How Neoliberalism Fragmented Our Universities and Staved off Student Unrest

What better way to steer clear of mass student unrest – historically a significant threat to the neoliberal state, whose ultimate function is to protect the interests of capital – than to break up the university into disconnected pieces?

It seems to me a very, in a sense terrifying aspect of our society and other societies is the equanimity and the detachment with which sane, reasonable, sensible people can observe such events. I think that’s more terrifying than the occasional Hitler or LeMay… that crops up. These people would not be able to operate were it not for… this apathy and equanimity and therefore I think that it’s in some sense the sane and reasonable and tolerant people who… share a very serious burden of guilt that they very easily throw on the shoulders of others who seem more extreme and more violent.

– Noam Chomsky in conversation with William F. Buckley on Firing Line, April 3, 1969.

On May 22, Dr Payal Tadvi, an Adivasi Muslim gynaecologist, was found dead in her hostel room following extreme harassment at the hands of senior, upper-caste residents. Dr Tadvi joins Rohith Vemula, another lower-caste student at an institution of higher learning, as the latest casualty of caste-based discrimination, a problem that has long plagued an academy that is unwilling to countenance it. Added to this, the paucity of student involvement in the protests that followed outside B.Y.L. Nair Hospital in Mumbai has prompted me to ask, very broadly: Why?

Indeed, throughout the 20th century, student protesters have played an important part in cementing the progress towards social justice. They sat in and marched in support of desegregation in the United States during the civil rights movement. They made up a sizeable fraction of the agitators during protests across the globe in 1968 against imperialism, patriarchy, racism, biological and nuclear weapons, and environmental degradation, all the while forging solidarities with the working classes.

For a short period of time, it seemed like all the powers that characterised the Old World Order – the imperialists, the colonisers, the supremacists, the capitalists – would wither away in the face of mass action. Closer to home, students participated actively in the struggle against British colonial powers in the years leading up to Indian independence in 1947.

As higher education in India expanded, especially in the years following globalisation and the beginning of our neoliberal age, two trends could be observed. First, public universities were allowed to collapse. Starved of funding and unable to maintain (let alone expand) their infrastructure while still catering to a large and growing demand for higher education, the quality of affordable public education nosedived.

Also read: The Emergency, and the BJP’s Hidden History of Student Protest

Second, higher education campuses that catered solely to training in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) became increasingly common. A wedge was driven into the traditional university, separating the sciences on one side and the arts and the humanities on the other. While medical colleges in India probably never offered their students humanities courses, the new millennium saw an explosion of private engineering colleges where one could study, say, chemical engineering, then enter the workforce, all with an understanding of history and politics at the level of a tenth grader.

This trend towards specialisation of higher education campuses is now true of the sciences as well, with the proliferation of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research. The result? Your average college-educated engineer, doctor or scientist understands the caste system about as well as a 15-year old. Is it any wonder, then, that Dalit and Adivasi students still face exclusion, segregation and harassment at the hands of upper-caste students and faculty members?

Neoliberalism thrives on fractured solidarities and neutralised threats of mass action. So what better way to steer clear of mass student unrest – historically a significant threat to the neoliberal state, whose ultimate function is to protect the interests of capital – than to break up the university into smaller, disconnected pieces?

The seriousness of this problem should not be underestimated. At public talks and science “outreach” events, scientists will routinely appeal to ordinary citizens to embrace rationality and disavow superstition. They encourage us to cultivate a scientific temperament. And yet their training, to be scientists and which also qualifies them to teach at our schools and colleges, doesn’t include anything about the forces that shape society.

This alarming disconnect with ground realities is evinced by a recent report by Anoo Bhuyan at The Wire, where she quotes the president of the Indian Medical Association as saying, “There is no caste discrimination in Indian medical field.”

Instead of them reaching out to us with the lessons learned from a lifetime dedicated to scientific inquiry or the practice of medicine, perhaps we should reach into these institutions and teach them about class antagonisms and caste hierarchies instead.


The problem isn’t just with how scientists and doctors are trained, however.

The tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first government saw three prominent public intellectuals and activists murdered by gun-wielding assailants: Govind Pansare (February 2015), M.M. Kalburgi (August 2015) and Gauri Lankesh (September 2017). All three were prominent critics of right-wing Hindu ideology and caste-based discrimination.

