Student Protests May Bring ‘Strong Nationalism’


 

We can hear several news of students protests in India against government policies or amendment acts. An ideology of nationalism will be framed at end of such protests among students. Student Protests may bring ‘Strong Nationalism’ in India. 

Students should be studying, not protesting – is a comment that is heard every time campuses across India, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia recently, erupt into protests. Indian students who question the Narendra Modi regime and its policies like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act are instantly branded ‘anti-Nationals’ and ‘urban Naxals’. But protests aren’t the trademark of ‘Leftist bastions’ only, as is clear from student protests in every other campus and every other town in India. It is a moment to remind ourselves that even the students of the first university in the world weren’t afraid to speak their mind and question their ‘masters’. From its very inception as an institutional form, the university has been marked by student power and student agitations. And it has always been a space that goes beyond a nation’s borders and its government.

The oldest university of the world, the University of Bologna, set up in 1088, was a student-controlled university. Students traveled to Bologna from all across Europe, organised themselves into ‘nations’, because they were often foreigners to the city and needed to protect themselves from discrimination and persecution by local people. They themselves made the rules of university administration, to which the masters had to conform. Each ‘nation’ elected its own Councillor, and Councillors together elected the rector.

In France, unlike in Italy, the university started as an organisation of masters. And yet, student agitations were common and especially successful in the 14th century, when students gained representation in university governments and influenced curricula.

The point of citing this history is not only to remind ourselves that student power is not incidental to the university but actually inherent in its institutional history. But more importantly, it is to remind ourselves that historically, the university has always exceeded the nation as a mental horizon and structure of governance.

The university’s relationship with nationalism, therefore, is necessarily fraught, given that nationalism, if anything, is about borders and border policing. But while it is possible to police the movement of humans, it is far more difficult to police ideas. Ideas cross borders with greater ease than even money and capital. The university in principle is meant to be an embodied institutional form of this infinite mobility and diversity of ideas.

But unlike in earlier times of the university as a corporation, the modern university as we know it today emerged in the early 19th century in tandem and tension with nationalism, a history that continues to traumatize us even today.

The university’s relationship with nationalism, therefore, is necessarily fraught, given that nationalism, if anything, is about borders and border policing. But while it is possible to police the movement of humans, it is far more difficult to police ideas. Ideas cross borders with greater ease than even money and capital. The university in principle is meant to be an embodied institutional form of this infinite mobility and diversity of ideas.

It is not entirely surprising then that today most people cannot imagine the university except as a holy seat of nationalism, putting paid to the imagination of a seamless and borderless universe of ideas. But let us not forget that even in the heyday of India’s nationalism, when nationalists boycotted colonial institutions, including colleges and universities, and set up national institutions of higher learning, there was still an intense debate in India about whether the world of ideas can ever be fitted into a national and nationalist framework.

The most famous dissenting voice, who found nationalism to be dangerous to the cause of knowledge, was none other than Rabindranath Tagore, who translated the word ‘university’ as ‘visva bharati’. That is what he named his university in Shantiniketan, ‘the abode of calm’. In his 1923 Declaration, Tagore said, in his characteristic poetic style, that Visva Bharati was ‘where the world makes its home in a single nest’. Scholars, he said, were pilgrims who travelled many paths and not just the straight and narrow of nationalism. It’s time India realises that.


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