The disquiet on our university campuses is troubling, to say the least, and this is not an unease that has come upon us suddenly. However much we wish to make a case for our universities as being spaces for dialogue and dissent, we have to reckon with the fact that many are bureaucratic fortresses as well, whose administrators are loath to let go of their privileges, based on birth and State office. Appointments to key posts within universities, including of vice-chancellors, are determined by parties in power, and men and women that parties favour, or are happy to favour party purses. This is an open, dirty secret, at least in regional universities, which, like caste, we don’t wish to acknowledge or engage with. Over the last year and more, there has been sustained student protest over such appointments and their consequences in south India — in Madurai Kamaraj University and Pondicherry Central University.
Institutional decay, which affects the prospects of students who look to the State to support their educational endeavour, occurs in diverse ways; while corruption and nepotism are its most obvious expressions, these conceal other equally malign tendencies. For instance, in a state like Tamil Nadu, both State and private educational players insistently and glibly celebrate educational success, without asking too many questions about its content — though there is enough evidence to show that not all is well with universities in the state, and that some of them have been arraigned by the University Grants Commission for not being the centres of excellence they claim to be. Institutional decay happens also on account of ethical indifference, in abundant evidence in Hyderabad Central University (HCU), where neither the vice-chancellor who was in office when Rohith Vemula died, nor the man who was chosen in his place, deigned to acknowledge the scale of the tragedy that had occurred, but instead looked to protect themselves, and their office.
Sadly, this state of affairs is seldom consistently challenged, except by those who are its victims. Even when challenged in particular contexts, institutional decay is not something we seek to debate with alacrity, as we do, for instance, threats to free speech or anti-fascist politics. This also means that we are not always aware of or take mindful heed of developments that are likely to truly transform our university spaces. On account of the concerted efforts of Dalit families, activists and community elders determined to ensure access to higher education, and demographic shifts in the composition of students in higher education, we have today a vibrant culture of Dalit-Bahujan intellectual labour and activism on many campuses — HCU has been home to such a culture for a while now, as is the English and Foreign Languages University. And there are many others whose stories stand to be told.
Besides, there are individual teachers, or reading groups who have actively promoted anti-caste cultures, and facilitated meaningful discussions to do with caste inside and outside the campus. Dalit teachers in several moffusil colleges — in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, for instance — have sought to create inclusive classrooms where social and cultural issues could be actively debated — given the largely OBC and Dalit presence in these colleges, this has proved both fraught as well as productive. Where no protocols exist, either in the syllabi or in the larger campus culture for speaking critically of caste, such efforts have proved enormously valuable. Writer Perumal Murugan, when he was in Namakkal, which he left last year due to casteist bullying, had built a reading and discussion circle, whose members went on to write on their experiences of being born and raised in particular castes. Subsequently collected into a volume titled Caste and I, it has proved to be a rich resource that tells us a lot of what has changed and not changed in rural and moffusil contexts, including in youth cultures and educational institutions.
It is in this context that we may want to re-examine the disquiet on our campuses — for clearly these have to do as much with the articulate power of expression on display by young Dalits as with resisting Hindutva and the State’s high-handedness. Vemula’s eloquence and universalism proved cumbersome to an establishment devoid of imagination and oblivious to social suffering. JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech irked the Hindu Right because the young man, with an indigent background dared to embrace several strands of critical thought and traditions of protest, which, when thought together, threaten casteist nationalism and a manuvadi State. Kumar’s invocation of Jai Bheem, his criticism of the venality of economic and political power and Brahminism, his clarity about raising the blue flag alongside the red communist banner, his endorsement of the right to justice for minorities — these suggested a new politics, brought about largely by the justness and critical content of Dalit political reasoning.
At stake today for all of us committed to free speech and a happy, creative culture of youthful idealism and defiance is not only the life world that is JNU, but the vibrant intellectual world of the Dalit-Bahujan youth as well. For the latter to flourish, the institutional decay of our public universities needs to be addressed — for it is only in spaces that are truly open and collectively experienced will Dalit-Bahujan practice and thought acquire the weight and resonance to anticipate a caste-annihilating and, therefore, fraternal politics and society, not only within the university but outside its precincts as well.
V Geetha is a writer, translator and publisher
The views expressed are personal