During a visit to Dehradun, I met a woman who teaches law at one of the many private institutions in the city. I wondered if he censored himself in the classroom in polarized India. At the end of our discussion, I asked: would his faculty invite activist-lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj for a lecture on human rights? No, she said. Or will human rights activists like Gautam Navlakha speak on Kashmir? No, Kapil Sibal? He said, ‘He is in the opposition.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party rules Uttarakhand, lawyer Harish Salve shouldn’t be a problem, I suggested. He retorted, “Salve would be invited for his legal knowledge, not ideology.” What about Aakar Patel of Amnesty International, who came under attack from the central government? “Not a chance,” he replied. Her answers were notable for their honesty as she sees herself not as a professor but as a “facilitator of an alternate reality”.
Students come to college with a sense of reality inherited largely from parents. In a sense, schools do not teach students to question. He said that his mission was to expose them to the many realities of India, to make them adept at differentiating between prejudices and “evidence-based reality”. She cited examples of how she teaches various subjects, of which I’ll pick one here – Some states have laws against religious conversion.
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She said she would lecture on the laws made against apostasy in the past and compare them with the new laws, the constitutional provision on the right to propagate one’s religion, the idea of secularism. “But I will not tell them which party is saying what and why. If students ask for my opinion, I will say that I am too young to have an opinion,” she said.
Fear seems to have seeped into the classrooms.
Blame it on mobiles, for sentences pulled from a lecture and posted out of context on social media can lead to an uproar, he said. Fearing the displeasure of the government, a private institution will sack a teacher on the charge of hurting public sentiment.
Next, I contacted a sociologist, for whom the socio-political climate implies constructive responses to the sensitivities of students. For example, diving deep into history to explain why certain social groups eat beef. His students at another university, where he taught before coming to Dehradun, used to raise eyebrows when they saw him eating chicken burgers on Navratri. He explained to them that the rules of Vaishnavism were different from those of Shaktism, and advised them to go to a Bengali colony on Durga Puja. Bengalis were surprised to see the delicious mutton dishes, they realized that Hindus were not culturally homogeneous.
Would it be unwise for them to justify their dietary choice as a democratic right?
Sociology students justify their joy over the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, as Kashmiris never “identified with us”. They replied, “What is it we and they?” He told them to go to Kashmir and fathom the process of others. Five of them did. He returned there a week later to express his horror at the ubiquitous presence of security forces, found the Kashmiris hospitable, and felt that the media narrative on the Valley was dry. However, the sociologist acknowledged, “There is more political negativity in the classrooms now than in the past. Students are reluctant to listen to views they oppose.”
I turned to a young lecturer in media studies at a public university, which is more socially diverse than private institutions because of reservations. How would she teach caste discrimination, or the meaning of Brahminical Hinduism? Before every class, she asks the students whether they think caste discrimination exists. Different views are expressed, essentially sensitizing the class to listen to views some people may like. He recalled a fierce debate on whether reservation should be extended to the economically weaker sections. “But by and large, students are very conscious of not hurting their peers,” she said. Some relief, that.
At a chatty cafe, I met a group of academics. Railing against social media, a historian said students cite questionable sources from the Internet to refute him during lectures. Once he was asked what he thought of “that heavenly book”. The historian advised, “Why that word? Why can’t you say Quran?” He and others complained about schools not equipping students with the skills to question narratives emanating from myriad sources.
A young school teacher said that during a discussion on demonetisation, he cited Reserve Bank of India figures to counter some senior students, who insisted that “Modiji” had successfully tackled the menace of black money. After this there were whispers in Doon that the school was against the BJP. An educationist spoke about the pressure on schools to show Modi’s Pariksha Pe Charcha program to students. Data is sought on the caste, religious and gender composition of the students. He said, ‘The same government refuses to conduct the census.’
I asked him whether any private university here would invite historian Ramachandra Guha, who did his schooling in Dehradun, to deliver a lecture on democracy. “No way,” he said, for universities would be afraid of offending the government.
It’s time to rewrite rock band Pink Floyd’s iconic line: Hey, leave them teachers alone.
The writer is a senior journalist
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