Are campuses witnessing an attack on the democratic imagination?
Vinay Lal | 17 Jan, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
INDIA IS WITNESSING an efflorescence of democratic dissent and the university is perhaps at the epicentre of the vast and unexpected display of resistance by students to state authoritarianism. There are unmistakable signs that the state is rattled, but it is difficult to predict whether such protests as have been seen around the country in the month since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) was put forward by the ruling party and swiftly enacted into law can be sustained over the long haul. Though there is little appreciation among state functionaries, in the burgeoning Indian middle class, and indeed among university officials themselves, of what constitutes a ‘university’, the very fact that students and faculty have been attacked either by state agencies or by those acting with the tacit encouragement of the state suggests that the critical and distinct place of the university as a site of dissent has not gone unnoticed. Nothing else can explain the onslaught against students at Jamia Millia Islamia and the vandalisation of the university by the police in mid-December, the police use of tear gas and lathi charges at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and, on January 5th, the brazen aggression against students and faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) by goons wielding sticks and iron rods while a huge police force stood by idly.
That the university worldwide has been a site of dissent against the state is barely in doubt, even if as an institution the university, and more particularly the ‘elite’ university, plays an equally important part in the constitution of ruling class hegemony. Twenty-eight of Britain’s 53 Prime Ministers are graduates of Oxford, another 14 of Cambridge; in the US, the Supreme Court has been stacked for decades with graduates of Yale and Harvard law schools, just as Wall Street and corporate America are ruled by those who earned their credentials from the elite universities. Indeed, in most of the Western world, the elite university is part of the ‘revolving door’ that opens on to leading banks, financial institutions, corporations, high-level government jobs, ambassadorships and other positions with a notable public profile. It may, in the midst of all this, become almost difficult to remember the wholly distinct space occupied by the university, especially in modern democratic societies, as the source of political unrest and the progenitor of radical political activism.
The contemporary history of student agitations, to follow the most commonly accepted narratives, begins with demonstrations in the late 1960s at universities in France, Mexico, Yugoslavia, West Germany, the US and elsewhere. The political landscape had been shaped by the Cold War and, as is true even now, whatever news America made became everyone’s news. In the US, the Civil Rights Movement had forged what appeared to be a new political reality by the mid-1960s, but whatever hopes were generated about the American impulse towards social justice were at once tempered by the sobering indeed ugly reality of naked American aggression in Vietnam. Such a history, however, occludes the fact that even then student agitations were not only inspired by anti-colonialism, but were also conjoined to the women’s movement and multiple struggles for self-determination and the fashioning of national, sub-national and personal identities. Moreover, and this may be more pertinent in considerations of the history of higher education in India, the student protests of 1968, and more recently those that have shaped the Occupy Movement in the US, were also shaped by the desire to keep higher education affordable, open up the university to women, make it accessible to students from the working class and racial minorities, free it from the stranglehold of moneyed interests, introduce a more capacious conception of what could count as knowledge and turn the university into a more creative space for self-expression. The present demonstrations at Indian universities may seem to pivot around the objections to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), but these other considerations that have led to the evolution of the modern university are as much present in India as they have been elsewhere. The present struggle at JNU, for instance, originated not as a protest against the CAA and NRC, but as unrest over a large hostel fee hike and changes to the Draft Hostel Manual that would have imposed curfews and dress codes on students.
The constant refrain in popular middle-class discourse is just this: The university ought only to be a place ‘to study’, not a site of politics. A fictitious ‘silent majority’ that seeks diligently ‘to study’ is being prevented from doing so by students whose interest resides only in ‘politics’
The memory of student agitations in India usually takes one back to the Bihar Movement of 1974-1975 that would shake up Indian politics. Jayaprakash Narayan demanded ‘total revolution’; and Lalu Prasad Yadav, general secretary and then President of the Patna University Students’ Union, and Ram Vilas Paswan were among those who heeded JP’s call. But there is a much greater history, still to be written, of the Indian university as the site of resistance to colonial rule, even if fragments of this history are now enshrined in the national narrative. It is enough for the BJP, whose leaders generally exhibit a colossal ignorance of the Indian past, to know that Jamia and AMU are predominantly Muslim universities, but interestingly, Jamia was founded in 1920 by faculty and students who, distressed by AMU’s tepid if not hostile reception to nationalism, defected and carved out a new institution that would be more responsive to the call issued by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Lala Lajpat Rai and many others for the intellectual awakening of the country.
