Reading Foucault in Mahendragarh, or Why We Need a Public University System

Central University Haryana is an ideal petri dish to observe the many conflicting forces of caste, class, gender, region, and ideology that go into the great social experiment that is publicly funded higher education in India.

Mahendragarh (Haryana): In March this year in a rural hamlet 3 hours by train from New Delhi, the local edition of Hari Bhoomi carried an unusual piece of news: Central University of Haryana (CUH) at Mahendragarh, had filed a police complaint against a Facebook page.

The story was short on specifics, but an email to the university registrar, Ram Dutt, elicited a reply:

“Yes, University has filed a complaint against the CUH Media page (anonymously administered unlawfully using acronym of the University) to trace the identity of the page. As the University is Autonomous Body and has the right to continuous vigil to maintain the reputation of the University on the Internet World …”

What was this page, “anonymously administered”, that had the administration so upset? Who were these students “unlawfully using the acronym of the university” to besmirch the university’s reputation “on the Internet World”?

At first glance, the CUH Media page was just like the millions of pages on Facebook visited by a small band of followers – at last count it had just 174 “Likes” – who trolled each other. But a closer look at the posts, the comments they attracted, and their ripples offline, since the page was started in September 2015, suggested the gradual emergence of a spiky student politics in one of India’s newest central universities.

As students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Hyderabad Central University (HCU) continue their agitations against the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and its affiliates like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), their struggle is informed by an institutional memory of protest politics, and supported by a network of alumni, activists, lawyers, political parties and intellectuals.

Haryana’s first-ever central public university, CUH Mahendragarh is one of 15 new central universities established across the country under the Central Universities Act of 2009. At present, it has 1200 postgraduate students spread across nine schools, from the Arts and Humanities to Inter-disciplinary and Applied Life Sciences on a campus consisting of a small cluster of buildings – some in reddish sandstone, many with makeshift tin roofing – on 488 acres of empty farmland.

Writing in the Economic and Political Weekly back in 1983, Amiya Rao described JNU – at the time still settling into its current location – as a “vast treeless campus”; a casual visit to Mahendragarh finds CUH at an even earlier stage of university life.

The dhabas, badminton courts and adda associated with university life in India are yet to emerge, and by 10 pm, the 1200 students on campus are locked into their respective hostels, ostensibly for their own security. Most socialising between students after-hours is online – on phones, WhatsApp, and Facebook – despite their hostels being a stone’s throw apart.

There is no students union or teachers union, only a council headed by the dean of student welfare. None of the established national student parties have an open presence of campus, with the exception of the RSS student affiliate, the ABVP. Yet the student-body is diverse, with sizeable representations from Kashmir and Kerala, Rajasthan and Bihar, rural and urban, and of course a significant contingent from Haryana.  Their politics is evolving forms of resistance to, and engagement with, very different methods of regimentation and social pressure.

CUH Mahendragarh is thus an ideal petri dish to observe the many conflicting forces of caste, class, gender, region, and ideology that go into the great social experiment that is publicly funded higher education in India.

A lecture on nationalism 

In spring this year, students across the country took to the streets to protest against the BJP and the ABVP for their presumed role in the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, and the arrest of three JNU students on charges of sedition.

At Mahendragarh, a small group of students held a silent, candle-lit march to commemorate Rohit Vemula’s life and mourn his death, when they were confronted by ABVP members – armed with sticks and rods – who threatened the students with violence and subsequently filed a police complaint about “anti-national activities” on campus.

“The police complaint really got us worried,” a student said, noting that Vemula’s suicide in January and the arrest of JNU students in February began with similar complaints by a BJP minister in Vemula’s case, and the ABVP and a BJP MLA in the JNU instance. Rather than investigate how outsiders disrupted a campus event, the administration forced students to sign an undertaking that they would desist from all political activities on campus.

A few weeks later, in February, the ABVP gathered at the university gate and burnt an effigy representing the students of JNU. The local news covered it, and a clipping appeared in the glass-fronted, locked, noticeboard maintained by the university without comment. “It felt like the administration endorsed the burning of the effigy of another student – even if from another university,” said a student. “Why else would they stick such a note on a board meant for official announcements?”

A month later, on March 7, classes were cancelled and an internal examination postponed, as teachers herded students into the auditorium for a lecture on “National Integration and Youth Contribution” delivered by Shriniwas, a local ABVP office bearer, who was introduced by vice chancellor Ramesh Kuhad in the presence of luminaries of the local chapter of the RSS.

12698412_1081664925217394_4062050109647297301_oA recording of Shriniwas’s speech reveals the classic bait-and-switch oratory of the professional politician of offering examples without endorsing or explaining them, and leaving half-thoughts for his audience to complete.

