Limits of University Dissent

First published on Kafila

Whether it has been the scrapping or stagnancy of the Non-NET Fellowship, the increased interference of the State in student activity in universities of higher-education, or merely the (routine) introduction of symbols of the ruling party in cultural institutions (of which universities are a part), a dangerous, and even strange trend is seen emerging in the student response: asserting their isolation from other sections of society as valuable uniqueness.

Chiefly, the following are the kinds of response seen:

  • The university is the place where ideas are discussed and created, and it should be allowed to freely carry on with what it is doing.
  • Largely from the parliamentary left and other kinds of organizations, universities are spaces where democratic ethos, practices and politics are still found (especially in this age of saffronization), and hence we need to preserve such spaces.

Universities and Humanities as bastions of critical thinking?

In attempts to pursue these two lines of thought, people have articulated many commonplace assumptions about the education system. For example, in an article titled  ‘Why are so many Humanities students activists?‘, the writer has suggested that because humanities students – allegedly experts who study “the way in which the world came to be what it is today, and how it works”, unlike students of other streams – are prone to questioning power structures, and by extension falling into trouble for it (but that’s their job, so they shouldn’t be put into trouble for it). She goes on to say:

“Some PhD students of the humanities believe strongly in the solutions of Marxism and Communism, some are most comfortable with a liberal individualism, others work with ideas of ‘intersectionality’ (fighting different oppressions together rather than separately) and others yet end up with a general sense of activism rather than an allegiance to any specific ideology. For example, a liberal humanist, a communist and a Marxist can all support gay rights without necessarily agreeing on other things… There is nothing anti-national about that, though it can be the most dangerous thing in the world if it makes some things impossible to un-see.”

So, we are to believe that despite all the questioning they put to “the world”, after all wands of Marxism, Communism, intersectionality, and what-not have been flicked, it turns out that the enlightened humanities student is dangerous, but not anti-national because the nation is still beyond question. How is it that a social formation that emerged only about three hundred years ago, and in these parts of the world not more than seventy to hundred years ago, is outside the purview of the activist’s politics, one who is well-versed in History, Political Science, Sociology, and so on? Can the humanities student then shed some light upon the fragility of the nation-state seen all over, preserved by the massive military and propaganda apparatus? Will the humanities student share some of their insight into what the future has in store for the nation-state? Will the student find it in themselves to point out that, like caste and religion, the nation too is an “ascribed identity” and not an inherent one?

Others are less conceited in following the logical conclusions of their core arguments, especially those taking political positions. After the public meeting of 9th February in JNU commemorating the judicial murder of Afzal Guru, when the State-offensive had begun, a pamphlet from BAPSA – one of whose activist was among those hounded by the police – clarified their stand on politics within the university space: “Ambedkarism is entrenched into constitutional morality and as followers of Ambedkar and his ideology we condemn any anti–constitutional move by any group or individual… We as an Ambedkarite organization and strong believer in the Constitution, oppose any ideologies, groups and individuals who violate constitutional ethos.” Many have pointed out that this kind of reaction has helped the JNU student movement to isolate itself from critical resistance and bring it closer to the nation-state. People on the left haven’t been left far behind in this race for nationalism: even much before Kanhaiya’s “Desh ke andar azaadi” remark, there were already voices that had begun steering the movement’s tactics closer to a nationalist politics. The progressive teachers’ association had quickly made its bid to discharge the duties a nation-state expects from its education system – inculcate values of obedience into each new generation – by setting up classes on nationalism to be broadcast on television and in newspapers. Long-standing student organizations distanced themselves from the ideological groundings of the 9th February event: DSF, in its pamphlet of March 10th wrote “we are unequivocally opposed to secessionist terrorism in Kashmir” (we should remember that even the Indian State does not call it terrorism; rather, it uses the term militancy, but these oversights are allowed when nationalist credentials are in question). Moreover, they also sought to isolate other groups on campus who asserted that sloganeering is not sedition. Likewise, a professor – hoping to be tactical – said that divisive slogans were given by “outsiders”, thereby setting up a discourse for investigative authorities to “find evidence” against anybody else. Soon after, three Kashmiri students were “discovered” to be the culprits. The alternative argument – that sloganeering doesn’t amount to sedition – wasn’t nationalist enough. Hence one wonders what the progressives mean when they seek to differentiate the Sangh’s nationalism from their more morally defensible one.

