And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises: and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?
—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
In December 2019, police descended on the campuses of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in the Indian cities of Aligarh and New Delhi. In January 2020 masked vigilantes entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. At AMU police are alleged to have broken into student residences and caned student protestors and others who got in their way. At JMI multiple videos surfaced of police entering the university library and taking on protesters and other students who simply happened to be there. Other videos, showing students pelting police with stones, have been used to justify police action. The library was trashed; one student lost an eye; another student lost his hand. At JNU the police stood aside while groups of men and women targeted teachers and students who had been protesting a hike in campus-housing fees. The vigilantes were armed with rods and helmets. One of the attackers later said in a television interview that helmets offered indispensable protection for the business of breaking glass, doors and perhaps bones. The student-union president received serious injuries to her head, as did a faculty member. Investigations have been launched and in the only press conference to date about the JNU intrusion police named and blamed ‘leftists’ for wreaking violence. Investigations continue into all three instances of violence at universities, and courts have petitions and counter-petitions before them. The wheels of law grind slowly, and after the initial horror and panic there seems to be an uneasy calm.
Universities in India are a microcosm of wider social desires and domains. What we are seeing playing out in universities are the fear and competitive hatred seen throughout Indian society under its present leadership. On the one hand, fear of the future and the present has led to a view of a past of perfection and glory uncontaminated by outsiders, infiltrators or foreign influences. This nostalgic recreation of a perfect past by the nationalist right wing, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fuels people’s parochialism and bigotries. On the other hand, the left wing is nostalgic for an imagined pluralistic past, based in part on constitutional law, secularism and tolerance. Both visions are flawed and both are being aired in a competing moral panic that sees India on the path either to fulfilling its destiny as a prosperous, neoliberal Hindu nation or to being destroyed by bigots and hate-mongers.
The vision of India as Hindu not only erases Muslim and other minority identities; it also obliterates the joyous contradictions of Hinduism to which the everyday practices and practitioners of the religion attest. But the melancholic nostalgia for a golden age of plural existence overlooks the flaws within India’s constitutional framework and seems unable to construct any progressive agenda that does not indulge in nostalgia. Political debates in India are largely rancorous, abusive and absolutist, across the political spectrum. In the meantime, the mainstream media play a major role in stoking fear and resentment. Journalistic practices are marred by obvious biases. Social-media platforms enable the emergence of vitriolic echo chambers, with bands of professional (and amateur) trolls policing the internet, making accusations of sedition, supposed anti-national activities and deviations from the norms said to define ‘Indianness’. The February 2020 Delhi riots saw video footage of that event transformed into music videos on TikTok, glorifying violence against Muslims.
To get a fuller understanding of these attacks on students and universities we need to go back to the prehistories and backstories that have strengthened prejudice and been used to justify state violence, on the one hand, and bolster the protests against authoritarian regimes and practices, on the other. That AMU, a minority Muslim university, has been targeted may be seen against a longer history. AMU’s support for the partition of India some seventy years ago is evoked whenever right-wing nationalists want to smear current students and faculty with the charge of being unpatriotic, even though they have little to do with the university’s stance of that time and do not necessarily share the same ideological leanings. Even a photograph of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (founder of Pakistan and considered an arch traitor in India) has been a source of conflict. JMI is less visibly Muslim in its student composition, but that has not prevented the right wing from ghettoising it as such.
JNU has been in the eye of multiple storms, dating back to its resistance to the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, during which all constitutional and democratic rights were suspended. In 2016 there were insistent calls to shut down JNU in response to anti-nationalist speeches made by some of its students. This episode might be seen as a precursor to the current moment since it helped to consolidate a narrative—aided by the mainstream media—of unpatriotic, ungrateful students living off taxpayers’ largesse and daring to criticise their benefactors. There was (and continues to be) widespread anger directed at JNU for its refusal to accept the dominant narratives of national well-being and India’s glorious past and future, even though the 2019–20 protests were largely about a hike in student fees.
In fact the two are not unrelated. National well-being is now premised on the neoliberal transformation of India’s universities into ‘knowledge hubs’ that will produce docile workers who will serve their motherland. As a public university, JNU had built a reputation over several decades for academic openness and student diversity. The latter is particularly important since admission policies, along with government financial aid, have enabled first-generation entrants from diverse parts of India to benefit from attending this celebrated institution. Neoliberal changes to admission policies, such as the abolition of ‘deprivation points’, which gave additional weight to a candidate’s economic and social background, and the proposed fee hike, have altered the landscape of the university. JNU Students Union argued that the fee increase would lead to many students having to forgo their courses, depriving them of their right to a good education, and perhaps a decent future.