“Friends, these days a debate is underway on rashtriya bhakti,” Shriniwas began, claiming that while there was no clear definition of “rashtriya bhakti” or love for the nation, there were many examples from around the world, “Some have seen Hitler’s rashritya bhakti, some have seen Mussolini’s rashritya bhakti, some have seen the French revolution, some have seen the Russian revolution.”

He then praised the university for silencing the students who led the candlelit march for Vemula. “When some anti-social mischievous elements tried to have an argument on this matter on this very campus, we all came together and ended it… I want to congratulate you for your nationalism.”

He rounded off his talk with an exhortation to read the biographies of two great Indians: APJ Abdul Kalam, the former president and defence scientist, and – Shriniwas’s voice now shrill with emotion – Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The event ended with a student member of the ABVP gifting Shriniwas, the vice chancellor, and the local Sanghis, a copy each of the Bhagvad Gita and a photograph of Swami Vivekanand, the late 19th century Hindu nationalist icon.

In an email, registrar Ram Dutt denied that the lecture was a political event, claiming that Shriniwas “was invited by the members of the Students Council of the University”.

“ABVP members put forward the idea,” said a student seeking anonymity as he feared victimisation by the administration, “but an exam was postponed, class was cancelled, we were forced to attend a political speech praising Modi by an ABVP office bearer. The local RSS is present. The VC introduces the speaker and is given a Gita at the end.

“And the university claims this isn’t political?”

Credit: Akhil Kumar

Credit: Akhil Kumar

 The Mahabharata and the choice-based credit system

 Over the past two decades, the Indian state and industry have found considerable agreement in their vision of what a public university must be: primarily as a training service producing workers for Indian industry.

In the late 1990s, the first BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked India’s wealthiest men – Mukesh Ambani and Kumar Mangalam Birla – to suggest reforms on education. The report, titled A Policy Framework For Reforms on Education published in April 2000, urged the government to “ban any form of political activity on campuses of universities and educational institutions”, introduce compulsory vocational training at the secondary level, sharply reduce spending on education, and enforce a “user pays principal” for higher education instead.

Though the report described education as “ as an important investment in building human capital”, it argued that the role of the government was not so much to invest in universities as to set up a credit-market for cheap and easy student loans.

A decade later, the Congress-led UPA government produced a report, headed by Sam Pitroda, that affirmed the role of the state in funding higher education, but pushed for universities to adopt a system of academic credits evaluated each semester, rather than the marks and annual exams model. In 2009, the government enacted the Central University Act, which is the law under which CUH and 14 other new central universities were established. The 2009 act made it mandatory for universities to adopt a semester system of evaluation with what came to be known as the choice-based-credit system or CBCS.

“The idea was to encourage student mobility and for institutions to interact with each other,” said Kapil Sibal, who was minister for human resource development at the time, “That can only happen with the semester system.”

Academic “credits” would allow students to pick and choose their subject-combinations in line with their interests. In an interview to The Wire, Sibal said the act was drafted on the recommendations of two expert committees.

“The credit system enhances employability as students can choose their subject combinations in line with their prospective careers,” Sibal said, adding that all top universities across the world had adopted the system of semesters and credits.

Today, the BJP government is mulling fresh measures to incorporate all existing central universities like Delhi University, JNU and HCU (that currently have individual acts of their own) under one common central act that enshrines the CBCS into law. The most recent precedent for this was a 2013 draft bill, made public in the last years of the UPA regime, which was essentially the same as the 2009 Act enacted during Sibal’s tenure.

Nandita Narain, president of the Federation of Central Universities Teachers Association (FEDCUTA), sees these legislative changes as ill-considered reform that is likely to wreck the existing academic system in the guise of increasing student choice.

Offering choices, she says, is meaningless without significant funding to increase teaching staff and infrastructure to ensure colleges can actually offer students a variety of courses.

In her opinion, the institutional interaction Sibal talks of is a step towards the privatisation of the higher education system and the implementation of the “user pays” principle first proposed by the Ambani-Birla report of 2000.

“It is part of a process to de-fund state-run universities and colleges, while encouraging them to funnel their students into expensive private universities,” Narain said, pointing out that education is big business.

India now has the largest higher education system in world, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation, a ministry of commerce and industry think-tank. Private institutions now account for about 60% of all enrolments in higher education in India, up from 32% in 2001, according to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The market is valued at $6.8 billion a year, and is expected to hit $34 billion by 2025.

