Image result for We Need to Stop the Strongmen Before They Deform Democracy Itself Universities should be places which promote the life of the mind, excite young people to experiment with the unthinkable and dream the incredible. Instead, the atmosphere there has become tense, apprehensive and insecure..

No matter how hard you try keep the garbage hidden in the closet, the smell eventually seeps into the room and makes breathing difficult.

Young people all over the country can now smell the stink of hatred and communal politics that has accumulated over the past six years.

Commenting on the violence unleashed in Jawaharlal Nehru University over the past few days the external affairs minister made an anodyne statement: “[I] Condemn the violence unequivocally.”

He then followed it with, “When I studied in JNU, we did not see any ‘tukde tukde‘ gang there”.

Well, that should not surprise anyone as those in power those days did not describe law-abiding citizens as members of the ‘tukde-tukde’ and ‘Khan market’ gangs or love-jihad promoters. As a former foreign service officer, Jaishankar must also be aware that in somewhat civilised societies, citizens are not slapped with court cases and charges of sedition when they express their opinion, no matter how unpalatable, despite not actually indulging in criminal activity.

After all, those merely asking for an independent Scotland, Quebec or Catalonia have not been jailed in the UK, Canada or Spain.

In response to recent happenings, other ministers have made comments that certainly violate the canons of sobriety their positions demand. Smriti Irani commenting on Deepika Padukone’s visit to JNU said “the actor was certainly aware that she was sharing the platform with a student group that is opposed to India’s unity and celebrates  every time a CRPF jawan is killed”.

Prakash Javadekar said, the “police has brought reality in light. It is clear that left wing students’ outfits were involved in the attack,” and “there is a calibrated attempt to whip up passions by spreading misinformation”.

It is unlikely that these assertions can be substantiated.

The fact is that the most powerful sources of fake news are the governments of most countries. Millions have been killed and displaced because the leaders of UK and the US insisted (quite wrongly) that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Many other national leaders around the world are known to spread falsehoods routinely to cling on to power.

Ordinary citizens also spread fake news because they are encouraged by their political mentors to do so. It is the responsibility of scholars in universities and media persons to call out the lies governments spread, and in this we have been horribly wanting.

Vice-chancellors of universities, directors of national institutes and leaders of business houses should have considered it their moral responsibility to speak out on happenings over the past few months that are dividing our communities, families and friendships unto ‘tukde-tukde’ because of the policies of divide and rule. But they have not.

They do not seem perturbed that over the past couple of months more than two dozen people have been killed in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, whereas only one person has died in Hong Kong over a much longer period of violent clashes and enormous amount of public property damage. On the other hand, some professors and authorities in IIT Kanpur thought that it was alright to take issue with the singing of Faiz’s ‘Hum dekhenge‘ and the authorities in IIT Bombay are accusing faculty members who signed a petitition of violating conduct rules – a clear violation of Article 19 of the constitution of India which guarantees freedm of speech.

Other important functionaries in the government have not made things easier either.

Vice president M. Venkaiah Naidu maintains, “There is nothing wrong in discussing ideologies, but that should be kept outside the campus,” HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal says, “No educational institute will be allowed to become dens of politics” and the rabble rousing junior minister Giriraj Singh makes an astonishing claim, “Most of the missionary school students qualify for IIT and become engineers, but when they go abroad most of them start eating beef”.

If there is no place for politics on the campus, then why do we have economics, social science, political science and foreign relations departments in educational institutions, and what is the role of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad?

The atmosphere in our educational institutions has become apprehensive, tense and insecure. The meaning of education is being confused and vulgarised. Universities should be places which promote the life of the mind, excite young people to experiment with the unthinkable and dream the incredible.

It is not the job of heads of public institutions to toe the government line. Their salaries are being paid by taxes and not all taxpayers support the government in power. In fact, 63% of the voters did not vote for the present government.

Instead, these worthies should be encouraging teachers and students to tell the truth as they understand it to those in authority. What’s happening is not a good way to secure a meaningful future for anyone of us.

So far, these protests have received an encouraging level of support from many sections of society. This must continue. As a scholar of democracies commented, if we cannot stop these nationalist hardmen democratically, then they will deform democracy until it is unrecognisable and illegitimate.

(Courtesy The Wire)