education. I think there is a difference between dislike and disagreement, one can agree or disagree, but to let this affect the enrichment of university is not a good thing as universities without academic freedom would account for the end of higher education. I think it would have been beneficial for Ahmedabad University had Ramachandra Guha been there and his presence would have been enriching both in terms of agreement and disagreement.”
This is not the first time universities in Gujarat have seen violent protests from right-wing outfits. Last year, Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Vadodara, had to cancel a day long workshop by Prof. Ghanshyam Shah titled Reading the Margins: Politics of Caste and Social Movements in India, after Hindutva groups threatened to disrupt the workshop. In response to the fiasco over Ramachandra Guha’s appointment, Shah said, “All academic institutions in Gujarat, including the private ones are under pressure and that might be one of the reasons why Professor Ramachandra Guha withdrew. This is exactly what happened with me in MSU. The same pattern is continuing. I think this is how it is going to be, since there is no resistance in academic circles. This has been going on for more than six-seven years. There is nobody in the major universities to raise their voices. Everyone is silent. When I heard that Guha is joining Ahmedabad University, I thought that will be good for the students, but the administration backed-off at the last moment. There must have been pressure from above.”
Over the past few years, we have seen how the education sector has been privatised in the hands of the right-wing groups. The Hinduisation of education, erasing history from the textbooks in the name of religion and the continuous, almost planned attacks on academicians and free-thinkers clearly shows the right-wing’s fear of liberal thought and freedom of expression.
Sahil Kureshi, a research scholar at Oxford University studying the saffronisation of campuses in Gujarat told the Indian Cultural Forum, “This whole episode sheds light on what has been happening in universities in Gujarat for over two decades now. The Sangh has been in complete control of the universities and no voices of dissent, no matter how mild, are tolerated. And of course, what they mean by anti-national is anti-Sangh, they’re not even trying to hide or disguise this anymore. All the excerpts provided as “proof” are critical of the Sangh or the Hindu Rashtra. Also, the reaction of the university administration is, not in the least, surprising. It would be naive to expect anything else from the university administrations in these times, especially from private universities.”
While in one university an eminent academic has been forced to relinquish his appointment, in another university a bigot and Hindutva apologist has been handed a plump post. The appointment of Rajiv Malhotra has caused much outrage. Historian S Irfan Habib wrote in a tweet, “I don’t think JNU deserved this insult. A pretender, a plagiarist and Hindutva proponent Rajiv Malhotra appointed honorary visiting professor at JNU.” US based historian Audrey Truschke too condemned the move and tweeted, “A hate monger, plagiarist, without academic credentials, best known for his identity-fuelled attack on scholars has been appointed.” Rajiv Malhotra, who has emerged as one of the most prominent ideologues of the Hindu Right, has himself been known for vicious attacks and diatribes against freethinkers and other voices of reason in India. Accused of plagiarism on multiple occasions, his appointment is being seen as nothing but an attempt by the ruling dispensation muscling its way into academic spaces.
Commenting upon Malholtra’s appointment, Dhananjay Rai said, “Rajiv Malhotra is known for his extreme and non-academic interventions in academic sphere, and anyone who would talk about reason and rationality and humanity and universality and universalism would be antithetical to his cause. He speaks like a religious person in the attire of an academician and his various books and articles are based on binaries and the binary is very clear. I think this is a very unfortunate development – in place of finding serious academic scholars in universities, people who are known for their illiberal and extreme views regarding various communities including minorities are being appointed.”
Arnab Goswami’s appointment, too, is a part of the same trend. Many senior journalists said that his appointment was not a good idea as it is a place for scholars and not for votaries of the ruling party.
All three incidents are a part of a new academic culture that is more concerned with appointing personnel politically or ideologically affiliated with the ruling regime, and using power to curb voices, rather than creating a socio-economic environment that encourages young and creative minds to think and critically engage. The problem with the development of this “Hinduised” academic culture is that dissent which questions the right-wing definition of nationalism is considered dangerous and is immediately labelled seditious or anti-national.
“On one side, anyone who is liberal would also be construed as a Marxist or Communist without understanding anything about Marxism or Communism while on the other hand, any other space will be offered and provided to those who are not even engaged in serious discussions on history, economics, sociology or politics. They are only forming a common sense about history and sociology and political science. But this common sense has to be theorised as the knowledge,” Rai concluded.