‘It Is Suffocating’: A Top Liberal University Is Under Attack in India

  • February 11, 2024

Jawaharlal Nehru University, named for India’s first prime minister, is one of the country’s premier liberal institutions, a hothouse of strong opinions and left-leaning values whose graduates populate the upper echelons of academia and government.

But to the Hindu nationalists who hold power in India, the university and others like it are dangerous dens of “anti-India” ideas. And they are working to silence them.

Masked men have stormed the J.N.U. campus and attacked students, shouting slogans associated with a far-right Hindu group. Vocal supporters of the right-wing governing party who have been installed as administrators have suspended students for participating in protests and, in December, imposed new restrictions on demonstrations. Professors have been denied promotions for questioning government policies.

“It is suffocating,” said Anagha Pradeep, a political science student who has received warnings from J.N.U. after protesting her housing conditions and helping to screen a documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “And you can’t learn in fear.”

The pressure being put on J.N.U. is part of a broader effort to neutralize dissenting voices — media organizations, human rights groups, think tanks — as right-wing Hindus pursue their cause of transforming India into an explicitly Hindu nation.

Not long after Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 2014, members of its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., launched a campaign against elite universities across the country, taking steps like filing police complaints against professors who lectured on topics they disliked.

Hindu nationalists, as they try to uproot the secular foundation laid down for India by Nehru, are pushing to supplant universities’ traditional intellectual values with their own conservative thought. The government has excised textbook chapters on India’s past Muslim rulers and silenced researchers who questioned pseudoscience being promoted by right-wing officials.

“We want students to understand that patriotism is of the utmost importance,” said Abhishek Tandon, who has been the head of the student wing of the R.S.S. in New Delhi for 21 years.

He said his organization “won’t allow anti-India forces to work inside the campus against the integrity and unity of India.”

Sumit Ganguly, an India specialist at Indiana University, said that the Hindu nationalists’ campaign, including the appointments of education officials aligned with the right-wing government, could render academic freedom a “relic and a quaint notion” in India.

“What we are witnessing now is a steady stacking of institutions with individuals who lack suitable professional qualifications but share ideological preferences of the ruling party,” he said.

Some of these officials have been effusive in their praise of their government benefactors. Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, the J.N.U. vice chancellor since 2022, has called Mr. Modi the “tallest spokesperson for democracy” and a “phenomenon.” Ms. Pandit and a press officer for the university did not respond to requests for comment.

J.N.U., which was founded in 1967 and is spread over hundreds of acres of secluded forestland in southwestern New Delhi, has more than 7,000 students and about 600 professors and instructors. Its founders, including an American rural sociologist, proposed a model research university that would be an incubator of debate and dissent, free of government interference.

In 1975, when the government declared a state of internal emergency — an especially dangerous time for Indian democracy — students at the university who opposed the suspension of basic rights faced expulsion, arrest and prison time.

Even after that traumatic period, students still had room for dissent in the decades that followed. “No one suffered for any ideology,” said Kavita Krishnan, an activist who arrived at the campus as a student in the early 1990s. “Its diversity was its strength.”

The current crackdown started in 2016, two years after Mr. Modi took office, when his government appointed Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, a professor of electrical engineering, as the head of the university.

Within days of his appointment, about a dozen students were charged with sedition after being accused of displaying slogans supporting a Kashmiri man hanged by India over a deadly attack on Parliament. While some videos of the students were found to have been manipulated, India’s toxic social media space and its politicians found an enemy in the university’s students and professors.

Mr. Kumar ended a long tradition of consultation with students and faculty members and, according to teachers and students, curtailed a longstanding policy of encouraging applications from people of lower castes and other disadvantaged groups.

To inculcate “patriotism” and martial pride, he invited retired soldiers to campus and proposed putting a battle tank on display.

Nearly 50 members of the federal Parliament sent a letter to the education minister in January 2019 complaining that the university was being “destroyed.”

In recent years, students linked to far-right groups have physically attacked other students over their liberal and secular views, bashing them with sledgehammers, iron rods and bricks. Amid a wave of student protests in 2019 over a law that opponents called anti-Muslim, officers in riot gear raided a library at another university and beat up students with bamboo sticks. At yet another university, officers fired stun grenades at students.

After masked men stormed the J.N.U. campus and attacked students in January 2020, university alumni who were officials in Mr. Modi’s government quickly condemned the violence. But a politician from his party later justified the attack by describing the campus as a “hub of sex and drugs” that churns out thousands of used condoms and empty liquor bottles daily.

Last year, members of the R.S.S., the right-wing group, tried to intimidate students by carrying out marches with sticks and saffron flags — an emblem of Hinduism — on campus.

Nazar Mohamed Mohideen, a J.N.U. student who has campaigned for affirmative action and is a follower of an anti-caste revolutionary resented by Hindu nationalists, said he was declared a security threat to other students and barred by his professor from entering a laboratory.

Members of the student wing of the R.S.S. beat him up during a scuffle when he tried to save a portrait of the anti-caste revolutionary, Periyar, he said. (The group denied that allegation.) In October, Mr. Mohideen received a letter from the university saying he could not continue his Ph.D. studies, a decision he is challenging in court.

“My fight against oppression,” Mr. Mohideen said, “turned me into a visible enemy.”

Avinash Kumar, a representative of the J.N.U. teachers association, said the right-wing campaign against the university had changed its very nature.

“Ours was a campus which helped realize the real motto of education,” empowering students across caste and class and breaking down societal hierarchies, he said. But those values are antithetical, he added, to “what the ruling regime represents now.”

“Any space where this kind of environment flourishes, they crush it,” he said.

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