There has been a recent spurt in incidences of violence, strikes, protest movements in our educational institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Film and Television Institute Of India, Hyderabad University etc. albeit for different reasons. Regardless of how genuine or not-so-genuine their reasons are, the situation raises some very important questions. Do we need politics in our institutions? If it is allowed, how much politicisation is desirable, for a line has to be drawn somewhere? And more importantly, what kind of politics do we want?
The apathetic response, the action or inaction by those in charge, to such protests raises even more serious questions. Do our institutions of higher learning enjoy the requisite autonomy, so that they reflect the democratic ideals that our nation espouses? What factors affect this autonomy? How can we guarantee this cherished autonomy of our institutions given the realities of their administration? And why do only a handful of our institutions enjoy a monopoly of producing political leaders? These questions are not only important for universities but for the entire society.
To understand the need for politics in our institutions, the realities of society we live in need to be understood. Politics today, whether desirable or not, has become totalitarian in nature all around the world, varying only in terms of degree. It has become so pervasive that there exists no social institution that is not affected by politics or is devoid of internal politics.
Our economic development – industries, corporates, social welfare schemes, health, education, infrastructure development is all guided by political policies and practices. Political patronage determines the benefits the people of a particular religious community enjoy. Politics controls the creativity of our singers, filmmakers and actors and what they can or cannot say. It even impacts, or often controls, our personal lives – the number of children we can have (in China for example), the food that we can eat, the dress we can wear etc.
If politics is so deeply entrenched in our system, how can universities be an exception. If the goal of a university is not myopically defined to train students only in a particular subject, but is to prepare students for unforeseen and unimagined things that life has to offer, then politics is very important, as a part and parcel of college activities, for the overall development of an individual’s personality and character. It must be remembered that character building is the first step to nation building.
Also, politics is needed in institutions not only because it is present everywhere but to produce better leaders instead of having leaders foisted upon us because of their money/muscle power, or by virtue of their lineage. Since college politics has direct links with national and state level politics, it becomes a good launching pad for new faces that otherwise would not have had a chance to enter the political arena. Therefore, student politics institutionalises the merit-based search for future leaders.
It is disheartening to note that premier institutions of our country like the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management, National Institutes Of Technology or St. Stephen’s College (Delhi) do not allow student politics because of which some of the best of minds in India do not get to enter the political arena, excepting a few who make it against all odds. Juxtapose this reality with the ways in which politics is described – like politics being the playground of criminals, the domain of the uneducated, uncouth etc. – and the need to allow politics in our educational institutions would seem even more pressing. Ironically, non-political peers of successful politicians, or other people in public life, take pride and sometimes even credit for their success stories.
Those who argue against the politicisation of institutions give innumerable examples of entire academic sessions going to waste. Even students willing to attend classes are bound by peer pressure to take part in protests, strikes etc. they assert. They condemn political violence entering the ‘temples’ of modern India. The answer to all these lies not in disallowing any form of politics in campuses but changing the kind of politics we practice.
Political theorists argue that democratic politics is not only about the ritual of elections, political canvassing etc. but refers to the dialectical environment of debate, discussion, dialogue and dissent in a peaceful setting. The intention is not to bulldoze opposing ideas but recognising the right of others to have differing thoughts or ideologies than yours. The same should be the case for politics in the universities. Currently, only a politics of disruption and destruction is practiced both in the national parliament and in college campuses. This adversely affects the legislative process and academics respectively.
The need of the hour is that the leaders of tomorrow must rise to the occasion and devise new and innovative ways of dissenting and protesting through their writings, movies, plays, songs, using the power of social media and the internet without disrupting the academic discipline of the institution. Also, they must not deprive others of their right to study in a peaceful environment.
To bring about this holistic change in the nature of politics in our institutions, the most important thing is to guarantee the complete autonomy of these institutions. This includes management, appointment (of professors, staff, Heads of Departments, Vice-Chancellors etc.), financial autonomy, student selection procedure, course, curriculum and syllabus selection. The need of the hour is to democratise our educational institutions.
We have too many people crying foul over appointments of V-Cs, heads of departments or institutes due to the political leanings of the person concerned. It is required that the appointment process be made more transparent and should involve all stakeholders, even the student community and civil society. With regard to financial autonomy, it is very difficult to make any educational institution self-sustaining. In the current ‘socialistic’ set up, the government subsidises the education of students. What can be done is that the government should hand over the money to these institutions to spend it as they deem fit based on their requirement. It’s better to do away with the straitjacket approach being followed now. In the current system, money is given under heads of infrastructure development, hiring or salaries staff, electricity, water supply etc. The money gets spent on unrequired white-washes rather than on laboratory facilities or on research funding for students!
One other model that can be tried in the long run is an open market education system based for education as a market commodity offered at market prices for education seekers. It might seem that the cost of education would rise significantly, but in the long run, as more and more profit-seeking private institutions enter this sector and compete, the costs of education would decrease and the quality would spiral upwards.
The recent outcry against police action in universities and application of stringent laws is necessary, but it isn’t the only issue we need to be focussing on. There is another, related but more pressing issue at hand. According to Louis Althusser, a state exercises hegemony over its subjects through the repressive state apparatus (police) and ideological state apparatus (like school, family, colleges). The misuse of police and the law is evident and is there for all to see. But what we have to be wary of and concerned about are attempts at rewriting and reinterpretation of history based not on facts but on a particular ideology, and the narrow redefinition of ‘Indianness’ to fulfil political interests and agendas. The police is akin to a hammer in the hand of a blacksmith. It can only do so much damage without completely breaking the iron plate being worked upon. But the re-written textbooks are like the fire that the blacksmith uses making us completely pliable like a hot iron plate in hands of the ruling dispensation to mould and shape us as they wish. Currently, we see both the hammer and fire being used simultaneously by master craftsmen.