• The Withering Away of the University

    "Currently, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the RSS flag happily flies alongside the flag of neo-liberal world-politics."

    Saitya Brata Das

    February 21, 2018


    The series of events that has unfolded, and is still unfolding, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the premier institutions of higher education and research in this country, is symptomatic of a deep-seated, mostly unconscious, malaise. From a distance, it appears that it is the internal conflict between two opposing political ideologies – “left” and “right” – trying to seek domination. In fact, this is precisely what a certain group is trying to present it as. This is not without reason.

    A closer look would reveal the real truth, i.e., this “appearance” is a fiction which is invested with the value of “truth,” and that it is propagated by those who are apologists for the current administrative apparatus. And, it is not difficult to see why.

    The question is not really the internal battle between “left and “right”.

    It is true that those few faculty members who support “the regime” in place can be said to be, more or less, of the conservative disposition. But the immense number of students and teachers on the other side (the overwhelming number is demonstrated each time in all the massive protests that have happened in the last two years) are not necessarily supporters of any “left” political ideology, or of any party, for that matter.

    The real question, which is obscured in all those heated debates that have taken place in the last two years, is rather this: an immense number of students and teachers of this university are attempting to preserve the very ethos of, not only this university, but of what a university space is and what it ought to be: a place of intellectual and spiritual freedom.

    This includes freedom from the hegemonic regime in place (whatever that regime may be at any instance of time, left or right); freedom from all external coercion to pursue, fearlessly, what is beneficial to the interests of the universe (that is why it is called a “university”); and of humanity at large, beyond all categories of the nation, race, community, religion, or sexuality.

    The state and the administration should be facilitating agents to foster knowledge and wisdom of the highest order that flourish in this spiritual site. They are responsible for this nourishment of critical thinking and intellectual freedom. In this sense, the state and the administration are obliged – if not by the force of the law, but, at least, ethically (therefore, this obligation is even higher than any legal obligation) – to protect and nourish the university.

    What we have seen, in the last few decades, is the transformation of the role of the state in relation to the country at large. The state, now, no longer wants to see itself as a “social welfare” state, but as one multinational company among others, albeit a bigger one than most of the other companies.

    With this transformation, the responsibility of the state, to the social welfare of its people, is fast disappearing. The state, now, wants to enter into the vast, global market of profit-making business partnerships with other countries through facilitation of free market and privatisation of almost every mode of our existence (including health care and transport) using the tax payer’s money.

    In this process, not only is the question of “social justice” (of the deprived sections, of the dalits and minorities) considered irrelevant, the very space of the university, too, is becoming a useless institution for the profit-making state, unless the university itself somehow becomes another profit-making institution, a factory or industry, one among many other factories and industries.

    When a university is reduced to a profit-making institution, the question of intellectual freedom and critical-creative transformation of humanity becomes insignificant. Instead, the real question is how much profit an university is making. The decisive 55% budget cut to University Grants Commission is only one symptom among others; there are massive seat cuts in almost all government funded Central Universities across the country; a huge number of faculty members work on ad-hoc basis, without any hope of recruitment in the near future; fellowships to research scholars, in humanities and social sciences, are, more or less, either reduced or stopped altogether; even in a university like JNU, reservation policies in students’ intake have not been followed in the last two years. This puts Constitutional norms and rules, that seek to establish social justice and equality, to shame.

    Very soon, this process of privatisation of education will reach such a magnitude that most of the young people of the coming generation of this country will be deprived of higher education and research altogether, besides having an adverse effect on the alarming phenomenon of unemployment that has already made itself felt.

    What is happening here? What is happening at JNU is only symptomatic of what is happening in all institutions of higher education and research in this country. Like the state — which has forgotten its role as a “social welfare” state, and, instead, has become a player in the market place of the capital accumulation (which destroys the very ideas of social justice, social equality, and upliftment of the well-being of the citizens) — the administrations of the universities (JNU is the prime example here), too, have become players in the free market where knowledge is a commodity, and students and teachers are mindless cogs in the immense apparatus of knowledge production. Students, by definition, must be not be deprived of any intellectual freedom to debate, to think, to examine matters of prime concern, not only of the nation but of the entire humanity.

    It is not for nothing that the current Vice-Chancellor of JNU speaks, not only of battle tanks, but, also, of “industry”. The latter idea is far more sinister than the former. For him, this university is a laboratory and a factory which will produce commodities in the market place of the world; the university, for him, is a multinational company within the larger multinational company of the nation. The administrator, now, no longer thinks of himself as a facilitator of intellectual freedom and social justice, but, as an engineer of profit in the market place of the world.

    The paradoxical fact is that – in fact it is not at all a paradox – this very “neo-liberal” economic theology is, now, combined with the most obscurantist and the most regressive, which is at once most dangerous and terrifying, political view to the society at large. The current administration happily combines the “neo-liberal” economic theology (supported by the most sophisticated and advanced technological apparatus) with the most regressive and socially unjust cultural standpoint of extreme conservatism.

    Currently, at JNU, the RSS flag happily flies alongside the flag of the neo-liberal world-politics.

    What, then, is destroyed is the very place of an excellent university that could have contributed to the intellectual life, not only of the nation but to the world of learning as such, for decades. What, then, is destroyed is the very ethos of democracy and intellectual freedom, the very passion of critical thinking and creativity which flourished at this university for so many decades.

    One is tempted to say that what could not happen, to such an extent, at the level of national politics, has now happened in JNU.

    This includes the rise of the absolute state; the merciless dictatorship of the VC at JNU, which is supported by few other profiteers; the taking place of the regime of terror where dissenting students and teachers are daily harassed and punished and humiliated; the establishment of a machinery of surveillance, of discipline and punishment.

    The question of attendance, which has recently raised such a huge uproar among students and teachers alike, is not one question among others: it is precisely the protest against the regime of terror in place today at JNU, where everyone is terrorised. It is one desperate attempt, on the part of the students and teachers, to salvage the university from its headlong rush into the abyss of annihilation.

    And to speak nothing of corruption: all possible norms, rules, laws – of the university and the law of the land – are thrown to the dustbins! Where one would expect to hear, “Hail, intellectual freedom!” one hears, “Hail, our leader VC!”

    It is the responsibility of the nation to protect and nourish its intellectual and spiritual institutions. What is going on at the University currently is neither a sectarian fight of a sect for some tangible privileges and benefits, nor even political domination for a “ left” ideology, but a painful, bitter, difficult struggle to preserve a precious institution from the forces of destruction.


    Saitya Brata Das teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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