Students and Scholars as agents of coercive force in the populist and (resurging) authoritarian states

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The Existing ‘Mis-Perception’

Since the ‘third wave’ of democratization, beginning in the mid-1970s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, both scholars and political commentators focused on student activism as drivers of democratic transitions.

Among development practitioners, higher education is considered vital for expanding middle classes, which are still seen as a catch-all remedy to cure democratic deficits – mainly in the so-called ‘Global South’ – and for countries to develop into and stabilize as liberal democratic societies. Thus, universities have traditionally been conceptualized as spaces and institutions par excellence for pluralistic democratic societies to become realized.

However, this narrative does not represent the complete picture. We will present a series of cases depicting universities, faculties and students play an effective role in the emergence, consolidation, and perseverance of the populist and autocratic regimes and their coercive state practices.

In articulating that, we deconstruct common and simplified narratives about higher education institutes and students as democratic stabilizers. We argue that populism and authoritarianism resurged not despite growing middle classes but also because of them.


South Asia

Last year, in mid-July, during the highly infectious Covid-19 pandemic, police in Bangladesh’s northern district Rangpur arrested a 28 female, Sirajum Munira. Munira was not a usual criminal; she was a university lecturer at the Department of Bangla in Begum Rokeya University (BRU). Her crime was to mock a former Health Minister of the ruling party, the Awami League’s (AL) Mohammad Nasim, on Facebook, referring to corruption allegations during his 2014-2019 tenure as Health Minister.

Although Munira was quick to apologise and delete her one-line Facebook status, realizing it has offended the ruling party activists and faculties, her status screenshot continued to circulate on Facebook. What follows after that was a nightmare for Munira.

A student leader of the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chatro League (BCL), and the BRU administration filed a case against Munira under the – labelled by Amnesty International as ‘draconian’ – Digital Security Act (DSA) that may put her in jail for up to 14 years. Munira was arrested and sent to prison. Many of her colleagues and faculties from other public universities in the country, as well as BCL student activists, have expressed their support for the arrest.

In court, the local police chief reportedly said that Munira’s post, “went viral and created negative reactions and undermined the image of the country.” Munira is out of jail now as the High Court granted her bail, but she remains temporarily suspended.

This phenomenon of authoritarian states using hegemonic power to maintain the “image of the country” through coercion and its networked support base of public universities is not unique to Bangladesh.

The Free to Think 2020 report of the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR) found that in India, the world’s largest democracy, Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party enjoy widespread support from faculties and students in Indian universities. Consequently, scholars and students who attempt to protest the regime’s Hindu nationalist agenda are silenced by force or through disciplinary measures by their peers.

In December 2019, during protests against Modi’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), students were attacked in Delhi University, Jamia Millia University and Aligarh Muslim University by police and the regime’s student supporters in December 2019.

The SAR Network recorded that through spring and summer of 2020, state authorities and the university administrations took a series of retaliatory actions against protesting students. A growing number of students and scholars were arrested and prosecuted under India’s Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act (UAPA) enacted by the Parliament in 1967.

The Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Urdu Arabi-Farsi University expelled a history student and three international students from Germany, Bangladesh and Poland for supporting the CAA protest.

In Pakistan, it is a known phenomenon that university administrations, students tied with religious groups and government regularly attack higher education communities. The cases of Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, who was fired from three Pakistani universities and facing sedition charge organizing democratic protests, and Junaid Hafeez, a former lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University is held in solitary confinement since 2014 and facing the death penalty for ‘verbally insulting Prophet and Quran’ after being framed by his students are chilling examples of how higher education communities thwart academic freedom.


 Asia, Russia and Latin America

In China, universities are reportedly enshrining Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control in their charters and downgrading or erasing academic freedom.  According to a report, at least 109 Chinese universities adopted the CCP charter. The same report states that CCP student activists are now effectively monitoring and surveying class lectures and reporting critical lecturers or materials to the state authorities. As a result, scholars and students now tend to avoid addressing sensitive issues.

