India’s campuses have chosen the sound of silence

Indian campuses are usually afire with protests during a conflict, but this has not been so during the Israel-Hamas war. Campus politics would have cost parents and administrators dearly.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

While elite campuses all over the free world, especially in the United States, have erupted in pro-Palestinian protests, Indian universities have remained relatively quiet. What explains this difference? Of course, there were protests at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) which were quickly suppressed or defused, with some student leaders even facing arrests. AMU’s romance with Islamist separatism, often under the guise of Left radicalism, goes back to the very start of the Pakistan movement.

What about Jawaharlal Nehru University, where such ‘progressive’ demonstrations usually begin? It’s been entirely peaceful here. I should know because I am not only the senior-most professor in JNU, whatever the value of such a dubious distinction, but also the author of JNU: Nationalism and India’s Uncivil War (2022), which is on the toxic Left politics on our campuses. But apart from a stray protest march by the Student Federation of India in Delhi, there is no evidence of anti-Israeli student activism in India. In contrast, pro-Palestinian campus caucuses in the US and UK have turned increasingly shrill, intolerant, even antisemitic and violent. This has led to crackdowns by campus authorities, and prospective employers have called for boycotting the perpetrators.

One notable feature in the anti-Israeli coalition is the strange, if not unholy, alliance of revolutionary Marxists and radical Islamists. Strange because whenever the latter has seized power, as in Iran, Afghanistan or elsewhere, the first ones to be executed are the Leftists. Unholy because it is doctrinally impossible for atheist communists, considered “kafirs”, to make common cause with devout worshippers of Allah.

Yet the strange fascination with and justification of violence, ranging from the amoral to the theologically sanctioned, binds them both. The cult of violence is not only fatal to the votary and his enemies, but is also intoxicating, if not numbing. Not just to mobs close by but to innocents and idiots far away, especially if they are young, impressionable, and privileged. Such as students on elite campuses, who are very easy to guilt-trip.

Apart from AMU, in private universities like Ashoka, too, we notice a similar combination of Leftist Islamism among some faculty members. In a recent article for The Wire, a historian-cum-political scientist, himself from a feudal family, exalts the Islamist revolutionary Syed Fazl-ul-Hasan (1875-1951). Better known as Maulana Hasrat Mohani, he is credited with coining the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long live Revolution). I haven’t found clinching evidence of this.

“The Maulana had 3 holy M’s which he held dear: Mecca, as a Muslim, Mathura as a devotee of Krishna Ji and Moscow which for him represented a political model of equality,” says this Ashoka faculty member. Mohani was an active Congressman before joining the Muslim League. There is an oft-repeated claim that he was a founding member of the Communist Party of India in the 1925 Kanpur Conference. However, Muzaffar Ahmad, in Myself and the Communist Party of India, says the party was founded in 1920 in Tashkent. As to the Kanpur Conference, he calls it an “entirely a childish affair.” Mohani, a member of the Constituent Assembly, refused to sign the draft of the constitution. Why? Mohani, according to this scholar, said, “‘No!’ to signing the draft of the constitution … as it didn’t protect the rights of the disenfranchised, the marginalised and the oppressed.” Well-phrased equivocation? But the same writer’s open condemnation of Israel shows no such ambiguity.

Yet, as I said, there have been no pro-Palestinian rallies or protests at Ashoka. What happened, we might also ask, to the threats by several departments to stop teaching if Sabyasachi Das was not reinstated? Is today’s Ashoka a far cry from 2016, when a student petition condemning “violence perpetuated by the Indian State” in Kashmir had 88 signatories, including members of the administrative and teaching staff? This petition, circulated after Hizbul Mujahideen “commander” and Islamist militant Burhan Wani was killed, also called for a plebiscite in Kashmir.

The large body of founders and the management of Ashoka must have wondered how, in the name of academic freedom, the university always ended up targeting the government and finding itself, even more uncomfortably, in the latter’s crosshairs. That certainly was not the founders’ agenda. How did this model liberal arts university, where young minds are moulded and influenced, come to be seen by the ruling dispensation as the breeding ground of “anti-nationals”?

To continue our chronology, in March 2021, then vice-chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned, as did the former Chief Economic Advisor of India, Arvind Subramanian, who had joined Ashoka’s economics department in 2020. In September 2023, one of the founders of Ashoka, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, complained on X that students took drugs on campus, sometimes even delivered by drones to their dorm rooms. Wasn’t that a much more serious issue than academic freedom on campus? Why wasn’t the student council, which was “under the impression that their mandate is to govern the university”, making its stance clear on substance abuse? Both parents and administrators, he claimed, were grateful to him for the truth-telling.

Apart from their absence on the Ashoka campus, let us also register the fact that there have been no anti-Israeli demonstrations in any of the other major private universities in India. These include Manipal, Jindal, Shiv Nadar, Azim Premji, Amity, Bennett, Symbiosis, Munjal, SRM, Mahindra, and Ahmedabad University, to name a few in no particular order.

Why? Could it be that the writing on the wall is clear? Parents and administrators hold no brief for Islamist extremism combined with Left liberal radicalism. The former pay high fees in order to ensure that their children have secure careers and futures. The latter care for the reputation and the profitability of their institutions. Whenever campus politics comes close to jeopardising their economic interests, both groups of stakeholders, it is obvious, will rally round to curb such deviance. After all, to invoke Marxist terminology, their class interests are under threat. The absence of campus protests in our private universities during the Hamas-Israel war has precious little to do with their “failed tryst with academic freedom”. Instead, is it merely a case of pragmatism overcoming wokeism?

Makarand R Paranjape

Professor of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Slug: Right in the Middle

(Views are personal)

(Tweets @MakrandParanspe)

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