Do Universities Threaten National Security?

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22 November 2018

Is the government trying to change the nature of the university as we know it?

When the university was imagined in independent India, it was visualised as a democratic space that welcomed students from all walks of life. But today, the university is increasingly becoming an exclusive domain of the state. Education is being conceptualised as the means by which skills are acquired, and not as something that aids critical thinking. 


There is a growing fear that the space for academic freedom is steadily shrinking with controversies constantly erupting within university campuses. While previous governments have been guilty of meddling with university autonomy, the current ruling party is unabashed in its attack on free speech. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has suggested that freedom of expression should be subordinate to upholding the sovereignty of the nation; the police have been dispatched to campuses to enforce “law and order,” and students are arrested for being outspoken, ostensibly under charges of sedition. 


This reading list explores the trajectory of higher education in universities in India in recent times. 

1) Universities and the Idea of Nationhood 

Commenting on the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) circular to remove the words “Muslim” and “Hindu” from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Banaras Hindu University (BHU) respectively, Laurence Gautier argues that the UGC went well beyond its mandate as it was only tasked with improving functioning of the universities. Further, he criticises the UGC for singling out AMU for inbreeding practices—recruitment of in-house students as professors— setting the narrative as though such practices do not occur elsewhere. Gautier contends that it is the current government’s discomfort at the AMU’s Muslim character which prompted its singling out, and while students from other faiths may be in a minority at AMU, a Muslim-majority institution is nothing but a meagre compensation for nationwide under-representation of the community. 

“Though the [UGC] panel has been equally critical of both AMU’s and BHU’s names, its effort to present a balanced view seems rather unconvincing in the prevailing political scenario. At a time when government authorities surround themselves with Hindu symbols, it is the existence of a Muslim institution as a central university which irks our secular conscience. For who would suspect BHU members of nurturing divisive feelings? Who would argue that the Hindu character of their institution may come in the way of their Indianness? No matter what this Muslim character may mean for university members, it continues to be seen as a threat to the nation’s unity, a communal marker incompatible with the state’s secular character.”

2) Universities and National Security

A spirit of inquiry and criticism, Nandini Sundar writes, are no longer seen as important by authoritarian and right-wing regimes. A government’s ability to subvert academic freedoms no longer poses the challenges that it once did. The “national security” card is now dealt with increasing frequency to ban books, disrupt seminars and disinvite speakers—most of whose topics deal with caste, gender discrimination and subversion of democracy. 

“This kind of cancellation and disruption not only has the effect of preventing academic exchange but also is used to stigmatise a whole range of people either because of the university they are employed at (especially Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU]), the discipline they engage in (usually the social sciences), or their alleged ideological leanings. The very idea that contentious speech can be listened to without disruption and countered by speech is under severe threat… The emerging landscape of restrictions is not only affecting speech but also extends to a redrawing of physical space itself. Along with proposals to install army tanks on campuses to instill patriotism, or 200 metre high flags, Indian campuses are being transformed to look more “disciplined,” more “nationalist,” and more corporate.”  

3) Appropriate Areas of Research 

Can the state criminalise academic discussion?  Partha Chatterjee calls for a scrapping of the sedition law, saying that it was enacted by a colonising power for the sole purpose of legitimising their occupation of Indian land, and not to stifle opposition in the form of  questions raised within university campuses. 

“Why has the attack on the university come in this form at this time? We could explain it by pointing to the evaporation of the Modi magic, the collapse of his promises of quick economic prosperity and the recent electoral reverses of the Bharatiya Janata Party… Leaving aside the years of the Emergency, never before has a general campaign been launched by a national party in power that targets university students and teachers on the evidence of their speech alone as “anti-national” and charges them with sedition. It matters little if the charges do not in the end stand up in court. The intimidation and violence will be pursued with impunity by loyal vigilante gangs.”

4) Universities and the Government 

Ayesha  Kidwai writes that Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was born out of apprehensions that arose during discussions over the passage of the University Grants Commission Act, primarily, the fear of government interference in education. Since then, JNU has emerged as a centre for incisive scholarship and independent thought. But the UGC, despite its intended function, is seen as a rival to universities, beholden by government diktat.

“While JNU struggles every day to making sure that the small and successful experiment it is survives, it is the UGC that has strayed far away from the object behind its creation, which in the words of the then Deputy Minister for Education K L Shrimali, was an attempt to build “a kind of partnership between the government and the universities, and that “there is no rivalry between the universities and the government”. It is definitely time that the UGC revisit its own legislative history, and to recognise the role that it must play.”

5) Universities and the Threat of Privatisation 

Decrying the government’s decision to implement the NITI Aayog–backed “slow privatisation” model, whereby select Indian universities will have to eventually be responsible for their own funding, Saikat Ghosh calls this attempt by the centre to absolve itself of accountability—a move away from equity, access and quality of provided education. The author argues that the NITI Aayog vision will see courses structured specifically to gain employability in the corporate sector, and traditional disciplines will not survive in an educational system that only favours the acquirement of skills.

