Left Domination On Campuses: How The Indian Situation Mirrors Trends In The US

Left Domination On Campuses: How The Indian Situation Mirrors Trends In The USCPI leader Brinda Karat, D. Raja, JNU students, professors and CPI party members protest at JNU Campus in 2016 (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Recent research shows that top US universities are dominated by Left-liberals who decidedly owe allegiance to the Democrats.

    And it is they who cleverly set the agenda on world academic discourse, elbowing out all those who differ from their world-view.

    In a country like India, where anything western is ‘credible’, it is these biased voices that hold the ace of spades on campus.

Recent incidents of aggressive student protests and the cycle of violence accompanying it is being touted as a harbinger of a great social revolution.

Some commentators have drawn parallels with the grassroot movements during the Emergency, others have seen the co-option of primarily ‘Muslim’ concerns related to CAB or NRC with larger issues of confronting Hindutva being similar to the Khilafat movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920.

It is fairly obvious to any thinking individual that painting a law that ensures justice for persecuted minorities from India’s neighbourhood as ‘anti-Muslim’ is pure hypocrisy.

And dishonest attempts to undermine the legitimate sovereign right of a state to create and maintain a register of its citizens, irrespective of which faith they belong to stops just short of treason.

But more importantly, it is critical to recognise that assertions of ‘impending revolution’ based on the nuisance created by some students and mobs is essentially hyperbole.

The truth that a hysterical left-liberal media seems to miss is that the protests have been limited to a few campuses amongst hundreds across the country.

But the focus of this piece is something more specific that has emerged for all this noise and mobs on the street.

A few pertinent questions that should immediately spring to any inquiring mind are why have these specific few universities, and certain departments belonging to Social Science and Humanities disciplines emerged as centres of manufactured dissent representing largely left-wing perspectives and causes?

And why is there such a preponderance of leftists in these universities and departments?

In trying to answer these questions, one has to understand that this gradual erosion of a balanced narrative and ideological capture of social science and humanities by a left oriented cabal of academics is not an isolated phenomenon limited to India alone, but extends across much of the English-speaking world, i.e. US, Canada, UK, and Australia.

Since the intellectual cues, and much needed credibility of much of the English speaking academia comes from direct or indirect association with prestigious US institutions, the gradual leftist domination of Humanities and Social Science faculties in major US universities over the last three decades has strengthened the leftist bias in Indian Social Science and Humanities institutions.

The mechanism by which a left oriented academia captured and distorted the academic narrative in premier Indian institutions is much discussed-Arun Shourie’s Eminent Historians-Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud is one comprehensive analysis.

A very good summary analysis can be found in the article ‘A History of Tolerance’ by Surajit Dasgupta published in Swarajya.

I would like to focus on the US story, which is less known to Indian readers, in fact it is a taboo subject largely avoided in US campuses and mainstream media as well. The reasons for this focus on the US story are four-fold.

First, as already mentioned, leading US universities, with their huge intellectual reputations and funding budgets provide intellectual credibility to those associated with it.

Second, the US academia acts as influencers to the global media. Their perspectives on Indian ‘secularism’ or Israeli ‘aggression’ echo across the world.

Third, this linkage between the US academia and their counterparts in places like India creates an eco-system of patronage available to those who are better at toeing a certain ideological orientation.

Finally, a disproportionate number of the global ‘elite’ get educated in the US campuses, and the ideological convictions and ideas they get exposed to can have a significant impact on policies.

Democracy and Intolerance

Samuel Abrams, Professor of Political Science at Sarah Lawrence University in New York State, has dealt with the issue of ideological bias and its impact in US universities. After an article penned by Abrams critiquing the increasingly one-sided narrative on campus appeared in the New York Times in October 2018, he was attacked by student mobs, he and his family physically threatened, and he was labelled a ‘racist misogynist’.

Demands for Abrams’ removal from his tenured academic position soon emerged. When he looked to his fellow academics for support, he found very few willing to stand up.

All the rhetoric of free-speech, democracy, and diversity of views magically dried up.

All those who have followed the academic debate and culture in JNU (and others like AMU, Jamia, and Jadavpur) will find none of this surprising. Suppressing ideas that dissented with the ideological predilections of the Leftist core in the Social Sciences and Humanities had always been the norm.

It was, as in the case with Abrams, not enough to suppress and systematically undermine non-conformist ideas and stifle debate, but personally tar the individual with labels, subject them to emotional abuse, and even resort to physical intimidation.

Rising tide of the Left

It is with this context that the evidence on this ideological takeover needs to be understood in India. Let us start with a paper by Mitchell Langbert, Anthony Quain, and Daniel Klein published in Econ Journal Watch in September 2016.

Using voter registration data, the authors find that the faculties in top 40 US universities were overwhelming Democrat. In many departments, there were hardly any registered Republican faculty members. The concentration of Democrats (and absence of Republicans) were especially telling in some of the more prominent universities.

Of course, voting Democrat does not mean one is essentially left leaning. Many centrists and right-of-centre voters could be committed democrats and registered as such. This has been addressed in the work done by Abrams.

