The severe police action against the students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University inside campus premises must be viewed against the larger backdrop of the sanctity that has been traditionally accorded to university campuses in India, even by the British.
And lest we forget, it is from the campus of St. Stephen’s College in Delhi that Mahatma Gandhi gave the clarion call for the non-cooperation movement.
Banaras Hindu University to St. Stephen’s College
In India, Mahatma Gandhi was among the few visionaries who had the wisdom to realise the value of mobilising students for the cause of freedom.
He realised this potential when Madan Mohan Malviya invited him to speak at the opening ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University. This was Gandhi’s maiden public speech in India following his final return from South Africa in 1915. As a faithful portend of things to come, Gandhi did not shy away from speaking his mind. This was much to the consternation of Annie Besant who tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to abort his speech. His speech charged up the students, who were present in significant numbers.
Bolstered by his success, Gandhi continued to appeal to students across India.
In the early years after his return to India, Gandhi would stay on the campus of St. Stephen’s College as a houseguest of then-Principal Sushil Kumar Rudra. The Mahatma used Rudra’s presence to his advantage. His first call to Indians for non-cooperation with the British was issued from the halls of St. Stephen’s College where he also addressed the students. The British rulers frowned upon the principal for hosting Gandhi, but Rudra stood firm. It is intriguing that the British did not bother Principal Rudra and St. Stephen’s College beyond this initial admonition.
It may surprise many to learn that the British rulers, known for many ruthless atrocities against Indians, seemed to have been generally tolerant of student activities on campuses.
During the 1942 Quit India Movement, agitating students of the three undergraduate institutions of Delhi University – Ramjas College, Hindu College and St. Stephen’s College – indulged in campus violence. The Viceroy wrote to Vice-Chancellor Sir Maurice Gwyer to initiate firm action. To the credit of Gwyer, he wrote back in defence of the students and the Viceroy allowed the matter to rest at that.
I also know that the famed Allahabad University enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in those days. Prominent leaders of the Indian National Congress would often be invited to speak unhindered to students on the campus.
From the British era to the 1975 Emergency, attitude towards campuses saw quite a bit of change.
The student protests happening now across universities in the backdrop of the Citizenship Amendment Act transport me to the time when I was a high school student in 1971. And Indira Gandhi was at the helm of India.
The year 1971 saw, in all probability, the first major student movement in independent India. This transformational movement manifested itself in Gujarat and eventually affected national politics – all in a span of just three years.
The Gujarat movement was sparked by an increase in mess food charges at the L. D. College of Engineering in Ahmedabad. However, in no time, it snowballed into a formidable protest against a rather insensitive and corrupt state government, then led by Chimanbhai Patel. It came to be famously known as the Navnirman Movement, and it garnered enormous public support. Ultimately, the agitation resulted in the dismissal of the state government.
The Navnirman Movement was notable for many more reasons. For one, it brought out of political hibernation the highly respected Gandhian and elderly freedom fighter Jai Prakash Narayan, popularly known as JP. And, as it so happened at that time, a very young Narendra Modi came under the influence of JP and joined the Navnirman Movement. Eventually, JP was compelled to launch a nationwide agitation against corruption, which led to a direct confrontation between him and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The JP movement also brought to national attention a very young student leader from Delhi University who eventually played a major role in Indian politics. This was none other than Arun Jaitley, who in 1974 cut his political teeth on the student movement. Back then, he was president of Delhi University Students’ Union. I managed to witness all this firsthand as a student at St. Stephen’s College. I also vividly recall Arun Jaitley delivering a fiery speech while sharing the dais with JP at a student rally on the Delhi University campus in November 1974.
The police did not intervene even as JP gave a call to the students to revolt against Indira Gandhi’s government. The same police turned up months later in the dead of night to arrest Jaitley from his residence, soon after the infamous Emergency had been declared in June 1975.
Jamia police action breaks tradition
The police in many parts of India have generally adhered to a near sacrosanct tradition that deters them from entering a university campus without the vice-chancellor’s consent. This inhibition is well illustrated from an episode dating back to my days as a college student in 1972. The Delhi Police was disinclined to enter the University of Delhi campus to quell a student agitation despite a clear request from the vice-chancellor at the time.
The police spurred into action only when the vice-chancellor stated emphatically on the telephone that there was a clear threat to his life. I witnessed on this occasion, from a very secure vantage point, the ensuing lathi-charge by the police.
This should be contrasted with what once happened on the Allahabad University campus in 1969 when the vice chancellor phoned the city police chief to enter the campus and subdue rioting students. Sure enough, as a result of strong police action, the students were soon dispersed. When a major public outcry against the police force broke out, the vice-chancellor blandly denied having granted permission to the police.
So, what happened that night in Jamia Millia University and Aligarh Muslim University is a break from the general tradition, and is detrimental to the future of a nation where campuses have been a pillar of democracy.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.