In a disturbing development, the Telegraph reported that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has sent a letter to all higher educational institutions (HEIs) “requesting” them to identify a faculty/non-faculty member who will be responsible for “connect[ing] all the students’ Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts with the HEI’s Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts, as well as the MHRD’s Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts”. Several academics have expressed their fear that this information will be used to profile students on the basis of their perceived ideological leanings, and filter them out during faculty interviews, the report said.

The letter (available on The Quint’s website here) was sent on July 3, 2019 by the Secretary of the Department of Higher Education, R Subrahmanyam. This instruction is expected to cover around 900 universities and 40,000 colleges in the country, per the Telegraph report. The directive concerns all HEIs, both government and private, Subrahmanyam told MediaNama.

What does the letter say?

The letter states that this move aims to “connect all the higher educational institutions with each other, and with MHRD, so as to share their achievements using the social media platforms”. To that end, HEIs have to identify a faculty/non-faculty member as the institute’s “Social Media Champion” (SMC) by July 31. This SMC will:

  1. Communicate with all other HEIs and MHRD the “good work done by the institution and their students from time to time”
  2. Open, if required, and operate Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts of the HEI
  3. Connect them to Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts of other HEIs, and those of the MHRD
  4. Connect all students’ Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts with the HEI’s and MHRD’s
  5. Publicise at least one “positive” story/event by their HEI every week on social media
  6. Retweet other HEI’s positive stories “so that their students and stakeholders can learn from the success stories of other institutions”

Problems with such a ‘request’: MediaNama’s take

The MHRD’s ostensible effort to promote conversation among India’s HEIs is laudable. However, the insistence on inserting itself within all those already public conversations warrants suspicion. And adding individual students to the mix is problematic, to say the least. While the other functions are still somewhat explainable, it is function number 4 that has already begun to attract negative attention, and justifiably so.

Subrahmanyam told MediaNama in an email that it is not compulsory for students to share their social media accounts with their HEI and/or the MHRD. “They need not share if they don’t want to,” he wrote. On the point of surveillance and persecution of students critical of the current government, he wrote, “This is only for sharing the good news. Anyone who understands how social media works would know that sharing of Twitter handles would not enable accessing the accounts. This is elementary knowledge.”

It is alright for the MHRD to say that students will link their social media accounts to MHRD’s voluntarily. However, in practice, the power equation between a university/college and a student is so unequal that a student’s consent may not always be given of his/her free will.

While it is undoubtedly true that following students’ Twitter/Facebook/Instagram accounts via the HEI official accounts would not result in access to private content, it would create a ready list for the MHRD to look at. At a time when people who criticise the government online (and, indeed, offline) are targeted online by trolls, hounded in person, and sometimes even thrown behind bars (a few examples here, here, here, and here) providing the MHRD with ready access to students’ public posts is akin to setting up a social media monitoring centre for the government.

It is also not clear how students’ accounts will be linked with MHRD’s accounts. There are two ways that it could happen — either the students are asked to follow MHRD accounts on social media, or MHRD will follow students’. In the latter case, will the MHRD befriend every college-going student in India on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter? In the former case, it is at best a very heavy handed way of publicising MHRD’s social media accounts, or at worst, a way for the ministry to assert its unequal power over university students.

The MHRD needs to understand that it is primarily in university/college that young adults are exposed to different ideas, and tentatively develop a more informed political outlook. Attempts to indirectly police it thwart the very purpose of higher education, the scope of which extends far beyond just attending classes.