Friday, August 21, 2015

Its time to read the writing on the walls

- Critique Collective

Note: This piece was published under the title "Students rise to free education, Resist onslaught of free Market" as the editorial in Critique Magazine, Vol-1, No-2, January-March, 2011. Though written and published more than 4 years ago, the piece remains very much relevant for today.

The current unrest in universities across the globe seems to stretch the limits of national boundaries. It is not about England or Germany or South Africa or any other country; the speedy transformations in higher education occurring within the geo-political boundary of India are more than education in India. If students’ protest in the UK are reverberating its pulses in other parts of the globe, though varied in degree or nature these may be, the current ‘reforms’ attempted by coordinates of power within the Indian education system, could well stand ironically in a position of pre-empting possible disturbances that might result in mass protests. Slogans of different students’ protests against reckless process of privatisation and privilegisation of education which are unabashed symptoms of the chronic rampage of dear old capitalism, have sought to analyse, reassert as well as redefine the meaning and nature of a university:

“University is a factory”

“University has no history of its own; its history is the history of capital. Its essential function is reproduction of the relationship between capital and labour”

“Resistance does not mean nostalgia for the old university model that was embedded in state power and supported by an idealistic and ideological conception of the university as an ‘ivory tower’ of national pride”

These slogans from around the world capture the nature and idea of a university in the current context. Lessons are to be learnt.

In a capitalist world, the production of knowledge and ideas are bound to comply to need of capital like everything else in society has been made to since its advent, be it the patriarchal family or the modern state. The recent developments in universities across the globe are historical consequences of a churning that has long been attempted and resisted. This upsurge of protests are mirrors of what is wrong with capitalism and are clarion calls for what is to be done about this wrong. While students cannot offer a blueprint of “What is to be done” to destroy capitalism, they constitute a force which can ignite the restlessness in society. If university has become a factory, the relationship of the students with the university has become like the one between factory owners and workers.

The nature and intensity of students’ organisation/movement/protest have been determined by nature of state and market, as much as by ideology. The immediate context, however, is the nature of the university within which they are located. For instance, in the recent developments in the Delhi University, the resistance against the ill-conceived educational reforms by undemocratic imposition of the Semester System came mainly from the teaching community and not the students. While we have witnessed that in other places it was mainly the student mass which led and organized the protests, eventually to be joined by other sections directly or indirectly linked to university and education. What is so different about Delhi University then, becomes a question to be deliberated upon, at least a worthwhile question to ask if not sure answers as of now. The clue perhaps lies in the hierarchical relations between students and teachers which further reflect persistent pre-modern hierarchies in our societies.

The nature and structure of teacher-student relationship with Delhi University, as in most parts of India, is largely a hierarchical one. Despite entering the university as adults, the students are largely infantilised; their concerns, especially academic ones, are represented by teachers who do a sorry job of entering into any widespread and intensive dialogue with the student community. This has only got reiterated during the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) movement against the new Semester System. The history of Delhi University students’ politics (barring the small scale protests by mainly left students’ organization) have rarely seen students coming out as a mass force to take up academic issues in their own hands and make an argumentation towards a radical intervention. It is a reality that what has been inflicting students in other universities in the world is also inflicting students in Delhi University. However, the latter seem to be waiting for a taste of bitterness to enter into its veins or it lies incapacitated. In recent times, it is true that the class character of the students might have gradually changed and entered the chasm of consumerism at large. However, the problem is not simple as that. It is an indication of why these ‘conscious’ sections of society are not ready to ‘fight’. If the court has admonished the striking teachers for being ‘disruptive’, the teachers in general filter down the same ‘value’ to the students. The teaching and the student community stand segregated making a mockery of the organic teacher-student relationship which defines the university. University as a space of adults and free deliberations, dialogues, debates and imagination ceases to exist as a whole, with allowances of tiny and sporadic sparks which might not necessarily lead to a firing of consciousness. 

The collection of articles in this issue of CRITIQUE tries to address issues of university at large and take into cognisance the role, intensity, character and implications of the university community, especially the students, in questioning, resisting and reimagining the university as a free space, free not only in terms of economic subsidies but also in terms of how the space itself could be used in more radical forms apart from tight academic schedules.

The two articles on the ongoing students’ protest in UK try to posit the implications of privatization and commodification of education not merely as a topical occurrence but also as a general symptom of the decline of value of knowledge and ideas which are not profitable to the global regime of capitalism. These also bring out the question of how the mass force of protesting students can be forged into an organic alliance with trade unions, left groups and other students’ organizations within and outside of one’s ‘national’ location. The article on Teaching Profession located within Delhi University reflects on the neoliberal attack on teaching community whose role is being increasingly redefined towards production of skilled labour force as demanded by the market and not critical thinking. At the same time it also analyses the values that are being (de)generated by the teachers as social entities which result in continuous reproduction of hierarchies of all sorts and undermines the nobility of the profession itself. The translated article on academia as factory (first published in English in Monthly Review, Vol-51, No-8, 2008) draws a historical progression of academia embedded in the history of capital for past 100 years. It pertinently calls for a unionisation of teachers as workers, as a force which must unite not just within but which must organically connect with issue with issues in society in general for greater good. 

The quasi-fictional piece on the rickshaw pullers in Delhi University provides the readers food for thought about pre-modern cultural ‘practice’ of people using rickshaws, despite modernisation of the transport system or ability to walk. It points at the cultural insensitivities of people who conveniently ignore the unequal relations that are inherent I being ridden by a rickshaw puller.

The piece on value and electronic media discusses the commodification of knowledge, where the value of culture and information is sold at a price, and the consumption of this sale hierarchised. The value of electronic piracy in this context is laid out with a historical comparison with the emergence of capitalism as a young ‘beast’ sailing new seas and landing at “new worlds”.

The article and the graphic piece on Manipur and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has been specially brought in this issue to commemorate the completion of ten years of fasting by Manipuri activist and poet, Irom Sharmila, against the subjection of people of Manipur under AFSPA, one of the most draconian law in the history of modern nations. The larger question raised here is about the nature of Indian State which has singularly been responsible for systemic brutalisation of society in large parts of Northeast and Kashmir. The article on UID hints at the authoritarian attempts of the state to control people through a process of exclusion (posed as inclusion), wherein we can witness the state turning into Benthamite structure of panopticon, only more subtle. The article on Korean students’ movement against the military regime is a historical piece, tracing how the student community can organise an endemic of resistance against oppressive state regimes resulting in radical change in the nature of the state itself. 

The set of reflections are posted here with the hope that university community begins to seriously recognise the authoritarian side of the state and generate debates about use of force to establish rule of law. To reiterate the fact that one people’s subjection somewhere means an attack on the modern values of freedom everywhere.

It is these realities that make the question of re-imagining the university space even more pertinent today. If the university is not for free and is not free, the privileged space that it is vis-à-vis the city and society will accentuate the process of shrinking democratic spaces. And if the university ceases to be a space for democratic spaces, the knowledge that is generated within it will entail a collapse of human reason. While we resist talk about reforms, accept or reject one over the other, the concern must be about freeing it rather than merely talking in terms of restructuring. If the university has become a factory, then, the politics within which a factory is embedded calls for a strike; there is somewhere and something to strike.

CRITIQUE is a political-analytical magazine brought out by Delhi University unit of New Socialist Initiative (NSI).

 Photo courtesy: FTII Wisdom Tree facebook page


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