Sarojini Naidu was to say of the Indian nationalist Muslims who created the university that they built it up “stone by stone and sacrifice by sacrifice”, and it now seems that the BJP is resolved to take the university down stone by stone, book by book. Why else attack the library of a university, as the police did with utter abandon at Jamia, unless of course students and faculty at a Muslim university must of necessity be construed as a fifth column acting at the behest of an enemy nation and, moreover, should be left in no doubt that books are not suitable for those who are only fit to be part of docile labour force?
HORRENDOUS AS WAS THE attack on Jamia, it is useful to hone in on the attack at JNU—launched not, as at Jamia, a minority institution, by the state but rather by masked goons—to understand why Indian universities have once again emerged as the sites of resistance to a state that increasingly large number of Indians are recognising as dictatorial, profoundly anti-democratic and, even if the language of dissent does not formally recognise this, hostile to the ethos of hospitality that is integral to Indian civilisation. JNU can make every claim to being a truly ‘national’ institution: it not merely draws students from all over the country in some token concession to diversity, but has a significant representation of students from the Northeast as well as from working-class families. Nearly half of its students come from families where the principal wage earner, often a labourer or hawker, earns less than Rs 12,000 a month. But JNU is also a national university in the conventional middle-class understanding: many of its alumni feature prominently in the political, social and intellectual life of the country, and its spirit of free inquiry has made it an enviable institution—most particularly for social science research.
It would be no exaggeration to argue that once the BJP had won the so-called mandate to govern the country in 2014, it was resolved to destroy public universities and JNU, as the most eminent of such institutions, was bound to feel the heat. In early 2016, charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code were slapped upon Kanhaiya Kumar, then a PhD student who also served as the JNU Students Union President. The campus had long been known as a hotbed of politics; in elections for the student union’s post of president, the candidate representing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, lost to the Left-affiliated student organisation to which Kanhaiya Kumar belonged. Two other students were hauled into jail on similar charges of having raised anti-India slogans and advocating for the break-up of the country. Widespread demonstrations by faculty and students against the police crackdown led to suspension of classes for weeks; in due course, the videos alleged to have incriminated Kumar and other students were shown to have been doctored. What is striking, even a vivid testimony to the sheer ingenuity with which JNU has characteristically responded to difficult challenges, is that students over a period of many months invited several dozen of India’s most distinguished social scientists to deliver lectures on ‘nationalism’ on the steps of the administration building. They created an ‘open university’ within the precincts of the formal university.
It would be idle to pretend that public institutions such as JNU were ever free of politics, or that patronage systems did not flourish under previous political administrations, but the BJP holds public institutions in far greater disdain and harbours an ominously punishing outlook. The sins of previous political regimes in governing India’s institutions of higher education are enormously amplified under the present political dispensation where anti-intellectualism is openly flaunted as a credential. “When I hear the word culture,” the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels is reported to have said, “I reach for my gun.” The Vice Chancellor of JNU, whose political patrons have shielded him from his idiocies over the last several years, has set a new standard of notoriety in his dread of intellectual life: two years ago, he suggested, in all earnestness, that a battle tank be placed on the campus to instil “love for the army” among its students.
The graver problem at hand, then, is that university administrators and, as shall be seen, the Indian middle class as a whole, are absolutely bereft of any understanding of what constitutes a university and what makes for something called ‘the life of the mind’. This hollowness, too, has many strands. Faculty are increasingly being treated as children, subjected to roll calls and being marked for ‘attendance’—as though the university was merely an adult version of primary high school. AMU, JNU, Jamia and other institutions might all too easily be punished as bastions of ‘anti-national’ activity, but it is something more than virulent Hindu nationalism and the intolerance for dissent that has produced hostility to ‘the university’ among India’s middle class. It is not accidental that the country’s educational administrators are increasingly people of intensely bureaucratic disposition and most often engineers and scientists by training, utterly lacking in humanistic education. They reflect the values, too, of India’s burgeoning middle class, which generally sees education only as an avenue to job procurement and as an investment that is likely to yield social and financial dividends, rather than as a social process leading to thought, self-reflexivity, intellectual growth and an appetite for inquiry into the human condition.
