“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.”
― William Wordsworth.
On February 2. 2017 chaotic student-led protests erupted at the New York University. The ‘Social- justice warriors’, ‘politically- correct’ seniors’ brigade , the left-liberal intellectuals- in short– the ‘Nazi Trump bashers’ and their cousins- the liberal activists at the NYU- shut down a planned speech by Gavin McInnes- a You-Tuber in his early thirty, a far right-wing ‘provocateur’, a haughty anti- feminist crusader and an internet radio-show comedian.
OK ladies, @lsarsour says you can’t be a feminist if you support Israel. Where would you rather march, Tel-Aviv or Gaza?
— Gavin McInnes (@Gavin_McInnes) March 18, 2017
The young, violent vigilantes, amidst heavy police presence and emotionally tense campus streets demanded that the event organisers, the college Republicans, the right- winger conservative ‘’Trumpets’’ ought to be punished for this provocation. Punishment by any means effective including even physical intimidation to any opposing viewpoint on the ‘safe space’ of the ‘liberal’ multicultural campus. Clearly, free speech, the foundation of public reasoning and therefore essential for democracy itself was assaulted that eventful day at one of the world’s most vibrant and multi-cultural university campuses.
The First Amendment. Congress shall make no law […] prohibiting the free exercise[…]; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances: Constitution of the United States Of America
Half way around the globe on February 21. 2017 some ‘nationalist’ student protesters and their ‘patriotic’ cousin activists at the Delhi University in India forcibly shut down a planned event by an ‘anti-national’ liberal – extremist Umar Khalid, 28, a ‘Human Rights’ poster boy and a rising star in the poshed- up Lutyens Delhi’s left liberal circles. Amid heavy police presence on the campus premise, located in the heart of the national capital, these ‘saffron’ violent protesters demanded that the event organisers– the ‘college Leftists’ , the ‘Maoist- Naxal sympathisers ’– ought to be punished for this deliberate ‘provocation’.
There was to be no protection under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution to the traitor. Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. However to a ‘traitor’ who had espoused the cause of Kashmir’s independence, the only Muslim- majority province in the Union of India, the mob decided otherwise. That the 28 year old had openly challenged the ‘One- India’ sentiment- her unity and integrity was enough to trigger- warn enough souls to resort to threat, violence and intimidation inside the university premises. Passionately opposing the ‘traitor’s’ very presence and proposed speech was a natural act of patriotism.
These two universities- related violence from across the aisle- one from the New York left liberal student unions and the other from the culturally conservative right-wingers in New Delhi are both synoptic and manifestations of certain discernible trends and phenomenon that run like a thread across major recent student activism and university politics, the world over.
Events are being organised around ‘non-university’ issues. The conventional student political movement to be broad based and grass-root driven, beyond the limelight of national and major regional/ vernacular media, typically revolved around direct student- related issues such as steep increase in tuition or capitation fee, irregular lectures, non- completion of syllabus, crumbling infrastructural facilities or merit versus social justice debate- ‘’reservation issue’’ or even conventional high handedness of university bureaucracy, as also inter-faculty disciplinary disputations- among others. This is most clearly not the case with the recent student protest movements.
The mainstream media’s coverage of recent student political actions appears to be focused excessively on elite issues- surrogates of globalist agenda, identity politics, etc., with a largely bigoted level of conviction in self- righteousness among the student activists.
The mass communication media also known as ‘mainstream media’ is very effective and extremely powerful ideological institution. They carries out what Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT calls ‘system supportive propaganda function’. This propaganda setting is resorted to by literally all mass media platforms from major news networks and print media to senior news anchors. Though some news channels and five star anchors love to overplay victim card when faced with ‘state sponsored’ muzzling or any calls for regulation yet the truth is that most of them take political sides and play ‘opinion makers’ without any overt coercion from the state or the ‘establishment’. Based on sources of funding from their patrons, internalised assumptions of editorial board, self censorship of what is deemed ‘unfavourable’ to patrons’ or ‘movement’s’ cause– the public opinion is sought to be manufactured. Sadly, that a journalist’s job ought to be to inform and educate but never take politically partisan positions is lost on elite, rock star media anchors. Proximity to power centres overtakes any sense of professional integrity, it seems!