Elsewhere, academics and students also act as mediums to tighten the grips of authoritarian or populist governments. For example, the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the Putin youth in Russia play an essential role in maintaining authoritarian regimes. After the failed coup in 2016, thousands of academics were fired and persecuted in Turkey, while informal pro-AKP academic and student networks have tightened the government’s grips in many universities. The most recent example was Melih Bulu’s appointment as rector of the Istanbul-based Boğaziçi University, a professor and politician close to the AKP.


The Transnational Reach of the Authoritarian Regimes

Universities in the West, too, are often targeted by agents of authoritarian regimes. For example, in Australia, many scholars feel intimidated by CCP supporters and think twice before discussing issues sensitive to the Chinese government, including Tibet, Xinxiang and now Hongkong.

Several Australian universities have seen violent clashes between the supporters of democracy in Hongkong and student supporters of the CCP. It has become a delicate problem for Australian universities. They have relied heavily on revenues from Chinese students’ fees over the past years, while government funds for research dwindled. There are also growing concerns over “project[s] between Chinese universities and Australian researchers that have potential military and surveillance use,” says an article published in the Nature. Again, this is not unique to Australian universities. Previously, it was revealed that the London School of Economics signed a controversial £2.2 million deal for training ‘civil servants’ and ‘professionals’ for Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime.


Overreach by “far left” activism

In other Universities, mainly in the US and Europe, free speech appears at risk from another side, the so-called cancel culture as a reaction to the recent rise of right-wing populism. In Germany, for example, left-oriented students and student organisations appear to increasingly overreach in their activism, effectively restricting speech on campus. In 2015, a group of unknown students at Humboldt-University in Berlin set up a watch blog titled ‘Racism, Sexism, Militarism’ to monitor the conservative Professor Herfried Münkler’s purported transgressions in his teaching. In 2017, student groups and faculty members successfully pressured the administration of Frankfurt’s Goethe University to call off a talk by the police union’s head Rainer Wendt. In April 2019, Professor Susanne Schröter, who invited Rainer Wendt, was accused of ‘anti-Muslim racism’ after she organized a critical panel discussion on the Muslim headscarf at the same university. Students demanded the ethnographer’s and Islam expert’s dismissal. And, most prominently, in October 2019, the University of Hamburg dominated the news when Professor Bernd Lucke, former (founding) member of the right-wing party AfD, was repeatedly prevented from teaching his introductory lecture on macroeconomics while being berated as a ‘Nazi’ and being physically harassed. Examples such as these can be found across the US and Europe.

However, one needs to be careful not to appropriate far-right talking points sensing an ‘opinion dictatorship’ (Meinungsdiktatur) at Western universities. After all, concentrated forms of activism, also against professors, have been part of student political culture at least since the 1960s and 1970s, which, in part, spearheaded and facilitated many progressive societal and political transformations. Hence, its occasionally uncomfortable manifestations in the form of a ‘left populism’, particularly in times of political polarization, should not be overstated in its risk to liberal democracy. However, a recent study conducted at Goethe University Frankfurt has revealed certain ‘conformity pressures on campus’. While left-leaning students tend to favour ‘restricting speech’ and ‘controversial viewpoints’, right-leaning students are more likely to ‘self-censor’. These findings should at least spark a debate on some of the aberrations in student activism in relation to political pluralism, free speech and censorship in Western academia.


What’s next?

As we have shown, university campuses are central spaces for political contestation and mobilization across the world. Instead of focusing exclusively on the students’ quality for democratic resistance against external authoritarian (state) pressure, we also propose to acknowledge students’ and scholars’ proclivity to act as agents or coercive force for authoritarian regimes or populist movements. Authoritarianism and Populism in the 21st century are ever more intellectualized and legitimized by the support of (former) students and scholars of higher educational institutions. Hence, to understand these ‘new’ regimes, one needs to look closely at its universities political networks, power relations and political manifestations . Most importantly, we should be wary of assuming a romanticised view of university students’ and scholars’ propensity for an (idealized) democratic liberalism.



***This article has been updated on 25.08.2021

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