“The inevitable fee hikes will result in the exclusion of marginalised and vulnerable sections of society, particularly women and Dalit students coming from economically underprivileged families. The exponential increase in cost of higher education will push even students from middle-income families to fund their degrees through student loans. While this may be a clever ploy for extending the financial sector’s reach into the education sector, it will push students into early debt traps. It will impact their confidence levels, erode their ability to question the status quo, or creatively invest themselves in cultural activities and egalitarian social initiatives, make them more anxious about career opportunities, and encourage conformism.”

6) Universities, the Media and the Public Sphere

Looking at the centre’s decision to implement a four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) at Delhi University, Subarno Chattarji  criticises the hastiness of implementation by comparing the process with those of Hong Kong  University and Trinity College Dublin, which switched to  FYUP only after exhaustive consultations with numerous academics. The author also focuses on reporting of the issue, both in print and television coverage: while print reportage allowed for both sides of the debate to speak, television coverage focused only on the conflict and thus overlooked substantial issues. 

“TV construed the FYUP as “news” primarily within the matrix of student interests that were being jeopardised as a result of its rollback … The narrative of opposition between students on the one hand and administrators (whether the vice chancellor or the UGC) on the other tended to obscure more complex networks of power, negotiations (or lack thereof), autonomy, and academic excellence. While TV bulletins repeatedly and rightly mentioned that the futures of 2,40,000 students were in the balance as a result of administrative incompetence, the moment was not used to discuss why and how this had come about, and what the future of IHE would be in terms of access, excellence, or reform.” 

7) Universities and Unaccountable Administrations

The ad hoc decision to introduce the On-Screen Marking (OSM) System at the University of Mumbai meant a delay in declaration of results, well beyond the 45-day deadline. As Madhu S Paranjape writes, ushering in of the new system without the necessary infrastructure has jeopardised the future careers of lakhs of students. The author targets the vice chancellor for increasingly autocratic decisions—change of syllabi without due process, inclusion of new papers for final year students—and calls for structural changes to help defend the public education system.

“The Vice Chancellor of University of Mumbai, Sanjay Deshmukh, had proposed to introduce the OSM as approved by the academic council. However, in order to do so, all the pre-existing arrangements in the university, including the academic council, were ad hoc as the MPUA 2016 was to soon take effect. Such a significant proposal should have awaited proper deliberation by duly constituted bodies. There have been reports of opposition to the proposal in the management council (Rao 2017), apart from other boards/departments. A pilot run was necessary before full-scale implementation (Iyer 2017). In that sense, the execution of the above decision was hasty, flawed and consequentially, disastrous.” 

8) Universities and the Fear of Intellectuals 

Romila Thapar writes that the attack on education existed from the time of the Jana Sangh to the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Vajpayee, when academics (Thapar included) were accused of anti-nationalism owing to their views on ancient Indian history. Ridiculing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attempts to justify the sedition charges on the JNU students, Thapar argues that the current government sees India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra,’ which justifies terming critics of Hindutva politics as “anti-nationalists.”

“In the Hindutva version of Hinduism, aimed at establishing a Hindu rashtra—a state where Hindus are the primary citizens and the purpose of governance is to uphold Hindu principles—the notion of a kind of blasphemy is applied to those that are critical of Hindutva that is equated with the Hindu rashtra. This is then equated with the nation … There is by now little doubt that we are currently being governed by those that seem to have an anti-intellectual mindset. This spells trouble for universities that are concerned with high standards of teaching and research, and it would seem beyond the comprehension of those governing. One can only ask, why is the government so apprehensive of intellectuals?”

Post JNU, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) detailed steps to “cure” Indian universities, something it termed as “course correction.” In this article, Udaya Kumar questions the current government’s view of a university: one that sees an educational institute as a factory, where acquisition of skill is the only criteria, and critical thought is considered an outmoded fashion. This vein of thought, the author argues, denies a student adulthood and considers them property of the state.

“This approach does not recognise the university student as an adult, as an autonomous individual. He/she has voting rights and can thus participate in the most important political choice exercised by citizens, but does not have the right to thought and expression and the freedom to experiment with ideas in the free and protected space of the university …  The university is divested of the rights to decide for itself, to govern itself, and set its norms and objectives. It is treated as a child who cannot be trusted to decide what is best for it. Who decides then for the university? Who has the right to say what is right for higher education?”

Read More: 


  1. Public University in a Democracy | Sudhanshu Bhushan, 2016 
  2. University as Battleground | Editorial, 2016.
  3. Why India Needs JNU | K L Sharma, 2016.
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The Thread offers context to news through EPW Archives.
22 November 2018