Students' fundamental right to privacy is at stake
The Age of Information idolizes digital connections. But the desire to establish such links may not always be innocent. A letter from the department of higher education has ‘requested’ — directed? — heads of higher educational institutions to ensure that the social media accounts of all students be connected to the social media platforms of not just HEIs but also those of the ministry of human resource development. The scale of the project is ambitious: the authorities seem to be interested in surveying the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts of college and university students who number over three crore in India. It is being insisted that the objective is innocuous, even inspiring. The seamless digital grid is expected to keep the authorities informed of the ‘good work’ of institutions and their wards. Institutions are expected to anoint a ‘social media champion’ — a teacher or a member of the non-teaching staff — for this purpose. The SMC would have the august responsibility of spreading the cheer by serving as a node of communication among HEIs and the HRD ministry.
New India, admittedly, is being taught to do things in a novel way. Even then, the need to link informal spaces — social media accounts are such — of citizens with the powers that be is rather disquieting. This is all the more so because alternative, comprehensive protocols of assessing the performance of educational institutions are not that rare. The accreditation mechanism of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council — centres of higher learning are evaluated with the aim of improving their performance — is a case in point. What then is the need for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to screen personal social media accounts of students for a similar purpose? The Supreme Court has declared privacy to be a fundamental right. Does the Centre not agree that prying on the content of social media accounts of students could lead to the infringement of such a pivotal public entitlement? There are anxious whispers that ‘profiling’ students, indeed, is the objective of the exercise. Screening ideological dispositions of learners, the BJP’s critics allege, would help the government weed out dissidents — the ‘anti-nationals’ — from the more pliant citizens. Such scrutiny, additionally, could put students under pressure to parrot the official claims regarding the strides made in higher education. Of course, that could save the government the trouble of having to fudge data in yet another crucial sector.