Academics and writers respond to the UP Private Universities Ordinance

Image courtesy: Financial Express

On June 18, the Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government approved the draft Uttar Pradesh Private Universities Ordinance, 2019. Among other things, the draft ordinance would make it mandatory for new and existing private universities to give an undertaking that they will ensure that no “anti-national” activities will take place in the campuses.

The approval comes right after the re-election of the Modi government at the centre, and is being seen by many as a repressive move. To understand the implications of the proposed law and what it specifically imeans for democratic rights, the Indian Cultural Forum spoke to some eminent academics and writers.

Nandini Sundar, Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, said that such an ordinance would have a “chilling effect on all research, teaching and activity in the university. Even if “anti-national” activities are not defined, the target is quite clear – anything that is critical or questioning the current government will be considered as “anti-national”.” Sundar pointed out that the government prescribing such rules for universities is extremely dangerous, and added that “if people are engaged in anti-national activities there are other laws to deal with that.”

Reacting to the draft ordinance, writer and scholar Ganesh Devy said, “Universities are meant for generating thought and meaningful social questions…This kind of “fatwa” is the end of the university system.”

The universities would be given a year to enforce the law. Many feel that this is a part of the larger attack on academic institutions since the current regime came to power in 2014. The Modi-led government, accused time and again of curbing debate and saffronising education, is opposed to the very idea of a university. The draft ordinance, they think, is another step in the same direction.

Ghanshyam Shah, sociologist and former Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is of the opinion that the ordinance defeats the very purpose of a university. He says: “University is meant for free and open discussion. And nothing is sacrosanct as far as the discussion within the university campus is concerned. Now this “anti-national” – one wonders what is meant by that. Anything I might want can make an “anti-national”. I want development for dalits and I might be accused to be an “anti-national” because you are not talking about India’s upliftment, but dalit upliftment. So any opposition or any criticism of those in power would be then “anti-national”.”

Echoing a similar concern, Abha Dev Habib, Professor of Physics at Delhi University, points out: “Academic institutions may be funding or conducting various research projects – how will you scan whether what they are doing is ‘national’ or ‘anti-national’? By scanning every seminar? By scanning every research project? I don’t understand the need for such a bill.” She sees the move as contrary to the basic requirements of fruitful research and academics: “If you want to really do well in research or in knowledge production, then the universities – whether public or private – need to have the freedom to think in a new manner, and it may not be an easy task… We must understand that anything new in science came only through questioning what existed and challenging superstitions.”

According to her, there is also a direct connection between the unfolding projects of the Adityanath-led UP government and the agenda of establishing an academic stranglehold. She says, “If you look at what has happened over the last five years in Uttar Pradesh, and the kind of violence that has happened against dalits and women, and how the focus has been shifted to the cow…they want to have a greater control over these processes through control over universities – through a greater control over what is taught and how it is taught.”

Eminent historian Uma Chakravarti claims that the draft law is of a piece with some of the worst forms of authoritarianism historically. She says, “It is like from the McCarthy era in the US where they imagined “un-American” activities and hauled hordes of people from the universities and from the cultural world and slapped such accusations against them. They aunched a huge witch hunt against those whom they identified as “un-American” for their supposed communist sympathies. It didn’t matter whether they were or they weren’t communist. The process amounted to a farce. It wasn’t even any legal procedure — they called someone to testify, that person will then know other people, and they will be asked to come and testify, and then basically they lost their jobs, they moved away quite often from America to go and teach in other universities. They were terrible times. Even people like Charlie Chaplin went away from Hollywood. I am reminded, as a historian, of this kind of thing. It is a targeting of the universities where, according to the ruling regime, there should be no critical thinking, no independent thinking and you can create a bogey of nationalism and charge others with “anti-national” activities. You could be stuck in court and meanwhile your careers would be destroyed. I am reminded of the McCarthy era in America in the late 40s — their version of hysteria against the so-called communists. It is basically a witch hunt.”

While Uma Chakravarti invokes the migration of dissenting academics to other countries, Debaditya Bhattacharya, Assistant Professor at the Kazi Nazrul University, thinks that a different kind of journey may be playing out in India today. Locating the draft ordinance in the situation of public universities under the Modi regime, he says: “This is a clear move to bring the axe down on private universities because the public universities are already on their way to becoming privatised. Over the past five years, we have seen that public universities have been hollowed out of any kind of defence or even any potential for defence. Now that they have been neutralised and sanitised, the private universities have to be the next target.”

The move from public to private has been the result of a systematic persecution of voices in public universities. He says further: “Because of the larger policies that have been played out in terms of non-filling of vacancies, along with public university spaces becoming increasingly intolerant spaces, a lot of good people who were either working as contractual faculties within the public university, have either moved to private universities or have moved abroad.” He cites Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Hyderabad Central University, Allahabad University and IIT Chennai as instances of this unfolding tragedy.

The “exodus”, as he terms it, naturally results in policies like the draft ordinance. He says, “People who have been students of public universities, people who have been trained to think about public initiatives, who have been taught to think about the order of the day, have all moved into private universities. Which is why there has to be a clamp down on private universities now.”

It seems, on the view of these academics and writers, that the draft ordinance brings together communalism with full-blown privatisation. While the full implications of the law will only be gauged in practice, the draft ordinance sounds an ominous note in the increasingly dismal situation of the right to democratic dissent in India. Response to it must also be, therefore, to the larger onslaught on democracy and dissent.

Read more:
“By making the ‘anti-national’ institutions the best institutions, the government aims to privatise them”: Debaditya Bhattacharya
The Making of a University: Interviews with Debaditya Bhattacharya