• To Kill a Thriving Institution — Usurp Space and Deny Dialogue

    Sanghmitra S Acharya

    December 11, 2019

    The protest by the JNU students against the proposed fee hike is addresses the larger issue of higher education becoming inaccessible to the children of a lesser god. It questions the new education policy. For once, students have come together across party lines because they are fighting a proposal which will affect everyone indiscriminately for generations to come. The message is loud and clear — protect public funded institutions. But the powers that be have not really considered this to be worthy of any attention. So much so that despite the continuous struggle — which has lasted for more than 40 days now — for their rightful demands,the administration has issued circulars to hold examinations as per the academic calendar. This is despite complete knowledge of the fact that the protest has brought the university to a standstill. This could have been resolved much earlier and normalcy restored if the movers and shakers of the university administration had any respect for learning and scholarship and sat down to discuss it with their own students. Instead, they are busy swearing by the rules that mandate end semester examination while audaciously violating all regulations in the conduct of meetings of the statutory bodies of the university. With the breakdown of communication channels and shrinking spaces for discourse and debate, the stalemate continues and we watch helplessly.

    One of the things leading up to the current breakdown was the administrative response to an agitation by sanitation workers. The workers were protesting non-payment of their wages during the ongoing semester. . The administration responded by sacking some of them and deducting the wages of others.

    Like the rest of the country, my university too adopted the Clean India Mission (or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan), with an oath taking ceremony on 02 October 2014 to mark the beginning of a programme for cleanliness and commitment to it. Besides the ceremonial oath, little seems to have happened since then to contribute towards the cleanliness mission in the university. The toilets, barring those in the Pink Palace, are sure to give anyone a urinary tract infection. A strong stench of urine hits you when you pass the men’s lavatory. The women’s lavatory will greet you with soiled sanitary pads and tissue paper due to the absence of a covered bin. Dysfunctional taps, cistern flushes and latches on the doors wait to tell their tales of neglect. There are no hangers on the doors and often the latches are missing. Summer months herald dry taps. Sanitary napkin dispensers/vending machines remain a distant dream in a university which is ranked very high in various accreditations. A women’s loo on the second floor of one of the School of Social Sciences buildings remained locked for nearly a year — for maintenance purposes — which leftthe women students, teachers and administrative staff of the two centres housed on that floor without any restroom on the same level for that period. Toilet rolls and hand wash liquid remain elusive unless you are in the “Pink Palace”, the administrative building which houses the Vice Chancellor’s office. The restrooms of this building are adorned with floral curtains, soap, liquid soap, hand towel, tissue paper, functional taps, clean and dry floors, washbasins and even air fresheners. With poor and irregular wages and inconsistent supplies, the sanitation workers cannot really be held responsible. The plasters have fallen off the roofs in the hostels as well as residential units. The window panes remain broken, sometimes for years, before being replaced. So much for the luxury which JNU students enjoy using taxpayers’ money! May the consumers of WhatsApp feeds be informed.

    The cleanliness drive in the university has done little to address the muck created after the rains in the walkways between academic buildings and parking lots. The same can be said for the roads leading up to the hostels and residential units too. Every rainy season, year after year, we have waded through pools of rainwater, balancing ourselves to avoid slipping and often failing. Does this come within the purview of the cleanliness mission? Or do these small demands – muck-free walkways, clean curtains in office spaces etc. – amount to asking for the moon?

    Why is it that only the poster removing abhiyan is seen as cleanliness? These posters have adorned the walls of JNU and narrated volumes of national and international history and current affairs, invoked ideas, posed questions and inspired the creativity of the young minds coming to this seat of higher learning year after year. They have offered a space for creative expression. Instead of archiving these posters for posterity, they were ruthlessly ordered to be removed on the pretext of cleanliness. The stated objective was saving the walls from being defaced! The intent, of course, was to silence the creative thinking minds and the uncomfortable questions they raised. “Cleanliness” was very evidently just a facade.

