The words ‘independence’, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are correlated. Independence connotes freedom from restraint – in spaces, thoughts, and expression. In India, campuses and universities have more often than not, told a tale of a withering sense of freedom and justice. It is this state that had led to universities becoming the new thriving grounds of dissent and opposition to all things wrong with our educational spaces and the country.
Freedom, today, has become a privilege. The country gained independence from the crown 72 years ago; but, we are still struggling to break free from the shackles of the top three P’s (Patriarchy, Power and Position) in educational spaces across the country.
Here’s a list of things we are collectively fighting for, waiting for these fundamental freedoms to be realised.
College hostels for women in most parts of the country have sexist, restrictive rules. There are only very few hostels in a vast country like India that is known to have gender-just rules.
From being locked in hostels and paying guests as early as 7 pm to the absolute curtailment of movement for fear of harassment during festivals like Holi, different fee structures in men’s and women’s hostels go a long way in highlighting the disparity and discrimination. In other outrageous instances, in some places, non-vegetarian food is served only in men’s hostels shows the deep-rooted patriarchy and sexism in educational institutions.
All students/academics who are a citizen of this country should have the equal right to participate in creating knowledge that informs our understanding of the world. Affirmative action through reservations in educational institutions was one way of ensuring that students from marginalised communities get a chance not just to acquire education on an equal footing with the others but also to actively participate in research, in bringing out into the world, their stories. With each passing day, these opportunities have been repeatedly attacked, especially in social science institutions of great repute. From the massive seat cuts for MPhil and PhD in JNU to the roll back of financial aid for students from marginalised communities at TISS being the most prominent examples.
Campuses are spaces where students should have the freedom to think, talk, express, critique and contest ideas. Even though the Constitution of India assures the freedom to assemble peacefully, protest and form associations but instances of intolerance of a different viewpoint or political affiliation has crept into educational spaces as well.
The violence that broke out between members of the ABVP and other students, after the former disrupted a seminar where Umar Khalid was speaking in 2017 to two years ago, when a group of students in JNU had assembled to protest against the execution of Afzal Guru and show solidarity with Kashmiris were arrested and slapped with sedition charges to the cancellation of a magazine launch event on ‘Freedom of Expression’ by Delhi University.
While commercialisation of education was already a growing concern in the country, some recent changes hint towards massive restructuring of the public education system. The UGC’s move of granting autonomy to 60 institutions of higher education to ‘maintain high standards’ and the govt. proposing to scrap the UGC and replace it with the HECI (Higher Education Commission of India) is a twisted attempt at curbing democratic debate and intellectual autonomy in educational spaces.
We, as a country, are still fighting for equality of opportunity, employment, respect and spaces that doesn’t discriminate against people of the third gender, and other non-binary identities. TISS took a conclusive step in furtherance of the same by making a hostel for trans and gender non-conforming students from this academic year. The Govt. of Kerela added two seats for trans students in all colleges. Kabir Trivedi, a trans student in Miranda House, has built a thriving society that’s acting as a safe space for the queer community in the college.
Although we are taking baby steps in reaching the goal of educations spaces that treat all students equally irrespective of their gender and sexuality, we are far from being called progressive when it comes to that. As a society, we need better education, awareness, and acceptance of other genders and identities, and there is no place better than to start from educational institutions.
It would be safe to say that we’re living in a time and age when mental health issues are not just common but widespread, especially in students who are battling with depression and anxiety owing to the ‘rat race’ like structure of the Indian education system. Patterns of socialisation have pushed students to question their identities, make tough decisions due to peer pressure. When sometimes what can really help is if they had someone to listen and talk to, someone to understand. Universities need to focus on the mental health of its students, create peer support groups and employ counsellors.
Educational spaces and relationships forged in these spaces should ideally be devoid of violence and harassment, just like every other space we inhabit. But of late, it has come to light how educational spaces are plagued with not just sexual harassment but complainants also facing dire consequences (grades can suffer, character assassination during the inquiry, isolation etc.) for reporting the incident.
We need to cultivate a culture that deals proactively with sexual harassment and doesn’t put the onus on the complainant for the incident/harassment. We need to be able to assure complainants the freedom to talk about it, devoid of any judgment, and their demand for justice. The institutional systems of redressal need to be stronger. Last year, Raya Sarkar, a law student, had circulated a list asking fellow students to share the names of academicians who were sexually predatory, and later published this crowd sourced list on Facebook with many high profile academics on it. The system needs to be made better and stronger so that students don’t have to publish viral Excel sheets to protect one another from sexual predators. The system needs to stop shaming.