Friday, March 07, 2014

The Disgrace: The Subharti University Affair

There is a lot of talk about freedom and tolerance in Chinese Higher Ed. I remember one English University getting into trouble for letting a student writing a dissertation on Pornography in their campus in Dubai. Tales like this are often told by Indian Academics, implicitly highlighting the freedom that a democracy is supposed to guarantee. And, at one level, that's almost taken for granted - no one discusses whether academic freedom could be an issue in Indian campuses. 

However, if one needed an ugly incident to start talking about this, we have got one now. Indeed, the case I am referring to relates to basic freedom of expression, a much more fundamental issue than academic freedom, but without which, discussions about academic freedom is meaningless. An event which brings out a picture of India's campus culture that would undermine the smugness about democracy guarantees freedom.

I am talking about the decision of Meerut's Subharati University (the website here, which seems to be hacked by Pro-Pakistani hackers at the time of writing) , a high profile Private University about 60 miles from Delhi, to expel 60 odd Kashmiri students for cheering for Pakistan during an Asia Cup Cricket Match, which India narrowly lost. The students were summarily expelled after fighting with other Pro-India students, thrown out of their lodging and a police case for treason was launched against them. While people are debating the details, whether these students given a notice to leave or they were summarily kicked out, whether they are being expelled for causing damages to property because of the fighting, one should see it for what it is: A disgrace!

Street fights over supporting Pakistan in Cricket is a common thing in India. This is a common way for poor Indian Muslims to express their dissent. Hindu Indians often equate this with their lack of loyalty to India, because they fail the Tebbit Test, and see this as synonymous to terrorism. Growing up in a place which was not far from a Muslim slum, this was one of the odd realities of my life. However, with time and interactions with people from those communities over a period of time, I got real: Among many different realisations, one of the most important was to accept the cosmopolitan values of the Indian Republic as it was conceived, and grow up and see the act for what it is: Supporting a side in a Cricket game. This isn't terrorism, and those who support Pakistan are not terrorists themselves. Such nuanced logic may not be of much use in the face of street passions, but one would expect an university, and its leaders, to be able to see things dispassionately. Remember these universities are the ones which want to internationalise and always very keen to recruit students from other countries, yet it equates which side you support in cricket matches with campus radicalism. 

I shall claim that this is symptomatic of India's academic culture. I am not familiar with the university in question, but know of others in India's equivalent of knowledge corridor, hundreds of colleges and universities clustered around this area near Delhi. They are usually run not by Academics but by retired generals - like other developing countries, armed forces are seen as the model of work ethic in India - and their rules and norms are usually modelled around the Army code of conduct. Privately owned, most of these institutions represent an explosive mix of profit motive and army discipline, and a complete disdain for any dissent, however trivial.

I therefore hope that this event will open new discussions about tolerance, diversity and freedom. As I said before, these things are taken for granted in India but they are hardly the sort of thing that could be, should be, taken for granted. It took many generations of struggle to establish these cultures, and as we have seen, notably in the examples of Nazi Germany, it is quite easy to destroy these values. And, again, it starts with incidents such as these, and those unaffected tolerating it, treating it as an aberration rather than what it really is - a symptom.

Therefore, we are in the need of tackling fascism, which is a far cry from any nuanced discussion about academic freedom. One could argue Subharti is atypical - a bottom-rung private university, more a cowboy college than a serious academic institution - but that observation will be inaccurate. Not just Subharti is quite high profile in a high profile territory known for its density of universities, more students attend private universities in India today than public institutions: In fact, government's great hope of bringing about higher education revolution in India rests on expansion of private universities.

While we know the media storm will die down soon - after all, this is just a few Kashmiri students and most Hindu Indians will feel affronted with their 'crime' - India will be better served if this debate fully plays out. One could argue that the university has failed to live up to the standards (though that is unlikely as most universities are owned by the rich and the powerful), which will hopefully lead to a discussion what these standards should be. However, on a broader scale, this should hopefully shake us out of our complacence and encourage a hard look at the culture of the Indian campuses.

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Note: One correspondent told me that the fact the website of the university is hacked by Pro-Pakistani Hackers now (complete with abuse, spelling errors and Pro-Pakistan slogans), one should realise that the university's actions may have been justified. Really? I think my point of the university departing from neutrality and tolerance still holds: This is not about condoning what hackers may have done, nor the politics of majoritarianism that followed (see the story of BJP demanding 'action' against the students). 

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