Dismantling of Higher Education and Why JNU Must be Defended

Ravi Kumar

Death can come in different ways. There can be a natural death and then there can be a murder or a killing – a premature death. The higher education in India is being killed, lynched by those who have been in habit of doing so. The killing of JNU and the ideas that it represents as an anamoly in this otherwise violent, masculinist and increasingly uncritical world will be the high point of the campaign of this authoritarian capitalist state currently represented by the right wing fundamentalism. You need just one vice-chancellor to destroy a university backed by what a BJP leader called, when their fake videos were making Kanhaiya and Umer into villains, “the might of the state”. Similar traits were seen when Dinesh Singh was the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University and now you can see the same autocratic manner of decimating the university as a critical space with the current VC of JNU. Is it a mere coincidence that the two universities had similar authoritarian administrations which wanted to put an end to any kind of tradition of protest, dialogue and opposition, which has been historically so central to the higher education institutions? In fact, they have been more than a mere coincidence. They have come at a time when the Indian state, after failing to privatise and destroy one of the last remnants of welfare state, wanted some desperate measures. In this sense, they have an agenda, which emphasises that:

  1. The university/ies must start fending for themselves
  1. They must tow the line of the state and not produce critical subjects
  1. They must become inaccessible to masses because the fee will shoot up since the public universities need to start mobilising their own resources as part of the 70-30 model of financing. The way JNU can do this is in two ways: firstly, by opening new ‘professional’ courses with high fee as is the ‘norm’ everywhere and then by telling other courses that there can’t be two fee structures in same university; and secondly, by saying that now HRD has already said that universities must start mobilising their resources if they need the 7th pay commission pay revisions. In both options the students who can’t afford can’t attend the higher education.
  1. The above factor would ensure that social sciences suffer decline because under the current situation they cannot generate funds the way sciences or other ‘professional’ courses can. Also it would be argued that the social sciences not only do not teach any ‘skill’ but rather teachers criticality and raising questions.
  1. The universities must then go on to be spaces of uncritical skill based training rather than researches and intellectual engagements of fundamental nature.

Being one of the most subsidised higher education institutions in the country the emphatic student politics in the campus had thwarted the bid to raise fee many a times earlier. It has also been making it difficult for the administration to implement their agenda. Hence, the JNU administration has been trying to achieve the above agendas through different ways:

  1. It has tried to engineer a demographic shift in the academic community through appointments. The current administrative dispensation wants to create a situation wherein the numerical strength of the right wing academics goes up, which can counter the left wing academics. This would also allow easy passage of decisions in the Academic and Executive Councils.
  1. It has taken steps to weaken all those institutions where any semblance of dialogue could happen – formal (GSCASH, AC & EC) as well as non-formal (Student GBMs and students protests and agitations, which have historically been non-violent).
  1. It has systematically tried to do away with any procedure or practice, which could have been even slightly interpreted and implemented creatively to ensure that the university becomes less bureaucratic and more open to academic engagements.
  1. It has brought in the coercive institutions of state into campus much more frequently than previous administrations.

To do all these things it needed a committed head of institution who would not listen to the collective constituency of the campus and would have least regard for democratic sensibilities. Nobody could have served the Indian state better than the current VC, who believes that army tanks need to be stationed inside the campus. The administration under the aegis of the current VC does not believe in a dialogic resolution of the problems of the university. Like the behaviour of Delhi Police with the teachers and students on 23rd March 2018 the JNU administration has made it amply clear over last two years or so that the only form of relationship that they would have with the faculty members and students is confrontational where all dialogues would be shunned.

Homogenising Higher Education: No Place for Differences and Ideals

The violence that has been perpetrated on the students and faculty in JNU also conveys a message, which is generic in nature – exceptions and ideals cannot be permitted within the framework of an abashed authoritarian neoliberal capitalism. JNU represented a symbolic exception, an ideal world to what was happening outside of it. Nominal fee structure, an university system where even without attendance policy classes could be full and an evaluation system which would produce best of intellectuals even without an oppressive controller of examinations. It would make any issues of class, caste or gender oppression happening even outside the campus into its own and students would have at least a symbolic gesture of protest and pamphleteering around the incidence. Its students’ politics went against the current of the contemporary university systems where money and muscle power are usually wielded. In this counter-narrative, students always had the potential to non-violently build a consensus to prevent the likes of L K Advani from entering the campus. No gunshots, no molestations, no forcible voting, no administrative interference and no madness of roaring bikes and raucous open jeeps with garlanded candidates in elections – that was JNU. It was symbolically challenging so many things that it had to be demolished with the full might of the state – with help from UGC, Ministry to the police force. The state needed to prove that there is nothing beyond its control and power- that if needed it would not accept even the liberal bourgeois forms of democracy such as elections. So, it decided to go against the majority will of students and faculty who voted despite all political and bureaucratic engineering. What the university administration wants to convey is that the will of the public must remain subservient to the state.

The mode of working of the state institutions in reference to JNU reminds us of how they helped the destruction of Delhi University earlier during Congress regime. We heard of No Work No Pay first when it was cited frequently by the Delhi University administration to faculty members sitting on dharnas or striking work. Reference was obviously made to the judiciary and now the same can be seen in case of JNU.

The political history of JNU might need a critical appraisal at some point but all such drawbacks notwithstanding it needs to be defended today with all our might. Because of its idealism it represented the most profound challenge to the state sponsored dismantling of higher education and in such times of crisis idealism needs to be defended. The BJP regime has opened the floodgates of wholesale destruction of university systems and is taking what earlier regime started to its logical end. Hence, the battle will be prolonged and one must choose side and join the battle now.

Photo: Courtesy The Wire

Author teaches at South Asian University.

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