How UoH and JNU Have Taken Us From Public Protest to Public Pedagogy

In the public debates around key concepts raised by the students, democracy finds its greatest strength: the right to speak, the right to be heard and the right to plurality

About 100 students gathered at the university's main gates, which were closed for outsiders. When some of the students and staff were not allowed to enter, the crowd began to shout protests. The police was called in, and at least 50 students were detained.

A student protest at the University of Hyderabad. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Two spaces in India have been radically transformed since January 18, 2016: the educational institution and the public space of the town/city.

January 18, 2016 saw the first protests over the suicide of the Dalit student-scholar, Rohit Vemula, at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), driven to despair over his suspension from residential areas of the educational institution by a university order, allegedly at the behest of a ruling party’s local member of parliament, and unfairly tried before being convicted. On February 12, 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) was arrested on sedition charges for allegedly raising anti-India slogans at a student gathering. Widespread protests across the country resulted, and we saw a merger of both ‘causes’ in the protests.

Numerous public intellectuals, activists, jurists, educationists, and politicians gave interviews, wrote opinion pieces, joined campaigns and signed petitions. Processions and protests also included, expectedly, shut-downs of educational institutions, street protests and online campaigns across Indian cities. Heated debates on television were accompanied by letters to respected newspapers from parents, former teachers, alumni of these institutions and others. Worldwide coverage came in the form of BBC and CNN reportage and signature campaigns by academics, submitted to the Indian government, the president and others.

What do the protests congealing around Rohit/UoH and Kanhaiya/JNU mean for the landscape of ‘public pedagogy’ and how might they transform the scene of education itself, if followed through?

Public pedagogy, as theorists such as Henry Giroux have defined it, is an essential system of education that works outside institutions:

learning and education happening outside of formal schooling systems and position informal spaces of learning such as popular culture, the Internet, public spaces such as museums and parks, and other civic and commercial spaces, including both old and new social movements, as sites of pedagogy containing possibilities for both reproduction and resistance.

The protests around Rohit/UoH and Kanhaiya/JNU moved out of public educational institutions to public spaces: the streets. The streets and open spaces outside public offices, government buildings in the campaigns such as ‘Chalo UGC’ become, I propose, spaces of education.

There is, in other words, an educative force and appeal in the protests. Pedagogy, said Henry Giroux, ‘is not simply about the social construction of knowledge, values, and experiences; it is also a performative practice embodied in the lived interactions among educators, audiences, texts, and institutional formations’. We saw these interactions in the above protests.

Public pedagogy as embodied in the protests is essential to India’s democracy for several reasons.

First, it takes theories and ideas, ideologies and ideologies from the classroom to the public space of debate. Point-counterpoint, the clash of ideologies (SFI/ABVP, Congress/BJP, Marxist/Neoliberal) were embodied in the speeches and discussions outside the institution and thus explicated in real-time in a real-life situation. This is a pedagogy that emerges from outside the institution as well, when thinkers and commentators as diverse as protesting mothers and lawyers (Teesta Setalvad) inform the public of what wrongs have been perpetrated and, more importantly, what is at stake.   This is therefore a pedagogy of the public, emerging from outside the licensed scholarly world of academia and is more akin to cultural work around social justice and ideas of democracy.

Second, ideas of nationalism, continuing discrimination, identity, patriotism, freedoms (of various kinds) were articulated in ways that these became, at least for the duration of the protests, a public lingua franca. Here protests that debated key concepts were pedagogic for the public (okay, the public that cared to listen, exactly as in a class room). It brought to public attention issues of academic freedoms, the right to protest, the modes of social integration, the subtleties of discrimination and the education policies around, say research programs in universities. This pedagogy for the public is an important development in Indian democracy because it is not a set of state-governed instructions as to what to think or how to think. Public pedagogy cohering around Rohit/Kanhaiya and concepts of discrimination or freedoms mobilizes public sentiment through the instruction generated by the protests.

Third, the protests around identity and concepts such as freedom or nationalism altered the polis. The polis, wrote Hannah Arendt, ‘is the organisation of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together’. Thus, the polis was a pluralised space, with arguments and counterarguments around abstract ideas of nationhood and identity being articulated in a blurring of advocacy, education and activism.

Fourth, it expanded the public educational institution to encompass the street at a time when the space of public institutions is shrinking. Judith Butler writing about the Occupy movement: by “performatively laying claim to public education … precisely at a historical moment in which that access is being shut down”, through budget cuts, censorship and fee-hike, the protests symbolically lay claim to “buildings that ought properly, now and in the future, to belong to public education.” The public institution where debates around abstract concepts and concrete social inequities may be debated extends into the public space of the city when these protests move out of the walls. The public institution is then projected as a space where these inequities are institutionalised, even as they are spaces segregated from the surrounding city or context. The protests in these two cases demonstrated how the institution only reflects its surrounding social realities, as the nation yet again learnt what it meant to be inside places of higher learning devoted, ostensibly, to ideas of equality, freedom and justice. The protests also underlined the need for public institutions to be truly public and not subject to ideological regimentation, to be truly public and plural.

Fifth, the direction in which protests such as these move is not determined by an agenda from the outside or from within an educational regime. It emerges from within the very recognition of what is at stake: freedom from discrimination, freedom to access equality and social justice, etc. We can see the protests as public pedagogy for the political learning they disseminate about what it means to be a part of the Indian public. These protests took a crisis within public institutions into the public outside the institution so that they fed off each other.

Sixth, the public pedagogy the protests embody is about publicness, about being a concerned public. By drawing attention to structures and regimes of exclusion – including censorship, which is a process of excluding words – the protests educate us on what is at stake in being a public, a polis. This is not to say that politics replaces education. Rather, from a theoretical standpoint, education for the public is drawn from a political campaign and thereby it, the public, understands itself better as a public.

The Rohit/Kanhaiya protests are important because of these pedagogic effects they can potentially generate, for the ideas around which they cohered and for the political learning they offer to the ones who heard them. In the public debates around key concepts, democracy finds its greatest strength: the right to speak, the right to be heard and the right to plurality.

Pramod K. Nayar is a Professor at the University of Hyderabad


  • Mrunalini Krishnamurti

    So true! That’s the sort of education that India must get to and real soon. We’ve got some good distance to catch up. I like the way Kanhaiya took this teaching thing to the prison. He taught and he let the ordinary folks working as cops teach him. Like, we got to get taught by each other with no class caste barrier.