I am writing this article with intense pain and anxiety. Yes, Jawaharlal Nehru University is in turmoil once again. With an utterly insensitive/non-dialogic administration, and the anguish of the student community, the university, it seems, is losing what a learning environment requires: empathy, communication and dialogue.
As a teacher, I feel that we ought to share with the larger society what the crisis is all about, particularly at a time when the propaganda machinery is active in castigating the university and its student community.
A noisy television channel and the presence of the ‘invisible’
To begin with, let me state that for ages I have not seen our Vice Chancellor. Somehow, it surprises me because I have seen some of our other Vice Chancellors walking and smiling, talking to students and teachers, visiting the shopping complex and buying potatoes and onions, and behaving like any other professor.
Our students too are eagerly waiting to meet him, and have a conversation with him regarding many issues – particularly, the entire conflict centred on the new hostel manual. But then, it is difficult to see him, even though there is a ‘castle’ where, I believe, he comes, and instructs his deputies to bombard us with all sorts of circulars and showcause notices .
However, the other day, a student informed me that our Vice Chancellor could be found – if I switch on a television channel known for its noisy anchor primarily concerned with the fate of the ‘republic’. Even though I am not very fond of hyper-real television shows, I managed to see him on the channel.
I asked myself: what would have happened had, if instead of spending his immensely ‘valuable’ time with this ‘nationalist’ anchor, he would have shared some moments with the students of the university. But then, his priorities, I tell myself, are different.
Well, the television channel sees the entire struggle as a negative act of ‘vandalism’. I am not surprised. In the age of potential authoritarianism implicit in the discourse of market-driven cultural nationalism, the Establishment wants to convey the message through these channels that JNU is highly pampered; its students are anarchists, and its teachers – a bunch of ‘leftists’ – encourage them to disturb the Vice Chancellor who is really trying to ‘discipline’ the university, restore ‘order’, rectify the ‘misdeeds’ of its ‘anti-national’ students, and bring it closer to the ‘mainstream’.
It is sad to see the Vice Chancellor on a channel of this kind. But then, I feel that the language of the noisy anchor is not fundamentally different from the JNU administration he leads. Yes, it has no hesitation in ridiculing any act of protest or dissent as a ‘disruptive’ behaviour initiated by a’ tiny’ section of students and teachers. While teachers are issued chargesheets, the presence of the police outside the JNU gate aims at giving the impression that the students’ movement is nothing but an act of lumpenism and vandalism.
Who would educate these television anchors? Who would tell them that at JNU we live amid the bundles of lies manufactured by the administration? For instance, neither the VC nor the rectors appeared at the Convention Centre to conduct the recent EC meeting of the university. And without any prior notification, the venue of the meeting was altered – the elected members of the teaching community kept waiting at the Convention Centre, and only at the last moment they were informed of the new venue of the meeting.
Not surprisingly, they could not attend the meeting. It was like eliminating the possibility of any alternative voice.
Yet, the administration can be so shameless, it issued yet another notification: EC members were prevented from entering the Convention Centre, and hence the EC meeting was held somewhere else. Who is fooling whom? But then, this is the new normal – lies are official doctrines, vice is virtue, authoritarianism is democracy and absurd monologue is the art of decision making.
It is in this sense that the Vice Chancellor has really succeeded in bringing the university closer to the mainstream. Possibly, he has learned some important lessons from the Big Boss.
Studentship and the art of non-violence
I am worried about our students. I understand the reasons for their anguish. A stubborn/non-dialogic administration is primarily responsible for the present crisis. I also know that the cosmetic change in the hostel manual is not going to satisfy them. The protest in some form or other, it seems, is likely to continue.
Even though some aberrations (say, the confinement of the associate dean of students) take place when the temper is quite high, it is difficult for me to believe that our students would not understand its danger. Possibly, JNU continues to exist as one of the rare places where students are fairly civilised, argumentative, intellectually vibrant and ideologically enriched. And I refuse to believe that if they raise a critical voice –say, a voice against majoritarian religious nationalism or the new education policy, they are doing anything ‘anti-national’. To be young is to be alert, reflexive and thoughtful.
Hence, I have often felt proud of our students. When a student of mine chose to boycott the recently held convocation ceremony, I felt proud. In her act I saw her merger with the present students fighting for a right cause. When I see my young MA students reflecting on the entire crisis with a fair degree of honesty and spirit of self-criticism, I see hope.
Moreover, in the present agitation I see a deeper philosophy. No, it is not merely about reducing the hostel expenses; it is also about the necessity of a good public university – the ideal of affordable/good quality education. It is important, particularly because in the age of neoliberal market-driven ethos, the state seeks to retreat from the domain of education. At a time when all sorts of fancy private universities are engaged in an act of commodification of higher education, JNU students are reminding the state that the democratisation of our society would remain incomplete unless good and meaningful education becomes accessible to all through state-funded public institutions.
This is to fight the continual reproduction of social inequality – the politics of knowledge that characterises the growth of over-priced private universities. I understand that those television anchors who all the time scream for the ‘nation’ are not mature or educated enough to understand it.
But what about the administration? It fails to realise that running a university is not an act of ‘electrical engineering’; it demands a vision – a pedagogic imagination, or a politico-ethical sensibility.
However, I would urge the students to remain determined, yet profoundly peaceful. Because any act of violence – even symbolic/psychic violence – would go against the spirit of studentship. I understand that when all the channels of communication break down a situation might emerge for the eruption of a negative reactive behaviour. My worry is that I have begun to notice its traces. It has to be avoided at any cost. Let the saner voices prevail.
After all, our hope lies in our students – not in the administrators devoid of the poetry of inner conscience.
Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.