The Modi era also witnessed an uptick in student unrest across educational campuses. Some prominent examples of these student-led protests include:

  1. The unrest at Jadavpur University (September 2014, the Hok Kolorob movement)
  2. Agitations at IIT Madras (May 2015, following the motivated derecognition of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle)
  3. Unrest at the Film and Television Institute of India (June 2015, following the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman)
  4. The Pinjra Tod agitations (August 2015)
  5. The ‘Occupy UGC’ movement (October 2015, concerning graduate fellowships and against privatisation of higher education);
  6. Protests at Hyderabad Central University (January 2016, following the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, a lower caste PhD scholar)
  7. The sedition row at Jawaharlal Nehru University (February 2016, which saw multiple arrests and a protracted strike against attempts by the state authorities to silence political dissidents)
  8. Protests at the National Institute of Technology at Srinagar (April 2016, where violence broke out between Kashmiri and outstation students)
  9. March at Delhi University (February 2017, against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad, the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party);
  10. Protests at Government Degree College in Pulwama (April 2017, against physical abuse by Indian military personnel);
  11. Protests at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (February 2018, against the withdrawal of financial support for students from lower caste backgrounds)

This list is incomplete, to be sure, but it gives one a sense of just how widespread and comprehensive the assault on university campuses really is.

The anger that birthed these demonstrations was brought on by the problems of caste-based discrimination, of hyper-masculinity and patriarchy, and ultimately the manifold contradictions of Hinduism in its neoliberal avatar. Curiously, students pursuing an education in STEM fields were far less active in these agitations than, say, those pursuing an education in the humanities and social sciences.

More egregiously, when it seemed like our university campuses were on fire, our three science academies chose to maintain a condemnable silence. Perhaps they really believe science is bipartisan and apolitical. Is the right to free speech and dissent no longer a prerequisite for scientific discourse, then? It appears that scientific activity and medical practice are indifferent to the ebb and flow of violence outside the laboratories, classrooms and operation theatres. At their most involved, senior scientists will sign condescending and lukewarm appeals to logic and reason.

What is under attack today is the notion of social justice itself. The efforts to eradicate caste biases, to protect minority rights, to empower women, to protect the environment against degradation, to defend the rights of citizens to affordable healthcare and education – these are the efforts that are being undermined.

Also read: With All Eyes on Science, Social Science Scholars Flounder With Even Less Money

To be fully cognisant of the onslaught and to not speak out forcefully or show one’s solidarity by standing with victims and their families at protests is to abdicate one’s responsibility as educated citizens. The purpose of a university is to socialise knowledge, not hoard it; the muted response from academics in STEM to the shrinking space for democratic action and resistance on campuses is indistinguishable from a tacit acceptance of it. By not speaking out, we are contributing to the social reproduction and normalisation of violence and majoritarianism.

Those of us who have managed to preserve our sense of fairness and natural justice despite the normalisation of violence, and are moved to decry in private circles these blood-curling events, but stop short of concrete involvement, are not very different from the guests of Emperor Nero, who dine comfortably while bodies are set ablaze. While we are busy refining our performative liberalism, each and every one of us stands personally culpable in the institutional murders of Dalits and Adivasi peoples.


Our education system has a part to play in our complacency. It has rendered us ahistorical, cursed to live through a terrible present while untethered to the past and unsure of the future. This must be remedied by listening and learning and writing and reading more.

The myopic vision of our learned academies and universities ought not to circumscribe what constitutes acceptable political action; this is just one of the many lessons we stand to learn from our friends in the social sciences. Sit-ins, teach-ins and occupations are perfectly legitimate forms of dissent that can and should be deployed in solidarity with struggles in our cities and elsewhere in the country.

These demonstrations cannot restrict themselves to the interests of universities. The need of the hour is to build solidarities with and fight alongside the peasantry, the industrial working class, unorganised labour and minority rights groups, and treat their struggles as our own. These bonds are an insurance policy; they will allow us to mount a formidable defence of liberty, plurality and secularism should such a thing be required.

To recall a slogan from the May 1968 agitations in France, in which students played a world-historical role: “Cela nous concerne tous.” This concerns all of us. If we don’t start now, there won’t be a university campus worth saving.

Malhar Dandekar is a scientist from Bangalore.