On July 23, scores of students, student bodies – such as All India Student’s Association (AISA), Students Federation of India (SFI), Pinjra Tod – and faculty members marched in defence of academic freedom at the Arts Faculty in Delhi University’s north campus.
The protest was in response to the recent change in the undergraduate English syllabus, where a story allegedly mentioning the 2002 Gujarat riots and a paper called ‘Interrogating Queerness’, amongst others, was dropped. This change came after members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), according to professors, gheraoed the vice-chancellor’s office when the academic council’s meeting was underway on July 16.
Only July 21, Delhi University released a list of the revised undergraduate syllabus online. Aside from alternations in the courses of the major departments under objection, slight changes can be noticed in various other arts subjects as well. For instance, in Philosophy, a unit consisting of a section by Hamid Dalwai’s Muslim Politics in Secular India was also removed from the second year syllabus. While the Philosophy department was not mentioned in the media, this change is arguably similar to the other attempts by the ABVP and RSS-backed National Democratic Teacher’s Front (NDFT) to alter DU syllabi.
Kawalpreet Kaur, the president of AISA Delhi, addressed the protestors at the beginning of the march. She spoke about how the BJP government threatened educational institutions in their first term by reducing expenditure on research and with fee hikes. (In November 2018, JNU Teacher’s Association alleged the college of cutting down the average academic expenditure.)
Now In their second term, she said, this government is attacking what students study in DU. “The ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, and the NDFT have used force, power and hooliganism to threaten the democratic way in which the syllabus is made,” she added.
According to Kaur, DU is where many people are exposed to caste, queerness and the issues of the marginalised groups, which is what they wish to discourage. Speaking to LiveWire, she said, “ABVP continuously lies [to the media] about how the English Department wants to teach about the Gujarat riots, but the truth is that the story wasn’t even in the proposed syllabus. This is how they’re planning to target all the humanities departments – English, History, Sociology, Political Science – anything that involves critical thinking and requires that the students ask questions.”
She added, “If our teachers don’t make the syllabus, and instead, a third party like ABVP tells them what they can or cannot teach, then there’s no point in having a university. Nobody other than the teachers should have the right to prepare the syllabus.”
The march took to the streets after leaving the Arts Faculty but was interrupted – almost immediately – by another group of men, chanting opposing slogans. Presumably the members of ABVP, they screamed, “Karl Marx ke bachchon ko, ek dhakka aur do.” They were promptly stopped from proceeding by some of the police officers present, after which the protestors continued.
They returned to the Arts Faculty after marching past Kirori Mal College, where more ABVP members, along with DUSU members, were waiting with banners and opposing slogans. “Tum naxalvaad se desh todoge, hum rashtravaad se jodenge,” they said, criticising the leftist forces and the so-called ‘urban Naxals’ on campus.
Delhi University Student’s Union and ABVP President, Shakti Singh, told DU Beat, “The way in which Hindu deities are being depicted in the syllabus is very unfortunate. The entire left-wing professors and the administration of Delhi University must be held responsible for this. We have written to the Chancellor of DU for the students’ representation in the syllabus-making process, and we demand the administration to bring in a new syllabus considering the demands of the students.”
Faculty members were also present at the protest, to stand in solidarity with the students and present a united front in favour of academic freedom.
Nandita Narain, ex-President of the Delhi University Teacher’s Association (DUTA) and currently a Mathematics professor at St Stephens College, said, “It was absolutely unprecedented that the ABVP was allowed inside the vice-chancellor’s complex. I was president of the DUTA for four years, and I was not allowed inside without appointment. So clearly, there was some instruction from the university administration to allow those people in and that is absolutely shocking. And there is an abdication of all responsibility by the vice-chancellor and his team.”
She reiterated the fact that the syllabus-drafting process is long and democratic and the way it was mocked and interrupted by ABVP and NDTA is wrong. She further added, “The decision of what goes into a syllabus and what doesn’t is an academic exercise, and cannot be done by political interference. That too by one political group which is currently in power and feels that it can take away from history and literature, however it pleases. In no uncertain terms, I’d say that this is the death of our university.”
Abha Dev Habib, a Physics professor at Miranda House and an ex-member of the executive council of DU said that she thinks this will be a long fight. “We really have to keep the fight on and add to the strength if we want to save the university and it’s the autonomy of what will be taught and how,” she added.
The subjects under consideration are undoubtedly and incurably political in nature. Attempting to curb what is being taught in a university on the grounds of nationalism doesn’t only defeat its purpose, but also makes for an ill-informed, improperly equipped – albeit, nationalistic – youth, incapable of discourse and critical thinking. The fact that queerness and historical truths are being dismissed and deemed ‘unfortunate’ threatens the progressive grounds on which Delhi University prides itself.
Education must be prioritised in an educational institution. Academic fervour cannot be compromised on political grounds.
All image credits: Ritul Madhukar