Muzzling Dissent In Universities
NEW DELHI: On visiting Jamia Millia Islamia’s main campus one comes across the statue of the great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, standing in Gulistan-e-Ghalib (Ghalib’s garden) holding a book, most probably his deewaan or anthology, in his right hand. This particular posture of Ghalib gives an impression that the poet is reading out his couplets to students of the university, and one usually gets reminded of his famous couplet:
“Baman miyaviz ai pidar, farzand-i-azar ra nigar
Har kas ki shud sahib-nazar din-e-buzurgan khush na-kard”
“[Do not quarrel with me, father; look, instead, at Azar’s son—
He who gains a discerning eye never favours ancestral ways]”
This couplet, to my mind, sums up the ethos of a university quite well. The particular couplet is an allusion to the story of Abraham who had broken all idols of the temple, and had asked Azar, his father, who was a high priest in the king’s fiefdom to ask the chief idol about vandalism in the temple.
The crux of the story is that Abraham had used his own discretion, and had come to realise about the futility of such a work in which the king and his father had been involved. The ‘quarrel’ with ‘ancestral ways’ that the couplet informs us tells a whole lot about what should go into the making of a culture of an institution where production of knowledge takes place.
The primary task of knowledge production begins with questioning as well as breaking social constructs, prejudices and stereotypes that have taken as truth in the society. In other words, an academic institution should not be involved in producing and perpetuating the existing oppressive and domesticating structures of the given world. Those on the faculty of this ‘free space’ should ideally assign themselves the task of helping students making sense of the present times and its predicament.
In a nutshell, a university ought to be a fount from where liberating ideas should gush out paving the way for social transformation. If a university does not inculcate in students the capacity to empathise with the oppressed and marginalised, as well as a will to fight injustices, then it loses its sole purpose of existence. And it becomes a factory where students get degrees and diplomas to serve the interest of capital.
At a time when dissent is being muzzled in the universities and speaking the truth to power has almost become a crime in India, the office of the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia has also taken a potshot at one of its faculty members. The office sent a show-cause notice to Professor M S Bhatt when he was just a few days short of his retirement. Whether the case has got a closure or not is not very clear, however, the very act of sending such a notification is a harassment which was uncalled for.
The crime of the professor in question is simple! He dared to ask the authority some disturbing questions. If one goes by the saying that ‘the essence of knowledge is having it to apply it’, then Professor Bhatt, who was also secretary of Jamia Teachers’ Association, exactly translated this idea into action by raising his voice against the university’s invitation to the PMO requesting the Prime Minister to be the chief guest at the annual convocation. Besides Bhatt Sahib a group of erstwhile students of the institution also sent a petition to the VC reminding him of Modi’s remarks about JMI in the wake of the infamous Batla fake encounter in 2008.
The students who signed the petition demanded an apology from the PM for his remark before coming to the convocation. I was a student here when the ‘encounter’ had happened, and am also a witness and part of the fear and anxiety that had ensued on the campus. The event has left a permanent scar on psyche. And one is also fully aware of how it feels to be stared at with suspicion!
Seeing a culture of silence that hangs over the Jamia campus, Professor Bhatt only reminded his colleagues as well as his students of their duty. In other words, it was an attempt to establish an organic relationship between the class room teachings and the outside world. By registering a protest against the invite, Professor Bhatt did what he has been doing throughout his academic career – putting up tough questions before the students, urging students to challenge the authority of textbooks, encouraging them to think out of the box, and inspiring them to think hard about the received wisdom.
Happily, I have met Bhatt Sahib twice, and am certain that he does not remember me as I was not a student of economics. I first met him in Gulistan-e-Ghalib to hand him my department’s student magazine, which was started by a group of students under the supervision of Dr Ravi Kumar, who was then students’ advisor on the department of sociology. I vividly remember his warmth, happiness and appreciation. He gave us Rs.40, which was four times more than the price of the magazine, Society Watch.
The second time we met in the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies in JMI where he was the external for an MPhil interview. The last question that was posed to me was by him. He politely and smilingly asked: ‘How is the magazine doing?’ I smiled back, and told him that I had passed over the baton.
Visiting the campus also makes it easy to see that a good number of buildings owe their name to well-known ‘dissenters’. There are many halls and buildings dedicated to the architects of JMI who were freedom fighters and had responded to Gandhi’s clarion call of boycotting the Colonial education system, and thus Jamia Millia Islamia at Aligarh had come into being.
All these personalities were dissenters par excellence. Interestingly, the office of the Vice-Chancellor is flanked by Yasser Arafat Hall to its right and Edward Said Hall to its left. And thus we do know what they stand for! Fidel Castro youth café, which is no more on the campus, was not very far from the VC office. Noam Chomsky complex having a couple of centres is also part of the campus. There is a Ho Chi Minh hall, too. By disagreeing with the University’s decision of not inviting the Prime Minister, Mr Bhatt only tried to resurrect the culture for which Jamia stood for and made a mark in the national imagination.
A host of faculties, students and people having a sense of ownership over the institution usually take recourse to Jamia ki tahzeeb (tradition of Jamia) in resisting changes in the University, and supporting status quo within the institution. What is obvious at the first sight is that these people either do not know tahzeeb of Jamia or pretend to be ignorant. The tahzeeb of Jamia could be summed up in Faiz’s bol (Speak!). Jamia has relentlessly been speaking against tyranny, oppression and injustices since its inception. In fact Jamia came out of the womb of India’s Freedom struggle. Nehru once described Jamia as ‘lusty child of the non-cooperation days’. And it also goes without saying that Jamia lost its path midway.
What type of culture the university is nurturing over the last 5-7 years? Students are not allowed to register their protest over poor quality of food, soaring tuition fees of various courses. Posters get removed within hours. The way administration reacted to PadsAgainstSexism movement only unfolded its prudish attitude and priggish compunction. Does this university want to produce captive audience, and apolitical and docile bodies ready to serve the market? Ask the Vice-Chancellor, please!
The architects of Jamia were not solo players and freelancers who spoke only for themselves. On the contrary they were people who had a vision and a political commitment for social justice and freedom from oppression. And the Jamia community should admit that it has stopped producing such species! Mr Vice Chancellor and his coterie need to visit Zakir Hussain’s mausoleum and the adjacent graveyard where people like Mujeeb Sahib and others are buried. I hope this pilgrimage will help them revisit Jamia’s vision and give them a sense of purpose and courage.
“Chalo aao tum ko dikhaain hum jo baccha hai maqtal-e shehr mein
Yeh mazaar ahl-e safa ke hain ye hain ahl-E sidq ki turbatein”
“[Come along, I will show you what remains in the city’s death row,
These are shrines of the pious, here the graves of those with honesty and conviction.]”
(Fahad Hashmi did his Masters in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia in 2010)