Last week, the Vice Chancellor of Utkal University took everyone by surprise when he resorted to silent fasting in front of the very office from where he has been mandated to run the affairs of Odisha’s oldest university. The 12-hour satyagraha by Soumendra Mohan Patnaik was unprecedented. Earlier, he had faced protests over the cancellation of students’ union polls following a spate of campus violence. While the VC’s action was intended to bring back peace to the campus, it was symbolic of all that was wrong with the prestigious Utkal University—not the only institution to see a rise in violence.
In March, the VC of Ravenshaw University Prakash Sarangi resigned over campus unrest but the chancellor saved the day by not accepting his resignation. Why are the state’s top universities plunging into such crises? Is it not symptomatic of the current political situation? Put in perspective, the “introspective silent fasting” by Patnaik was a bold commentary on the state of politicisation of campuses not just in Odisha but across India. A bitter fight among political parties to grab power and control the narratives of students affairs is behind this increased unrest. In most cases, violence is orchestrated because the parties realise they are in no position to win. Ironically, no party is ever known to hold an agitation seeking improvement in academic climate and activities.
But what was appalling was how the state government reacted to it. After the dharna, Higher Education Minister Ananta Das said the VC did not inform the government of his actions. Wasn’t the dharna strong enough a message? When violence was raging in Delhi University earlier this year, the then President Pranab Mukherjee said temples of learning must resound with creativity, not propagate a culture of unrest. The Centre’s New Education Policy says students’ unions play a positive role in furthering the interests of democracy. The onus, though, will be on states like Odisha to ensure campuses don’t become casualties to political vested interests.