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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 41 New Delhi September 29, 2018

Studentship, Politics and Youth Culture

Saturday 29 September 2018, by Avijit Pathak


As a teacher, I keep engaging with the young minds; and I do believe that higher education is not merely for acquiring the cognitive and technical skills for fetching lucrative jobs; it ought to generate self-reflexivity, critical thinking and intense participatory urge to create a better world. No wonder, politics—politics as an awareness of the discourse of power, or politics as a mode of collective practice for intervening in the way social/cultural/economic resources are distributed in society—surrounds the domain of education. To deny it in the name of ‘sanitised’ education (as private universities and technical institutions talk about the ‘politics free’ campus, and attract the self-centric/ambitious middle class) is to have another kind of politics—the politics that reinforces the status quo.

As a teacher, I take active interest in the way the youth see the world—its power dynamics or its cultural matrix, and make their political choices. And particularly when the ruling ideology sanctifies a doctrine of hyper-masculine cultural nationalism , and legitimises some sort of neo-liberal capitalism, it is important to know how the youth respond to its devastating consequences: the construction of the ‘enemies’ of the nation, the projection of the ‘Muslim fanatic’, mass psychology of hatred causing mob violence, cow vigilantism and lynching, an economy that sells the mythology of ‘smart cities’ and ‘bullet trains’, and at the same time causes joblessness, increasing marginalisation and insecurity, and a cultural milieu filled with consumerism, media simulations and distorted imageries associated with gender, sexuality and minorities.

In this article I wish to draw some insights from the recently held students’ union elections in the two leading universities in the national capital.

Delhi University and the Cycle of Repetition

At this juncture, I need to make an observation. Yes, I know that a university is not an insulated island, and I also acknowledge that it is not possible for students to be altogether free from the influence of the major political parties existing in the larger society. Yet, if the university poitics becomes merely a carbon copy of what we see in the practices of the dominant mainstream political parties, it is not a very good sign. If the sme rhetoric of caste and religion colonises the political domain of the university life, or if the same culture of sensationalism and brute violence is seen in our campuses, there are reasons to be worried about. Because to be young is not to be passive receivers of what the big political bosses (from High Command to Nagpur to Polit-Bureau) are dictating; to be young means to dream, to experiment, to indicate a new possibility, a new dream.

However, I tend to feel that things are not really so promising in our universities. Take, for instance, the culture of Delhi University politics. While its ‘elite’ centres like St. Stephens, LSR or Delhi School of Economics seek to retain a ‘distance’ from the ‘general crowd’, and remain contented with their cultural clubs, theatre groups and debating societies, the rest take part in a political spectacle that does not look qualitatively different from what we see in, say, a state assembly election. The flow of money, the use of the propaganda machinery, the craft of image-making, the Machaivellianism of ‘alliances’, and above all, the dominant presence of the students’ wings of the two ‘big’ parties (Congress-affiliated NSUI, and BJP-affiliated ABVP) do not arouse much hope and confidence. Yes, the repetitive cycle of ABVP-NSUI or NSUI-ABVP seems to have become the pattern. At times, the urge to survive that we see among the Left organisations like the AISA captures some attention.

Well, as the 2019 general elections are approaching, we bcome curious to know how the youth are responding to the times, and whether they can pose a challenge to the ruling establishment. Yes, despite its defeat, the NSUI has done reasonably well; and it may give the impression that the youth have begun to see beyond the manufctured truth through which the ruling regime seeks to hypnotise the masses, and create a belief that ‘there is no alternative’, and Mr Modi is the best thing that has happened to the country. While I do not deny the relevance of such interpretation, I do not feel very positive about the prevalent political culture in Delhi University. The creative flow of ideas, the spirit of critical thinking, the idealism of the youth—I do not see. Neither the ABVP nor the NSUI can be perceived as a site of liberating politics: the politics that encourages critical thinking, passionate studentship and egalitarian culture.

