How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
– Bob Dylan
Is it that we – the teachers and students of Jawaharlal Nehru University – are destined to be humiliated by the university administration, or its mysterious ‘competent authority’? Is it the end of meaningful teaching and learning? Is it the time to be merely nostalgic about the ‘old’ JNU – its vibrant culture of debate and dialogue, its academic milieu that could tap the potential of an economist like Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, and its brilliant vice-chancellors who enriched the university with their vision and insights?
In an age that breeds anti-intellectualism, devalues education, and suspects the gift of freedom, what the JNU administration is doing, I believe, is not difficult to understand.
Kill the spirit of argumentation; destroy the public sphere as a domain of free speech, dialogue and communication, and invent or interpret the ‘rules’ to suppress critical and dissenting voices. Not surprisingly then, the JNU administration – with its characteristic poverty of pedagogic imagination – refuses to see teachers and students as active/reflexive creators and participants contributing to the making of a university.
Instead, it loves to erect a huge wall of separation; and its petty officials (I am not very sure whether I should regard them as teachers) governed by the ‘competent authority’ have lost the intelligence or the sensitivity needed to communicate with young learners, researchers and experienced professors. It loves to issue ‘circulars’; it has expertise itself in the technique of issuing ‘showcause notices’; it knows the economics of ‘fines’; and its hired lawyers earn a great deal of money as almost everything at JNU, be it an issue relating to sexual violence, or the clearance of pension/provident fund papers of a dissenting professor, is now a court case.
In this never-ending process of inflicting pain and suffering, the administration has asked the students’ union to vacate the office room by invoking a strange rule: ‘the JNUSU for the academic year 2019-20 is yet to be notified’; it is eager to ‘discipline’ the students with its plan to initiate a series of measures relating to hostel timing, and even a dress code. Moreover, through its ‘cleanliness’ drive, it has already removed the colourful – and often revealing and socially meaningful posters – from the walls of the university.
And then, almost every academic council meeting, as the insiders often whisper, degenerates into some sort of monologic/one-dimensional/absurd drama (is it the effect of the much-hyped Mann Ki Baat?). This time, even the sole representative of the JNUTA was not allowed to participate in the academic council.
Yes, with chargesheets, showcause notices and threatening circulars, I have no hesitation in saying, the students/teachers have been reduced into ‘enemies’ to be perpetually monitored, observed and disciplined.
With security guards all around (I keep my identity proof always ready because I do not want to be humiliated every time I pass through the JNU gate, or enter the library), the psychology of fear that has almost destroyed the backbone of the teaching community, and the rise of new bosses (petty administrators intoxicated with the pleasures of the temporal power), the university is decaying.
Enter the campus, smell the rot.
Who would educate the administrators?
Believe me, I have begun to fear whether in the coming years some of us would be able to teach the way we love to. Take, for instance, the question of autonomy. With the introduction of the MCQ pattern of the entrance test, we have lost the spirit of a creatively nuanced critical pedagogy to formulate thoughtful/interpretative/analytical questions for selecting students and researchers in a centre of higher learning.
Second, as the administration has decided to give the entire responsibility to the National Testing Agency – an external agency – to conduct the entrance test, our marginalisation is almost complete.
And now, the administration – once again blessed by the ‘competent authority’ – has decided to formulate the same questions relating to research methodology for all social science subjects. When you dissent, it is ridiculed at the academic council.
Who would tell these administrators that the debate on methodology is complex and nuanced, and every discipline – be it sociology or cultural anthropology, economics or demography, and political science or history – has its unique/enriched tradition of methods and epistemologies?
While as a cultural anthropologist you may be inclined to, say, hermeneutic ethnography, some other colleague, because of the specific nature of his/her work, might be inclined to heavily quantitative/statistical analysis. Hence, it is absurd to speak of the commonality of methods.
But then, if the administration chooses to be ignorant and adamant, what can you do?
After all, we cannot forget that these administrators believe that the installation of a model military tank would generate a feeling of patriotism among students (are Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore seeing it from the clouds, and shedding tears?); or the celebrity baba Sadhguru’s ‘inner engineering’ can give them peace.
With this sort of illusory intelligence, it is not impossible that one day the ‘competent authority’ might instruct us about what to teach, and how to teach.
Is it also the time for self-introspection?
Even though this dystopia is not far away, I am not very sure whether we would be able to resist – not merely symbolically, but substantially – the anti-academic practices that the JNU administration is encouraging. There are primarily four reasons why I express this doubt.
First, the administration has made us terribly tired, demoralised and exhausted. After all, how many court cases can you fight? Or, for that matter, how many times do you go to the chaotic academic evaluation section to enquire why the reports of your PhD students have not come even after 18 months?
Second, as teachers, we have allowed ourselves to be divided and fragmented. Even if the JNUTA decides to take a strong measure, as teachers, most of us do not come forward. In a way, it is like delegitimising the possibility of a collective struggle. Hence, the administration has got the message: a set of dissenters (and their numerical strength would decline speedily) would raise their voice; but then, most of the teachers would eventually accept everything – formulating the MCQ with robotic efficiency, signing in the attendance register like disciplined soldiers, submitting highly objectionable APAR forms with absolute promptness, and so on and so forth.
Third, with the all-pervading fear or the desire for some temporal benefits (say, getting leave for attending a seminar abroad, or not missing the opportunity to become the next chairperson, or even the coordinator for conducting the refresher/orientation course for the faculty development program), we have become strategic and clever. Yes, we remain silent, and pretend not to see anything.
And fourth – and this is the most important reason – we have lost the moral conviction to engage in a sustained non-cooperation movement against the JNU administration.
For instance, as teachers, if we are not genuinely convinced that we are not cogs in a factory, and our vocation needs creative and critical thinking, and the aesthetics of time, how can we fight if tomorrow the biometric is introduced, or the CCTV camera is installed in the lecture hall?
Or for that matter, if the students do not genuinely trust their ability to nurture the culture of active/voluntary participation in the class, how can they gain the moral strength to resist mandatory attendance? And finally, we cannot fight unless we are ready to bear some personal suffering – a showcause notice, a suspension order, or a false allegation. If, with our middle class notion of ‘comfortable and safe’ living, we escape from academic/pedagogic/ cultural protest against the notorious policies of the JNU administration, we would not be able to make much difference. Being humiliated, we would exist (physically alive, intellectually dead) as passive spectators of this sadistic play.
How is it possible for the ‘competent authority’ and his team of lieutenants – even though backed by the ruling regime – to destroy this place so quickly? Possibly, he succeeded because somehow we made it possible by accepting our defeat quite early.
As teachers and students, do we need some self-introspection?
Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU.