I write this as a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been a witness to the students’ movements during the past two years and a participant of the anti-Lyngdoh campaign within the university. I associate myself very much with the independent left students on campus. And I am writing this from that perspective.
JNU, just like any other central university, is a place where students come from all across the country, including some from outside the country. Most of these students join in BA and continue to stay on the campus to pursue research. Most JNU students have at least been on campus for five years if we include just BA and MA courses. JNU, as such, becomes a place with a large migrant population. Compared to other central universities, it even has a greater sex ratio owing to quartile points and extra points that have been given to female candidates during admissions.
The central goal of student parties based on the ideology of the left has been the overthrow of capitalism by the working class. Here, the working class can be roughly defined as constituted by those who do not own the means of production. By that logic, students constitute a large portion of the working class. However, the left’s definition of the working class is very limited for understanding and responding to the abovementioned discontinuities in student demography and differences in the cultural capital. Moreover, the focus of student parties has mostly been on action rather than agenda. Hence, the success of a mobilization is assessed on the basis of the number of people who came for the protest rather than on the delivery of the agenda. This has led to the failure of many campaigns within the campus. For example, the campaign against 100% weightage to viva-voce in M Phil and PhD (According to UGC Gazette 2016)
The left parties of JNU have always glorified unionized labor and its political potential. They strive to achieve a bargain through the union/student party. And this is achieved, most often, at the cost of other kinds of labor- 1) the contractual labor- security guards, dhaba workers, construction workers, mess workers, sanitation workers, 2) non contractual, non-unionized labor-housework, childcare by parent or spouse and 3) the permanent, non unionized staff. Furthermore, the contractual nature of the relationship between professor/students and the university is rarely emphasized. This is becoming more and more evident with the countless numbers of circulars that have been issued, the imposition of attendance rule and the granting of autonomy to central universities. This segmented contractualisation through which labor becomes alienated needs to be understood. The inability of the student parties, who have nevertheless made immense contributions towards the empowerment of the working class, to understand other forms of labor relations, has placed them in a very incongruous relationship with the university.
The following data, titled ‘Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse’, has been taken from the blog of ‘The University Worker’, a bilingual newspaper that foregrounds the idea of the university as a workplace. [Credit: Edwards, Marc A., and Siddhartha Roy. 2017. Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition. Environmental Engineering Science 34(1):51-61.]
“The ideology of the academy is that of the equality of chances for social promotion through studies. This equality …has always been fictitious. Nevertheless, the mechanisms and criteria of academic selection in the past were sufficiently “objective” for their class and arbitrary character to be masked; one was eliminated or chosen in function of a group of “aptitudes” and “competences” that were defined once and for all. Traditionally the left fought, not against class criteria of selection – which would have forced it to fight against selection itself and against the academic system as a whole – but for the right of everyone to enter the selection machine.” (Andre Gorz, 1970)
Because of the promise of faculty appointments, graduates work hard but that promise is only illusory because there will always be too many candidates and very few openings. This problem gets intensified because of massive seat cuts and fund cuts. Under such a scenario, it becomes imperative to introspect our demands, especially as students coming from minority sections such as dalits. Are we ready to give up our old aspirations to end this vicious cycle of exploitation? With a system so ridden with structural inequalities, does the demand for ‘equal’ voice on campus remain a valid one? We cannot think of achieving equality without also introspecting what it means for us to be equal. For we must understand and we do, that within the structure of language, if we want to voice the silenced, then language itself must be reinvented, sometimes at the cost of its own destruction. A rewriting of history cannot take place by simultaneously inventing a new form of writing itself. To do this, we must redefine categories such as work, labor and the idea of the institution.
The administration has been playing the caste and minority card to justify the appointment of new deans, some of whom come from low castes, or belong to the minority communities. It has become clear now that the dalit, OBC, SC, ST are not homogenous categories, devoid of ideology. Are we ready to engage with these categories in all their complexities or are we going to homogenize them? It is no longer just a question of whether or not the interest of the minority is being addressed by the student parties but also, which dalit, which SC/ST or which OBC are we trying to represent. We must rethink the boundaries of our definitions. The oppressor-oppressed binary is not as neat as we would like to imagine. How far can we go with identity-based politics?
