‘Up Against the Wall’ but Not ‘Down and Out’ at Delhi University 

It is the collective splendour of non-violent resistance by teachers, students and non-teaching staff that has allowed the history of the last nine years to become a history of struggle rather than just a record of terrible things being done to the university.

On June 18, 2018, an emergent general body meeting (GBM) of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), voted to call off it’s unprecedented 41-day-long evaluation boycott. However, this appropriate decision, taken for a variety of reasons at this particular moment, neither signals a resolution of the frustrations, resentments, disappointments and seething anger boiling up from below among teachers, nor an end to agitations and struggles for democracy, justice and the meaning and quality of higher education at Delhi University (DU). The hope is, in fact, that:

(1) the ground they stand on being the same, teachers, students and non-teaching staff will be able to come together in order to fight for their specific and common interests; and

(2) as many other citizens as possible shall also be willing to consider that DU teachers are a truly troubled lot appealing for solidarity in their fight over real grievances and for all that is at stake in the realm of public higher education.


DU, in its near century-long existence, has never been traumatised by shock after bigger shock, the way it has been over the past few years. Day after day, year in and year out, since 2009-10 at least, wave upon authoritarian wave has crashed against the foundations of this university, leaving our lives as teachers, students and non-teaching staff, shaken to the core.

DU teachers and students protest against FYUP. Credit: PTI Files

The hurriedly and mindlessly mixed poisonous cocktail of semesterisation, Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP), Three Year Undergraduate Programme (TYUP), Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), and Academic Performance Indicators (API) forced down our throats; the galloping incidence of ‘ad-hocism’ among faculty; the years and years of service that remain uncounted for teachers; the unending woes of pensioners; the spectre of the sale of colleges and universities on the open market in the garb of ‘autonomy’, and the return of the 13-point roster, have combined with the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s violent anti-intellectualism—from the time of its campaign against A.K Ramanujan’s 300 Ramayanas… right down to the vicious attack on, and occupation of Ramjas College in February 2017–to push us, and the structures and practices of education at DU, to the very brink.

More and more jobs are on the line and livelihoods threatened. Deep insecurities and unrelenting anxieties regarding the present and the future, with all the attendant experiences of humiliation, un-freedom, inequality, gnawing feelings of a lack of self-worth and intolerable levels of stress have come to haunt thousands amongst us, especially ‘ad hoc’ and ‘guest’ teachers, with gender, caste, community and class relations compounding the unfairness.

Stagnation at work, which in turn, is increasingly monitored, bureaucratised, quantified, ‘speeded up’, and emptied of creativity and meaning appears to have become the new norm. Books, authors, films and plays are abused, attacked and banned in brazen acts of vigilantism. Surveillance and fear, at times even operatives of the state’s intelligence agencies, stalk classrooms and corridors of colleges, rendering it increasingly difficult for students and teachers to engage freely and creatively in the work that we are meant to do, ‘the pursuit of truth and excellence in all its diversity’. This ‘pursuit’, according to the 1966 Kothari Commission Report, is what the true concern of universities should indeed be, a pursuit that in turn requires ‘an atmosphere of freedom’ in which ‘teachers…be as free to speak on controversial issues as any other citizens of a free country’(Radhakrishnan Report, 1948/49).

A protest against the ABVP violence at Ramjas College. Credit: PTI/FIles

A protest against the ABVP violence at Ramjas College. Credit: PTI/FIles

‘A University’, Jawaharlal Nehru had hoped, would stand ‘for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and the search for truth…for the onward march of the human race toward ever higher objectives’. The Kothari Commission Report was equally clear that “universities are pre-eminently the forum for a critical assessment of society – sympathetic, objective, unafraid” whose “business is not primarily to give society what it wants but what it needs…It (the university) is not a community service station, passively responding to popular demands and thereby endangering its intellectual integrity. Nor is it an ivory tower into which students and teachers can withdraw…accepting no responsibility for the improvement of society. It has to maintain an ambivalent position, balancing itself carefully between commitment and detachment–commitment in action, detachment in thought”.

We needed to have moved steadily towards these ideals, and, as argued by eminent scholar G.N Devy, also towards Gandhi’s idea of knowledge as freedom, Aurobindo’s idea of knowledge as a search for a greater truth and Tagore’s understanding of knowledge as a process of realisation, each of which had led these individuals to dream of universities as expansive institutions that could help people transcend the boundaries of nations, make the universe their true concern, and cultivate sensibilities which could be free of any shade of otherness. Instead, tragically, in the conditions that have been thrust upon DU over the past few years, creeping alienation, loneliness, paranoia, and suspicion, seem to have become widespread fears, depression, repressed violence and the weakening of bonds of friendship, intimacy and solidarity, the invisible, and as yet, unacknowledged costs.

