Are public universities under siege?
In some senses, our universities yet remain tiny islands of secular, liberal values in the sea of an increasingly Hinduised body politic; they are bastions of reason against the intoxicating concoction of magic and myth that masquerade as ancient glory.
The recent events in JNU, BHU and now Delhi University point to a disturbing trend. One way or another, it appears that public universities are being dismantled across India. The once-mighty centres of higher learning now seem to be parading naked, beseeching for help. They are being derided with impunity; the very raison d'être of their existence is being called into question every day by marauding anchors on national TV.
University campuses have been drawn into numerous controversies. In the last 5 years, JNU was in the eye of the storm on multiple times most notably for the “Azaadi” episode in 2016, and then in the last month over the massive student demonstrations on the threefold hostel fee hike where many teachers and students were brutally beaten by the police; AMU caught the country’s attention in 2018 when an unsavoury fracas began over an old Jinnah portrait hung in the student union’s office; Allahabad University—once known as the “Oxford of the East”—has been rocked by far too many incidents to recount here; BHU had its brush with infamy recently when students and many members of the faculty, in a mindless act of stupidity, organised a dharna to get the appointment of a Muslim professor who was hired to teach in the Sanskrit Dharma Vigyan department revoked; and IIFT, IIMC, Jadhavpur University, among many others, have been on the brink of collapse for reasons not of their own making. My own institution, Ramjas College, where I teach, was the site of a major confrontation in 2017 and made to the headlines because the ABVP, the student wing of the RSS, forcibly—I dare say with the active encouragement of the police—shut down a seminar on “cultures of protest” because it did not like the panel which included Umar Khalid among others.
The BJP government, too, seems to be on the edge when dealing with public universities; there is palpable hostility, it almost seems that it does not believe in the idea of a public university anymore. In the larger society, especially amongst the middle class, and the taxpayers, there is an undercurrent of anger that feeds hungrily on all the negative reportage that has been happening since the coming of the Modi regime to power in 2014. So, the moot point is whether these incidents are isolated cases erupting randomly, or is there something more than meets the eye?
Let us call a spade a spade: Universities have been a veritable thorn in the flesh of the Modi government, ever since the suicide of Rohit Vemula in 2016. Rohit was a student fully cognizant of his marginal economic and social status, and yet he was “empowered” by education—that he could avail in the affordable public university system—allowing him to nurse hopes of building a life, and nurture dreams of living in a just society ridden of discrimination. His tragic death had galvanized the student community into deep introspection, everywhere in India, especially in public universities. Rohit was becoming a symbol of what “neoliberal” policies in Education may cost; he was the human face of tragedy; a stark reminder—a warning if you like—that millions of Rohits coming from families of modest means will have much to lose should the dismantling of the universities go unchallenged. A rising tide of anger was unleashing at the growing prospect of a grim future; a future where education would become the preserve of a few who could afford it. A movement—spontaneous in the beginning, and later consciously organised through building bases of solidarity amongst many student outfits in the country—was gathering steam. Rebelling students never augur well for any regime, and especially a regime which is deeply uncomfortable with dissent, with the espousal of ideas that challenge the dominant narrative. The BJP-RSS juggernaut, having decimated the combined opposition in the 2014 General Election, was in no mood to brook any resistance to its “idea of India” from any quarter—far less from students, or teachers, believing in “utopias” that flourish in academic spaces. A clash was inevitable.
In some senses, our universities yet remain tiny islands of secular, liberal values in the sea of an increasingly Hinduised body politic; they are bastions of reason against the intoxicating concoction of magic and myth that masquerades as ancient glory. The eviction of the opposition from the discourse of politics has had an unintended aftermath. The role of a “principled opposition” to right-wing majoritarian democracy is for all intent and purposes now being performed by these public universities; led by JNU, they have refused to submit to power, their recalcitrance, and open defiance to the writs of rulers, has made them an easy target. Teachers and students alike, on campus after campus, have fought the authorities on a variety of issues like arbitrary fee hike, erosion of institutional autonomy, illiberal stomping of dissent, forced “saffronization” of the curriculum—but most of all, they fight against a determined push towards privatization and commodification of education, which is what the draft New Education Policy intends to do at a frightening pace once it is set in motion.
These struggles, it is noteworthy, have spilt over to the larger themes of what constitutes a just society, or how should India be imagined. The public university has become a site of resistance to the shenanigans of an ideology that threatens to devour our constitution and morph the inclusive nationalism forged in the freedom movement into an unspeakable, exclusive, aggressive, masculine, monstrosity which has already begun to feast on the blood of our people. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to suggest that we are in the defining battle of our times and that this momentous battle is being fought far away from the din of electoral politics—it is being waged on the turf of campuses.
