The first question always has to be why. The others follow, but the reason and purpose sets the tone for the rest. So it is for education, so it is for universities and so it is for politics in universities. Education is what grows civilised communities and citizens for the prosperity of our world. It is what enables good choices – is what I have held when I teach education policy – and this is often hotly contested, even debated in the room.
I now realise that that they were taking an anti-teacher stance and I possibly should have been offended. But of course that would not have helped either me, as a teacher who learns each minute, or my students – who learn by testing and exploring each possibility. We educate our students to grow possibilities – we cannot bind them to the possibilities of the past. And for that, we allow them to make some mistakes. We allow them to push the boundaries, while ensuring that boundaries are both flexible, and firm – as appropriate. I hear a question here – who decides. And I step up and say, I do. I, the teacher, I, the professor, I the thoughtleader of the session. I claim the right because it is my class. If I were the head of the college or university, I’d say the same. This is not a right, this is the responsibility of the head of an academic institution. It is their responsibility to create space not only for free thinking, but to create a safe space where diametrically opposite sets of thought, even ideologies can stand up in front of each other, have their say and be debated. It is also a mark of their leadership that they do not allow this to go out of control – and that includes controlling clear and distinct anti national disruption. Does this give room for clashes? Intellectual clashes yes, and that is the job of universities. Physical clashes? No, for that is hooliganism and not worthy of those who attained entry into universities. You’ve got the brains, then why engage with mere brawn?
Does this allow students to speak against the nation? I’d say no, clearly no – that comes in the realm of law and order. But pause here for a moment – if we do not acknowledge some truths, then would we be able to build nations to be more prosperous places? There was a time when all foreign visitors who came to India went back speaking with disgust at the dirt, especially in Varanasi. Locals across the nation ranted and railed, it was hurtful to hear that you were considered a dirty people. Poverty porn was and is still disparaged. Those who ranted against the filth were called outsiders, even antinational. And yet, if one did not acknowledge the bitter truth that cleaning up was genuinely required, would Swacchh Bharat have become a movement? Would social media have pictures of clean railway stations posted by proud citizens today? Would we have become mindful of the need to take charge of our surroundings? All anti-India sounding statements are not so – some are genuine constructive criticism. Then there are others, others that come from pain and myopia, hurtful and wrong, led by ignorance and shallow thinking. Would one educate them or berate them? You cannot always eradicate all weeds – they too hold your soil, and are often entangled with your plants. You have to separate them, isolate them. This is where one needs mature, considered and masterful handling. Who is the adult here? Who will handle these situations with firm compassion, with nimble empathy and clear boundaries?
Student unrests are a part of the history of all grand universities and nations. Universities have been the hotbed of revolt, anarchy and the new order for centuries. Some may argue that this is their primary job – to find a better way of living as a civilised society. This they do by ideas, by discussion, by experimentation. Some, by revolution. Universities are not mere sausage factories churning out bots, or widgets to keep the economic cycle churning. The students will do that too, in time. But that is not the only purpose of universities. Universities, and higher education are safe spaces to create new ways of being – this is why a professor is valued for advancing the body of knowledge, a PhD is granted for the same reason. Students are taught to grow into individuals with a clear sense of their identity and value – and this happens to include economic value too.
It is sad that for a whole generation that Indian universities have forgotten their goals and have turned into tutorial shops with tiny glimpses of greatness wedged in hidden corners. In a time of mediocrity, greatness is best hidden. Universities are places where one explores one’s self and politics, one dives into it with a passion and learns to reign it in with reason. Universities grow up voting citizens, who vote with an understanding of what right wing liberalism and left wing nationalism could actually mean – because they have debated these through hot, passionate nights of intellectual engagement. And I do not laugh, for this is how a mature citizenry is grown – with a chance to have their beliefs knocked over, and then rebuilding with the parts that were worth saving. A generation that has only engaged in surface level debate, or only engaged with like minded people can never have mature and resilient comfort in their views- they know they are fragile. A fragile, shrill over reaction is a clear signal of an inadequate education.
Student politics and student activism are a part of the journey of growing up a democratic nation. Deal with the flash points and encourage intellectual debate. These students will grow up to be leaders of their communities and constituencies. They will grow up to be better citizens, holding politicians to account with informed views on things that matter – such as education capacity and reservations, health, budgets and more. We have already seen this happen – development was a major platform in this election. A first, when real issues mattered.
There will be flash points, and in a nation with half its population under 25, one has to be prepared for more hot headed missteps. Criminal cases must be swiftly handled, but politics cannot be dealt with a heavy hand. Student politics is a genuine opportunity to grow. Do Indian universities allow these thought factories to grow – and disspate, or have these been taken over by large and often venal political parties? Many have said that it is a good idea to ban affiliations of student unions to larger political parties. I agree – this sounds good. It allows the youth to discover and explore based on learning and experience, not on hardened hand-me-downs. But I wonder if it can ever be really implemented: for every intervention a rule is – never set a rule that is likely to be broken. Others have spoken of raising the voting age to twenty one – pushing student politics further out. Given the infantilisation in schools and colleges, and the expectation of conformity to a single ‘right’ answer, the ‘right’ values – it is a wonder if anyone is ever ready to vote except in ways that are identical to their tribe. Not good enough.
The current crisis is not one of student politics, it is a crisis of leadership led by years of sycophancy and political sidestepping, over regulation and undergovernance. The true solution to the mess that we see in our universities is to allow true leadership to grow – one that is respected for their true views, backed by intellectual prowess and commitment to knowledge. Leadership that stands up without fear of clout or favour – and claims back the campus each time these flash points occur. This leadership uses the force of the true intellectual, not the force of political power – and this is what we want in our universities.