I met Sandeep Pandey days after he was sacked from his position as a visiting professor at a prestigious technical institute at Banaras Hindu University. We sat in a dreary guesthouse on the university campus. Mr. Pandey had just finished a long train ride. With his wrinkled kurta pajama and rubber slippers, he was every bit the picture of an old-fashioned Indian leftist.
That was why he’d been fired. “Ideologically, I am at the opposite extreme to the people who are at present in power,” he said. “These people not only cannot tolerate any dissent; they don’t even tolerate disagreement. They want everybody who disagrees with them out of this campus.” Mr. Pandey was referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and — more to the point — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the B.J.P.’s cultural fountainhead.
The R.S.S., a Hindu nationalist organization, was founded in 1925 as a muscular alternative to Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement. Its founder admired Adolf Hitler, and in 1948 the organization was blamed for indirectly inspiring Gandhi’s assassination. The B.J.P. has not always had an easy relationship with the R.S.S. With its fanciful ideas of Hindu purity and its sweeping range of prejudices, the organization is dangerously out of step with the realities of India’s political landscape. When the B.J.P. wants to win an election, it usually distances itself from the R.S.S.’s cultural agenda.
Mr. Modi’s 2014 election had very little to do with the R.S.S. and everything to do with his personality and promises of development. But the R.S.S. doesn’t see it that way. Like a fairy-tale dwarf, the group has sought to extract its due from the man it helped into power. As payment for the debt, the R.S.S. wants control of education. Specifically, it wants to install its men at the helm of universities where they will wreak vengeance on the traditionally left-wing intellectual establishment that has always held them in contempt.
At a prestigious film institute, students are protesting the appointment of a president whose only qualification, they feel, is a willingness to advance the R.S.S.’s agenda. The group’s members have met with the education minister in the hope of shaping education policy; in states that the B.J.P. controls, the R.S.S. has been putting forward the names of underqualified ideologues for advisory positions on the content of textbooks and curriculums. It has also sought to put those who share its ideology at the head of important cultural institutions, such as the Indian Council of Historical Research.
This is the background to Mr. Pandey’s dismissal. His new boss, Girish Chandra Tripathi, the vice chancellor, is an R.S.S. man. The Ministry of Education helped push through his appointment after Mr. Modi’s election. One B.H.U. professor, who wished not to be named, described Mr. Tripathi as “an academic thug with no qualifications.” (He was previously a professor of economics.)
The new vice chancellor soon turned on Mr. Pandey. “It was all engineered,” Mr. Pandey said to me. First, the professor said, he was denounced by a student. Then a local news website printed a bogus story accusing him of being part of an armed guerrilla movement. (Mr. Pandey, a Gandhian, opposes all violence.) Soon after, the technical institute’s board of governors decided, on Mr. Tripathi’s recommendation, that he be fired. He is an alumnus of the university and a mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He has won awards for his social work. None of this made a difference. He was given a month to clear out.
I thought I should speak to the vice chancellor. He was out of town, but came on the telephone. The mention of “Sandeep Pandey” was like a trigger. He told me that Mr. Pandey had questioned whether Kashmir was an integral part of India and he had tried to screen the banned documentary “India’s Daughter,” which deals with the infamous gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a physiotherapy student in New Delhi in 2012.
I must not have seemed sufficiently appalled. Mr. Tripathi tried a different tack. He said, on hearing of my connection to an American publication, “Tell me, can you, being a professor in America, criticize the American government?” Yes, I answered. He tried again. “Can you,” he thundered down the line, “being a professor in America, teach what is against America’s interests?” I remembered a professor at Amherst College, my alma mater, who had once compared George W. Bush to Osama bin Laden. “Probably,” I said. “Well, maybe you can in America,” he said with disgust. “But you can’t do it in India.”
I had one last question. I had seen the vice chancellor recently at a religious event celebrating the university’s centenary, where the presiding pundit had claimed that ancient India possessed the science of gestational surrogacy. “We had these technologies, too,” the pundit said, “but over the course of a thousand years of slavery we forgot them. Or, rather, we were made to forget them.” Mr. Pandey, a man of science, had told me that Mr. Tripathi and his ilk were of the same mind as the pundit and even believed ancient India had possessed aircraft and ballistic missiles.
I had to ask. Did the vice chancellor really believe this? “I still say it,” he said defensively. I asked him to explain further. He said this was not a conversation to be had on the telephone. He would show me all the evidence later. The line went dead.
The problem with the vice chancellor is not just that he is right-wing. It is that he is unqualified for his position. This was never more apparent than in his total inability to grasp the value of dissent at an institution of learning.
Mr. Pandey has spent a lifetime working among some of India’s most voiceless people. It was sinister in the extreme that he should be dismissed for being “anti-national.” And that term is being bandied about far too much by the R.S.S. and its allies these days. The R.S.S.’s student wing at the University of Hyderabad recently smeared a 26-year-old doctoral student from a low-caste background as “anti-national” for his activism. The university decided to ban him from all public spaces. Earlier this month he committed suicide.
The R.S.S. has always been more of a liability for Mr. Modi than an asset. The organization has been waiting to introduce its radical agenda on the cultural and academic landscape in place of the Modi government’s promise of development. If Mr. Modi gives them an opening, they will bury him. They will reduce his broad mandate to the hysteria of a few. And, in the bargain, they will do immeasurable harm to the capacious idea of what it means to be Indian.
Aatish Taseer is the author, most recently, of the novel The Way Things Were, and a contributing opinion writer.