Campus conundrums

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-Tarun Dutt

The suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at University of Hyderabad, in January was a local event. The events that allegedly led to the Dalit researcher taking the extreme step were also local – Rohith and four others of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) were accused of assaulting an ABVP leader – but it got amplified into a national issue and politicians scrambled to be seen on the Hyderabad campus to show they cared for country’s youth – more if they were Dalits.

What happened on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus on February 9 – to hail 2001 Parliament attack convict as a martyr and shout anti-India slogans – is by no means acceptable and the harshest action needs to be taken against the motley group of students who indulged in this venomous, seditious act but to demand shutdown of JNU, an institution famed for producing some of Indian’s best minds? #JNUShutdown? Why? Because some black sheep indulged in a seditious act?

Videos of JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar circulating on social media prove that there’s a clash of caste and ideological identities on Indian campuses – at Hyderabad Central University and IIT Madras, it was Dalit versus the upper caste; at JNU, it was pro-separatists versus nationalist Hindu viewpoint – and this is a dangerous trend for a country whose majority population is young.

Caste is an integral part of most Indians – some bear it like a badge on their sleeves while others use it to display victimhood – and it has been part of students politics as well but now it’s getting amplified thanks to a medium that makes everything a hash tag in a jiffy and before you know, it’s already trending. The micro-blogging site, Twitter, sets the news agenda of the country.

And political parties thrive on this. They rush to campuses, to give political colours to local events. The Right says there’s a limit to tolerating dissent; the Left accuses the majoritarian Hindu party of using its political mandate to bulldoze institutions.

Following the arrest of Kanhaiya, the BJP has been accused of using the state power to establish ABVP dominance over universities. Congress communication department chief Randeep Surjewala said, “The BJP had been curbing students’ voice… Is police action on JNU a desperate attempt to perpetuate it? Take action against those guilty but isn’t BJP using Delhi Police for its’ anti-JNU tirade?”

The ex-servicemen of June 1978 batch of National Defence Academy have threatened to return their degrees to JNU vice-chancellor saying they find it difficult to be associated to a university which has become a hub of anti-national activities. There are demands from “psedo-intellectuals to return awards on #JNUAfzalTribute”. Some are questioning why no action was taken against people who hoisted the Hindu Mahasabha website to idolize Nathuram Godse.

For me, all this is overreaction. I didn’t agree with people who returned their awards over alleged intolerance earlier. The police should take action against students – there are conflicting reports that most of them were outsiders and this needs to be investigated to salvage a university’s reputation – who indulged in the seditious act but to make it a political slug fest or saffron versus red would be stretching it too far. Let’s not draw more wedges into the students’ community on caste and religion lines. Let’s not reduce value of a student, like Rohith said in his suicide note, to “to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”

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