For Sake of Protecting the Idea of a University, JNU Teachers Must Rise

The nature of the crisis at JNU transcends the limited boundary of a particular university – it is about the changing mental and cultural landscape.

Sometimes, my own practice surprises me. I am not a ‘political’ person – political in the sense of being part of an organised party – nor am I an ‘activist’. Seldom do I participate in any social movement. I am not fundamentally different from any other middle-class professional concerned primarily with my safety, security and comfort. Yet, these days I have begun taking an active interest in ‘politics’ – by which I mean the movement initiated by the teachers’ union of my varsity for restoring the idea of a university.

Recently, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association called for a hunger strike and organised a convention on the state of public-funded universities. Although, because of health reasons, I did not take part in the hunger strike, I was there to articulate my moral and political solidarity with the union. And yes, I did participate in the convention, spoke briefly and learned immensely from others.

Possibly, my inner conscience and a process of politico-ethical churning made it possible. I entered a ‘risky’ domain, came out of my comfort zone and allowed myself to be reduced into a ‘possible suspect’ in the eyes of the administration equipped with the technologies of surveillance. Who knows that yet another ‘show cause notice’ is awaiting me?

Why did I do this? In any case, I would retire within four years, and instead of involving myself with these ‘troubles’, I could have done what my middle-class ‘pragmatic’ friends often advise: Don’t utter a single word. Go to the department, teach, come back and lead a ‘peaceful’ life. If you make noise, they might not process your pension/provident fund papers.

I tried to be practical. I tried endlessly to remain silent, and prove my cleverness. But like Dostoyevsky’s ‘ridiculous man,’ I too failed. I became ‘foolish’. I began to write against the organised attack on our university, or for that matter, on the very idea of a university the way an insensitive administration backed by a potentially authoritarian regime seems determined to destroy the decentralised/democratic/transparent decision-making process, or the way the entire culture of critical pedagogy is being attacked by degrading/humiliating the teaching community (not granting them even duty leave for attending conferences and seminars) and introducing the online MCQ pattern of entrance test without ever bothering to engage in a pedagogic conversation with the teachers at every centre.

Also read: Amid Political Interference and Obsession With Ranking, Our Academic Culture is in Serious Trouble

Yes, with this critical reflection I began to enter a ‘risky’ domain, and I began to adore and respect the spirit and courage of many of my colleagues – including young teachers who have otherwise every reason to be fearful because they have just begun their careers – for their ability to overcome silence, conquer fear, nullify indifference and resist this onslaught. At this juncture, it became difficult for me to pretend that they do not exist. I thought that as a ‘senior’ faculty, I too must break my inertia, and at least try to radiate positive energy.

There is yet another reason for my self-reflexive engagement. No, this is not just about JNU, the nature of the crisis transcends the limited boundary of a particular university – and it is about the changing mental and cultural landscape. Imagine a society in which security guards are instructed to take pictures of the teachers who raise their critical voice and protest against the administration. Imagine a society in which the university administration disconnects the electricity at the Administrative Block because the teachers are on a hunger strike. Imagine a society in which no channel of communication exists between the administration and the teachers/students except midnight circulars, show cause notices and threatening ‘press releases’. Imagine a society in which discipline is equated with loyalty, teachers are seen as spokespersons of the ‘official truth’ and any critical voice that probes into the larger politico-economic issues is seen as ‘anti-national’.

John Lennon sang a song in praise of the utopia. And ironically, it is dystopia that we see in our universities. It destroys creativity, it encourages regimentation, it produces docility. It is anti-education. It prepares the ground for authoritarianism.

Hence, the crisis in JNU is merely a symptom. But then, psychologically we move from the near to the far. Hence, to a not-so-active person like me, JNU becomes the immediate context of protest. Yes, I am also becoming increasingly aware of the fact that it is not easy. Even though I see courageous/spirited teachers and union leaders trying to activate us, it is not always possible to overcome the trap of ‘fear, pragmatism and cleverness’. I know I am not free from this fear.

In fact, our middle-class existence is centred on fear – fear of losing our jobs, fear of being deprived of some extra privilege or power and fear of ‘risks’. Fear paralyses us. We die every moment with this fear, even though we drive our fancy cars, come to the university and send papers to international journals with high ‘impact factor’. Indeed, our education has made us clever, not necessarily wiser. Hence, we would never say that we are fearful. Instead, we would say that we are ‘strategic’ and ‘pragmatic’, and at the ‘right’ moment we would open our mouths. The ‘right’ moment never comes…

Also read: The Spirit of Being a University Teacher in These Turbulent Times

Think of the site of the hunger strike. This union got a huge mandate. Where are those who elected this union? It is sad to see the absence of so many teachers, despite all the eforts of mobilisation by the union leaders. Yes, retired professors who love this university, spirited young teachers and union leaders and some well wishers – their illuminating presence or moral vibrancy was remarkable.

Yet, I expected more from my colleagues – their moral support, or simply a positive gesture by acknowledging the presence of a struggle of this kind. Why is this indifference, this coldness, this pretence that everything is ‘normal’? Is it because of the trap of fear I have just mentioned? Will they continue to remain silent when the administration tries to ‘discipline and punish’ the dissenters with an illusory hope that they are eternally safe and secure?

It shatters me. Is it then reducing everything into a merely bookish material dissociated from actual living practice? With this fear how do we introduce Marx in the class, and ask students to write an essay on ‘conflict as the driving force of history’? With this cleverness, how do we deliver a lecture on Antonio Gramsci’s prison life? With this indifference how do we write papers on Gandhi and Ambedkar? Authoritarianism is here. We are searching for it in our research papers. This irony shatters me. It shatters me more because I too am a victim of it.

Avijit Pathak is a professor of Sociology at JNU.