First, Mishra was unrestrained in his advocacy of the BJP and was rallying people to vote for the party in the March polls. My first question was about whether the Hindu right had intellectual traditions or historical interpretations that would withstand aca demic scrutiny. Surrounded by students whose PhDs he was guiding, he answered: “Look at the way good governance is interpreted in the Bhagavad Gita. Nehru is the one who tried to finish India’s intellectual traditions. We should have learnt from the Vedas, Upanishads. BHU is not a university, but a mandir.“
There is more in the interview, not relevant to this piece. But even back then, the issue of girls having limited access to facilities in their hostels and being denied permission in various ways at BHU had been flagged. The women students who gathered in a room to speak to me had come from little towns in the UP-Bihar heartland. One was from Gorakhpur, another from Ballia, a third from a village near Patna. They were protective about their campus, loved being in BHU, did not want an unnecessary con troversy, but just wished they had more rights and facilities. When I asked whether they would like elected students unions (not currently allowed in BHU), they said no.
From little towns and traditional backgrounds, these were not particularly political young people; in fact many seemed very comfortable with the cultural ethos in BHU that has over the years shifted right-wards although BHU at one time also produced socialist and communist thinkers besides those belonging to the Nehruvian tradition. That is why the little insurrection by the girls, their strong will to protest something that is patently wrong, is all the more remarkable. India lives between tradition and modernity. It is not just an occasion to score political points. It is also an occasion to recognise that India does keep moving on in spite of many things that drag us down.
Misogyny is hardly the preserve of the RSS alone, although the world’s largest cadre organisation is basically an extended male club. The women’s groups under its umbrellas all speak for traditional values and mostly protest in order to enforce a moral code, often combined with blatant communal profiling. This ethos is not comfortable with women who protest and demand their rights as individuals. Little wonder that RSS and BJP spokespersons kept defending themselves by speaking of their sisters and daughters, the sort of phraseology that sees women as sexless entities who need male protection.Worth noting, as the entire sequence of events at BHU was triggered by sexual harassment and the administrations callous response.
One would be right to argue that universities reflect the attitudes prevalent in society. But the fundamental problem with this approach is that it expects us to give up the expectation that universities should ideally be places for freedom of expression, debate and dissent, no matter how fringe or in contrast completely status quoist.
Increasingly, we have seen an assault on intellectual freedoms. At Delhi University, currently heads of departments are deny ing permissions for any gatherings that could dis cuss the state of our democ racy. At JNU, last I heard there was heated debate on whether an army tank should be situated on cam pus to instill “national pride“. At BHU, the vice chancellor, now reportedly on his way out, expresses views of a Neanderthal male. At the heart of the problem is the question that I posed to BHU’s professor Mishra. Does the right wing have an intellectual tradition whose conclusions would be acceptable across academia?
Reading a Nehru or a Gandhi would enlighten anyone. Dr Ambedkar is brilliant in the manner in which he challenges every accepted social norm. It was minds such as these that gave us our Constitution. Now the universities are being packed with followers of MS Golwalkar and VD Savarkar. Having read both, the first is pure nonsense, the second interesting if mean in spirit.
The politics of the right in India may be successful, but there is no sterling intellectual talent that can be chosen from this tradition. Which is why we have a mediocre as vice-chancellor in a historic university. He just brought shame on the entire country.But young women with fire and spark rescued us. Saba Naqvi is a writer and journalist
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