One important, some would say the most important, aim of education is to be able to do right kind of politics, or to keep politics directed to greater common good. Therefore, separating political thinking and action from education, particularly higher education, would go against the educational purposes. If politics is accepted as part of education in this sense then one also has to think of its nature in the campuses. It could be seen as part of the overall campus environment and culture. The environment and culture in campuses, however, may have to conform to some criteria that are in alignment with the educational purposes. And that may have some implications for the politics in the campuses.
In order to investigate the issue let us start with the politics as it is played out in our country in general. Politics, as the oft repeated truism goes, is always to capture power. However every politician would claim that she/he or his/her party wants to capture power so that they can make people’s lives better; that they are not trying to capture power for any vainglorious reasons or for personal gains. They want to ‘serve the people’ as the adage goes. However, we also know that in their pursuit of power all parties and almost all politician use lies, twist truth, make false promises, deceive the public and their opponents, indulge in character assassination and personal attacks, create animosity between communities and often indulge in direct or indirect violence. In short, we can say that in the politics, as it is played out in India, the principles of truth and morality are conspicuous only by their absence.
The political parties and politicians indulge in untruth and immorality partly because they define their greater common good keeping in mind the vote-politics. For example, promising reservation for the caste X, may or may not be in the benefit of the society as a whole, it may even violate the basic principles of the constitution; but if it is likely to get votes then politicians will promise it, even when they know that they cannot fulfil the promise.
One can of course argue that when politicians are responding to the demand of caste X for reservation they are responding to aspirations of a section of population; and that is what democracy is all about. But public aspirations can be motivated by jealousy, selfishness, animosity to the others, and so on. They may be justified as per the constitution and morality, but may also be unjustified. When a politician looks only at the vote-catching potential of a policy and disregards legal and moral demands s/he is indulging in immoral politics.
Now the very idea of an educational institution like a university is based on setting time and place apart from the mundane routine of life. Here the students are not expected to either produce something nor are they expected to render any direct service to the society. The idea is that they are preparing themselves for producing goods and rendering services in future. By the time the students reach the university it is not the case that they cannot directly contribute to production and services; it is rather that they deepen their understanding and hone their skills to meet higher standards in whatever they produce and whatever services they render. Thus the idea of academic standards in knowledge and skills is the guiding factor in a university. Another aspect of education is directly related to the educatee’s own life: so that s/he can work out her own life goals and ways of achieving them. This, again, demands standards of knowledge and skill.
Contributing to the society as well as choosing one’s own life goals have a strong ethical dimension to it. They demand meeting some moral standards in one’s behaviour, actions and thinking. Educational campuses then demand certain standards of truth and morality. That raises the question of nature of politics in the campuses. Obviously, the nature of politics there in cannot be the same kind of politics which is done outside; simply because it violates the very principles of truth and morality; and university campuses are especially created to develop understanding of and commitment to these very principles.
This is not an argument to ban politics in the universities; neither is this an argument to tightly control and monitor university student politics. However, it certainly puts some responsibility on the university teachers and administration. One of these conditions is simply the quality of knowledge and pedagogical processes in the universities.
A university that fails in teaching standards of and commitment to truth is certainly not doing its job. It can fail in this venture in many ways: by providing partial information, by failing to teach rigour of reasoning, by failing to teach distinction between subjective emotional reaction and reasoned argument which can take others’ view point in account, and by indoctrination. It can also fail to create a commitment to truth: meaning commitment to seek evidence and argument for believing or disbelieving something. Or it can fail to develop moral commitment to truth: that what is true is true, even if it is inconvenient or even against my purposes.
The second part of the university teaching has to be the flourishing of people, well-being of all in the society to which a student is likely to contribute as well from which s/he is likely to draw her/his own purposes, joys, energy and fulfilment of life.
All this suggests that the campus politics has to set higher standards of fidelity to truth, to moral standards and to democratic norms. It has to be a politics of principles and not that of power. Otherwise it contributes nothing to the political scenario of the country and becomes simply a ploy for indoctrination into various hardened positions. Indoctrination is completely antithetical to academic standards.
We should realize that indoctrination is not a simple acceptance of a view on something, not a simple acceptance of a belief. It means installing a belief in one’s mind at such a deep level and with such complete blindness that one becomes incapable of examining the truth of that belief. It becomes an article of faith; it becomes a yardstick to measure other beliefs. An indoctrinated mind is necessarily a closed mind, and an indoctrinated person is nothing but a tool in the hands of those who indoctrinate him/her.
Recently an activist friend quoted another famous activist saying that ‘whenever there is complaint of sexual harassment I (the famous activist) can take only one stand: that the woman is right. Period.’ Now we all know that sexual harassment by men is rampant and women are most often the victims. But this refusal to check facts and being guided by the fixed principle that in such cases ‘woman is always right’ is indoctrination; it blinds the person completely. This person cannot entertain questions and cannot serve the truth. This is elevating a personal bias to the level of a religious dogma. This kind of dogmas can be of many hues and about many groups of population. A dalit or a higher caste person can be ‘always right’. A Hindu or a Muslim can be ‘always right’. A rich or a poor can be ‘always right’. Such dogmas give a lot of psychological solace to their believers, the decision for them becomes much easier and almost mechanical. Questioning them becomes psychologically disturbing. But they also make the world black-and-white, and the believer a mindless bigot.
In such a situation there can be no place for questions and demanding facts and justifications. Anyone who demands facts and sound arguments is name-called and derided. In general this is the politics RSS-group has been doing for long. The terms like “sicular”, “prestitute”, “AAPtard”, etc are product of this kind of mindless attack. The campus politics now is well advanced on this path. Watch the questions Kanhaiya asks of Makarand Paranjape after his lecture. None of his 5 questions has anything to do with the lecture. They all are about ‘what is your party?’ and whether ‘you condemn this or that?’. This is the student mind that the present day campus politics produces.
Ask JNU teachers and students (only those who are visible in in this supposed to be fight for democracy) whether there is a difference between ‘slogan shouting’ and ‘discussion’ on an issue? Ask them to substantiate the claim made by one of them that India illegally occupies Kashmir. Ask them to clarify whether they reject the Indian state? And if they do, what attitude Indian state should take towards them? All you will get is a tag of being with the ‘right wing’. No clarity, no answers.
Ask the Hyderabad protesters what does ‘institutional murder’ mean? Ask them to justify their claim that Hyderabad University wilfully murdered Rohith Vemula. Ask them whether it is justified to demand resignation of a VC solely on the basis of the charges you stick on him, without any enquiry? Ask them to explain the crossed text and other lines in Rohith Vemula’s suicide note; and all you will get is BJP did this or that, or you are an anti-dalit.
In these two cases the students are playing in the hands of a certain kind of politics. Then comes NIT Srinagar. There seems to be a deliberately created situation which pitches non-Kashmiri students against the Kashmiri students. Giving the signal that ‘if you can create a mountain out of a mole hill in JNU, we can do the same in NIT Srinagar’. If you can indoctrinate some students in ‘leftist’ politics we can indoctrinate some others in the ‘rightist’ politics. The casualty in the both cases are truth and ethics. We see the attack on the universities in terms of capturing them from outside, but we ignore the rot that is being set in them from inside. The rot which is the enemy of all that a university should stand for: rigorous commitment to truth and ethics, fair thinking, taking all facts into account and keeping our biases under check.
Biased and theoretically blinded teachers and students are a much bigger danger to the universities than anything else. International support created on the basis of personal connections cultivated over years does not necessarily serve the truth. Even Chomskys can be misled by their trusted colleagues.