Abrams uses the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey database of the UCLA where undergraduate faculty members from across US universities self-identify their ideological leaning on a five-point scale, i.e. Far-left, Liberal, Moderate, Conservative, and Far-right. The HERI database, thus, minimizes subjectivity.

Abrams findings are eye-popping. Left-liberals outnumber Conservatives six-to-one in the overall faculty count. In the Left-liberal academic bastions in New England, this ratio increases to 28 liberals to one conservative. Taken together, the studies by Langbert et al. and Abrams point to an erosion of ideological and political balance within US academia.

The overwhelming presence of left leaning faculty members is even more pronounced in the Social Science and Humanities, with business, engineering, and natural science faculties having much greater balance.

The fact that the domination of leftists in American academia on an average is accentuated by a discipline factor, i.e. over-representation in certain departments-as Langbert et al. point out, there are examples of departments in Social Science and Humanities with no Republicans.

It is also substantially accentuated by a regional factor-as Abrams findings underline that New England elite institutions are overwhelmingly Left-Liberal.

This essentially means that ideological preponderance of the Left liberals is not merely a ‘natural fall out’ of the more educated tending to become liberal as opposed to conservative.

Since faculties other than Social Science and Humanities have greater representation of Conservatives and even moderates, as do the relatively ‘less prominent’ institutions, especially if not located in the New England and East Coast of the US, this is strong evidence of ideological capture of certain faculties over time.

The situation is not dissimilar from India. Here too, leftists are over-represented in the Social Sciences and Humanities, and tend to form overwhelming majorities in certain universities such as JNU, Jadavpur, Hyderabad, TISS to just name a few.

AMU and Jamia represent more of an alliance between minority identity politics and the left rather than a clear case of identification with leftist ideology.

The result of this kind of single ideology domination can be dangerous for genuine academic rigour, intellectual diversity, and democratic debate on campus.

As Langbert et al. points out ‘once the apex of the disciplinary pyramid becomes predominately left-leaning, it will sweep left-leaners into positions throughout the pyramid (or, at least, it will exclude vibrant dissenters).

At the micro level of a particular university department — no matter where in the pyramid — once it has a majority of left-leaners, it will, in serving, enjoying, protecting, advancing, and purifying sacred values, tend to hire more left-leaners (or at least not vibrant dissenters)’.

This then becomes a self-sustaining vicious cycle, with departments and faculty members becoming increasingly left-leaning, and tending even further towards the left over time.

The student body is then exposed to a uni-dimensional narrative which becomes received wisdom in the absence of credible alternative voices.

These ideological preferences would be reflected on what is considered to be the correct form of engagement in non-academic pursuits as well, whether activism, student politics, culture and arts.

Departure from this ideological consensus would then be treated as an attack on the institution itself, and its students and faculty members since the institution/department and vast majority of the students have self-identified themselves ideologically.

This is exactly what is happening in JNU and Jadavpur, but with an important caveat. In both these institutions, there are a large number of students, especially in departments other than Social Sciences and Humanities, who do not want to be associated with these Leftist groups and want to pursue their academic careers.

They are being prevented from doing so by an ‘activist’ mob of student “dissenters”.

Anyone opposing this ideological consensus would have to be put down and effectively neutralised. This then is an ‘Abrahamic’ world where truth resides in the confines of one book or a set of ideologies, and all ‘unbelievers’ must be rejected with vehemence.

The only way for someone with an alternative world-view to survive is to keep their head down and try to get along with the ideological consensus or face exclusion or worse. In other words, accept intellectual ‘dhimmitude’.

The consequences of such ideologically motivated exclusion are stark. As Abrams, based on his own personal experiences as faculty in Sarah Lawrence University puts it: ‘when faculty in the Social Sciences can no longer have open discussions among themselves about political issues because dissent from a particular ideological stance is treated as treason, then what kind of political extremism and intolerance will we breed among our students?’

Looking at the shrill voices emanating from the student body leadership in JNU and Jadavpur, willing to give space and respectability to practitioners of political violence in the name of Islam or Leftist ultras in order to push their political agendas, and willingly indulge in half-truths and innuendoes about CAB and NRC to instigate communal insecurity, I think we have the answer to Abrams rhetorical question about the extent of intolerance being inculcated.

Unless we seriously work towards real intellectual freedom on campuses, and focus on allowing multiple ideologies to co-exist and flourish, we will not develop the type of scholarship that India as a nation deserves.

Genuine dissent and debate are very different things from the politically motivated manufactured dissent we are witnessing today.

Having a truly democratic environment would mean that both the right and the left would have legitimate intellectual space on campuses, and have the scope for engaging in debate.

This would also require the faculty to have far greater ideological diversity. The process of academic ‘detoxification’ would be long-drawn and difficult, and care would need to be taken that one dogma is not simply replaced by another.

But this is the only way forward to reclaim our universities and make them what they were intended to become — centres for learning and enablers of new ideas that challenge and change society for the better.


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