The truly evocative Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto, South Africa centres around stones. Stones were thrown at fully armed Apartheid police at a protest where the police ended up killing Pieterson, a 12-year-old school student. In 1976, black students were marching against the forcible teaching of Afrikaans and the different school curriculum for them. The storm of protests that kicked off then took a long time to end Apartheid, but historians see this particular protest — on the attempt to control and subvert education — as a vital turning point.
The haunting image of Rohith Vemula and his fellow students, after being thrown out of their hostel with their things, a steel box, a portrait of Ambedkar, rolled-up sheets and mattresses, is not as far from Soweto as one might think. Everywhere that inequality is an article of faith, philosophy, science, economics, literature, etc, have been the preserve of the privileged, and the underclasses have to study things suitable for “lower” jobs as janitors, pump-fitters, plumbers, etc — “skills” vital for a society that has to use “cheap” labour, unburdened by thoughts, ideas, too much science, delusions of equality. The system the British put in place in India was to educate the natives so that they could be small cogs in the bureaucracy. There was a need to groom brown sahibs, but it was vital that everyone did not see education as a right. When Tagore returned from the Soviet Union and wrote of the immense strides made there in educating everyone, in Russia Theke Chitthi (Letters from Russia), it was promptly banned in India by the British.
Education did prove to be a dangerous idea. Whether it was Raja Ram Mohan Roy or other members of the Bengali intelligentsia, it was writings, newspapers, analyses and ideas that not only influenced them but were later used by them to propagate and reinforce the belief that Indians were capable of leading and pushing the Empire back. For important revolutionaries like Surya Sen (Masterda), who was impacted by the Irish revolutionaries, and Bhagat Singh, who was influenced by how Lenin fought back the Tsarist machine, it was education and knowledge that played an important role.
In recent times, a pattern is emerging in how the Centre has been reacting to student “unrest” or assertion. Panchajanya’s denouncement of JNU as an “anti-national den” last year was not an isolated comment. The bullying by the HRD ministry of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Chennai and, now, the repeated hectoring of the University of Hyderabad to “take action” against “casteist, extreme and anti-national” elements, to quote a letter by a Central minister, is not innocuous. It is at the heart of the government’s strategy to suppress those who protest, speak, argue and dissent. It is also an acknowledgement of their power as nodes of action that could influence thought. The FTII has been an issue that continues to simmer because it is important for the government to assert itself in creative areas, which are disruptive by definition, and perhaps in this government’s wordlview, need special handling and a strong shot of mediocrity to snuff life out.
There are those who question why a student’s suicide or protest is “politicised”, and not left as a housekeeping matter for the “administration”. Universities, we are now told, should be private, sanitised spaces where you pay huge fees; the purpose of education must be to just “skill” you to get a highly paid job. But historically, access to knowledge has been an area of deep contestation and always deeply political. Whether it is the idea of merit or the concept of rote, both have their roots in how it was ordained that texts and mantras should be memorised and kept a secret — only whispered into the ears, literally, of the privileged. This is not a problem of Hindu mantra jaap alone. Quranic hifz, or rote, defined how learned you were. Questioning was impertinence; it got you scaled in school and rusticated from college.
The great debates in northern India after 1989 over reservation showed how political education was in India — by denying that it was political. Centuries of discrimination was forgotten, as a case was made for “merit”.
V.P. Singh, once the darling of the meritorious middle classes, fell out dramatically with them after he espoused the cause of those condemned to be “skilled” in only one sense and denied the privilege of studying or doing jobs done by the “meritorious”. He once told a gaggle of press persons that he would buy the “merit” line only when it would be argued that land, going by “merit” on the ground, must belong only to the tiller.
To argue that knowledge, getting a university education, and what you do at university, is not political is in itself a cleverly disguised political argument that bats for letting things remain the way they are. The NDA push to snuff out opposition by curbing student activity is not the first attempt at remaking the campus into something in between the market and a robot factory. Several chief ministers, many of whom are themselves products of student movements, have ensured that student leaderships are not allowed to blossom and elections in universities have been curtailed and banned. If a “good” or “adarsh” education is continued to be seen as one that involves mindless rote, a rush for “coaching” and trashing of student activism, questioned as “anti-national”, then we need to worry whether the “nationalism” that is sought to be pumped up is our version of Pakistan’s atrocious anti-blasphemy law.
Private universities often now boast of some fine scholars and students. But in a country like India, can private universities be the model? The role that state universities play in providing quality and a level field for all to come and be influenced by the power of ideas cannot be overestimated. Public universities offer an opportunity to persons like Rohith to break out of the rigid rules that those at the bottom are expected to play by. So when an effort is made to squeeze oxygen out of those spaces, the results are devastating for the most deprived.