Our lives at work, for no fault of ours, are seriously messed up, our life’s work, up for grabs. The promise and practice of social justice, and B.R Ambedkar’s unalloyed pitch for not just creating physical space for those whom Indian knowledge systems never accepted in the past, but for the need for society “to be educated about them by making their life experiences, their dreams and aspirations the substance of education” (Devy), are seriously endangered, while threats to personal dignity and bodily integrity also stare us in the face.

There can be little doubt that today, we stand to lose everything of academic worth, intellectual value, cultural richness and the small gains in social inclusivity that have been painstakingly woven into the fabric of public universities through the dedicated labour, creativity, critical thought, open imagination and struggles of generations of teachers, students and non-teaching staff, offering us in a few cases, perhaps, just fleeting glimpses into what peoples’ universities could begin to look like.

It is equally clear that in the face of the twin, though not always combined aggression of commodification and a marauding fascist political culture, we also stand to lose the crucible of democratic rights and civil liberties–precious legacies of hard fought political battles waged the world over—without which neither creative pasts nor dreams of brighter futures could have been made by us for our public universities.

Each one of us, students, teachers and members of the non-teaching staff, is reeling from the blows inflicted by this counter-revolution in higher education, the socially and economically vulnerable amongst us, most of all.


There can be little doubt, in other words that not just teachers, but all of us at DU are today, staring into the abyss; that we are confronted with a veritable collapse of the processes of teaching, evaluation and research that lie at the very heart of any university; that we are, as student leader Mark Rudd, quoting LeRoi Jones, said in Columbia in 1968, ‘up against the wall…this is a stick-up’!

Things have, in fact, been so terrible at times, that the feet have felt like they have no ground to stand on, the lungs that they have no breath left in them, the tongue like it doesn’t know words anymore; no sparking in the brain, ghosts for eyes, no lightning coursing through the body, there’s been at such times, an overwhelming sense of a ‘dead man walking’.

Yet, precisely because things have been so bad, especially in the recent past, it is a wonder that we have not gone down under, that we have managed to survive, pull ourselves out of the depths of despair and despite all odds, take control of our lives, in whatever measure possible, and continue doing what we are meant to do with all the commitment and dedication at our command.

There’s been no running to gurus and ashrams, meditation camps and wellness centres promising individual salvation, no hankering after illusory Yoga Day panaceas. Struggle alone has made this possible, struggles by teachers and struggles by students, not only now, but since DU’s tryst with tragedy began in 2009-10. We’ve lost, we’ve won; we’ve gone through ups and downs, we’ve disagreed and debated vigorously amongst ourselves. We’ve come onto the streets and for GBMs in thousands. Sometimes, as was the case over the last few weeks, we’ve barely been a handful, 200-300 at most.

SGTB Khalsa college students sitting with mouths taped on stage during their play. Credit: Member of dramatics society, Ramjas College.

We’ve fought with sound and fury, with the flourish of rhetoric, with sloganeering, poster-making, pamphleteering and oratory at their creative, inspiring, powerful best, but we’ve also suffered descents of the same into clichéd insipidity and exhausting boredom. We’ve sat on dharnas and hunger strikes, struck work, held press conferences and campaigned in neighbourhoods, colleges and at Metro stations. We’ve fought under the leadership of the DUTA, but we’ve also fought at local levels in visible and invisible, everyday ways. We’ve fought on our own, but we’ve also sought to build wider solidarities. Students have supported us and we, them, all of us together keeping alive the burning desire to read, write, think, speak, discuss, create and live without fear, and in freedom. This, more than anything else, has done for emancipated ways of being and learning, for liberty in precious spaces, including in the classroom, and for democracy, pedagogy and the hopes and expectations that thousands of young aspirants continue to vest in DU, ‘what spring does to the cherry trees’.

