Police have now taken control of one of the premier universities in India and charged its student leadership with sedition, provoking statements of support for the students and faculty from at least 40 other universities in India as well as a worldwide protest from international scholars. But why should we in the US see this as more than a denial of free speech elsewhere, far far away? What possible connection might this have with our own universities? What is happening both in India and in the US is that Indian nationalism is exerting undue force in pushing certain ideas and silencing others, all in the name of nation and religion. In India this has taken the form of attacking dissident scholars as traitors; in the US we find outside organizations attempting to determine who gets hired at American universities -- setting conditions as to their religion, ethnicity, and intellectual beliefs.
In India, the latest episode was set off by an event planned by students. Earlier this month, the students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) had organized a memorial for Mohammad Afzal Guru, who was executed on February 9, 2013 for conspiracy to attack the Parliament of India, waging war against India, and murder in December 2001. Several human rights organizations in India and abroad protested the execution, claiming serious flaws and irregularities. Amnesty International asserted: "He was tried by a special court designated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), a law which fell considerably short of international fair trial standards and has since been repealed, in 2004, after serious allegations of its widespread abuse."
Seven student organizers and JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar have been "debarred" from taking part in any activities at the university; Kumar was arrested earlier this week "after a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy was registered over holding of the event on the campus at which anti-India slogans were alleged to have been raised."
Home Minister Rajnath Singh warned of "'strongest possible' action against those involved in the 'anti-Indian' sloganeering. HRD [Human Resources and Development, which includes Education] Minister Smriti Irani also said 'the nation can never tolerate any insult to Mother India.'" It should be noted that "anti-India" is a catch-all phrase--it can be interpreted as questioning the will of the government, questioning Hindu "values," or as in this case, backing people in Kashmir who have been agitating against the way Indian state has treated them.
But the JNU student organizers insist that the inflammatory rhetoric was imported from outside; they assert the interference of outside agitators from the ABVP [Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad or "All India Student Organization"], the student wing of the BJP [the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party]:
It is important to note that the slogans were not raised by members of Left organizations or JNU students. In fact, when such sloganeering took place, it was the Left-progressive organizations and students, including JNUSU office-bearers who asked the organizers of the programme to ask the people who were raising the slogans to stop slogans that are regressive...
The JNU administration, acting on the diktats of the ABVP, cancelled the permission for the program which it had earlier granted. This clearly points out that the administration is acting under ABVP's pressure to silence any kind of differing view point. Universities are spaces of dialogue and discussion and, if a group is holding a peaceful programme, the administration cannot act under the pressure of one political group to silence another...
Those people or organizations who differ with ABVP are being branded "anti-national"... ABVP has said that they would approach ministries to ensure "punishment" for various activists, once again suggesting that the ministries would accept their narrative uncritically and witch-hunt students.
The India Express draws the connection between the ABVP and the Indian government:
The fury with which the home minister and HRD minister intoned on defending "Mother India" and wiping out anti-national events, suggests several things. This was a political decision taken at the highest levels of government. It represents an open declaration by government that it will not tolerate any dissent. It clearly put on display this government's imperiously presumptuous claim that it has the monopoly on nationalism. It was meant to be a display of brute force against a speech that was not in any way an immediate instigation to violence. The crackdown was an act designed to revel in ignorance of the law of sedition.
Indeed, this sedition law is a carry over from colonial times. Ironically, the Indian Prime Minister for which JNU is named, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said, "as far as I am concerned that particular Section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better." And yet it has remained on the books.
Against this backdrop, we find this statement of support for the students and protest against the action signed by hundreds of international academics, including Aijaz Ahmad, Meena Alexander, Tariq Ali, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chateerjee, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak :
We, the undersigned, stand in solidarity with the students, faculty and staff of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi against the illegal ongoing police action since February 9, 2016. With them, we affirm the autonomy of the university as a non-militarized space for freedom of thought and expression. Accordingly, we condemn police presence on campus and the harassment of students on the basis of their political beliefs.
The charge of sedition, under the guise of which the police have been given a carte blanche to enter the JNU campus, to raid student hostels, arrest and detain students, including Kanhaiya Kumar, the current president of the JNU Students Union, is an alibi for the incursion of an authoritarian regime onto the university campus. Under Indian law sedition applies only to words and actions that directly issue a call to violence. The peaceful demonstration and gathering of citizens does not constitute criminal conduct. The police action on JNU campus is illegal under the constitution of India.
An open, tolerant, and democratic society is inextricably linked to critical thought and expression cultivated by universities in India and abroad. As teachers, students, and scholars across the world, we are watching with extreme concern the situation unfolding at JNU and refuse to remain silent as our colleagues (students, staff, and faculty) resist the illegal detention and autocratic suspension of students. We urge the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University to protect members of the university community and safeguard their rights.
Crucially, this episode is to be connected with larger human rights issues and politics in India. Vijay Prashad argues in Countercurrents that this recent episode is part of a larger, violent attack on the Left:
In the marrow of the Extreme Right is a demand for discipline enforced by violence. Anyone who strays from the authority of its world-view - Hindutva - is either anti-national or a terrorist. Political murders of well-regarded intellectuals and activists, such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi, put the nation on alert...
When Richa Singh, the new student leader at Allahabad University, invited senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan to campus to talk about free speech, the Extreme Rights's students' group (the ABVP) blocked him. They called Varadarajan, who had been the editor of The Hindu, a "Naxalite" (Maoist) and "anti-national." This is the chosen vocabulary. Singh later said, "There is a surge in intolerance in this country. The ABVP leaders are not willing to listen to anyone who contradicts their ideology."