Education, even literacy, is held to be a privilege in India but our reputation for inefficiency obfuscates that fact when questions are asked about why the majority will not be schooled and needs to wage long struggles, across ponds and huge distances, to meet a teacher. Rohith Vemula became stardust so tragically but not before stating his case to a nation in pursuit of coaching classes and higher fees for skills, which had forgotten the role education plays in the making of a truly democratic and equal nation, an idea that scares so many. He truly made a star-class argument, but paid too high a price.
(This article appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Closing the university’)
The government has said that Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia are not minority educational institutions. In the case of AMU, the Attorney General has argued that this is because it was set up by an act of Parliament, not by Muslims. But critics say this is a narrow reading of the history and background of AMU and JMI.
What is the ‘minority character’ of an educational institution?
Article 30(1) of the Constitution gives all religious and linguistic minorities the right to set up and run educational institutions, including schools, colleges and universities. This was presumably done to assure minorities of being able to maintain and propagate their unique and special educational aspects. The law guarantees that governments will not discriminate in giving aid on the basis of their being ‘minority’ institutions, thus sealing in a commitment by the Government of India to allow minorities to flourish.
What is the background of the setting up of the universities?
There are very interesting linkages, similarities and divergences between AMU and JMI. AMU was founded as the Madrasatul Uloom in 1875 in Aligarh, and evolved into the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College. It had very progressive roots — its founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, spoke for women’s education and personally passed the hat for funds. It is said that someone with more regressive ideas about educating Muslim women and pushing English threw a shoe at him in anger, but Sir Syed auctioned the shoe and added that to the collection.
The seeds of JMI were sown in Aligarh by a group of nationalist students and members who formed a camp there as Jamia Millia Islamia, which later moved to Delhi. Leaders like M A Ansari, Zakir Husain and Mahatma Gandhi encouraged the university to push nationalist values and ideas.
There was friction between JMI and AMU along political lines, as a significant section at AMU was said to be “League-y”, or tilting towards the Muslim League, while the ‘nationalist’ JMI was wholeheartedly supported by the Congress.
The universities have had their own journeys in independent India. AMU has no reservation for Muslims, but has preferences and reservations for local candidates, irrespective of faith. JMI gives reservation/preference to Muslims after the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI) granted it minority status in 2011.
Aligarh Muslim University
What were the arguments for and against minority status for JMI?
Jamia became a deemed university in 1962 and a central university in 1988, both by Acts of Parliament. NCMEI held that “Jamia was founded by the Muslims for the benefit of Muslims and it never lost its identity as a Muslim minority educational institution”, and was, therefore, “covered under Article 30(1)… read with Section 2(g) of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Act”.
Those opposed to the move say the Act of 1988 states that “it shall not be lawful for the university to adopt or impose on any person any test whatsoever of religious belief or profession in order to entitle him to be admitted therein as a teacher or student or to hold any office therein or to graduate thereat”. They also argue that the application to be declared a minority institution was made in 2006, when reservation for OBCs was introduced in higher educational institutions. Making it a minority institution acted against poor and disadvantaged Muslims.
And what about AMU?
In 1920, the Indian Legislative Council set up the university, and all assets of Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College were transferred to it. Those arguing for minority character say that this was done by an Act as that was the only way a university could be set up at the time. Muslims collected Rs 30 lakh, and handed it over.
In the famous Azeez Basha versus Union of India case, to which AMU was not a party, the Supreme Court ruled that AMU was not a minority institution as it was set up by the British legislature, and not by Muslims. In 1981, Parliament passed an AMU Amendment Act, which accepted that AMU was set up by Muslims.
As aspects of admission policy were challenged by some groups, the Allahabad High Court ruled in 2005 that the 1981 Act was ultra vires of the Constitution, and that AMU was not a minority institution. AMU’s appeal against the single-judge order was dismissed, but the Supreme Court stayed the Allahabad HC decision, so effectively, AMU remained a minority institution.
On January 11, 2016, the Centre reversed its earlier position and stated that AMU was not a minority institution as it was set up by Parliament. Those supporting minority status for AMU want a larger, seven-judge bench to hear the case. They also argue that an Act of Parliament must prevail over judicial pronouncements — and therefore, the 1981 AMU Amendment Act must hold.
Is this a matter strictly for the courts, or is there politics involved?
AMU and Jamia have figured in almost all elections, especially state elections in UP, and they remain symbolic ‘issues’ of importance. Aligarh used to be cited as part of the ‘Shah Bano’ slogan in the 1980s; Jamia figured in the Batla House encounter controversy of 2008. Both universities have witnessed hectic activity on minority status, especially after reservation for OBCs was made mandatory in 2006.