Tuesday, January 4, 2011

And All They Chimed - 'Reclaim Our University'

Mayur Chetia and Kavya Murthy

(Note: This article was published in the november issue of CRITIQUE - the monthly of NSI Delhi University chapter)

For the past few months the denizens of the much loved and hated city of Delhi have been wading through the zillions of pits and construction work all over the city. The reason? The Common Wealth Games 2010, Delhi - a mega-event that fed into India’s aspiration to reach the ranks of a global city in hosting an event of such stature: a matter of national pride and glory, even.

What proceeded was disaster, visible to everyone. Everything was going wrong, right from the beginning- the manner of winning the bid to host the Games, way back in 2003, followed by a six-year long inertia and the final, hasty plastic surgery in the place of actual infrastructure development. The dream of Delhi to become a World Class City was the imagination diseased from the beginning: another chapter that catered to the process of neo-liberal globalization – finally the sports event was, like other mega-games events in the world, about Capital Accumulation, glued together with the fantastic garb of national honour and pride.

The subsequent campaigns and protests against CWG 2010, New Delhi, was a logical outcome of the way in which the sporting event was being designed. However, when the citizens and activists of the city were raising questions about the way in which infrastructure development was being executed for the Games, the government’s response amounted to a justification of mega-scale corruption as a logically acceptable feature of a mega-scale event. The endless deferral of legal accountability was incessantly couched in the language of national pride, despite exposure of blatant corruption, violations of all kinds, and the appropriation of public funds made common knowledge thanks to public interest groups and the media. As is now amply evident, the Games were a direct ticket for the vested interests of a few: the construction lobbies, real estate players, corporate media, marketing and advertising firms hobnobbing with politicians and bureaucrats accumulated huge profits through Commonwealth Games at the cost of common people. 

To add insult to injury, vast amounts of money were also diverted from SC/ST budgets and other social spending sectors in order to cut corners and cover the insurmountable cost that this mega event entailed. Part and parcel of this obsessive ‘nationalism’ included the eviction of thousands of labouring families who worked in absolutely abysmal conditions, for the last minute and hurried building of infrastructure, hostel students and finally, the clearing up the city of those ‘unwanted’ and ‘undesirable’ elements like slum dwellers, beggars and dogs. 

The citizens of Delhi were, in essence, being asked to take pride in the violation of human rights. Delhi was made a city of nightmares, where thousands of citizens were wished out of existence, where entire neighborhoods disappeared into darkness, and those who build this city were hidden away behind flex boards in a drive to sanitize to clear the ‘ugliness’ of the city. 

Often arguments are made that Commonwealth Games will help in spreading sports culture in India and that people will be able to enjoy the developed infrastructure. Such arguments are completely misleading as it is common sense that merely building some huge stadiums does not contribute to development of sports. Moreover, as the Beijing Olympics has shown, the huge stadiums of the city have now become redundant as no sports association has the resources to rent those. As far as Delhi is concerned, till date we don't have any long time strategy for these giant structures being built at the cost of around 3,390 crores. 

Amidst all the rubble and insensitive beautification of the city, many movements against the CWG 2010 were born. Students, activists, evicted people, urban poor as well as middle class liberals not only felt angry but angry enough to organize and critique and boycott the Games. Many campaigns, including those in cyber space, voiced the sentiments of anger, shame, disillusionment and injustice the months preceding the Games. 

The University Community for Democracy (UCD) is a forum that was formed in Delhi University with the intent of resisting the outrageous and deeply undemocratic manner in which Delhi University as well as the city was being re-engineered for the 12 day Common Wealth Games 2010. Students of the University started the campaign in the immediate context of students of University hostels being evicted in the name of the Games, without due process of dialogue and information. Outraged by unilateral decision made by the University authorities, a group of students organized an open call to the university community to launch a campaign against the forced eviction of students from college hostels. By the beginning of July 2010, the campaign emerged under the name of University Community for Democracy (UCD). Almost every week a planning meeting of the forum was held in the Delhi School of Economics campus, under the neem tree. While the campaign started with specific students’ issues, its understanding was to broaden the spectrum of its campaign and also talk about creative ways of resistance as well as doing politics. There was a deep concern for re-establishing the waning democratic culture in the university, as one of its slogans suggests – RECLAIM OUR UNIVERSITY! The UCD began with class-to-class campaigning, the distribution of pamphlets and attempting to mobilize people, especially students, to join the joint struggle. The aim was to politicize the student community as much as to expand the campaign. 