What brings distinction to JNU, and illustrates amply the state’s stratagem to bring the public university to heel, is yet something more: it is doubtless the first university to be publicly shamed and lynched by the middle class. We are aware that JNU students are now routinely accused of being ‘anti-national’, an allegation which makes a traitor of anyone who does not subscribe to the idea of Hindu supremacy. But the demonisation of JNU students has other, not less disturbing, features. Four years ago, following the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, a BJP MLA from Rajasthan’s Alwar district had claimed that “3,000 used condoms, 500 used abortion injections, 10,000 cigarette pieces, among other things” are found at JNU “daily”; moreover, “girls and boys dance naked in cultural programmes” at the university. That narrative has now been picked up by thousands of middle-class Indians posturing as guardians of public morals who have painted JNU as a den of vice: here girls shamelessly flaunt their bodies and university hostels are little better than places where sex can be had on the cheap. The constant refrain in popular middle-class discourse is just this: the university ought only to be a place ‘to study’, not a site of politics. A fictitious ‘silent majority’ that seeks diligently ‘to study’ is being prevented from doing so by students whose interest resides only in ‘politics’. When JNU students do produce research, on this view, it is nearly ‘worthless’.
The student protests of 1968, and more recently those that have shaped the Occupy Movement in the US, were also shaped by the desire to keep higher education affordable
It is imperative that the present narrative not be reduced to the story of JNU. Though the BJP has made a strident effort to minimise the protests by pointing to JNU, AMU and Jamia as notorious breeding grounds for anti-national and anti-social elements, the demonstrations have spread to universities across India. A large number of state-run universities and institutions of higher education, among them some of the IITs, Jadavpur, the National Law School in Bengaluru, University of Delhi, University of Hyderabad, Osmania and the IIMs at Ahmedabad and Bengaluru, have seen large demonstrations both in support of JNU and in opposition to the CAA and NRC. That private universities have generally been unresponsive to the call for civil resistance furnishes of course precisely one reason among many why the privatisation of higher education has remained so attractive to the state: just as it benefits the most self-aggrandising capitalists that India has ever seen, notwithstanding all the noise about ‘swadeshi’, such privatisation is also encouraged by the calculation that parents who spend substantial sums of money on their wards will attempt to ensure that they only ‘study’ and not enter into politics.
The state university everywhere in India, in short, constitutes one of the last shared public spaces. That is all the more reason why the BJP is determined to capture the university and render it submissive, by violence—whether inflicted directly or through hired extremist outfits—if necessary. An argument advanced some years ago by the anthropologist, James Scott, suggests why the university, which must be safeguarded as one of the last bastions of free speech and informed dissent, presents such crucial stakes in the contemporary struggle. Scott distinguished between ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ spaces: whatever falls within the purview of the state, whatever has been mapped, surveyed, surveilled or counted is deemed as a ‘state space’ within which the state is able to exercise its authority. Scott had in mind, in formulating this narrative, how certain territories such as the wildlands of Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan or the remote interiors in some countries may be construed as spaces where the writ of the state does not run large. The ‘non-state’ spaces are always construed as troublesome and as potential sites of dissent or rebellion. The heavily funded and generally urban public university in India has, ironically, become a non-state space, at least in the eyes of the state. It is useful to recall once again at this juncture just what a university is—a place for intellectual enquiry and reflection, in private and in concert, but even more a place to imagine another kind of democratic life, a life that is not wholly determined or encumbered by the identities that are given to each of us at birth, identities that in turn are inscribed on passports and other official documents. This imagination of the democratic life is precisely what the state is determined to prevent from happening, and the present onslaught against university students (and faculty) must be seen as an attempt to capture a critical outpost of resistance, one of the few that remains in the country under a present dispensation that will brook no dissent.