It is this resistance that has allowed the history of the last nine years or so to become a history of struggle rather than remaining just a record of terrible things being done to DU, and to us. And it is this struggle, with its disappointments, eccentricities, twists and turns, backstabbing, withdrawals and unexpected surges, it’s necessarily erratic, irregular, unpredictable motion—the way of all struggles—as much as it’s moments of collective splendour, standing by and for each other, intense discussions, insightful analyses and the learning that comes from walking together even while not being in complete agreement, that has helped us keep our heads above water, to survive, to keep hope afloat and possibilities kicking, even as we seemed to lose a lot and gain just a little. But for this, silence would have come to reign over DU, a long time ago.


It is remarkable that our struggles have kept gloom from enveloping DU, but what has transformed the remarkable into the magnificent as far as the history of the DU teachers’ movement, as also the recent history of student movements from the Film and Television Institute of India and Jawaharlal Nehru University right down to Ramjas are concerned, is, that even when forced to the brink, pushed against the wall, and teetering on the edge of an abyss, not only have they stood their ground, protesting and fighting back, but they have done so with spectacular popular mobilisation, words, arguments, ideas, slogans and songs, in the finest traditions of active non-violent resistance.

A ‘People’s March’ in defence of public-funded higher education held in Delhi. Credit: DUTA Website

As for the DU teachers’ movement in particular, it is especially pertinent to remember, that while mobilising for all possible forms of non-violent protest on as large a scale as possible has been central to our political engagement, it has been equally important for many of us to be prepared to reconsider courses of action should it appear that the nature of our political practice has begun, for whatever reasons–including the fear of making things worse than they already are for students, non-teaching staff or teachers themselves–to corrode our struggle, subtracting from, rather than adding to it’s goals and objectives. It is extraordinary that the DUTA, thus far at least, has been able, often enough, to successfully fight battles that have meant a lot to teachers across the country, by striking this fine, though principled political balance. It might not be wrong to wager in fact, that the DUTA’s political weight within the ranks of the teachers’ movement as a whole and vis-à-vis the state, derives in large measure from it’s moral authority rooted in treading this thin line.

Unfortunately, the everyday lives of teachers today, are caught in such a rapidly spinning downward spiral that walking this line might soon become a thing of the past. Under these pressures, the ‘breaking-out’ into a new mode of politics could easily descend into a miasma of colliding fragments. It could, on the other hand, be transformed into a creative coming together against capital, state and fascist mobs. For this to happen, however, teachers, students and non-teaching staff shall simply have to acquaint themselves intimately with each other’s problems, the one standing up for the other, the specific work-related interests and rights of each being defended by all, in a common struggle aimed at the defence, re-invention and expansion of our public universities. Let us make no mistake. Should public funded higher education fall, we, all of us together, shall also fall, taking with us the hopes of all those who throng to universities like DU year after year, thirsting for knowledge, minds aflame with curiosity, stars in their eyes and dreams in their hearts.


There was a time when the DU teachers’ movement could take up the particular interests of teachers and fight pretty much on it’s own steam. If it succeeded in getting its grievances redressed, teachers across the country would stand to benefit. Those times are gone. Today, the particular can only be fought for, by fighting simultaneously for the general interest. Hence, even as we, teachers at DU, draw upon the rich traditions of multiple ways of active non-violent resistance, both visible and invisible, and continue to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ anew within our university and between different universities, we shall need to solidarise with movements for democratic rights, civil liberties and constitutional promises outside as well, appealing to these, in turn, as also to citizens at large to extend us their understanding and support. There is just so much at stake for generations to come that we’ve got to find ways of doing this, and if we are in fact able to, we might still have a chance to stare down the current counter-revolution and break the siege around our universities.

By way of a modest beginning, 50 years on, we as teachers, could perhaps, allow ourselves to learn from students by taking inspiration from 1968, a year like none other in world history, the year when students across the globe, sought to democratise, humanise and intellectually energise universities, triggering tidal waves of national and international social and political solidarities, and contributing, in the process, towards changing the world for the better without taking power.

There is very little indication in the textures of our present that an early 21st century incarnation of a ‘1968-like revolutionary situation’ might obtain in the near future, but if we alert ourselves to it’s promises and pitfalls, and permit ourselves to be carried on it’s wings, with eyes and ears open and critical faculties alive, we may be in a position to recognise it’s aroma, hear its music, feel the ground shake beneath our feet and act appropriately should it happen to come along.

Then, at that moment, when many, many more from amongst us all might also find it easier to risk much that we tightly hold on to in ‘normal’ times, we may actually, as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote, ‘come up winners’, even though we seem to ‘come up losers’ today.

Mukul Mangalik teaches History in Ramjas College, Delhi University.