The JNU fee hike is not an anomaly. It is integral with India’s 2019 New Education Policy (NEP), which called for increased private funding in higher education and for universities to raise their own funds through endowments or private philanthropy. The NEP formalised private funding patterns that had already been rolled out in other public universities, such as at the University of Delhi (DU). Public universities will no longer receive the bulk of their funding as grants but rather must take out loans that are subject to compulsory repayment, the servicing of which puts pressure on universities to raise funds independently. The funding crunch has led to a freeze in new appointments as well as in faculty promotions. At DU, for instance, more than 4000 faculty members have been working for years (some for over a decade) as adjuncts, with little prospect of their employment being made permanent. One soft option has been to raise fees. While individual colleges at DU have been doing this for some years without protests from students, JNU presented a different challenge—at least until the evening of 5 January 2020, when masked agents descended on the campus. Now one hears less about the protest over the fee hike, more about the trauma that students and faculty live with on a daily basis in a hostile and divided environment.
What emerges from the narratives outlined above is a pattern of suppression of dissent in universities: at AMU and JMI police were deployed, at JNU and Visva-Bharati University (the latter founded by Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate for literature) vigilantes were unleashed to wreak violence. Another trigger for protests in universities in late 2019 and early 2020 was the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Act proposes to give citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs hailing from India’s neighbouring countries, specifically Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan; but not to Muslims. The argument is that those religious minorities in the first group have been ill-treated in neigbouring nations and have a right of return to their motherland. Proponents of the Act believe that it will strengthen India since illegitimate, illegal infiltrators will now be driven out. For them it is a good law that is being deliberately misrepresented for political purchase.
Opponents of the Act say that it is designed to further isolate India’s 200 million Muslims: while non-Muslims will have a right to stay on in India even if they cannot prove their legal status, Muslims will not. This contention is supported by the fact that the Act is now conjoined with a National Register of Citizens (NRC), a database requiring residents of India to prove that they are also citizens. A pilot version of the NRC was implemented in the eastern state of Assam, with some unsettling consequences: of the more than one million residents who were deemed to be illegal the majority were Hindus. The Citizenship Amendment Act will now enable any Hindu (or non-Muslim) to lay claim to citizenship. Opponents of the Act argue that it is a means of furthering Hindu nationalism, intended as a path to creating a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). They argue that the economically poor are also document poor, and that the intersection of religion and poverty will lead to these groups suffering disproportionately.
University students have played a prominent role in protests against the Act, and the pattern of repression outlined above in Indian universities is typical of responses to the expression of democratic rights in other spheres. Repression is often followed by the persecution of the victims of violence, a tactic usually paired with the claim that the protests constitute a ‘red terror’ in Indian universities. ‘Red terror’ is shorthand for anyone who expresses ideas perceived to be leftist; in fact, it stands for anything that is at odds with the dominant nationalist orthodoxy. While the electoral appeal and actual power of the organised Left in India have diminished since the 1990s (following the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the lack of left-wing representation in parliament and state legislatures), the ‘Left’ serves as bogeyman; the term is used to tar all who disobey the laws of inevitable progress and development. This is not to imply that the Indian left wing is innocent, especially since left orthodoxy is not immune to its own hegemonic and violent predilections. Now, however, the might of the state and its legal and extralegal organs are trained on all forms of dissent, left or otherwise. It is worth speculating about what these patterns of systemic and sometimes spectacular violence reveal.
The attack on the JMI library was exceptional only insofar as agents of the state were actually seen perpetrating it—that there is video footage of it. In fact attacks on libraries predate the current situation. For instance, in 2004 the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune was vandalised by protestors for providing research assistance to US author James Laine, whose book on Shivaji, a revered Maratha king, contained some contentious remarks. Founded in 1917, the institute has one of ‘the largest collections of rare books and manuscripts’ on ‘Orientology’. More recently, the JNU library has had its funding for academic journals significantly reduced. If the library is a locus for learning and thinking within the larger university, it is unsurprising that libraries are a focus of attacks of one kind or another: assaults on libraries make visible government contempt for critical learning and thinking. They also foreground the validation of views based on ignorance and half-truths as being worth more than critical questioning. In a very different context Albert Camus’ narrator in The Plague ponders the consequences of ignorance:
The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.
It is the last observation that hovers as threat and intimidation in the state’s present dealings with Indian universities.
