It was a quiet morning on the 21st of February. The TISS campus at Guwahati was just preparing itself for the first campus placements. A small crowd was starting to gather in front of the main administrative building. It swelled by and by, and the campus reverberated with the sound of “ Awaaz do, hum ek hain”. Since then, as in Guwahati, the other TISS campuses at Hyderabad, Mumbai and Tuljapur have been on a continued protest together. The immediate concern was the arbitrary removal of the financial aid that facilitates GOI-PMS scholarships. This scholarship enables students from the most marginalised and historically oppressed backgrounds to come and receive quality education at TISS. But from thereon, the issue has become more diverse as long-pent up frustrations, with all that is wrong in the higher education system today, coming to the fore. The student’s resistance has important questions for the modern Indian educational scenario.
India is witnessing a neo-liberal onslaught. The greatest casualties in this have been public universities and dissent. The strategy seems two pronged and they seem to serve each other rather well. The motive of profiting is just one angle, and this can be easily seen. The other angle is pointed at throttling voices that differ.
The tendency is to privatise education to the maximum extent so that it becomes another high end, inaccessible commodity. Exclude, seclude, and ostracise those who question, and those who cannot afford. Do this subtly through one policy followed by another in a cold calculated manner. After all, who are most likely to question the status quo? It is not them who have the plate of privileges served right at their beds ready in the mornings. It is those who have to fight tooth and nail for one piece of grain.
How does it feel to enter one of the elite night time cinema complexes? Does one feel the same excitement and natural urge to banter at an old friend who happened to cross one’s path there, as one would have done say, at a good old public school auditorium? A good amount is paid for the ticket, spotless tiles reflect your image, and you tend to behave in the most ‘appropriate’ manner possible, lest you want to risk ‘classist’ embarrassment or ouster. The bottomline is CONTROL. The analogy might seem farfetched, but this is exactly what is sought to be done by moving higher education in the realm of the private. Pay exorbitant fees, make no trouble, and exit with a job, and lo, success! No student would want to not take full advantage in lieu of the hefty sum that is paid. Questioning the authorities would be a rare exercise. This is especially favourable in traditional Indian culture where the relationship between guru-shishya is deified.
The possibility of exclusion goes hand in hand with privatisation. P. Balakrishnan, a professor at the Centre for Development Studies, wrote in an article that appeared in The Hindu a few years ago- ‘The function of the arts and sciences is to hold a mirror to society so that it can form an image of itself which helps us understand where we come from and see where we are going. A profit oriented private sector is unlikely to be interested in such a task.’ Prof Hiren Gohain, noted academic and literary critic, observed at a Citizens’ Meet held by the students of TISS Guwahati ” It’s no more a question of being socialist or leftist when we question the government, because whatever is being done today goes against the very basic principles of the Constitution… Those who see a direct dichotomy between merit and reservation should also do well to see that merit itself is also a product of privilege and opportunities. ” It is no wonder that privatisation of education will leave affirmative action high and dry, as it will leave an entire social group out. Payment of high fees or exceptional merit to avail scholarships : both smell of privilege one way or another. Another interesting observation was made by Soibam Haripriya, who is a professor at TISS Guwahati. She observed that a major portion of investments in higher education translates into surveillance ‘infrastructures’ such as biometric gadgets and CCTV cameras. TISS Guwahati itself has seen scores of CCTV cameras installed in its new campus,every ten metres or so. It’s ironical how there is less money for scholarships but enough for such ‘infrastructure’ that is more at place in a prison complex.The protest at TISS across the four campuses has entered its seventh day. Some empathetic faculties have also come forward to extend solidarity. The contractual nature of their work leaves them at the wishy-washy mercy of those who call the shots. The voice is against the machinations that want to dismantle affirmative action, and scholarly dedication of students and teachers alike. A raw student’s movement is holding its own, in-spite of immense risk to personal careers. However this has happened because the stakes are much higher than that. Education cannot be another playing field of discrimination. It is about time that students at TISS and across the country ensure that.