The Danger Confronting JNU

However, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, because of its unique location and historicity, has a different story to tell. Since its inception the university—known primarily for its critical intellectual traditions in social sciences and liberal arts—has been creating what is often regarded as an ‘alternative’ political culture. The presence of the Left (with diverse varieties), and a distinctive political culture characterised by debates on larger social issues, and creative articulation of the voices of dissent through artistic posters, argumentative pamphlets and discussion forums have made it somewhat different. Here the students protested against the terror of the Emergency; and on diverse issues—ranging from the communalisation of the public sphere to the growing marketisation of education—the students dare to take a position and raise their critical voice. In recent times, with the changing political equation in the country, the university, we all know, has been passing through terribly bad times. In fact, the propaganda machinery backed by the ruling regime has made every effort possible to stigmatise the university; it is being projected as a site of ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘urban Maoists’. Furthermore, the new administration with all sorts of arbitrary rules and regulations has created an environment of discontent. It has also succeeded in dividing the teaching community through preferential treatment, show cause notices to select teachers and absolutely non-transparent ‘committees’ of all sorts. For quite some time, the students have been protesting against many of these non-democratic practices.

As a result, this time the JNUSU elections acquired a new meaning. Although the united Left group has succeeded in defeating the ABVP (see the pathology—here is an organisation that smells power, negates the very ethos of mature studentship, and instead, invites three Chief Ministers from the BJP-ruled States to speak in their election meetings), and revealed that there are limits to the might of power, there are three disturbing trends that somehow try to shake the foundations of the university.

First, the eruption of violence after the elections is something to be worried about. The beauty of this place is its civility, its culture of debate, and its largely peaceful social milieu. But then, the violence (I am not here to enquire who initiated it) we saw, I fear, would further add to the intensification of surveillance machineries through which the new adminis-tration is perpetually creating an environment of fear, suspicion and mistrust.

Second, the popularisation of identity politics or assertion of caste-based political groups (invocation of Dalit or OBC identity) is yet another development to be worried about. Yes, every sensible citizen would accept that in a ruthlessly hierarchical/caste-ridden society like ours, the politics based on the awareness of caste-based victimisation and marginalisation has tremendous therapeutic significance. And it is equally true that in a university where students read a great deal about Ambedkar and Phule, and even the Marxists remain somewhat confused about the interplay of caste and class, and many of us feel apologetic about our ‘privileged’ locations, a new political language is bound to come.

Yet, when they insulate this movement in the name of ‘representation’, and begin to suspect all those who belong to the ‘privileged’ castes (with perpetual doubut that others cannot understand their agony, and the Left is not sufficiently Ambedkarite, or Gandhi was essentially a conspirator—a representative of the ‘brahmin-bania nexus’) we do a damage to the ethos of liberating education—the education that ought to liberate us from limiting identities, and enable us to evolve, grow and expand our horizons. If politics is engineered in the name of caste and religion, it need not prove to be always healthy and positive for the cultivation of liberating education, even if it speaks of ‘patriotrism’ or ‘subaltern’ agency.

And finally, the Machiavellianism of the Left and its epistemological certitude (no wonder, it becomes self-righteous, and often reduces a complex idea into a slogan; or it breeds stereotypes—if you read Vivekananda you are necessarily a ‘Hindutva type’; or if you refer to Gandhi, you are not sufficiently ‘radical’) tend to isolate otherwise many sensitive/progressive minds. This has also damaged the rigour and quality of the debates. These days, it seems, every organisation, instead of creating a positive agenda in a self-actualising process, says how bad others are; as a result, negativity prevails, cynicism spreads, and noise replaces a nuanced conversation.

Yet, as a teacher I refuse to lose hope. I believe that it is possible for the youth to think and act differently, and generate the possibility of an alternative political culture that derives its inspiration from the likes of Gandhi and Ambedkar, Marx and Bhagat Singh, Tagore and Paulo Freire. I say this because unlike many of us (habituated to our middle class comforts, and obsessive preoccupation with the career curve), our students have been fighting against an unjust system prevailing in the university, and keeping the hope alive. This is important because we find ourselves in a world in which the culture of narcissism, the violence of communalism and the tyranny of corporate capitalism have begun to invade every sphere of life, social Darwinism destroys the ethics of care and justice, and the intoxicant spectacle seeks to reduce the youth into greedy consumers. The youth ought to rise up, and say ‘no’ to this politics of insanity.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at the JNU, New Delhi.

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