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Politics Is As Important As Academics At Universities, And Here Are Reasons Why

Posted on March 23, 2016 in Society

By Shivangi Kaushik:

Kanhaiya Kumar, a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student union leader, shouts slogans before addressing a meet in New Delhi, India, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - RTS964X
Kanhaiya Kumar at JNU. Image credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi.

Since the 9th of February, I have been following the events unfolding in the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) campus. The JNU uproar was not only a trending matter on social media but also became a highly politicised issue as different political parties fought over it and gave their own interpretations of the controversy. However, one of the problematic questions that this highlighted was the role of students today. I would like to also explore briefly what actually the space of the university is meant to signify? Is it only supposed to be a sacred space meant for neutral academics or should the people who occupy this space also be allowed to nurture their own political and social opinions?

The Centers Of Learning:

Most of the universities in India through their progressive syllabi have taught students to question the status quo prevailing in their respective societies. These publicly funded institutions are intellectual sanctuaries to the scholarly nomads of the country. They are the temples of research work and have produced a rich body of literature that talk about social issues and problems that confront India today. Research based scholarship contains not only quantitative and qualitative suggestions on policy implementation but also question the concealed structural violence in an unequal society like that of India that denies basic opportunities to the underprivileged.

However, a lot of this work gets limited to the academic sphere which includes people that can read, write and understand such articles with profound intellectual insights. For instance, detailed analysis of the causes of the oppression of the Dalits gets published, but, these works can never reach the Dalits themselves living in a remote village and still doing manual scavenging. Why is this so? Is it only because Dalits in a remote village are illiterate and are not able to understand these works?

Nope, I don’t think so.

Politics Of Academic Dissent:

There appears to be a secretive political agenda at work to restrict the readership of the critical works published by the universities to the academic sphere only. After the JNU controversy, it has become clear that sedition in India is really contested. But if a fictional book can hurt the ‘sentiments’ of a minority group, hence, it is better that critical works on social issues are restricted to the universities and are inaccessible to the opinionated common man.

Why is it that a lot of articles and papers which dwell on critical matters are published in highly complex English rather than vernacular languages (when it is the latter which can only, in fact, garner the majority readership in India)? Also, why are these articles circulated mostly among the English-speaking elites in the urban areas?

Publishing dissent is indeed a risky business in the country. Criticality and dissent can only reach the neutral Indian or the apolitical one. But isn’t there a politics to being apolitical?

I think that it is safe for students and faculty who sow revolutionary ideologies to be critical and to have radical discussions inside the gates of these campuses. Dissent can never tread beyond the gates of the academic sphere. So, in sum, you can discuss any issue over multiple cups of tea and cigarettes within the campus but outside it is really risky as you might be persecuted thanks to archaic laws like that of sedition. Unfortunately, after Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech, it seems that people wish for sedition to be extended to legally encompass views that are ‘anti-national’ in nature.

The problem gets further deepened as we still don’t know what anti-nationalism actually is and what the crimes that come within its ambit are. Also, who decides who anti-nationalists are?

Keeping aside the ideological conflicts, I was deeply affected by the fact these spaces where students and faculty alike are free to discuss anything under the sun was violated as police forces tried to prevent students from voicing their opinions and protesting.

Role Expectations Of Students:

Students are the largest community of knowledge seekers in the country. They are the people who, after acquiring education in these universities, would contribute to the nation’s development through their skills and lead movements against oppressive regimes.

However, what I really believe has changed is the way students perceive and think about issues that become part of their respective milieus. Adding to that, India, at the moment, has a demographic dividend in which the majority is the youth who are seeking answers to economic deprivation and unemployment. Bhagat Singh and his followers were fighting against the unfair regime of the British whereas Kanhaiya Kumar and the students’ unions are fighting against the repressive regimes of their country that promote structural inequality. Hence, the focus of the youth today is different from that of the youth during India’s struggle for independence. So, are their ways of making their demands heard? Before accusing anyone of being anti-nationalist, I believe these factors need to be taken into account.