The UCD was a unique forum which consisted not only of students of Delhi University but former students and teachers as well. The potential of the campaign was quite remarkable. The unique composition of the forum gave it a vibrancy which hoped to put sense into the minds of the university and city administrations. Apart from talking with the students and teachers as well as vendors and rickshaw pullers to build a broader coalition, it also tried to think about more creative ways of protests and campaign. While broadly critiquing the government for masking the exploitative and unjust nature of the ‘world class city’ that being imposed on the citizens of Delhi, the UCD was also concerned about the question of what a university space must be, how the very meaning of the University rests on the fact that it is a space and institution which is meant to set standards society at large. Members of the university community were urged to join the relentless battle against oppressive state action that only intensified over the weeks leading up to the Games. With the intent of mobilizing and politicizing the university community, it held an open-air protest meeting in the campus, where the participation was large. Affected vendors, university and city activists, students, teachers and other concerned people came together to unitedly raise their voices against the disaster meted out on the people of the city in the name of the games. This opened up the possibility of a more connected and united struggle against the Games. Despite its specificity of location, the struggle initiated in the university was part of the larger struggle. While it cried “Reclaim our University”, it was also about reclaiming our city, taking back our walls and saying that we refuse to be taken for a ride whether in the name of national pride or profit of a few capitalist worms. 

The UCD sat on a nine-day relay hunger strike which allowed for a collective resistance against the aggressive attempts made by the state to recast this city of 14 million people according to its own perverse will. The hunger strike was imagined as a means of collectively declaring that the people of our society cannot be discarded like unwanted waste because the nationalist imagination cannot accommodate them in its conception of ‘beauty’. The campaign declared in clear terms that to be reduced to the status of mute spectators watching the destructive reshaping of the city and university was and is completely unacceptable. It was a collective rejection of the sort of nationalism which deliberately caters to the urban middle classes as the only acceptable population for inhabiting the city, while systematically robbing people deemed unworthy by its standards off their livelihoods; which tosses students out of their rooms and thrusts aside the same labourers who build the ‘world class city’. 

The campaign was born out of the urgent need to end this complicit silence. Various activities were taken up during the hunger strike which sought to re-imagine the existing understanding of a hunger strike, organizing talks, open-air film screening and many cultural programmes like protest songs. To mention a few, noted Pakistani labour historian cum activist Karamat Ali addressed during the strike and talked about the potential of students’ struggle, how it will eventually needs to move out of university-specific concerns and bring questions of working class. Prof. Achin Vinaik spoke about the Nuclear deal. Bharat Bhusan, noted legal expert also came in solidarity and spoke about the possibility to struggle also with a legal framework and feminist historian Prof. Uma Chakravarty not only addressed the participants but gave her full solidarity to the struggle and hailed the efforts of an entity like the UCD. Apart from the numerous activists and scholars, some teachers also experimented with taking their classes at the hunger strike site as a way of carving out an alternative creative and progressive space in the deteriorating conditions of the university. 

The UCD made many attempts and experiments to radicalize and create spaces of democratic culture within the university, which is increasingly seeing the decline and shrinking of the democratic culture, whether it is the crushing of free and non-commercialised spaces or the methods in which the university authorities function which is so strongly evident in the ongoing teachers’ strike against the super imposition of the an ill-designed and mal-intended semester system. The concerns of the UCD went beyond the eviction of the students in the context of CWG; the issue of democratic culture was paramount to its understanding of what is to be done. It raised demands not only for the rehabilitation of the evicted students but also putting a stop on the regular violations of laws by the university authorities as well as stop violation of labour laws and rights. 

The formations like the UCD are not only valuable but necessary in the face of the current trends that the university as a space and institution is inclined towards. We have all seen how the majority, whether it be right-wing or other sectarian organizations, have always got away scot-free and protected by the authorities despite their violent and regressive politics in the university. And to resist, we must come together, a collective with all our differences with a basic minimum understanding of what is democracy, equality and freedom. 


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