NEVER far from the firing line ever since the Narendra Modi government was installed in 2014, Jawaharlal Nehru University stoked the embers of a possible future conflagration with the decision of its Academic Council to pass a proposal to set up a Centre for National Security Studies. The Centre is likely to have a course on “Islamic terrorism”. The decision upset more than just academics and students on the campus; the Delhi Minorities Commission took suo motu cognisance of the decision. Teachers and students’ unions of other Central universities have called for a rethink on the subject. Even think tanks amenable to Modi expressed dismay at the association of religion with terrorism.
Although many members of the Academic Council opposed the proposal arguing that it was communal in nature, the Chair passed the proposal. Suggesting that the course should be called “religious terrorism”, the members pointed out that association of a particular religion with terrorism was objectionable. An academic from the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies pointed out that the starting of a course on “Islamic terrorism” was not on the agenda for the meeting that passed the proposal. “There were supposed to be talks on attendance, particularly the attendance issues of PhD scholars and how the current rule inconveniences them, but nothing on Islamic terrorism was on the agenda. In the past, deliberations used to go on for hours, even continue into the next day. This time, the Academic Council’s deliberations were over in half an hour. As far as this course/topic is concerned, it was not discussed. There was not even a proper voice vote when it was mentioned towards the end. The meeting should be reconvened. We will oppose any move to link any religion with terrorism. It must not be forgotten that even the United Nations has not defined the term ‘terrorism’. It has prohibited the use of the term terrorism with any religion. The way this entire exercise took place seemed to be aimed at polarisation rather than encouraging any rational study.”
The eminent historian Romila Thapar found the coinage “Islamic terrorism” provocative. She said: “Such a term is provocative, but I have not seen the course content yet.”
The noted sociologist Avijit Pathak said: “I tend to believe that this is absolutely unfortunate and untenable. This attempt to introduce a course on Islamic terrorism is wrong for two reasons. First, the context. The time society is passing through and in which this course is evolved. We are passing through a time when we see an organised attack on liberal society and also an attack on the minorities. This is the time of assertive majoritarianism, which comes with constant humiliation—physical, cultural and psychological—of the minorities. Under such circumstances when such a course is attempted, one begins to suspect that the intention is not academic or pedagogic. It is a deeply political attempt, yet another effort, at stigmatising a particular religious group. Under the circumstances it is introduced, it makes me completely skeptical.
“The second thing is more important to me as a sociologist. I do believe that any kind of violence, terrorism, authoritarianism has to be studied. There is no harm in studying violence. But equating terrorism with a particular religion is ethically and pedagogically wrong. Terrorism has to be contextualised in the larger socio-religious-political context. You have to see under what circumstances a 20-year-old becomes a suicide bomber. What pushes him to this? You have to see all sorts of global politics, global capitalism, imperialism, and a certain kind of reaction to sustained global processes. There are different kinds of expressions and reaction to global politics.
“When you understand terrorism through a larger perspective, you get the complete picture. Then you see religiosity has nothing to do with terror. There is inherent spirituality in every religion. When I read Sarmad, Rumi or the Quran, the only thing that comes to mind is the majesty of the creation. When I read the Upanishads, I see only Tagore’s prayer. Spirituality has nothing to do with any form of violence. Equating terrorism with any religion is essentially wrong. A particular group of people could be wrong, not the faith. You have to see both sides. It is like saying Osama bin Laden and George Bush are two sides of the same coin. I cannot make sense of Osama without a look at American imperialism.”
Incidentally, the draft of the proposal was prepared by a four-member committee headed by Ajay Kumar Dubey, a professor of the Centre for African Studies.
Among the first to react from the student community was the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) president, Geeta Kumari, who said: “In a deeply problematic and shocking move, the JNU VC also allowed the tabling of a course/topic on ‘Islamic Terrorism’ under the Centre for National Security Studies. This grotesque propaganda of Islamophobia in the name of academic courses is deeply problematic. It seems the RSS-BJP’s election propaganda material will be prepared through these courses rather than studying the nature of terrorism in general.”
It is not yet clear whether the university is scheduled to have a new course called Islamic terrorism or will introduce it only as a topic of study. But the move stirred a hornet’s nest. Geeta Kumari got support from her Aligarh Muslim University counterparts. The AMU Students’ Union wrote to Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar seeking his urgent intervention in the matter. Asking for the cancellation of the course/topic, the students’ union expressed shock at the move to give a religious colour to terrorism. “It reflects their deep-rooted agenda to malign a specific religion.... The very title of the course informs us how appallingly distant it is from the essential spirit of the university,” the letter stated.
Weighing in, the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind general secretary, Maulana Mahmood Madani, also wrote to the JNU VC, calling the decision ill-conceived and saying it was likely to hurt the sentiments of not just Muslims but all those who respect all religions. “Labelling any religion with the epithet of terrorism is the ultimate insult. It is condemnable,” Madani said.
Surprisingly, the Forum for Muslim Studies and Analysis, which has sung along with the government on issues such as cow slaughter, struck a note critical of the move. It wrote to the Minister asking him to intervene and prevent the JNU administration from naming the course as Islamic terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Minorities Commission issued a notice to the registrar of the university seeking to know the reason for the proposal to start a course on “Islamic terrorism”. It asked the registrar to explain the basis on which the course was being started. It asked the university administration whether there was any concept paper or proposal to introduce such a course. “Has the administration of JNU considered the implications of introducing this subject on its students and on the broader society outside?” it asked. It also sought a complete list of members present at the Academic Council meeting which passed the proposal and asked if it was put to vote.
The noted author Dilip Hiro differentiated, more than 15 years ago, between the meanings of the words “Islamic” and “Islamist”. Writing in A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle-East , Hiro said: “The term Islamic is an adjective as applied to Islam which contains both culture/morals/ethics and politics. Over time most journalists found the term Islamic fundamentalism (or terrorism) clunky, and therefore a new term Islamism was coined in the way of capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. That is, Islam in Islamism stands for political Islam. By that token, all jehadist groups subscribe to Islamism.”
Prof. Pathak summed it up: “In sociology we do talk of terrorism. In history too we do, but an attempt to have a course on ‘Islamic terrorism’ with a background of one religion is something I do not approve of.”
The eminent historian Bipan Chandra used the term “revolutionary terrorists” while referring to the likes of Bhagat Singh and Surya Sen in his book India’s Struggle for Independence . When he wrote this book, the expression “revolutionary terrorist” did not have a pejorative meaning. Bhagat Singh’s nephew Jagmohan Singh found nothing wrong with the term. But today, as Prof. Pathak pointed out: “the circumstances are different. The minorities are being pushed into a corner. Hence, to start a course called Islamic Terrorism is wrong ethically, academically, pedagogically, and under the circumstances it is done, it is meant to stigmatise a particular community. It is meant to cause psychic humiliation of a community. It has political motives. It cannot be approved.”