Students should be free to inquire and explore
College authorities trying to impose their ideas on students, wanting them to conform to codes of dress, food, interactions with other students and the outside world, are not part of some far away dystopian universe as one might imagine. This exists even in a major metropolis like Mumbai, as incidents in the past – however sporadic -- tell us. What is surprising – and troubling – is that not only such diktats for students should continue to be issued, but also the kinds of institutions that get affected.
More than 100 students of Grant Medical College (GMC), I understand from newspaper reports, are up in arms against the authorities of their institution, alleging ‘moral policing’ and a curbing of their rights. Going by these reports (also published in this newspaper on Thursday) my sympathies are completely with the students. It appears they are being bullied on pretexts that are not only silly but, more damagingly, also regressive.
In a letter addressed to the Directorate of Medical Education (DMER), the students claim that on the instructions of the dean of Grant Medical College, male and female students who live in the campus hostel are disallowed from talking to each other after a certain hour. Female students have also alleged in the letter that the warden of their hostel has put up a protocol on how they should dress. It hardly needs super intelligence to deduce that the objection is to clothes perceived as indecent by the warden.
How ridiculous are these restrictions? Remember, we are talking here about students who are studying medicine and not in kindergarten. Barring exceptions, each one of them will be 18+ years of age. They don’t need spurious handholding. Yes, even on reaching adulthood, by law there are certainly some restrictions: for instance one can consume alcohol only after 25, men can’t marry before 21 (18 for women). But a host of other things are permitted, among these buying property, starting a business, and most importantly in the current situation, exercising franchise.
If students can be trusted with all of these, especially the last mentioned, why not how they deal with those of the opposite sex or what clothes to wear? As an aside, it makes sense for medical students to be ‘socialised’ for them to be better doctors later than if they were cloistered in their thinking. Medical practice entails dealing with all kinds of people, unconcerned with gender. How does one examine patients, do tests, deal with colleagues and support staff if there are going to be mental blocks created in the formative stages?
But let’s face it, the issue here is not so much about those studying medicine in GMC or even male students as other such incidents that have cropped up in the past reveal. This is primarily directed at female students: whom they should speak to and when, what kind of clothes they should wear, etc. Essentially, it is a throwback to a patriarchy that is aimed at controlling women, how they think and behave.
I am a little cautious in being blindly critical about ‘moral policing’ per se. There can be aspects to this that can be beneficial. For instance, any campaign against trafficking in drugs, women and children is highly laudable. But the kind of policing that leads to, say, khap panchayat diktats against women, or mob lynching of innocents is reprehensible. This is not based on any morals, rather on a heinous show of power based on a medieval mindset.
Where higher education is concerned, the desirable environment to be created is one that facilitates intellectual and emotional growth, by inquiry and exploration: to achieve the level of expertise being pursued and further.
This necessarily entails a high degree of freedom for students. Not just of qualifying for subjects of choice, but also to build up a personality that goes beyond formal education. Any constraint in this limits the growth of the individual. The caveat to having such freedom is that criminal acts and unreasonable disruption of the imparting of education/knowledge is unacceptable.
Both these objectives are not inimical to each other. If there are misunderstandings or misapprehensions, these can be easily resolved with mutual respect between students and authority. Hopefully, the dean of Grant Medical College, director of Directorate of Medical Education and protesting students will find a meeting ground and resolve the current matter amicably at the soonest.