Ramjas Violence: Education Ministry’s ‘Silence’

On 24 February, a day after the violent assault by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) at Ramjas College in Delhi University (DU)’s North Campus, Prakash Javadekar, the Union Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD), delivered a blunt statement to the media, on being quizzed about his ministry’s passivity.

“How can we [Ministry of HRD (MHRD)] intervene? They are an autonomous university. Police will investigate and take required action. Nobody… neither the university, college administration nor the students have approached us for help so far,” Javadekar, who took over from Smriti Irani as the HRD minister in July 2016, said in response to a query from the media.

Javadekar’s non-interventionist stance has drawn stark resentment, owing to his top executive position in the country’s highest decision-making body on education. His neutrality, which is being widely perceived as ‘silence’, has clearly not gone down well in large quarters of the media and civil society.

While it might seem natural and perhaps, essential, to seek accountability from the Union Ministry of Education for a breach of order inside a state-funded university campus, Javadekar’s statement has a rather polarising context to it.

When Javadekar stated that the MHRD cannot intervene in the affairs of an autonomous university, he was not entirely wrong.

If we correspond the mandate of the ministry with the nature of the events that transpired on campus, there seems to be a clear contravention. What happened in and around Ramjas, was essentially a law-and-order incident rooted in the forceful negation of constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Neither of these two components fall under the actionable mandate of MHRD. Thus, in this case, the ministry cannot step in unless a specific request comes from the university authorities.

The body that is accorded with the legitimate authority to deal with a law-and-order situation is the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). This is of greater relevance here because the MHA also controls the Delhi Police, unlike in other states where the state government is in charge. Hence, in this case, the positions taken by Rajnath Singh (Union Minister of Home Affairs) and Kiren Rijiju (Minister of State for Home Affairs) hold far greater weightage than Javadekar’s, at least in immediate terms.

Students of Delhi University, JNU and Jamia during their protest march against ABVP at Delhi University North Campus in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI

However, in the past three years of the BJP-led government, the MHRD has gained infamy for invading the autonomy of central universities through arbitrary use of executive authority. In fact, it is now seen as one of the most interventionist ministries in the administration.

There is no denying of the fact is that the current government, through the MHRD, has indeed tinkered with mandates by invading into the autonomous space of India’s state-funded universities. Besides political agenda-setting (like appointing Vice Chancellors from a particular ideological strand), the MHRD has initiated direct, intrusive action on more than one occasion under the leadership of Javadekar’s predecessor, Smriti Irani.

The University of Hyderabad (UoH) protests, centred around the suicide of PhD scholar Rohit Vemula, dealt the biggest blow to Irani, following which the MHRD became all but synonymous to partisan policy-making and belligerent politicking in the eyes of many. She was subsequently accused of unduly intervening on matters that were beyond the MHRD’s direct mandate. With no refuting, it was only during her tenure that the MHRD’s reputation reached a new low in decades.

Not just in UoH, the MHRD has barged into the autonomous university space on many other instances. In May 2015, it directed the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) to take punitive action against the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle for “creating hatred atmosphere among the students”. In October 2015, students from across the country accused the MHRD of dictating terms to the University Grants Commission (UGC) – an autonomous body – when the latter abruptly scrapped the non-NET fellowships.

Javadekar himself has not been a puritan, in terms of providing a politically-agnostic public service setup. In August 2016, under his leadership, the MHRD issued a directive to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to organise “mass recitation of the national anthem by all students” (among other lavish ‘patriotic events’) on the eve of Independence Day. With the obvious intent of infusing a top-down form of nationalism into a university known for its anti-establishment fervour, the MHRD’s instructions were hardly cryptic.

However, Javadekar’s stint so far tells us one thing — that he is far more cautious and calculative than his predecessor. But, he is different from Irani perhaps only insofar as his PR posturing is concerned. By emphasising on the limited mandate of MHRD in context of the Ramjas violence, Javadekar has successfully preserved the BJP’s ideological line for now, while conducting himself as a minister who understands the limits of his executive authority.

