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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 3 January 20, 2024

A University That Knows the Art of Speaking Truth to Power | Gyan Prakash

Friday 19 January 2024


n times when we see constant attacks on every inch of public space, universities give us the courage to fight the dominant neoliberal vision through the tools of constitutional democracy. Critical thinking lies at the heart of the human quest for progress and the recent protests from the JNU community must be seen in this light.

In a recent CPO (Chief Proctor Office) manual, the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University came up with an order to fine students up to Rs. 20,000 for putting up posters, writing slogans on the walls, and protesting within hundred meters of academic buildings. The progressive student organizations of the university have been up against this order since the day it came into public. The order met with resistance as it tries to put a check on the democratic spaces that the university has cherished for decades. It goes against the idea of liberal democracy that we had envisioned in our constitution. It violates the idea of the university that promotes a culture of debate and dissent and encourages adventure of ideas.

A University That Cultivates Critical Citizenship

This is not the first time that the administration has attacked the vibrant democratic culture of the university by promoting a culture of silence. Four years back, the administration’s decision to raise the hostel and tuition fees was fought on the streets of the national capital when thousands of students participated in protests and demonstrations were held within and outside the campus. The campus was brought back to life with its long-held tradition of non-violent resistance and democratic dialogue and the administration was finally forced to withdraw the decision to hike the fees. In an internal survey conducted by the students of JNU at that time, it was found that 4 out of 10 students would have to leave the university if the fee hike had not been fought. Therefore, the fee hike attempt by the administration was an attack on the social and cultural diversity of the university earned through years of struggle. There is no doubt that had the fee hike proposal been implemented, the students who would have left the university were first-generation learners coming from marginalized sections of society.

The neoliberal vision of education hates any critical consciousness that questions authority. JNU challenges such narrow interpretations of education and rather promises and cultivates a critical citizenship that questions everything that goes against the idea of a society based on liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice. Reducing education to merely a routinized classroom exercise is a very recent phenomenon in the long tradition of human history. The idea that classrooms are the sole repository of authentic knowledge delivering it to the next generation through formal curriculum and officially defined pedagogy has severe limitations. JNU revolts against this narrow vision of education and sees the classroom as an extension of the larger socio-cultural milieu that shapes our conditions of existence. The interactions outside the classrooms are equally full of knowledge as those that happen within the four walls of classrooms. The walls become the spaces that challenge the formally defined curriculum. Ambedkar could be easily eliminated from the reading set of sociology but walls full of quotations of Ambedkar sensitizes us to the massive exclusionary practices that go on around us. Phule might not enter the syllabus on the sociology and politics of education but his ideas printed on the walls of the university will continue to make us aware of the historical struggles of Dalit-Bahujans for a respectable space in the field of education.

Protests and demonstrations are not only a form of resistance but they are also the sites where ideas and action merge into a syncretic whole. While protesting against the fee hike, the students recalled the decades-old promise of a minimum expenditure of 6 percent of GDP on education. Through slogans like “Rashtrapati ho ya ho chaprasi ki santan, sabko shiksha ek saman” (everyone must have access to similar quality of education whether he/she is the child of a president or a peon), students recalled not only the relevance of Rammanohar Lohia in present times but committed themselves to fight the ever-widening gap between private and government schools. Babasaheb Ambedkar showed us the path through his slogan “educate, agitate, organize”. The tremor of the protests was felt in IITs and IIMs. There were reports of peaceful resistance on these campuses (even though poorly organized) against exorbitant tuition fees charged by the administration. They not only questioned the economic cost of their courses but their moral content too.

A neoliberal vision of education loves homogeneous classrooms. It believes that students coming from similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds will have similar habitus and in turn, they can easily be trained to become good managers with very low investment of time and money in their skill development. JNU refuses to follow this market-oriented view of education and rather promotes heterogeneity through measures like the deprivation point system (that ensures gender equality and also allows students from remote rural areas to join the university) and honest implementation of provisions of reservations. The multiplicity of experiences that makes the campus and classrooms a heterogeneous space is an asset for JNU to sensitize its students to a world that is full of diversity. A Dalit student sharing his experience of having faced discrimination in his school and village makes the lecture on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed even more meaningful. A tribal student sharing his/her experience of walking for kilometers to collect wood for fuel merges with the lectures on Kancha Ilaiah. What emerges in such a setting is a picture of India coming to us not through texts, data and revenue models but through its people who are full of life, skill, knowledge, and wisdom.