While the dalit bahujan parties ask for equality within existing structures, the GSCASH, it seems, asks for equality only for a section of female students in the university. The GSCASH (Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment) had been an autonomous body with the student and teacher representatives who addressed the cases of sexual harassment and other gender-related issues on campus, until recently, when the body has been arbitrarily replaced by ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) in September 2017.
While being completely against such a move by the administration, I must also ask why there was not a single case filed against Prof. Atul Johri, when GSCASH was in place? Another question that comes to mind, after knowing that most of the women complainants have identified themselves as ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) cadres and none as supporters of the left ideology is: why we had no representatives from ABVP for GSCASH? These are questions addressed as much to GSCASH, ICC as to the female students of JNU. The left forces on campus, including me, have been critical of female members of ABVP, for supporting an ideology that is regressive and patriarchal. Today the same people are congratulating the complainants for speaking up. Under such a scenario, each one of us must introspect our narrow perspective on the issue of gender sensitization.
Recently, the deans of certain departments, who have been boycotting the attendance rule, have been removed by the Vice-chancellor and replaced by the ones who support it. Private funding is now permitted for government universities. Moreover, some central universities in India have been granted autonomy, JNU and Hyderabad Central University being two of them. This leads to an immense specialization of power, where the Vice-chancellor can take any decision he wants without much opposition, either from students (Academic Council meetings have lost ground) or the teachers. This specialization of power coupled with labor that has been alienated leads to a situation where it has become increasingly difficult for students to exert pressure over the administration. Under such a scenario, all students’ movements instead of becoming reproducible have become tautological. Yet, we go on with our old means of protests such as online campaign, long marches, hunger strike; all of which has only increased the gap between the public domain where politics is performed and the actual realm of governance.
Alienation gives power to thought. But power itself must not be alienated. Alienation must be acknowledged and accepted as a reality. The more we fight it, the more we get implicated within the system that produces it. This does not imply that we cannot have a collective conscience any longer and so we can leave things to individual conscience because that for me would imply falling into the trap of neo-liberalism. Instead, we must come together as alienated beings. Any other sense of a collective does not seem ethical at this moment, where students have gone missing from campus, committed suicide and yet others have been harassed sexually. We not only need to rethink our idea of individual conscience but also collective conscience, in the face of alienation.
For the first time in the past two years, there seems a possibility of JNU coming together. But that possibility can be realized only if we understand that more than doing, there is a need to undo certain things today. If we are not united in our attempts to reform the university, we must at least be united in our attempt to destroy it. Destroying Jawaharlal Nehru University is not limited to non-compliance of draconian rules imposed upon the students, teaching and non-teaching staff by the administration, but destroying the very idea of the university. This would mean a re-imagining not just of a new place for knowledge production but also new ways, perhaps by dismantling the existing curriculum. We must be ready to come together, not just in our capacity as the members of union, party or association but first and foremost as people of a university. If we keep on clinging to these associations that can only operate within the model of a university and try to protest exclusively within these frames, we are only jeopardizing our chances of getting to a real alternative. We cannot afford, at this point in time, to have divisions within union or associations. Therefore, it is imperative to come together as a larger body politic to posit a consecrated attack on the structures that we are so embedded in. Our ideologies must be informed by the larger questions which we are all facing, together.
We must confront the altered political reality of our time. Many central universities in the United Kingdom are experiencing persistent strikes. Recently, a university in Orissa has permanently been locked by the administration. There have been forced lockdowns of departments by students in JNU. Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai has been experiencing a similar breakdown. There are countless other examples of failing universities. The students who have sat for lockdowns and strikes have done so in their capacity as students of the respective departments. The students who refused to let the guards do checking in the hostel have done so in their capacity as residents of the respective hostels. We must meet and discuss with each other in that capacity, the idea of representative bodies is no longer plausible for the matter at hand. The idea is no longer to represent but to show, in the least, the very failure of this representation and in the process expose the workings of the university.
“We cannot destroy something if we are not willing to destroy ourselves in the moment that we destroy that thing. In my opinion, this is the concept of involvement in the destructive act. We can separate the acquisitive, constructive act from ourselves …but we cannot separate the idea of destruction from ourselves…speaking of destruction makes no sense except through another type of language. This other type of language … is not merely formed of words, but of that extraordinarily complex combination that is realized between theory and practice.” (Alfredo M. Bonanno, 1996)
Harshita Bathwal is a curator and research scholar, provisional PhD in Visual Department, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU