The Indian government is at war with college campus activists across the country. Ever since Narendra Modi became the prime minister of the country almost two years ago, his government has launched a concerted attempt to stifle liberal voices in the country. His main targets have been India’s universities, which have historically been liberal and secular playgrounds.
The latest victim of this ideological crusade is the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru university (JNU), a prestigious and much-sought-after educational institution. The president of the JNU student’s union Kanhaiya Kumar has been arrested under sedition charges and senior ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have termed his voice of dissent on the university’s campus as “anti-national.”
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It all started last week, when a group of JNU students held an event to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, a convicted terrorist in the 2001 attack on India’s parliament who was hanged to death in 2013. According to the reliable sources inside the campus, some Kashmiri students shouted anti-India slogans when members of the BJP’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), provoked them and claimed undisputed rights over Kashmir. These sorts of clashes of ideas and points of views are supposed to be the identity of the JNU campus. Students debate openly and challenge established notions.
The government now questions this openness and freedom—the very democratic right of dissent—in the name of nationalism. It’s not that such questioning has taken place on the campus for the first time: Anyone who has studied in Delhi and has been part of the university culture in the city can vouch for the culture of nonconformism across the JNU campus, which was built in 1960s to promote higher education in India.
The Hindu right-wing government, which has never found any considerable foothold on the campus, is trying to infiltrate this bastion of liberalism and free thought by using the might of the state. The academic life of the campus is now in a complete state of paralysis, with students and teachers alike out on the streets demanding the release of the student union president.
In a hard-hitting article in the Indian Express Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that “we are living under a government that is both rabidly malign and politically incompetent. It is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism, legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores, and administrative power to destroy institutions.”
He further adds that “make no mistake: the purpose of such a use of state power is to put all defenders of liberty, all radical critics of the state, on the defensive. Its purpose is to make traitors of all of us.”
A similar form of interference by the ruling party at a university in Hyderabad forced Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula, a PhD student, to suicide. A student from the dalit community, a highly marginalized social group in India, he was denied a scholarship and his admission was terminated on the ground that he was questioning the beliefs and values of the Hindu religion. The central education minister, Smriti Irani, acting on the complaint of the ABVP, humiliated him to the point that he took his own life. This blatant interference in the internal affairs of one of the premier universities in south has injected a deep sense of fear among students.
Similarly, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), a major center for art and film-making, has been under sustained attack by the Modi government over the many months. The government intends to control the free-thinking, liberal culture in the institute and wants to promote Hindu nationalism in the academy, which has produced many well-known artists over the last five decades. The right-wing BJP wants the FTII to be headed by Gajendra Chauhan, whose sole claim to fame is his proximity to the ruling party. Never before in its decades-long history has the institute been headed by a person of such limited artistic accomplishments; it was always mentored by leading film personalities who have proven credentials in the world of art and film.
The BJP government’s intolerance towards liberal India is also seen in a range of other issues, including its ban on beef, attack on rationalist writers, campaign against so-called “love jihad” and its blatant attempt to rewrite history. Many of these campaigns have come together to resemble a concerted campaign against India’s Muslim minority.
Modi received a historic mandate in 2014 after he ran promising good governance and economic development, but more than 20 months into his tenure, the predominant narrative of the government is no longer about development. Instead, the government is more focused on implementing a divisive agenda at the behest of the BJP and its patron organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Modi promised a government that would take everyone under its wings, but he has let loose deeply divisive forces, both inside and outside his party.
The latest incident at JNU has shocked Indian society and seriously raised questions about the intentions of the government. Ever since the BJP came to power, it has been at war with those who do not subscribe to its right-wing Hindu ideology. It terms anyone who raises a dissenting voice as “anti national.”
The JNU episode is a classic case of how the government wants to control the political discourse of the country. It reveals how the government is desperate to stifle all liberal voices who would dare question the right wing narrative.
The irony in the JNU case is that the BJP, which terms all those who question Afzal Guru’s hanging as anti-national, has been sharing power with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu and Kashmir, which hails the Kashmiri separatist as a hero.
The BJP has so far failed to inject dynamism into the economy and introduce long-promised structural reforms. By peddling the narrative of nationalism, the Hindu right-wing group wants to polarize Indian politics and continue to win elections across the country.
By empowering the forces of political belligerence, the Modi regime is trying to hide its own failures on the economic front. The prime minister’s political actions prove his critics right that he cannot come out of his sectarian mindset. Despite being the prime minister of India for almost two years, he continues to polarize the Indian society.