For this market to integrate the state-run system, especially central institutions like Delhi University and JNU – which have the greatest domestic and international brand recognition – the credit-transfer system is crucial.Apart from increasing interoperability between private and public universities, the 2009 Act, Narain said, is designed to “de-democratise” universities and stifle academic dissent by changing the nature of the compact between the government of the day, the university administration and the students and teachers who inhabit its classrooms.

Apart from increasing interoperability between private and public universities, the 2009 Act, Narain said, is designed to “de-democratise” universities and stifle academic dissent by changing the nature of the compact between the government of the day, the university administration and the students and teachers who inhabit its classrooms.

“The proposed changes in university structures are clearly unpalatable to teachers and students,” Narain said, “So the government is destroying the democratic character of these institutions to head-off any resistance.”

Kapil Sibal dismissed these concerns, saying that the law was drafted to incorporate recommendations by government-appointed expert committees and “private lobbies” had no role to play in the process.

The BJP, which blocked these reforms while in opposition, has now embraced them with enthusiasm.

In his lecture on nationalism on the CUH campus in March, Shriniwas the ABVP office bearer, digressed briefly from his ode to Mother India to offer an opinion on the CBCS, a system that the ABVP too had opposed, until the BJP came to power.

“There is a debate underway on the CBCS. Some say it is being forced upon us,” Shriniwas said, adding that the CBCS was always a part of Indian culture, “If Arjuna [of the Mahabharata] had not opted for the CBCS, if he had not insisted on learning the shastras as well as archery, he would not have faltered on the eve of the Great War. Then Krishna would never have revealed the Bhagvad Gita, that we all now have the privilege of reading.”

The 2009 act and its proposed successor

Professors at CUH Mahendragarh say the 2009 act’s detrimental effects on academic freedom are already evident. The act grants significant powers to a body called the executive council (EC), the composition of which differs from university to university.

In CUH, the EC consists of 20 people – only three of whom are university teachers, chosen by rotation according to seniority, rather than election.

The campus of Central University Haryana. Credit: Special Arrangement

The campus of Central University Haryana. Credit: Special Arrangement

In November last year, the administration forced professors to sign a new service contract, mid-way into their employment, granting the vice chancellor powers to suspend a teacher “if he deems it necessary” without specifying how this power is to be used.

The contract also includes provisions to suspend teachers and terminate their contracts, once more without specifying the circumstances under which such clauses would be invoked. The EC is given the power to terminate teachers.

“But the council consists of the VC, his deputy, the proctor, and 6 members directly nominated by the VC,” a teacher said,  “The administration has given no reason why I must sign fresh terms of service midway into my employment. Particularly when they contain such draconian provisions.”

In an email, the university registrar claimed that the new terms of service contained “several new provisions” to “protect the interests of the teachers” without specifying what these provisions were.

The 2009 act also encourage the “inter-university mobility”, a provision that – teachers say – can be used to transfer professors seen to be troublemakers by the to the other end of the country.

Finally, the 2009 act tries to take away the right to judicial redress by insisting than any disputes over contracts shall be referred to a tribunal of arbitration – represented by two people on behalf of the government and university administration and one chosen by the professor.

“The decision of the tribunal of arbitration shall be final”, the 2009 act states, “and no suit shall lie in any civil court in respect of the matters decided by the tribunal.”

“So now, the university is set up so that no one – be it teachers, or students – can raise their voice against the administration,” the teacher from CUH Haryana concluded.

In 2013, the UPA circulated a draft Central University Bill of 2013, which incorporated all the provisions of the 2009 act into a legislative framework to control the older central universities that aren’t currently governed by the 2009 act.

The bill was never tabled, but the new BJP government is expected to table a similar bill in parliament. Smriti Irani, the BJP’s HRD minister, has frequently spoken of the need to “overhaul” higher education in India.

In January 2015, Irani’s ministry leaned on the University Grants Commission to direct all universities across the country to implement the semester system and the CBCS from the 2015-2016 academic year, effectively forcing diverse central universities to adopt a standard model of evaluation without even passing any enabling legislation. Teachers who opposed this say they were threatened by the administration of their respective universities.

“The idea is to destroy the solidarity between teachers and students, by threatening teachers if they oppose the administration,” said Abha Dev Habib, a professor at Miranda House college in Delhi University.

Habib is an elected member of the executive council of Delhi University, because DU’s establishing act allows for teachers to be elected to the apex decision-making body of the university. “But if all central universities are brought under the same act, these elected positions could be replaced by nominated positions,” she said, pointing out that this has already happened in universities governed by the 2009 Act.

Foucault in Mahendragarh 

The morning train to Mahendragarh leaves New Delhi’s Sarai Rohilla station at a few minutes after seven, and arrives by 10 am.

