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Friday, February 26, 2016

Limits of freedom - Autonomy for universities does not make them liberated zones

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the unintended consequences of the storm over the separatist slogans chanted in Jawaharlal Nehru University has been the reinforcement of stereotypes. 

Earlier this week, to take a random but quite telling example, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from Rajasthan fulminated against the degenerate student culture of a university that is perceived to be pampered and (by Indian standards) and over-funded by the state. He revealed to stunned TV audiences that the hostels were witness to spectacular bouts of debauchery, including nude parties and orgies involving mean and women students. He declared that some 3,000 used condoms and many hundreds of liquor bottles were to be found in the piles of garbage collected from the campus each day. 

Not surprisingly, the MLA’s colourful outburst invited a great deal of mirth. Social media was flooded with asides from ‘liberals’ both tickled and angry over this needless caricature of a lifestyle that, while undoubtedly carefree (as most student lifestyles undoubtedly are), is hardly calculated to push the bounds of bohemianism. Indeed, I would like to hazard the guess that the disproportionate influence of Left thinking among the more politicised sections of the JNU student body has actually prompted a measure of contrived austerity. I could, of course, be wrong and the austerity may well be limited to economies in the purchase of quality liquor and the exhibition of sartorial scruffiness—disabilities that, more often than not, are fast cured the moment a student steps into working life. 

Whatever the reality, it quite clear that the indignant MLA had only the haziest notion of campus life. But such misconceptions are neither rare nor confined to those who are card-carrying members of the saffron brotherhood. I recall the trepidation of my parents in the early-1970s when I chose to leave Kolkata after finishing school and secure admission in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. They had heard colourful stories of the widespread drug culture in the Delhi University campus and how students from respectable families ended up as long-haired charsis. In the United Kingdom, readers of the Daily Mail—a publication I hugely admire for its uninhibited portrayal of moral rights and wrongs and its journalistic craftmanship—still presents students as irresponsible, hard-drinking louts. And a large section of Middle England believes this portrayal of dissolute youth playing havoc with taxpayers’ money.
JNU, much more than other universities in India, has an image problem that is by no means confined to people who swear by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. First, it is perceived as a university where socially useful knowledge—such as disciplines that dominate the various Indian Institutes of Technology and the medical and engineering colleges—has been relegated to the background. The priority given to the arts (alas, now described as the social sciences) and the sheer longevity of student stays in the campus, has made it an object of suspicion in a society that values skills over pure knowledge. In the Indian tradition, there is a monastic rigour attached to the pursuit of knowledge. With its public face being presented by those who pursue studies in disciplines such as history, politics and even aesthetics, a perception has grown that JNU is an institution dedicated to the self-indulgence of a few. Ironically, the adherence to a so-called “scientific temper”, paraded as a defining hallmark of modernity, has come to haunt JNU’s emphasis on the liberal arts.  

Secondly, the scholastic reputation of universities has invariably depended on the reputation of its faculty. It is interesting that the public image of JNU has been forged, not on account of the seminal contribution of its faculty to their disciplines, but on the uniqueness of its campus life in an Indian context. The various interventions made by the friends of JNU—usually alumni in the media—have invariably stressed the so-called openness of campus culture, the ‘awareness’ underpinning student activism and the social diversity of the student body. All these attributes are important and, indeed, in most world class academic institutions as a given. However, as recent events quite vividly demonstrate, the glare on the political energy of its students has also served to highlight the relative silence on faculty contributions to particular academic disciplines. Indeed, it would seem that the alumni who have made a mark in their chosen fields have done so outside JNU. What Indira Gandhi envisaged as a “centre of excellence” when the university was established, hasn’t entirely lived up to that promise—unless the success rate in civil services examinations is the yardstick. Unfortunately, it is also true that this particular shortcoming isn’t confined to JNU alone; it extends to nearly all Indian universities. 

