The Fight Against Caste And Oppression In Our Universities Has One BIG Enemy

Posted on March 2, 2016

By Shruti Mukherjee:

Image Credit: Mayuri Ghosh.

His name is ‪Umar‬ ‪Khalid‬ and he is not a terrorist. If one has to explain that just because one has a Muslim name in 21st century India, I am afraid to say we are not a mature democracy. I am particularly disturbed by the way in which Umar was described as a Muslim from Kashmir and hence a terrorist. I saw several posters doing rounds on facebook with this description. Umar is my batch mate and I was his contemporary in ‪Jawaharlal Nehru University‬ student politics. I have had many political differences with him but that was in the realm of debate and discussion. And precisely because of this, university spaces need to protect campus democracy and the right to dissent.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

When we see a person with a Muslim name we construct a demon in our mind. This time, the demon was created in the newsrooms of India and fed to you. Just a few symbols constructed the demon. The Pakistani flag, fire, guns, and boom. Media and Government manufactured lies to witch hunt Umar and harass his family. I am going to very strongly say that the Modi government was backing this entire crackdown because we can see a re-run of the Godhra script here. How consent gets manufactured in newsrooms by repetitive messaging and BJP backed lawyers do not let the courts function. The entire state machinery appeared to be involved in it.

But just discussing and having an opinion does not make someone ‘anti-national’ or a ‘nationalist’. There is a need to get out of this binary description of the world because there is a lot of grey area in between. Identities don’t exist in isolation. They intersect at various points and don’t make sense most of the time. For instance, India has a narrative for Kashmir, Pakistan has a narrative for Kashmir, and inside Kashmir there are various narratives. So, when someone says, “Kashmir maangoge, to cheer denge (we’ll rip you apart if you ask for Kashmir),” it actually reflects a colonial conception of the Indian state.

Like Nivedita Menon said in her open class during the recent JNU strike, asking for Kashmir, when decoded, means you want their land, resources and not the people. What do the people want? For that, Kashmir needs to be brought to the table for political discussion. There cannot be a militarised solution to the question of Kashmir.

The concerns which led to the agitation by the students’ movement from Hyderabad Central University to JNU, however, are much bigger. It is a fight, like P. Sainath said in the JNU open class, against a nexus of religious fundamentalism and market capitalist fundamentalism.

What Rohith Vemula, Kanahiya, Umar and Anirban represent is the face of resistance to the racist/casteist neoliberal forces the world over which is being fought in universities across the globe. You can make links to similar crackdowns on university campuses and academic freedom in U.S.A., Latin America, Turkey, Iran and so on.

I want to specifically link the attack on campus democracy to the larger neoliberal forces at play here. The world over, we are fighting battles in universities which are increasingly becoming privatised. In the U.S.A., where I am a research student, we are seeing an increase in student debt and an increase in adjunct (contractual) faculty positions. So one needs to ask, where is the big money going if universities are not hiring professors with permanent tenure and are increasing the student fee? Hiring an adjunct faculty also means that the university is not liable to give any health insurance benefit, office space, or any other job security. Who is benefitting from this?

Now coming back to India, the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1990s required that we undergo a structural adjustment change where the World Bank asked us to start spending less on social sectors like education and health (David Harvey, 2005). We have therefore seen a systematic undermining of both centrally funded education and health with a simultaneous increase in privatisation of these spaces.

What started as Occupy UGC was a resistance to signing an agreement with the World Trade Organisation to privatise central universities. The students were demanding an increase in research fellowship which is Rs. 8,000 for Ph.D. per month today. This discourse is also getting linked to tax payers money and the question being raised is that why should tax payers fund ‘anti-national’ activities. This is a problematic analogy not only because the definition of anti-national is very spurious here, but also because the idea of a university is not to produce an army of service class people for absorption into the corporate sector. It is a space to imagine the impossible and beyond mere profit.

I think this is where the problem is. Institutes like FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), HCU, JNU and JU (Javadpur University) are fighting the neoliberal forces which are hand in glove with the religious right-wing. This fight has many intersections of caste, class and religion as is visible in the student leadership of the movement – Rohith, Kanahiya and Umar.

Equality for the poor and oppressed feels like oppression to the rich and the middle-class because they are fearful that their social and financial capital accumulated through generations in the family and passed down as inheritance will be challenged.

These capital accumulations are maintained by a very strict monitoring of the caste and religious boundaries in the society. Therefore, it becomes imperative to control the boundaries of the community. Control over women’s sexuality in the community is crucial to maintaining a caste based, Hindu society. Inter-caste, inter-religious marriages, and homosexuality strike at the heart of the hetero-normative patriarchal Hindu nation.

This is going to be a long drawn out struggle because we are fighting very powerful and racist neoliberal forces the world over. And our fight is against criminalising dissent!

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