Delhi University – a liberal university?

The incident concerning my assault and other forms of violence that we have witnessed in Delhi University last week ought to be looked at from a wider perspective. The first thing to note is that it was a precipitation of a condition in and around Delhi University, which is still unfolding. This incident is neither the first in recent times nor is going to be the last, I am afraid to say, in the coming weeks and months. These kinds of things are happening owing to a highly tensed and ratcheted-up climate of manufactured polarization in the campuses. It is about wresting political initiative around certain symbols—by deploying affective and rhetorical registers around a topography which is supposed to a be a place where ideas are tested. But the fact of the matter is that this has never been the case in most Indian universities. Rather, universities have often been a continuum in political and social battles. We are indeed in the business of nurturing minds through ideas but the idea of jousting minds have never been isolated in our campuses. So, first of all we have to have a matter-of-fact, strategic sense of what actually transpires in our universities and not pooh pooh such events. It is not merely about condemning violence from a position of empathy and argument but to first understand the background of the poisonous polarization of our spaces of education.

Delhi University is fundamentally a feudal fiefdom. Within this kind of a climate the recent injection of the idea of developing market and technocracy means the attempt is to update the fiefdom in keeping with the times. But fundamentally the campus is only intermittently argumentative. Mostly, it is a place where a large number of floating populations travel past, in a state of permanent transit. Within this climate, there is a presence of a small number of liberal and other progressive groups. For a long time, they have been trying to forge a different climate but their number remains small. But mostly their role is to resist rather than to decide the agenda of the day. More tellingly, there is a sense of fragmentation and isolation among such forces, so that even basic security to this group is never ever ensured.

It is also that there has been a sharp divide, more so in recent times, between a thinking class and a more virulently emotional group of people. This dissociation of sensibility has been telling for a campus life which is largely anyway hierarchical, clandestine and coterie bound. The other side has its charismatic scholars and teachers but they have no language to communicate to this group of people who are fundamentally illiberal and is now seeking a price for the detachment of the scholars from a large number of students and from the community that lies beyond the pale of the university. The sense of deprivation and defensiveness of the other half of the nation is being exploited by the feudal and market forces of conservatism. In Delhi University I particularly witness how settled and classical forms of social conservatism form a potent cocktail with the individualistic, market savvy rationalists all the time. So far, the progressives, themselves dealing in abstraction and with a dated political language, have not been able to convince the students and other stakeholders in the university with any affirmative and fresh political language in keeping with the changed time. They have not been able to set the agenda.

Having said that, I do think that campuses are places from which a new language could indeed develop, primarily coming from the student community. That new language seems to be fed up with violence and a climate of rank intimidation. This is a hopeful sign as long as four things do not happen.

One, that such mobilizations do not become merely a series of events but take a much longer and real perspective of how political battles are fought gradually, especially forms of political organization have to be studied afresh. Second, the students actually must participate in the electoral process and must not detach themselves from their times. Connecting life with scholarship will always give them much stronger conviction in anything that they do. They do not have to rely on abstract jargon if their ideas are tested at the ground level. Third, the idea of being apolitical and objective is not going to last for long. We are passing through a time that demands that we think through issues rigorously and take strong positions rather than be wishy-washy. Finally, the intellectual sophistication of the argumentative approach must also be deeply cognizant of the popular grievances and the nature of such grievances. Most of all, the conviction that reason provides has to be decoupled from the simultaneous arrogance that knowledge and privilege often fosters. Organized hooliganism has to be fought tooth and nail and fought strategically without being idealistic. But beyond that bit, one must remember that there are a large number of people who have other ways of communication than just the communicative and the argumentative. Reading a few more books and travelling to deliver lectures must not make us arrogant. May be we have to unlearn some of the modes and methods that have made us dry, gaunt and disengaged from our own kith and kin, own people? There must be a way of breaking the cycle of my polarized country?

The issue is not about this particular event but about the truth that such events convey and the signals that they provide. This brings me to the fact that a Delhi centric focus on campuses and places of higher education may be myopic. Of course, we shall take cognizance of the political and educational moves in the national capital but we must be deeply aware about what has been unfolding in the other cities and the tier two towns of the nation—in Banaras and Vadodara, in Gaya and Aligarh, in Bardhaman and Thiruvanathapuram. The situation is completely handed over to organized mobs and to a culture of homogeneity in numerous such campuses across the nation. There is no semblance of sanity and nuance in such places. No garb of any rational discourse. There is hardly any media coverage about such places. But it is important to look into all these places because only then can we have a larger sense of the structural changes that are being affected right now in our campuses and how battle lines could be drawn and joined.

Delhi University is likely to see a continuing cycle of illiberalism—in classrooms and corridors, in back-alleys and fields. I will recover physically at some point. And fresh events shall take over. But a real sense of justice can only be conceived if we begin to address the wider malaise that lies far deep inside the epidermis.


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Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in Delhi University and edits Humanities Underground

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