    In this so-called cleanliness drive, young daily wage workers were hired to take the posters off. Most of them were seen precariously perched on rickety ladders, scratching the creative expressions off the walls with their bare hands. Why were they not using any implements, instead of just their fingers and nails, to scrape the posters? Because they were daily wage workers hired from an agency which supplies contractual workers to the university. Neither the contractor nor the university seems to owe an explanation in this regard. For the workers, asking for anything in addition to wages — such as basic tools to help them remove the posters — was likely to cost them their job. So they struggled to clean the walls with their bare hands, much like their brethren who engage in cleaning occupations that directly contribute to Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

    The posters have outlived many scorching summers and battering rains. They have withstood gusty pre-monsoon winds without even fluttering a little — both literally as well as figuratively. They have told a story to their viewers; they have churned something within them and inspired them to be politically aware. Most importantly, they have taught many that being politically and socially active is no crime, but an integral part of one’s existence. Perhaps that is why even the two young workers suspended on a ladder along the walls of one of the buildings, first clicked a selfie against a vibrant poster before they embarked upon their task.

    The first round of the “clean JNU mission has left the walls more interesting. The posters, partially removed, form more nuanced and checkered motifs in varied hues. With some words having vanished, those still visible appear to be making new sense — partially visible, desperate to merge into another… before the real meaning and its message is lost! Subsequently, therefore, higher and sturdier ladders have been brought in by the authorities to erase all history and voluntarily choose to miss the opportunity to archive it all.

    Urban spaces in cities across the world, including some places in Delhi and other Indian cities, allow popular expression in the form of paintings and graffiti on the exterior walls of residences and public and institutional spaces. Boundary walls of various buildings in cities like Patna, Lucknow, Ujjain, Indore, Kochi and Jaipur to name a few, and walls and structures of institutions like IIMs, IITs, SPAs and CEPT, are weaving multiple narratives of history, culture, polity and society. But JNU decides to go clean – to cleanse itself of all such narratives and perspectives.. On the pretext of “cleanliness”, a meticulously planned project of usurping and foreclosing spaces of expression is underfoot. In earlier times, dialogue was the soul of interactions between different sections of the university community. The university has seen generations of administrators who respected and appreciated the nuance and ethos of the university and its institutional procedures. It is appalling, therefore, to see the current administration trample that vibrant ethos underfoot. The long standing tradition of dialogue and deliberation has been replaced by an authoritarian culture of unilateral online circulars and diktats. Peremptory orders are shot off to teachers and students and woe betide anyone who does not immediately comply. No questions are admissible; no dissent is recorded.

    The attack on the democratic tradition of JNU has also been accompanied by a rhetoric of “fund crunch”. This has hollowed out key academic processes. For instance, the introduction of PhD vivas over Skype has reduced lifelong dreams of publicly defending doctoral research work to dry monologues in front of a screen which, of course, often blanks out due to network problems. The “resource crunch” has also been cited as a reason for major fund cuts for other academic activities like students’ fieldwork and guest lecture. Interestingly, however, the crunch has not come in the way of mindless expenditure on “beautification” processes like installing fancy street lights and holding programmes like convocations in hired premises. The latter is even more bizarre given that JNU has been renting out its own spaces, like the magnificent convention centre, to outsiders to hold their own functions. The tragedy of trends can fully understood if one remembers the reason why JNU did not hold ceremonial convocations (apart from one occasion) in the past. The idea was to prevent unnecessary expenditure and use the resources in the interests of students instead. The imparting of rightful and equitable education was seen as more important than the pompous show of receiving certification for it. A degree taken simply from a staff member in the university office was held to be as valuable as any other.

    It is to preserve and restore this spirit of equitable public education that the JNU students have been fighting. Interestingly, the anguish over shrinking spaces due to the “cleanliness” drive metamorphosed soon into an initially subtle, and later uncompromising, effort of reclaiming space through paintings, graffiti and slogans on the very walls that were declared inaccessible!! Almost overnight, verses and ideas of various poets, thinkers and philosophers adorned the walls in a number of languages. The students were reasserted their right to a common heritage of debate, dissent and political vibrancy.

    In the current protests over the fee hike, the JNU students are reiterating their basic conviction yet again – that it is not easy to barricade the way of what is right. They have endured lathi charges, water cannons and arrest, apart from a vicious campaign of misinformation about themselves and their university. ove all, the incorrect “facts” about their university and themselves.

    The need today is to clean the minds of the filth that is hindering the right thinking towards access to equitable higher education. Communication and dialogue across various stakeholders through appropriate channels, not video messages, is the only solution from saving institutions of higher learning from dying, to which country and its people owe a lot.


    Sanghamitra S Acharya is a professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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