US campuses are showing signs of recovering from the events of the past few stormy months of Leftist protest against Israeli action in Gaza. Assuming that total normalcy will be restored once universities shut down in the next few days for summer recess, the question is: what did the students achieve by causing severe disruption to academic life in the hallowed Columbia University and many other reputed centres of learning across the nation?

A positive outcome of the demonstrations — a few of which have been less than peaceful — seems to be an eloquent reiteration of the power of freedom of academic thought and expression. This is reminiscent of the Vietnam protests in the late 1960s.

In the context of a burgeoning educational sector there are implications as well for Indian universities, such as JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, et al. which have a history of student unrest and campus violence. What is ironical is that in many instances the active involvement of students in concert with the teaching faculty on non-academic controversies has exacerbated an already troubled scenario.

Opinion is strongly divided over the right to demonstrate within campuses. The question is whether the lure of free expression can be allowed get the better of a majority desire in favour of learning in a peaceful environment. The problem is that a strong and vociferous section of students and teaching staff firmly believe that it is their divine right to protest even in matters that do not immediately affect them.

Political colour

Unlike in the US campus happenings in India very often take on a political hue. The principal actors in such a setting are political parties which want to exploit every situation to gain a few brownie points for the simple purpose of embarrassing the political party in power. A sequel is uninhibited violence at the behest of political parties fomenting trouble from outside.

Amidst the recent campus happenings in Columbia and other places in the US there is possibly an unintended gain in the form of a greater acceptance of the two nation theory that remains an anathema to the influential Jewish lobby in the US.

A strong Jewish presence both in private industry and in higher education has undoubtedly made a difficult situation more complex.

Role of police

Against this backdrop one important feature of the scene across nations is often ignored. My reference is to a disappointing lack of appreciation of the role of law enforcement agencies in protecting campus order.

A decision to call in the local police to quell disturbances swiftly and restore sanity to the process of academic learning adds a new dimension to the conflict. Some University Presidents have picked up enough courage to call in the local cops to handle disorderly demonstrators, who included sizeable numbers of the faculty as well.

Such strong action has been thoughtlessly resented by many armchair critics who are blind to the need to control the situation and bring back peace.

Every university in the US has a Campus Police. Its strength varies from university to university. This force has often been found unequal to tackling major incidents. They are either passive or act unimaginatively, thereby inviting student and faculty wrath.

Many problems arise from a decision to request the presence of the local police inside a campus. The latter are often accused of being harsh and rude, even to the faculty. Apart from students many members of the public also join the fray and are uncharitably critical of the police for an alleged use of excessive force.

Critics are indifferent to the fact that once the police enter a campus you cannot fetter their hands and prescribe limits of operation. In a pressure cooker situation like this you will have to necessarily put up with overreaction, especially when the student mob itself is violent. We have seen this happening in institutions like JNU, Jamia Millia, et al. Is there a solution at all to this intricate problem? I am not aware of any. No law will be adequate.

More rigorous police training can help a little. What is required more is a sense of moderation on the part of students and University administration. The former should realise that freedom and protest cannot be at the cost of the majority who demand tranquility to pursue their genuine academic interests. This is easier said than done.

The writer is a former CBI Director and a former High Commissioner of India to Cyprus

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