In a troubling coincidence, however, the ideological pursuits of the far-right in India have coalesced with the diabolical corporate designs to capture what would be a lucrative “market” in education. This unholy alliance between “Hindutva” and “Capital” spells doom for education understood as a “public good”. It is not too difficult to decipher the reasons why big Capital and Hindutva have become comrade-in-arms in their relentless onslaught upon the fabric of higher education as it exists in India; both gain immensely—one in profiteering, the other in ideological hegemony. Only when public universities are dead, or in a state or irreversible atrophy, can the market for higher education truly come into its own, only then can the “student” be transformed into a genuine “consumer”, just as it has happened the realm of school education; and only when the public university is muted and smothered into silence, can the victory of the Sangh Parivar be complete in the domain of ideas.
What needs to be done though—for these nefarious desires to fructify—is to dismantle the very concept of a public university as an autonomous-subsidized-isolated-affordable-space where teaching-learning goes on uninterrupted by the winds of change in the political firmament, undeterred by the structures of society, from a hallowed ground where teachers and students, through a free exercise of academic labour, collaborate to build scholarship, dream dreams, and further the intellectual horizons of the entire community, even if that means imagining “utopias” in the face of injustices are entrenched in the world outside.
It is only in the untrammelled flight of imagination, in the soaring adventurism of ideas, that hopelessness engendered in the real world can be countered. Universities are spaces that allow idealism, value dissent and celebrate diversity. This space is all but lost in the country, and now we face the ominous possibility that this space might be erased from our universities too. It is of urgent importance to preserve and recover such spaces of freedom. A flourishing nation cannot be built in monochrome; a living culture is a bevvy of colours, its vibrancy, its vitality, comes not from a stagnancy of hues—in beliefs, in values, or in its moral and scientific universe—but from a continuous churning and a conscious admixture through which it is hoped that a society will learn to appreciate a rainbow consciousness. A public university built on the pillar of affordability encourages diversity in the student body by throwing open its doors to all, even to those who are from the margins and would have no hopes of accessing quality higher education in a system that conceives education as a “commodity” and expects a profit on its investment.
This concession to diversity—which is truly the hallmark of our university system—is not merely to account for social realities, in other words it is not just for fairness, but rather, it has a deep impact on how “knowledge” is produced; it makes our epistemological framework richer, it makes possible a multivocal approach to theorizing, and that in turn, over a period of time, has the effect of rendering our “consciousness” plural. For a complex society like India—but one that has had a long history of Brahminical hegemony—we constantly need to augment the arguments and the justificatory pleas for diversity in thought; we need to continually replenish our reservoirs of dissent; we need to harbour the hope that “heterotopias” can exist, lest we end up living in a society which has nothing to show for except a rotten stench of uniformity—such societies, as history testifies, are oppressive and violent. To build knowledge in a manner which is democratic and dialogical is the task of a public university and it can only ever do this task with any success if its affordable and plural nature is preserved.
The fearless pursuit of such knowledge sometimes pits the university against society and government—it is, as many are arguing, a classic case of biting the hand that feeds it; and yet, it is necessary to preserve its independence from these very structures of power. A public university is never instrumental in nature; efficiency is important but not the only goal that institutions of higher learning veer towards; its vision is lofty, as the idea is to produce “citizens”, “thinkers”, and “leaders” in all walks of life—not merely “job-seekers” in the market. This comes at a cost which must be borne by the tax-payer. The benefits include the tremendous enrichment that any society, a nation, and even humanity accumulate over time with the bounty of fresh ideas, new moral insights, and innovation that these public universities make possible. It is “freedom from dogma”, as JS Mill would say, that ensures liberty in any society, and this is where public universities play a crucial role when they question established beliefs and critique hierarchies that have long enjoyed the sanction of society, or even law for that matter. Our universities are fundamental to the health of our society; simply put, they are the engines of change which keep new ideas in circulation.
We can endanger public universities only at our own peril. To quote Jawaharlal Nehru, who perspicaciously once said: "A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of the truth. It stands for the onward march of humanity towards ever higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well within the nation and the people". The media, unfortunately as we have now come to expect, has dutifully done the bidding of its political and corporate masters by maligning public universities at every opportunity it can. It has done this by pitting them against the tax-payer, and especially by painting them as ungrateful “leeches”—defunct bloodsucking institutions draining the resources of the nation dry. The gullible middle class has fallen for this canard hook line and sinker.
Isn’t it a sad commentary on our society that popular opinion has turned against public universities, that they are viewed as the nests of evil, hubs of sedition, and an undesirable burden on the coffers of the country? It will take a humongous effort—and years of time, I fear—before public universities are restored to their rightful place in the consciousness of the people and are recognised for the contributions they make. And if that does not happen, perhaps we are doomed to slide down the spiral of degeneration which only leads to the dark abyss of hopelessness and ignorance.