Arguably, universities in India have never been safe or autonomous spaces, as evident in the non-academic appointment of some vice chancellors and faculty in the past; the prevalence of sexual harassment; and at different times the withdrawal by university officials of ‘unpatriotic’ or supposedly seditious texts from course syllabi. But now the dominant conservative forces seek to obliterate critical thinking and even the pretence of autonomy. The excessive violence of the state’s reaction to protest is indicative of an urge for total domination and control, although it also suggests overreach, which points to a not-yet-stable hegemony. It is here that there may be a sliver of hope—cracks in that oppressive network of attempted ideological mind control. This is probably too optimistic, though, not only because the ideological state apparatus is being brought to bear on all aspects of teaching and learning but because of consistent support within universities for discourses and practices of assent and absolute knowledge. Thus, while there is dissent and unrest in academic spaces, there is also support among academics for current government policies. The Times of India reported in December 2019 that more than a thousand academics ‘from various universities and reputed institutions across India’ supported the Citizenship Amendment Act. Indeed, in a statement to this effect these academics congratulated parliament for ‘standing up for forgotten minorities and upholding the civilizational ethos of India’ and ‘providing a haven for those fleeing from religious persecution’. The Act, it was said, ‘is in perfect sync with the secular Constitution of India as it does not prevent any person of any religion from any country, seeking Indian citizenship’.
This statement seems unexceptionable if one is committed to debate and free speech. The Act offers sanctuary for persecuted minorities fleeing India’s neighbouring countries (barring Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka) and the language of rights is a universal one, as is the right to have rights, which, while not universally acknowledged, is perhaps as crucial as universal declarations of rights. This statement also taps into a discourse of hospitality—the opening of doors to persecuted co-religionists in Muslim-majority South Asian nations. This harks back to and celebrates India’s plurality, ‘the civilisational ethos’ that makes India a palimpsest of cultures, religions, influences and languages.
Yet there are contradictions that this statement overlooks. While the Act promises sanctuary to some minorities, it effectively ghettoises others already living in the nation, characterising them as enemies within. The present Home Minister has called them ‘termites’; he sees them as gnawing away at a healthy polity. Open doors for co-religionists are combined with policies that make the lives of other minorities and dissidents within the nation and its universities uncomfortable, if not intolerable. In some cases, language is misconstrued to serve reactionary ends, such as when Mahatma Gandhi is invoked to justify the Act. Of course, such contortions of language are not new, and I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s reference to the ‘language rule’ in Hitler’s Germany. As she notes: ‘The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, “normal” knowledge of murder and lies’. Nazi Germany is not analogous with Hindu nationalism, but there is a sliding towards a ‘language system’ where the consolidation of some communities with the nation on exclusionary grounds is considered evidence of India’s ‘civilisational ethos’. There is an unconscious and chilling irony in such a conflation, for although gesturing towards plurality and hospitality, it speaks at another level of communities driven by fear.
Such fears are not only related to the ‘fear of small numbers’—Arjun Appadurai’s phrase, taken from his masterful analysis of why minorities the world over are reviled and persecuted; they are also related to the fear of freedom, and universities, however imperfectly, embody freedom of speech and action. Changes in funding models and to syllabi and administrative diktats are modes of restricting freedoms, of moulding future citizens to fit a neoliberal matrix of economically productive, patriotic beings. As Benjamin Hunnicutt observes, in the context of an obsession with work and productivity, alternatives to the neoliberal model or a post-work world are feared as ‘people might find something better to do than create profits for capitalism’. India’s future since the early 1990s has been hitched to the promise of development via capitalism, and universities play a crucial role in the production of amenable participants in the economy. JNU seems to be a holdout, since some of its students question the assumptions of neoliberal progress, their questioning based on the evidence of growing inequality, environmental degradation and the proliferation of what David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’. It was predictable that the JNU community, and other Indian university communities making similar arguments, would be vilified as inimical to the project of nation building.
To consolidate community and nation, fear of the Other is kept alive, and the price of progress in this framework is constant vigilance over those who do not see the light and truth of current and future glory. The seductiveness of fear, as Lukas Bärfuss observes in his novel One Hundred Days, creates a ‘alphabet of fear’ and the threat of dissolution is what produces solidarity with one’s own tribe, co-religionists or nation. Such negative solidarities are, as Sara Ahmed argues, central to the affective formation of communities of hate that, paradoxically, perceive themselves as communities based on love: ‘Because we love, we hate, and this hate is what brings us together’. This hate is what produces the fantasy of the ‘ordinary’ and the everyday that are said to be under threat and must be defended against outsiders. While Ahmed’s focus is on the production of white-nationalist hate and solidarities, similar communities of fear, resentment and hate are being fostered in Indian contexts.
There is little space for dialogue within the national polity or civil society, and Indian universities under neoliberal governance today provide little in the way of thoughtful, deliberative discussion. The ‘ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill’ smothers not only lives but the lifeblood of rational, critical debate and democratic functioning. University communities across India have shown great courage and ingenuity in protesting against injustices and inequities. But at present there is little evidence of any futures envisaged beyond protest. Such futures, we might hope, will constitute the ‘heaven of freedom’ Tagore imagined a long while ago in his poem ‘Where the Mind Is Without Fear’, where he wrote:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
The universities, keeping alive their constitutive traditions of critical thought and intellectual openness, will be indispensable to that project.