It is in this context that one also finds odd the claim that the university – especially one engaged in social sciences and humanities – is at odds with the nation. Precisely such a claim is being made in an article titled ‘University Beyond the “Nation”‘. “The university as a space transcends the parochialism of the nation form, namely its homogeneity and its territorial fixity,” it goes. “We in the university are introduced to a large corpus of theoretical and academic literature, which makes us re-think and question the category of the ‘nation-form’.” It is especially the “’University of Ideas’” which is:

“… a horizon-less entity which is based on doubt and questioning. The questioning of many pre-given ideas may lead to the creation of newer and newer horizons which may take us to no culmination point. Life is antithetical to fixity. It goes on, changes, transforms and brings up newer questions to the fore every day…. Even in academics, the students of International Relations may find nation-states as useful categories as per the realist understanding of the world system. But this has also been questioned heavily both by the idealist and the critical school theorists. We in social science deal with more intricate categories which enhances our understanding of the social reality. Therefore, caste, class, gender, community, region and language have complicated our understanding of history, politics, society, art and literature. It is the University which has opened up these frontiers and thus this space has to be thoroughly defended.”

It is noteworthy how the ‘University of Ideas’ is largely coterminous with academic practice, informed tooth and nail by its syllabus. Thinking begins with perspectives already engraved in what has been bequeathed from accumulated academic produce, and it is a talisman that puts the social scientist/humanities scholar at an edge in questioning pre-given ideas. This begs the question: how far have academic practices been put to question over years, and what place does the ‘University of Ideas’ have in the university body and in wider society in general?

Life is antithetical to fixity, but an academic feels he does well if he manages to find a tenure somewhere nice. Within the space of a university, within academic journals, newspaper columns, seminars, conferences and the occasional public meeting, the academic and scholar may traverse the wide horizons; beyond that modern professional life demands from us that our sphere of contact be limited to the bare minimum that our professional life demands and our evening walks permit. In fact, when we conceive of the material basis of academic practice, we find that it depends not only in terms of funding upon capital, but it also depends upon a very intricate and cut-throat system of competition and discipline between various aspirants into the ‘University of Ideas’. If, then, horizons still seem so vast, one must commend the scholar for being able to turn a blind eye to the process of isolation and insulation being in a University puts them in. In this regard, The University Worker has aptly remarked in their parcha ‘Beyond #StandWithJNU’ that “The struggle against segmentation is the only ground for solidarity”, which seems impossible without the academic’s and scholar’s questioning their place within wider society.

And to be sure, if a university’s defense in times of clash with the state-machinery is that it has contributed to the same state machinery all these years, we question if the ‘University of Ideas’ is really at odds with the nation-state. The bigger lurking danger is, if we accept for a moment that a nation is the people within a geopolitical border (as claimed by self-styled champions of this newfound nation), then the ‘University of Ideas’ unwittingly finds itself in conflict with the people of this nation, portrayed as an enviable island within the segmentation of this political economy.

Indications of isolation

 The following are listed to understand the isolation students in higher education find themselves in. This should open our eyes to the dangers of asserting this isolation as valuable or unique:

– Judging from many videos circulating on Youtube (like this one), it seems that a section of students enrolled in non-Humanities, technical, skill-oriented education are articulating a certain kind of vexation with respect to what they hear about JNU students: cheap hostels and mess, relatively relaxed academic schedule, education doesn’t seem to add to material production (hence no contribution to nation) – and still JNU students complain. This may or may not assume the discourse of altruistic nationalism – students in technical courses slog, fall in credit to pay for non-subsidized education, add to material production (hence contribute to nation-building), be like them. So ought we to present this as a “Modi Government against Students” issue, or as an issue of a section among the students? Ought we then not to question the ‘students’ movement’ regarding its failure to converse with a large section among students? Is it that merely this government is “anti-intellectual” or have intellectual workers and scholars pushed themselves dangerously into a corner?