JNU Teaches to Accept Privileges

In a UGBM held a few months ago, a student from the upper caste in JNU in his speech acknowledged the privilege that he had by a mere accident of his birth. This is how a democratic space is shaped. The experiences of humiliation and discrimination have to be complemented by the acceptance of privileges. This is a rare practice in the time we live but it appears to be normal in JNU. And in the absence of such open acceptance of privileges, the provision of reservation becomes a monster for upper castes that has to be resisted with full power. The fellowships to the students belonging to weaker sections become an unnecessary burden on the economy and society. In the sheer absence of a sense of history and collective social life, the struggle for merit begins at 2 PM when the exam starts and ends at 5 PM when students submit their answer sheets.

One of our professors in JNU said during his lecture that we were in a nation-building exercise and this suddenly reminded me of an incident from my graduation days at the University of Delhi. A few of my fellow classmates in Delhi University belonging predominantly to upper-caste backgrounds asked one of our teachers to conduct separate classes for the so-called meritorious students coming from upper caste backgrounds if our fellow Dalit Bahujan classmates were not able to receive lectures in time. For my upper caste friends in Delhi University, all those who lacked pace and skill like them should not be allowed to share classrooms with them. They saw the classroom as factories that produce a maximum number of particular skill sets in the least possible time and in a sense they were the champions of the neoliberal vision of education. JNU introduced us to the liberal and democratic vision of universities and classrooms that our constitution stands for.

The dominant neoliberal education forces us to think in terms of ‘I’ and threatens any collective consciousness. An ideal student in such a system would choose a PPT presentation over protesting against inhuman atrocities on a Dalit for riding a horse or for asking for minimum wage for his/her work. An ideal neoliberal student would choose to write a term paper on caste and reservation but refuse to join a protest at Jantar Mantar against an attack on the reservation. An ideal student would choose to attend a workshop on organic farming but won’t write a word on the plight of farmers. An ideal student would promote capitalist farming and not visit the ailing farmers on the borders of Delhi. An ideal student would choose to attend a lecture on labor economics but not utter a single word on the social security and health hazards of factory workers. JNU refuses to accept such dualism and rather promotes a sensitization where action and ideas are not seen in separation.

A Pathological Division

According to a report of the Hindustan Times [1], the residents of Vasant Kunj protested against the construction of a government school in their locality. The stated reason in the report was that, for the middle and upper-middle-class families living in the area it would give the outsiders an entry to their locality. At a deeper level, one could say that the elites fear the intermixing of their children with the children coming from marginalized groups living in slums. They see slum dwellers as sweepers and cooks in their houses but not as school-going children in a school in their locality. The elites see themselves as culturally superior and believe that any intermixing with culturally inferior social groups in a democratic setting that schools are expected to uphold will be a fatal blow to the high aspiration of their children shaped through long years of concerted cultivation. Many sociologists have argued that the English medium elite schools have maintained and sustained strong boundaries between insiders and outsiders through controlled socialization.
The long years of training within a group constituted by culturally similar children often produce a worldview that is very narrow and often goes against the ethos of social and economic democracy. This worldview becomes part of an ideology that perpetuates segregation between the rich and the poor, between Dalits and upper castes, and between English-speaking and speakers of regional languages. The neoliberal ideology has created a wide gulf between the two- private schools and government schools. It did not surprise me when a government school teacher told me that the students in government schools are trained to become NREGA workers while English medium private schools prepare their students to become doctors, engineers, and bureaucrats.

The question that is before us is- can we destabilize common sense based on the ideology of neoliberalism? Universities like JNU give hope in times of darkness. JNU with its tradition of critical thinking disturbs the foundation of an inegalitarian socioeconomic and cultural order through its uncommon questions. The classrooms of JNU break the boundaries between elite schools and government schools. The Doon school begins to speak to a school in remote rural Bihar. Sanskriti school finds a new relationship with the government schools of the Tribal belt of Jharkhand. The walls of JNU speak to the authority in a language that is not expected from the products of the culture industry. The market-based wisdom fails to mesmerize the students of JNU. JNU struggles for a classroom that may have fewer material resources but never fails short of moral resources. It diagnoses the social ills not through the lens of neoliberalism but through the eyes of constitutional democracy that promises a land of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity. At the center of all such struggles lies the freedom to speak and the right to non-violent resistance which the administration wants to curtail through the recent manual.

(Author: Gyan Prakash (gyan.prakash.2295’at] is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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