Universities, of all places in the world, were expected to respond to the severe social, economic and political crises engendered by a recklessly imposed and authoritarian lockdown with decency, reason, humanism, responsibility and concern for upholding justice and democracy. Unfortunately, the decision of the Delhi University (DU) administration to go ahead with conducting the online open book examination (OBE) in July 2020 for final year students smacks of the very opposite.
Thousands of students and teachers have been passionately debating the new reality that was thrust upon DU as much as upon the rest of the country when the state openly reneged on its responsibility towards citizens, leaving them to fend for themselves through an imperious announcement made on the evening of March 24. Students, in particular, have been saying repeatedly that nothing ever prepared them to deal with the severe levels of shock, fear, anxiety and uncertainties that have come to plague their ruptured lives.
All of a sudden, they stood robbed of mornings, afternoons and evenings on the streets of the university, around tea stalls and kulcha-bhelpoori khomchas, and on college lawns, sports grounds and lanes. All of a sudden, the hostels, common rooms, corridors, canteens, seminar rooms, libraries and classrooms of colleges, were no longer theirs. With this went the noise and the hustle and bustle of daily meetings laced with the regular, gentle ‘dua-salaam’ and the occasional hug. In one lightning flash, students and teachers were exiled from the places of work that they nourished into being through their daily work of intense face-to-face encounters with ideas, imaginations, opinions, languages and people from all over the country and from diverse social backgrounds.
Suddenly, they were stripped of the promise of experiencing the joys and pains of reading, writing, thinking, speaking, creating and loving without fear. In a matter of hours, they were denuded of the exciting possibilities of unshackling minds, imaginations and hearts that came with teeming bodies, the exchange of glances, and the fire, heat and sweat of interactions inside and outside classrooms at colleges across DU. Dreams of refreshed minds able to think critically, independently and as equals in conversation with each other, came crashing down. In the blink of an eye, the experience of adrenalin coursing through veins in the search for truth, of hearts aflame and desires alight in the collective quest for individually understanding and feeling the meaning of becoming human, was snatched from students and teachers alike.
Torn away from books and discussions, forced to remain away from friends and the few people they might have been able to confide in, unable to make sense of staying in technologically mediated ‘touch’, innumerable students have been fighting the fear of being sucked into the void. Forcibly isolated and alienated, worried sick about families and friends as well as their own ability to continue paying rents, get the next meal and deal with urgent personal issues, many have been teetering at the very edge of the precipice.
Thousands remain further traumatised by the country-wide attacks on democratic rights, the open attempts at communalising and prejudicing perceptions regarding the spread of the virus through ‘scapegoating’ Muslims and citizens from different states of North-East India, and by the fate that has befallen others, especially children, women and millions of workers, not to speak of those students who themselves come from families thus impacted. In fact, innumerable comments, petitions and letters have drawn attention to the aggravated injuries caused by the lockdown to disabled students and teachers and to those belonging to socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society.
For many among even those who are better placed materially, socially and emotionally – those who are not forced for instance, to take on suddenly increased burdens of domestic responsibilities or live in intimate 24-hour contact in congested, fraught family situations – functioning in normal ways has been an uphill struggle.
These precarious states of being have been worsened by the pressures of a lockdown within a lockdown in regions such as Kashmir and the absence of the technological wherewithal for thousands of students in different parts of the country, including in many pockets of Delhi NCR, to even ‘get online’, for any purpose whatsoever.
No wonder the signals coming from students and many teachers as well, carry the desperation of ‘Mayday, Mayday’ calls for help. Staring into the abyss, they have been trying to communicate how completely the lockdown has damaged their daily lives and work routines. With fear in their souls and confusion gripping their minds, unable to read, write, concentrate and engage with syllabi in any meaningful manner, even when they have technologies and online networks at their command, they worry in paroxysms of guilt-ridden outbursts that they are unable to be students anymore. An ordinary sentence, spoken in passing in normally bad times, ‘Things are not good, Sir,’ has become, in today’s context, a scream against the lethal brew that threatens to engulf young lives, provided of course we are prepared to listen.
Expectations from the administration belied
Expectations that the DU administration would lend a keen ear to burning concerns raised by students and teachers and respond with sensitivity, fairness and an eye towards serving justice and democracy, have been largely belied. The aggressive top-down push for online teaching in the weeks immediately following the lockdown, for instance, accompanied by the highly questionable opinion that online modes must begin, hereon, to replace regular face-to-face pedagogical interactions, had thoughtlessness, exclusion and failure written into its script.
The administration sought to do this in a tearing hurry without either seeking to craft a sound conceptual grounding for online teaching, or fulfilling its responsibility of providing every student and teacher with the technological wherewithal and the requisite training to use these modes while simultaneously guaranteeing network connectivity and co-ordination across colleges. Moreover, there were neither reassurances that this thrust would not lead to job cuts, nor any substantive acknowledgement that the violence of the lockdown had left large numbers of students and teachers emotionally and intellectually incapable of participating in this ‘new normal’ which might therefore, cause more harm than good. The result was that online teaching, which is, even in the best of circumstances, hurdled with severe qualitative limitations, ended up becoming in the case of DU, massively inadequate, exclusionary and angst-ridden.
Now, the DU administration is all set to compound the injustice of this botched experiment with its decision to conduct OBE for final year students. Once again it is reneging on fulfilling its responsibilities for making necessary arrangements towards creating a level playing field for all students to take their exams. The onus for downloading question papers, organising stationery, uploading answer scripts, arranging electronic devices for this purpose, finding centres that might facilitate these processes, and ensuring internet connectivity for smooth transmission, has been placed entirely on prospective candidates. The DU administration, with one unfair stroke of the pen, has simply shifted the burden of its own obligations onto the shoulders of students.
It has done this knowing full well that despite all its well-meaning suggestions to students for taking the OBE, there shall be many who, as with online teaching, will not be able to take this kind of examination. This too is blatantly unjust as is the failure of the administration, in the absence of regular invigilation procedures, to guarantee the sanctity of the examination process.
Lacks any sense of the despair that threatens students
However, by far the most disturbing aspect of this decision, taken by flouting established democratic practices and conventions at DU, is that it lacks any sense of the extremes of despair and disorientation that presently threaten to push students into corners of extreme vulnerability at the very thought of having to appear for examinations. The prospect of taking exams is daunting at the best of times. To expect students to make their own arrangements and appear for exams in orbits of isolation in these haunted times reflects a dangerous fetish for examinations, and a contempt for the values that Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, thought should be the cornerstones of any university.
The hope remains, however, that the DU administration, committed in principle to upholding such values, might still learn from students’ stories, take a step back, cancel the OBE, permit final year students to be evaluated on the basis of past grades and current internal assessment marks – as it has agreed to do for all intermediate level students – and spare everyone ‘final cuts’ of trauma and heartburn. Students, including ex-students, who wish, or need to appear for examinations in addition to this standard measure of evaluation for all, can of course be given the option of appearing for regular pen and paper exams at the first available opportunity.
Who knows, one such step back might allow the administration to take many steps forward in the direction of redeeming its commitment to cautiously re-energising life in classrooms, corridors, lawns, seminar rooms, auditoria, libraries and canteens of colleges – the truly invaluable sites of educational practice – instead of remaining obsessed with privileging suspect virtual modes, and fixated on holding examinations, come what may. That too, by forcing candidates to go on a wild goose chase ‘online’, and all alone.
Mukul Mangalik, associate professor of history, Ramjas College, University of Delhi.