N Sukumar & Shailaja Menon
In 1962, Paulo Freire created culture circles in Northeastern Brazil to support 300 sugarcane workers to teach each other how to read the word and their world in 45 days, which enabled them to register to vote. These Culture Circles that began with Sugar Cane workers, catalyzed thousands more. Each with the purpose of not just literacy, but conscientization, or which involves people joining with their peers to name their world by reflecting on their conditions, imagining a better world, and then taking action to create it. This approach, developed as much by Freire as the workers he educated, was so galvanizing that he was jailed and exiled by the Military Government within two years. (http://www.practicingfreedom.org/pedagogy-of-the-oppressed-what-is-it-and-why-its-still-relevant/, accessed 11/1/2017 9.45 am)
Emancipatory ideologies across the world have emphasized education as a key strategy for radical social transformations. Closer home, visionaries like Jotiba and Savitribai Phule, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Periyar to name a few accentuated education to generate a truly liberated society. The varied discourses on liberty, freedom, equality and justice provided the bedrock to construct a pluralistic India. The institutionalization of education in modern India emerged during colonial rule to serve the colonial administration. The benefit accrued to a privileged few as access to education was contoured around caste and gender norms. Post- independence, the scenario was sought to be changed through constitutionally mandated affirmative action (Reservations) to enable the underprivileged groups to access education.
This measure facilitated a new generation of deprived groups to breach the walls of privilege and critique the structures of oppression which worked to exclude them from social, economic, political and cultural opportunities. This set off tremors amongst the well-entrenched forces controlling the various levers of power in our society. Multiple weapons were utilized to maintain the status-quo. The question of ‘merit’, maintaining ‘standards’, etc were used to prevent the admission of the marginalized groups into various academic institutions. If at all, they managed to secure a seat, they were stigmatized on the basis of caste, language, ideologies, mannerisms, religion, gender so that many were compelled to drop out, their silences not being addressed by the system.
There are very few academic spaces which offer a beacon of hope to many beleaguered groups struggling to demolish entrenched privileges. No wonder such institutions have faced the wrath of the current ruling ideology. Be it curbing artistic freedoms at FTII, the political fracas which led to the suspension of five dalit students at HCU and the subsequent suicide of Rohith Vemula, the shameful flip-flops around his tragic death and the shenanigans in JNU. The method in the madness is very apparent. One is supposed to behave like the three proverbial monkeys- see no evil, hear no evil, talk no evil. And what is the evil? One should keep silent when the state indulges in encounter killings; our cultural right to food should be given up in the name of cultural purity, patriarchy is sacrosanct both in the public and private domains and to avoid any unwanted attention, we should dress sensibly, avoid loitering in public and keep our mouths shut. Even after censoring ourselves, God forbid, if ‘something happens’, entirely it’s our fault. Hence, spaces which interrogate such ideas are deemed treacherous and need to be ‘policed’.
This intellectual and moral policing has sought to silence all forms of dissent- a reading of ‘Annihilation of Caste’ was disrupted in a Delhi University College, Mahashweta Devi’s play is deemed offensive in Haryana Central University, a book based on JNU campus life- Up Campus Down Campus by Avijit Ghosh was prevented from being discussed at the NBT Book Fair in Delhi, the list is endless. The NBT is headed by Baldeo Sharma, the former editor of the Sangh mouthpiece, Panchjanya. Any gesticulation of disagreement is deemed a challenge to the Brahmanical pedagogy and its myriad forms of domination. The solution is multi-faceted. Bans, suspensions, physical and legal assaults, trolling on social media are all part of the arsenal to uphold the cultural values.
The dalit-bahujan teachers and students in HCU and JNU and their leftist supporters have been maligned as anti-national and asked to produce certificates of good behavior. The attempt is to embroil them in legal issues to curtail any protests. In the current mêlée at JNU, the majority of the suspended students are dalit-bahujans, among the five teachers who have been issued disciplinary letters, three are dalit-bahujans, one is a feminist-activist and one a liberal supporting the Ambedkarite movement. The demonization of JNU and the continuous targeting of its students and faculty reflects the devious and pathological hatred of its vibrant culture of critique. The JNU administration is focused on ensuring ‘good behaviour’ but has no interest in locating Najeeb who has been missing ever since he was beaten up by ABVP cadre in his university hostel. JNU has a history of awarding deprivation points to enable students from remote areas to access higher education. The flip side is that discrimination occurs during viva-voce and interviews for admissions on the basis of caste, language, family and ideological backgrounds. Now, the administration seeks to impose cent percent weightage on interviews with far reaching implications. This will enhance the social power of the Brahmanical ideology. Additionally, those students termed ‘dangerous’ can be prevented from getting into the campus. After all, students like Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, Najeeb need to be ‘silenced’ to maintain the status quo.
Years ago, Ambedkar had given a clarion call to educate, agitate and organize and agitate which has been used by the dispossessed groups to bargain for a better life. The Hindutva forces’ deep rooted design is to sustain the Hindu social order, based on varnashram dharma and ward off any attempt to democratize society. In the process, individuals or institutions deemed to be a threat should be exiled or muzzled by whatever means possible. For electoral gains, Ambedkar is appropriated but those who follow his ideals – the dalit-bahujans are not welcomed. This is manifested in various forms in the academia, cultural arenas etc.
However, the battle for ideas will continue to contest the fascist forces and create a democratic order. A tiny gesture of non-acceptance of a PhD degree by Sunkanna (one of the five expelled students from HCU) from the tainted Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao reveals that the embers of rage is still simmering. A year will pass since Rohith’s heartrending demise but the culture of suspensions against dalit-bahujan students and teachers continues to operate with impunity.
N.Sukumar teaches Political Science at Delhi University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Shailaja Menon teaches History at Ambedkar University (email@example.com)