En route the train meanders along the Haryana-Rajasthan border, past tractors tilling fields, camels pulling loads, and innumerable dusty platforms where young salesmen, shirts shiny with sweat, drag heavy bags stuffed with product samples – cellphones, computer peripherals, auto-accessories.

Mahendragarh town is a settlement with a small railway station, a large grain market and truck stop, and the usual patchwork of local kirane-ki-dukaans, jalebi-wallahs and hardware stores. Of late, locals say, Amazon and Flipkart have begun deliveries to town and the university. New books and new ideas are easier to reach.

“Consider Foucault’s History of Sexuality, and read it with our hostel rules,” said a student interested in Dalit literature, “What does it mean to lock students into their hostels every night at 10 pm?

“These are 25, 26, 27 year old men and women. By controlling their sexuality, you are forcing them to submit to power. This, in a state like Haryana, where an entire system of honour killings and caste marriages has been set up to police sexuality of women and lower caste men.”

“I’ve been reading Foucault on ‘Truth and Power’, and thinking about his insight that truth doesn’t exist outside of power,” says a young teacher, “A regime of power produces a regime of truth. But a “truth” also can be turned against power, can be used to challenge power.”

The CUH Media page wasn’t set up to tell outsiders about the challenges faced by students in the university. “We set it up so that students themselves would have a forum to share their frustrations,” said a CUH Media member, “Then we realised that members of the administration were amongst the keenest readers of the page.”

Credit: Akhil Kumar

Credit: Akhil Kumar

Students commenting on the page would be questioned by their teachers; complaints about the quality of the food would trigger surprise visits to the canteen by the VC.

When a post carried a letter by a group of women students protesting against the arbitrary imposition of hostel rules, the administration called their parents and threatened disciplinary action, but ultimately backtracked.

The most subversive posts were a three-part series in December 2015 titled, “The Story of a VIP” which castigated the vice chancellor for “building facilities for himself that are worthy of a minister, while his students don’t even have the basic amenities of a government school.”

The posts included photographs of a red-beacon affixed to the vice chancellor’s car, a “VIP parking” sign to reserve parking space for himself, and claim that he had built a new wall around his bungalow to cordon off a common garden into his own private lawn. “The vice chancellor walks surrounded by guards so that he doesn’t encounter any students even by accident,” the post read.

A month later, the series concluded, “The spread of VIP culture seems to have halted. The red light has been replaced by a yellow light; VIP Parking is now simple Parking.”

Simply uttering a “truth”, in a sense, elicited a response from power.

A girl called “No More”

How does a group of students become “political”? What is their politics shaped by? And should students at a central university, funded and supported by taxpayers, even “waste their time on politics” – as many have suggested?

Nirmal, a PhD student at Mahendragarh, has found answers to these questions in her long struggle to get an education.

“People from Delhi and Mumbai will never understand the joy that we felt when we learnt that a university would come up in Mahendragarh. Haryana’s first central university could have been in Gurgaon, but then it would have only served the people of Delhi. It was very important to set it up in a rural area.”

Nirmal was the fifth daughter born to her parents, neither of whom can read or write, “Everyone in our extended family would say, what will you do with so many girls? I was the last child, my nickname was ‘Dhappi’ – which means, ‘No more’.”

When she finished class 10, her uncles told her father that she had studied enough. “That was my first protest. A hunger strike at home to let me study further.”

She studied Hindi literature at Kurukshetra University, got a gold medal for topping her MPhil in Hindi literary criticism, and spent a year traveling around Haryana to collect a thousand folk songs of Haryana’s many castes and peoples.

“When people think of Haryana, they only think of the Jats. I wanted to gather songs and narratives with a special emphasis on lower castes to showcase Haryana belongs to everyone, not just the Jats.”

Now a PhD scholar at Mahendragarh, she hopes to become a journalist. Everything interesting she’s learnt about the world, she said, was from her time away from home and the strictures of caste and patriarchy, amid a group of young students in search of a new world.

“People say, students should not do politics, but in our Haryana, politics is steeped into everything from a sewing needle to a ship.

“Politics defines everything we eat, drink, wear and say. It shapes how we sit, how we sleep, where we sleep, where we wake up. Then why can’t we shape politics?”

Vocational degrees are designed to produce obedient and industrious workers, trained by the state for use in industry for as long as their skills are relevant. A student body stripped of politics acquiesces to the worst impulses of power and patriarchy, rather than challenging it as Nirmal and her fellow students are doing.

“We need well funded public universities so that the children of poor parents, of lower castes, of society’s margins, have the opportunity to study,” she said. “If a university cannot help us find our politics, then what is the point of a university?”