“Its actually good that MHRD understands its power well. It could have intervened and easily supported its ideological student wing over others. But it understands the system which gives DU powers to take this up independently. We need to understand that MHRD can’t intervene until there is a written communication for the same,” argues Ravish Rana, Youth Political Advisor to the Dais Foundation, an education management organisation.

In light of the above, one glaring question still remains — should Javadekar (and MHRD) actively intervene in the Ramjas episode? One could argue from both sides.

While a cursory statement from the HRD minister could serve well to reassure the aggrieved masses, it remains largely unnecessary and more importantly, a red herring. To follow the protocolary line, three entities are far more accountable at this moment – the Principal of Ramjas College (who retired two days after the incident), the Vice Chancellor of DU, and of course, the MHA. While we already have statements from MHA, the other two have refused to provide any remark whatsoever.

The MHRD, rationally speaking, cannot and should not be held accountable for issues at the ground level. This is simply because of the structural hierarchy in the executive setup, which gives greater authority of administration of college campuses to frontline positions like Principals and VCs.

“The bottom line is that the Principal (of Ramjas), the VC and Proctor (of DU) did not stand up for the students of the very institutions under their charge. Do we expect the MHRD to start intervening in every squabble in central universities all over India? Will you ask them to intervene in clashes between Samajwadi Party and NSUI members in Allahabad (University)?” asks Saib Bilaval, an M Phil student of modern Indian history at JNU.

Besides hierarchal realities, it is also difficult to gauge if an affirmative statement from Javadekar would have a substantial impact on the collective psyche of the affected people.

“There is no requirement of lip service condemnation if it doesn’t result in a visible change. Historically, there has been no student connect with the (HRD) ministry and barely any interaction. A statement from HRD would hardly be able to pacify any group,” argues Anuj Aggarwal, former spokesperson for Delhi University Students Union (DUSU).

However, realities and experiences of democratic systems tell us that public perception usually disregards embedded structures of governance. The standard tendency – of both the civil society and the media – is to see the government ‘as a whole’, rather than an aggregation of different portfolios. This becomes truer in cases of single-party majorities, that too when the ruling party carries an all-encompassing ideology.

Hence, there are many who believe that Javadekar’s tepid statement amounts to institutional complicity and support for the despicable hooliganism unleashed by ABVP – the student wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), widely regarded as the sociocultural fountainhead of the BJP.

“The HRD minister, invoking autonomy of DU to maintain a stoic silence on the rampaging ABVP cadres, is his way of getting the message across to his party’s student wing that they are being given a free hand. A minister more sensitive than him would have by now visited the university and assured safety to students and faculty who are under grave threat. A teacher has landed in the hospital, students are terrified, threats are being given out openly, a young woman has been terrorised with rape threats, and our Minister responsible for the university invoking autonomy sounds like someone shirking responsibility or worse supporting the violence,” argues renowned documentary filmmaker and Ramjas alumnus, Rahul Roy.

“While the overall frequency of MHRD’s interference might have gone down, the reluctance of the government to reign in ABVP – a student organisation affiliated to the Sangh – is only indicative of how it is being used by the government to arm-twist academicians and students into toeing the official line,” says Niharika Tagotra, a Delhi-based political and strategic analyst.

Some others believe that the MHRD can serve to provide a bare minimum of assurance, within reasonable limits of mandate.

“The MHRD, if at all, must guarantee that the college be allowed to exercise its autonomy of holding an event on its premises. ‘Neutrality’ is also not saying much, because by saying “I will not comment”, you are inherently saying that what happened last week was alright,” says Pradyumna Jairam, a Ramjas alumnus and currently a PhD scholar at King College’s India Institute in London.

The case is reasonable, if not absolute, on both ends. While Javadekar’s passivity over the issue is in strict adherence to his ministry’s mandate, his party affiliations dilute his credence in the eyes of many. With Smriti Irani’s brash actions still fresh in the minds of those concerned about autonomy of universities in India, Javadekar will find it immensely difficult to re-posture MHRD’s position in the public discourse.

If at all, Javadekar’s statement and the reaction to it validate a single, patently obvious, point – democracy is more than just state structures. It is a fluid mix of objective realties and subjective perceptions, and ignoring any one could result in a crisis of leadership.

This piece was published on 02 March 2017 in Firstpost.

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