A wave of campus mutinies shatters Modi’s deal with India’s youth

Battling it out.
Battling it out.
Image: AP Photo/ Bikas Das
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On the morning of Feb. 06, 2013, Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, walked into a hall packed with 1,800 students rapturously applauding him.

The speech he gave that day at New Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce was one of the first in his campaign to become prime minister. It had all the ingredients of classic Modi oratory: fistfuls of pop-nationalism, developmental rhetoric, and his notions of governance.

His words were neatly packaged to appeal to a section represented by those in the audience: India’s aspirational youth. “The youth of the nation has its finger on the mouse of computers and is changing the world. India’s journey has gone from snake charmers to mouse charmers…,” Modi said. “There is despondency all over the country but I am confident we can change the situation.”

That performance set the template for many a future stump speech. And it seemed to have worked for Modi, as the sexagenarian galvanised a nation home to 356 million people aged between 10 and 24 years. So much so that survey after survey placed his popularity above even Bollywood stars, leave aside sclerotic political rivals. 

Yet, something intriguing has happened since May 2014, when Modi rode an electoral tsunami into the prime minister’s office and genuflected in reverence before stepping into the Indian parliament for the first time.

Over the past 20 months, students and faculty at some of India’s most important institutions of higher learning have been up in arms over an assortment of issues—all leading to the doorsteps of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government. The list is quite long for the short period the party has been in power. 

Consider the fracas over grants to post-graduate students, the duration of degree courses at Delhi University, replacing German with Sanskrit in schoolor campus politics—as in the latest case in Hyderabad. Whatever the reason, the Modi government has managed to set off  unrest at frequent intervals, completely at variance with its professed inclination towards the youth.

P. Muralidhar Rao, BJP general secretary, puts the blame on its ideological rivals for the constant unrest. “Left intellectuals patronised by the Congress have never accepted Narendra Modi’s taking of power at the centre. Their men and ideology are embedded in campuses across the country. So, it is an institutional mindset that is creating trouble,” Rao told Quartz.

With the Congress and the Left decimated in the 2014 elections, Rao’s defence may not be entirely untenable. Campus politics in India has often been a platform to create new narratives and chart revival paths. Yet the constant provoking of an entire community—whether calculated or otherwise—by the government is baffling.

One of the earliest indications of the centre’s future run-ins came in October 2014, when the human resources development (HRD) ministry forwarded a letter from an RSS member to all 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The RSS, or the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, is a Hindu rightwing organisation and the BJP’s ideological fountainhead. It seems to have harboured misgivings about the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Management.

The Smriti Irani-led HRD ministry controls most institutions of higher learning, national school curriculum, and the University Grants Commission—the apex body governing higher academics. The ministry is often accused of playing to the tune of the RSS.

The RSS man’s letter said the IITs were instilling “bad culture” in students through food, insisting that they stop serving non-vegetarian dishes in their cafeterias. While the ministry denied having issued any direction in this regard, it has often been accused of imposing RSS’s puritanical ideas on the sly. Some student groups, including the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) at IIT-Madras, murmured dissent.     

Around the time of his first anniversary as India’s prime minister, IIT-Madras derecognised the APSC for “creating hatred” against Modi and Hindus. This time too, there had been a nudge from the HRD ministry. Following protests, including by national parties accusing the government of “stifling dissent,” the authorities unconditionally reinstated APSC’s recognition.

Meanwhile, in December 2014, the director of IIT-Delhi, Raghunath K Shevgaonkar, quit, allegedly citing interference from Irani’s ministry.

So, what’s cooking?

“I think the reason behind such upheavals among students is Narendra Modi’s style of functioning. He represents muscular democracy, whereas India is used to compassionate democracy. He rides roughshod over dissent, even within his own party,” Andre Beteille, professor of sociology, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University, told Quartz. 

But is it fair to drag the prime minister into every problem created by his colleagues? “Well, I don’t think any ministry would dare to act without his concurrence,” Beteille explained.

To be fair, Smriti Irani isn’t the only one ruffling feathers. One of the biggest campus protests in recent months took place at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. Now, FTII falls under the information and broadcasting ministry led by Arun Jaitley, who also happens to be India’s finance minister and a key decision maker in Modi’s cabinet.

Trouble began at FTII in June 2015 after the government appointed actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the institute–once headed by legends from various fields, such as cartoonist R K Laxman, filmmaker Shyam Benegal, and Kannada language author U R Ananthamurthy.

The appointment of the little-known Chauhan, a BJP member, sparked a 140-day student protest involving a few late-night arrests and hunger strikes. The protesters eventually gave in to the centre’s intransigence, but dissent simmered below the surface. Here, too, the government was accused of certain lack of tact.

“Their very attitude is anti-intellectual. They have an aversion to building institutions. Every time there’s a right-wing government, education is their first target,” said Manisha Sethi, president of the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association, Delhi.

“When they talk about the government being backed by the youth, they assume youth to be a linear category. They (government) want the unthinking category of youth, the consumer youth. Not those who think through issues or the dissenters,” Sethi added.

This categorisation may indeed be germane to the government’s way of approaching students.

Rohith Chakravarthy Vemula, a 26-year-old PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, was a vociferous opponent of the central government policies. Last year, he allegedly got involved in a political duel with a fellow student—a member of the BJP’s youth wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

Vemula, said to belong to a former untouchable caste and a poor family, was banned from the university in September 2015. He killed himself last Sunday (Jan. 17).

The HRD ministry—at the behest of central labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya—is alleged to have nudged the university authorities into acting against him. It was insinuated that Vemula may be an “anti-national” as he had protested the execution of Yakub Memon, a convict in the 1993 Bombay blasts case.        

The BJP’s P. Muralidhar Rao denied any wrongdoing by the government. “In an administration, letters would be regularly written to universities. Are we living on the moon that they expect officials not to take cognisance of complaints?” Rao asked.

“Besides, the Ambedkar Students’ Association (the body Vemula was member of) has nothing to do with Ambedkar’s ideology. Did Ambedkar preach anti-nationalism? When the supreme court had convicted Yakub Memon, why was there such a hue and cry over his execution?” Rao continued.

When asked if he thought protesting a court decision was tantamount to anti-nationalism, Rao said, “The framing of your questions indicates a similar attitude.”

Vemula’s’s death has sparked the latest bout of protests, now spreading to campuses across India. In his final act, he declared that no one was responsible for his death.

So, what happened to Modi’s covenant with India’s youth?

Ceaseless convulsions do not augur well for any government, no matter how popular the leader may be. “I wouldn’t venture to say that the upheavals have already had an effect on Modi’s popularity. But it has certainly begun, because such popularity cannot last,” Beteille said.

Back in 2013, at Shri Ram College of Commerce, even as hundreds of students protesting outside were blotted out by the national media, Modi said: “People consider it a curse to be born in India. They want to leave the country soon after completing their studies.”

It may be much worse. Rohith Chakravarthy Vemula didn’t even wait to finish his.

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