– Those who watch national television, whether in Hindi or in English, found a convenient punching-bag in the form of JNU after watching initial coverage on Times Now and Zee News. These sections range from the working classes to the elites, across sectional-identity lines, beyond this it is difficult to pinpoint who. Part of the debacle lay in the naive belief on part of certain students in JNU in the corporate national media that they would give space to ideas that challenge the ideological basis of the status quo. This contributed immensely to the atmosphere of mob-lynching and general cynicism that was witnessed in the days that followed. Strangely, when Kanhaiya Kumar asserted upon his release that his nationalism is that of the struggling peasants and workers of this country, he overlooked the fact that many peasants and workers were also among those baying for his and others’ blood a few weeks ago. Ought we not to ask if our connections and sympathies with the oppressed are limited to events within campus and occasional demonstrations outside?  Some students in touch with the ongoing Honda (Tapukara) agitation did invite a few workers from there; wouldn’t organic solidarity with those struggling outside the university mean such relations on a much regular basis?

– Solidarity from outside notwithstanding, even within the university one found a polarization between the ‘University of Ideas’ and workers of the university. Karamchari Democratic Front, an organization of the staffers of JNU, condemned the students for the 9th February event, citing it as a divisive, sinister move on part of the student organizers. Security guards and other contract workers – who also bore the brunt of increased securitization on campus – were mostly non-partisan, security workers, by dint of their duty, coming into regular friction with students on campus. One is also reminded of the muffling of Kashmiri and Manipuri voices during the ad-block gatherings in JNU in the name of tactics.

– In fact, one of the failures of politics within the ‘University of Ideas’ has been its inability, while pointing out the horrors of Indian nationalism in Kashmir, to demonstrate the problems of nationalism within the so-called mainland. Thus, it pit Kashmir against the amorphous Indian nation, alienating large sections of those it ought to engage with.

Towards re-thinking universities politically

The urgency of the task for ending our isolation as students and workers – and even as different kinds of students and different kinds of workers – is one of the lessons to take, not merely from recent events, but more importantly from more general considerations:

– Scholars and professors, even in the humanities, are part of a global university system whose function is to reproduce the ideological basis and manpower for an increasingly connected global political economy. As they do this, they simultaneously negotiate their tenures within academia – more temporary than permanent – with pressures of publishing. Publishing, as an industry, holds a similar relation with the author as a factory with a worker: appropriation of labour and surplus value. Hence, a professor advertising his books at a public gathering is not very different from a worker selling his labour at the market-place. The money a publishing house makes off a book is exponentially greater than what its author is paid in return, in most cases.

– Alienation is widespread in higher education. Research-work makes the act of reading and writing dull and repetitive. Psychiatric ailments are commonplace; delaying work till the last minute is the norm. Even though creativity and intellectual property are supposedly respected, a researcher’s creativity is enmeshed in being located in the web of “earlier work” and “literature review”; at the same time, ideas produced in research are relegated, in most cases, to university systems and other research bodies; they have to be produced keeping in mind this patron-client relationship. Activity outside of this framework, as we see in the case of the cultural event on Afzal Guru, screening of movies, numerous other cultural programmes is either ignored because within the confines of the university space, or attacked because not at the core of the university’s function. In fact, event after event in university spaces suggests that ideological offensives from those controlling state-power will even disrupt the core-functions of the university system at the service of strengthening that ideological frame. In that sense, the only purpose of a university is disciplining.

– For the same reason, the ‘University of Ideas’, and schooling and education generally, exists in disciplinary measures that are very flexible for the administration to use, so as to arm-twist students and workers if need be. What is striking about these measures is that they are not merely top-down, but horizontally spread across departments and even classrooms, thus giving an aura of democratic access (everybody is free to discipline others!).

– The humanities student is not very different from the student taking up technical education for material production. Just as a software engineer learns programming to write code in, a student of social-cultural-economic theory masters a language that enables them in knowledge production, working on policy bodies, newspapers, journals, copy-editing companies, ghost-writing, establishing credentials for bureaucratic work, and so on.

– In higher education, the demand of student politics in central universities has been “Resist WTO! Save public education!” Given that enrollment in wholly or partially subsidized education is a small bracket compared to the costlier and more widespread incidence of private colleges, institutes, coaching centers, diploma colleges, ITIs, etc., this cannot be the slogan that can build solidarity with the larger section of students. Rather, we would have to reject the illusions of welfarism that only exist in pockets, and think of student politics on a wider platform.


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