When I say ‘role expectations’, I, of course, meant that nowadays students are not really expected to sit in dharnas or protests. They are meant to enter these universities, earn their degrees in two years and then, once when they get a job, they are expected to leave these campuses alone with a tag of being the alumnus of a prestigious institute. In fact, students, especially in the Delhi University, are so bogged down by an extensive syllabus and unlimited assignments that they rarely have the time to think about anything else but their studies. Students are just expected to become bookworms.

Everyone Has An Opinion:

Just a couple of days after the events unfolded in JNU, I had a discussion about it with my house help. She tells me that she checks the news on her smartphone. Almost all news channels nowadays have apps (applications) that provide hourly updates and that can now be read in Hindi. She promptly shows it on her smartphone the numerous updates she receives every day from the various news channels’ apps she has downloaded. After working in two shifts in around 10 households, I was actually impressed that she was keen on knowing what was happening in the world.

About the whole JNU fiasco, her primary concern is that her brother works at a canteen in the JNU campus and she is scared that in the tussle between the police forces and the students in the JNU campus it might somehow affect her brother working there. Hence, she feels that the whole matter should have been left to the university administration; the police should have been never involved.

In her opinion, it is clear that the police should never have interfered. Not because she cared a lot for the institutional autonomy of the university but because she hoped her brother would be left unhurt. So, does it mean we are to form an opinion about something only when it affects us?

All of us believe that people who work in offices or people who churn out scholarly articles in the newspapers are the only ones who have the resources as well as the right to form an opinion. Well, there might be exceptions.

Bimol, from Manipur, runs the momo counter at the corner of the road. During a casual discussion over momos, he asked me whether the protests and the other ‘tam jhams’ in the campus died down. I replied by saying that the police are still trying to control the situation and the media is trying its best to keep us updated on the situation inside the campus.

Hearing the word ‘media’, Bimol asked me if I was aware of a ‘nude dharna’ carried out by a group of women in 2004 in Imphal, Manipur to protest against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama who was allegedly raped and murdered by the Assam Rifles paramilitary. On a more critical note, he laments that a doctored video is getting so much importance while something as important as AFSPA gets barely a corner of the page in the national newspapers.

The issues of social conflict faced by the women of the North-East are often termed as issues of national security and are ignored by the government as well as the media.

In fact, a lot of students from the North-East in the university campuses face a lot of racial discrimination from their fellow students. However, it remains to be seen if these unions which are so proactive on matters of strategic importance like that of Kashmir can also think about the welfare of the ones who live and suffer in their own campuses.

From a students’ perspective, the JNU controversy was turned into more a government vs. opposition debate that gained attention as it happened in the heart of the capital. It was even more interesting how the different politicians and stakeholders in the conflict tried to interpret this controversy according to the ideologies and interests of their parties. What Rahul Gandhi termed as restrictions on freedom of speech was termed by the ruling government as ‘anti-national’.

What could have been a vibrant dialectical discourse on nationalism vs anti-nationalism was unnecessarily sensationalised by both the media and the political parties at the national as well as the students levels (ABVP).

The German saying “Stadtluft macht frei” means that the city air makes you feel free. Going out of the academic space, even in a city like Delhi which is home to people from different parts of the country belonging to different socio-economic backgrounds, it is natural for differences of opinion to emerge. In fact, a city that provides the perfect platform for strangers to come together to express their opinions has to stand up firmly against religious or social bigots of all kinds.

As a part of the student community, I feel that I should write about this issue since, after all, students’ opinions do matter. I also hope that the academic space will not be violated anymore. It is the only space in India today where I feel people can be allowed to choose sides, whether they are right or wrong. Democracy is after all the conflict of ideologies.

We also need to define the academic as well as the political activities of a university. They are inseparable and interdependent on each other and I believe universities are a healthy synthesis of both of these activities.

These activities are the new experiences that define our role and position in the society today. At a time when the academic and public spheres are getting connected and intermingled, it is our turn to choose on which side we actually are.