High political stakes are involved for every stakeholder. The high intensity of the coverage of these events on mainstream and social media is an appropriate barometer of the level of political and financial capital invested and top- down editorial decisions to take political sides in the battlefield at the campus. The high level of violence, including alleged women molestation and arson on the campus streets are symptoms of the high level of politicisation, among all stakeholders concerned. No one is backing down and every one wants their pound of flesh extracted- the news hungry media persons, news editors/ agenda setters, the political parties acting through their youth- wings, the aspiring student leaders.
“We shouldn’t convert any college into an anti-India hub… We have fundamental rights but fundamental duties are also there to be adhered to”: Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs on a recent campus episode
One would find it hard to recall any incident of campus violence on ‘buzzing’ global issues like Islamophobia, climate change or animal cruelty, among the students of small town poly-techniques, engineering colleges, skill development centres, paramedical or pharmacy colleges in India’s aspirational hinterland. Make no mistake, many of these ‘trade- school’ students from India’s tier-3 and tier- 4 towns are as much aware and affected by the g-local debates- from social justice movements to the presently dominant globalism versus nationalism political debates across the globe.
However, for this generation and social class of aspirational India, the immediate commitment is sustaining their families’ basic requirement and minimum expectations, along with a desire for fulfilling their consumerist impulses- driving them towards real, paying jobs in absence of any wealth endowment in almost all cases. To such young Indians, college is a ladder to a monetarily more prosperous life rather than a theatre of elite politics where the ‘establishment‘ or the ‘state‘ is to be vehemently and vociferously challenged; where everyone is a deliberate performer, playing their assigned roles. The discerning eyes can see through the elite student political charade for what it largely represents today- a theatrical drama- where lofty, theoretical ideas are to be planted and played out among niche ‘self help groups’- for building political careers or for gaining social esteem or just to fit in with the majority of peers or for misleading the well- meaning but sentimental and gullible students.
Is there any ideal or at least better student-led politics compared to one on display currently? It would be naive to see recent student protesters as inspirational leadership reservoirs for future. A leadership of student politics that has its central focus on student- related issues, rather than superficial trendy political issue of the day, would have a greater possibility of inspiring an entire new youthful generation of citizens in the longer run. Strict adherence to open, reasoned, rationally articulated, cogent and logic- driven arguments and counter- arguments forms the bed rock of such student politics rather than mindless sloganeering. Besides few specialised public policy research centres in India, the current political debates rarely go beyond mindless chanting of mantras – socialism, integral humanism, tolerance, peace, democracy, justice, sustainable development, inclusive growth, Vande Mataram (“Glory to Mother(land)”).
Clearly, there is a dearth of substantive issues circulating, animating and igniting the minds of students in today’s campus politics. The contemporary animated student politics, devoid of substantial scholarship and perspective taking, is on open display in the political and ethical climate at India’s elite universities- from Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, to Central University- Hyderabad, Jadhavpur University and Benaras Hindu University, to mention a few. One notices that a substantial majority of faculty at almost all reputed universities world- over tend to be more left leaning in general. However, in best tradition, these world class institutions always have a strong under current of active scholarly streams of counter- narratives and opposing perspectives. The level of politicisation at premier universities in India has risen in the last few years to a high decibel. But the level of intellectual rigour remains below average at best. That this mediocrity has become normalised and rationalised at elite universities is a disturbing trend and sad commentary on the standards of scholarship and academic rigour at out higher education centres.
University is a microcosm of the macrocosm. The integrity of the university- the vision that any idea has a home, provided it does not directly lead to or incite violence and physical injury- ought to be preserved. This comes at a cost- including readiness to allow any speech inside a university campus. However, there is also something highly devious to the honest hardworking taxpayers that their earnings should be spent on subsidising campus lawlessness at the public- funded elite universities. There is no simple solution to this dichotomy between requirements of free speech and need of optimal utilisation of tax-payers money.
There will be similar violence on university campuses in the future. We as citizens, many of us tax- payers, should not have to fund or subsidise the lawlessness or the sheer stupidity or hypocrisy as currently on display at our public universities. As we move towards a more informed citizenry, it can be envisioned that shallow, sloganeering students’ leaders will phase themselves out; and ideas backed by well articulated reasoning would come to the fore. In a vibrant democracy, ideas ought to be fought with ideas not with mob violence. And the mob violence ought to be controlled by the rule of law rather than a counter mob.
“Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever- widening thought and action.
Into such heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”