Finally, there has been a lot of talk in recent days about the need to promote and defend the autonomy of universities. Insofar as autonomy emphasises the need to insulate higher education from an overdose of state interference and meddlesome politicians, it is welcome. Unfortunately, the notion of autonomy that is being projected in the past fortnight in JNU and, for that matter, Jadavpur University, seems rather limited in scope. In effect, it has come to imply the establishment of a self-regulated campus fortress. In Jadavpur, the faculty joined students in creating a human chain to keep out ‘outsiders’ chanting Vande Mataram. In JNU, following the dramatised arrest of the Student’s Union president on a charge of ‘sedition’, staff and students are maintaining a vigil to prevent the police from entering the campus and apprehending other student leaders involved in the ‘azadi’ kerfuffle. The implication of both these developments is that the normal law of the land does not (or should not) apply inside the campus. There have also been muted protests to the suggestion by the Central Government that a large national flag should be permanently flown inside all Central universities. Whether in the matter of free speech or the definition of illegality, the underlying suggestion is that the campus is a sacred space that somehow falls outside state jurisdiction. 

As a loose statement of belief that heavy-handed policing should be avoided and that universities should resolve disputes without outside involvement, the principle of autonomy is unexceptionable. The problem arises when the position is taken to absurd extremes and the campus is declared a de-facto ‘liberated zone’ where consensual decencies can be disregarded. It is instructive to recall that in the 1970s, the hostels of Jadavpur became armed fortresses, with Naxalites calling the shots. It was also the campus where the Vice Chancellor was hacked to death by students proclaiming ‘China’s chairman is our Chairman.’   

Clearly no two situations are alike. But to prevent the law from taking its course because the campus community has prejudged otherwise, strike me as extending the notion of autonomy from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is a compelling case against policemen unable to appreciate the convergences and divergences of the far-Left vis a vis Kashmiri separatists. But one case of overkill cannot be countered by alternative grandstanding, as is happening in both Delhi and Kolkata. 

Mocking the philistinism of the ‘Right’ makes good copy, especially when it is twinned with a larger battle to bring down a regime through a thousand cuts. But the liberal intelligentsia and its young fellow-travellers must seriously ask whether the populist distaste for spoilt brats is based entirely on ‘false consciousness’ or, worse, ‘Hindu cretinism’. 

The Telegraph, February 26, 2016


Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis. The recent incidents make one wonder whether Naxalism (termed a people's movement) is really of a central University origin. The Naxal idea of "liberated zones" finds a parallel in these universities. Perhaps the protagonists of the JNU/Jadhavpur incidents draw their inspiration from the French revolution and the successful movements of Fidel Castro/Che Guevara in toppling establishing regimes. In India's fractious democracy they can always find political support. But being liberal arts students they must also know that with rights come obligations.

One problem with social science/liberal arts studies is that the employment prospects are bleak, thereby robbing the incentive to focus on one's studies and graduate quickly as students in the sciences and engineering do. It is the bored minds that think up issues to "take on" and fight (Rahul Gandhi is a classic example of this). What might help is setting stiff time limits for students to complete their degree course whether it is a Bachelor's or a Doctorate. Taking an inordinate time to graduate does not mean that the the research is of a high quality. On the contrary it reveals a student's incompetence, and/or the fear to face the realities of the job market.

ashokmalhotra said...

Even if one agreed with your thesis that there is a larger design to bring down the regime through "thousand cuts" , one wonders why is the government playing into their hands. It would be naive to assume that the government could not control the unabashed hooliganism if it so wished. Isn't the government actually fuelling the polarisation that you talk about. Under the circumstances even the supporters and well wishers of the government will be forced to wonder as to what is the government's real agenda. Why is the situation not being diffused- Is it to divert attention from the growing perception that the government has not delivered what it promised? Just as you have talked about perceptions around JNU, one should also look at the growing perceptions about the government and a growing fear about criminalisation of dissent.