Now this crackdown on "anti-Indian" speech may be coming home to the United States, but coded as the protection of a certain way of teaching about Hinduism, the religion of the ruling class in India. The fusion of religion and nationalism provides a potent means by which the government can argue for the hegemony of one state based on religion and oppress other religions and political movements at once, labeling them "anti-Hindu," "anti-India," and "anti-national," which are used as synonymous. In December Inside Higher Education featured a story which told of possible interference with academic appointments here in the US.
The story explains: "In May, UC Irvine celebrated a $1.5 million gift from the Thakkar Family and Dharma Civilization Foundation to establish a chair in Vedic and Indian Civilization studies. The university subsequently announced another $4.5 million in gifts to establish three additional endowed professorships, one on modern India and India diasporic studies funded by the Dharma Civilization Foundation and two additional chairs on Jain and Sikh studies funded by individual families. All four gifts are under review."
Since then many have raised serious concerns about the level of donor influence over who, exactly, is to be named to these chairs, and what the litmus test will be. In response, the University has said that it wants further investigation into the matter, including "more detailed questions about the organization's relation to other parties or interests in India." It asserts that it wants these appointments to "be free of donor influence." One would hope so, and that this case would serve as a warning signal to any administration offered such a deal.
One should have learned well in advance what the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) actually is, and how much it wishes to influence who will be appointed to these prestigious chairs and what their perspectives might be. This is all out in plain sight. A reading of the Foundation's response to the question, "How do we ensure that the University will honor the "intent" and "spirit" of the donor?" produces a detailed answer. Here are the three most salient points:
First, before entering into a relationship with the University, the Donor must ensure that the recipient institution is hospitable to the intent of the donor, and not just the donor's money. Secondly, at the time of giving the gift, the donor must enter into an agreement with the recipient, in which the intention and purpose of the donor is clearly documented and stipulated. This is a legal document, and is binding on the University. If the gift agreement is not drafted clearly and leaves open room for interpretation, it could be misrepresented. Third, we must ensure that the University's Faculty search process recruits a professor who is intimately suited to the fulfill the intention of the donor. This aspect is a key element in honoring the intent and spirit, of the donor. A Professor whose academic interests are at variance with the donor's commitment, may jeopardize the very intent of the gift.
Inside Higher Education reports that Kalyan Viswanathan, the foundation's executive vice president said that "'in a subtle way the source of funding does in fact impact the orientation of these scholars -- even though by and large scholars will claim complete academic independence... I'm saying something which will not go over well with the scholarly community because they do believe they are objective in their research and by and large they are objective and we want to promote that objectivity. We are not against the objectivity of scholars but at the same time I think the sources of funding do matter in terms of how the chairs get set up and what kinds of scholarship emerges from those chairs.'"
This is slippery language indeed. "Objective" and yet highly selective objectivity, selected in advance. By the time we get to the end of the statement, it is patently clear that the donor's "intent" will trump even that quaint scholarly notion of objectivity.
And "what kinds of scholarship" might be involved are particularly narrow. As Inside Higher Education notes, "The Dharma Civilization Foundation criticizes 'the application of Freudian analytical techniques to explain Hindu gods, goddesses and gurus' and says that the fact that many scholars of Hinduism are not adherents to the religion has "resulted in widespread incidence of misrepresentations of Hinduism, and mischaracterization of the traditions and practices within the Hindu fold.'" Again, what is of particular concern is the blurry line between religion, nationalism, and politics. It is not impossible that a critical view of Hinduism might be taken as a criticism of the state, or vice-versa. And stipulating that the recipients of these chairs stay within the "intent" of the donor means that certain points of view will simply not appear. This kind of interference in the academic appointment process is simply unheard of at this level.
In response, an Open Letter has garnered the signatures of some of the most eminent scholars in the field, who point out the violations of academic process and the troubling connection between religion and nationalism:
Prevailing normative codes at public Universities and standard academic procedures require an advertised search where qualified candidates are vetted by established scholars selected from a wide pool of academic expertise. Reshaping academic selection via criteria based on ethnic origin or religious belief opens the door to discriminatory practices that are consequential for educators and students everywhere, not just at UCI...
The DCF is part of a right-wing Hindu group of organisations that has been known to undermine Indian pluralism through an agenda that seeks to redefine true "Indianness" in terms of a historically-fabricated continuity in "Indic" religions (a list of religions that excludes the sub-continent's traditions of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism), and a privileging of upper-caste, "Vedic" Hindu identity. The DCF, although registered as a US non-profit organisation, is directly tied, through its office holders and its ideological roots, to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (hereafter RSS), an organization that is the main proponent of the political ideology of Hindu nationalism, or "Hindutva."
In India there are constant references being made to the United States---some BJP commentators have argued that such kind of campus activities as we found at JNU would never be tolerated in the United States, and they have used this argument to justify the sedition charge. But others have pointed out that in the US the First Amendment protects precisely the kind of debates that take place in JNU and which are being attacked as seditious. JNU teachers have decided that while on strike they will hold classes on nationalism, because at stake here is both the freedom of universities and also the meaning of nationalism as well as free speech.
The grip of control being exerted over the national narrative--brutally in India, more cannily here in the US--becomes most dangerous when it amounts to a chokehold on speech and the production of knowledge. And free speech and dissent, expression and contestation, are everything to the university, here and abroad.