“My word’s but a whisper, your deafness a shout” Jethro Tull
Some serious questions arise from the imbroglio this month at Presidency University, Calcutta, the latest in a series of rumblings and explosions since the end of last year, this latest gone entirely unreported in newspapers (save one damning article in The Telegraph of May 20th) and on television, and mostly unnoticed even on social media other than on the Facebook pages of some current Presidency students. These are bare squeaks where there should have been a cacophony. A few decades ago, in the(then) Presidency College canteen, there was some gratuitous wall graffiti advice for feeble Bengalis that thundered, “Bangali Gorje Othho” (Bengalis, Rise and Roar) under which, in miniscule print, was inscribed “halum” (“meww”). It elicited ironic laughter, in recognition of the Bengali penchant for believing that their race was tiger-like while more often than not, it was lamb-mewlish. But college and university students have universally always proven that they can rise and roar fearsomely and effectively when the occasion demands it, and the history of Presidency, like many other old institutions, has had more than its fair share of instances of anarchic student rebellion, not least famously the one of the late 1960s and early ‘70s in Bengal.
So what has become of the institution today, then, that any sign of student protest arouses either astonishment or disgust or rage or scathing criticism in not only its administration (which is to be expected), but across the range of its faculty, its alumnae and the media in the city, and in fact appears to be able to frighten (or convince) the apathetic or the quiet or the ambitious among its student population as well that dissent is anathema to the building of a savvy, snazzy university of the future? If that is what the new movers and shakers of Presidency University aspire for, to mold it into the IIT-IIM-Private University-Finishing School utilitarian model of higher education, then PU is hurtling toward becoming the first symbolic martyr of the public university in India, even as, ironically enough, it is one of the youngest to join the ranks.
The questions, then: How do the ‘new’ builders of ‘old’ public institutions – one sees, for example, a certain reverberation between a Valson Thampu of St Stephens College and the VC’s team at Presidency – envisage their responsibility toward their present and future students? To provide a factory of perfect-branding, each student fitted and kitted for the best results and the best placements, whether in foreign universities for further studies or in high-paying branded jobs? To discipline each student with the most efficient work-ethic, 75% attendance in the best or rottenest of classes, so no questions asked, no voices raised, no time off for walking under torn umbrellas down flooded College Street on a monsoon afternoon or singing rousing, thumping-on-the-canteen-table songs on a hazy winter morning, Romantic poetry in the classroom be damned because one was fleetingly living a poem? To instill in each student the fear of being political, so that to find a voice and to look for a say in the processes one is a part of, to seek a democratic functioning, in which teachers and students can engage in dialogues which are honoured by both when the penny drops, is to be the kind of student the university wishes to drop? To manicure students, batch after batch, who will contribute fruitfully to the market economy, never thinking of breaking out of the molds set for them, where thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ is merely management school jargon for innovative marketing ideas for the next global product and could never be about senior students shouting slogans in the university building portico demanding that those who will come after them be tested for admission rather than be judged on state school board examinations which are unreliable at best? If so, there is no conversation possible between those who are shaping these institutions now and the greatest contemporary thinkers on higher education from around the world or from India – which is not so surprising, perhaps; just impossibly, drearily, depressing.
I Hunger Strike as Event – and Non-Event
‘The position I want to advance here is one where we retain the idea of the University as something linked intrinsically to a special kind of mobility or, more precisely, to the possibility that fundamental transformations may occur. The important word here, though, is ‘occurrence’: instead of thinking of the University as site-specific plant or as a place, we might think of it as an ‘event’, as something that happens; and it happens (for one example) where we get the kind of high-stakes vigorous debate about the proper conditions of living and of our living together. The University is an idea, so to speak, first and foremost; but it is not just an abstract idea, divorced from material history: it is indeed something that happens or that takes place, and assumes its place in a social formation. If we are lucky, these happenings become systematic and not episodic; and, if we are luckier still, they are systematic in a specific place, the location of the group of intellectuals that constitutes the action that is a University.’Thomas Docherty, For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution’ (2011)
Eerily enough, if you google ‘Presidency University student on hunger strike’ the only links that appear recall a hunger strike by PU students in November 2014(that had 20 students fasting to protest against the debarring of 180 undergraduate students from taking their end-semester examinations because of low attendance in classes.) In the semester just ended, 230 students were debarred from taking their examinations for the same reason, and 1 student, Amardip Singh (not one of them) was on hunger strike for 8 days this month before he collapsed and was hospitalized, to draw attention to this and many other troubles at PU. As the students insist, the hunger strike was not merely for the examination debarment, though that was the immediate trigger – it was an unpremeditated result of rising frustration on the fledgling university (but aged college) campus. In my conversations with Sumallya Mukhopadhyay, final semester student of MA English and ex-president of the students’ union, what was reflected poignantly was the hopelessness of a relatively small(but now grown and growing) section of students, that even as so much seemed to be going wrong in the new avatar of the institution, protesting student voices were being forced into increasing irrelevancy, not a single member of the faculty was ready to speak up in public even while privately expressing support for their concerns and complaining bitterly about the decline of Presidency themselves, and the media was ignoring student resistance on College Street obviously for political compulsions of their own.
Amardip collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital after more than 180 hours of fasting. The guardians of Amardip and another student, Aopala Banerjee, who had staged a creative performance at the portico to accompany Amardip’s protest, received stern letters from University authorities warning them about their wards’ unacceptable conduct, even while the VC refused to speak to the students at all. Identical letters went to both homes: ‘Your son[daughter] has indulged in activities unbecoming of a student of a prestigious Indian institution; by his[her] un-student-like behavior, has vitiated the academic atmosphere of the campus; some of his actions are such that can also attract specific provisions of the Law of the Land and render him liable to Legal consequences. In spite of repeated attempts at counselling him, the University has not succeeded. He [she]cannot be allowed to hold the entire University to ransom by his[her] disorderly conduct. It is felt that before the University is compelled to initiate disciplinary and other actions against him[her] in the larger interest, you as the parent/guardian should counsel him[her].’
The protesting students felt that standing up for fellow-students who were being debarred from taking their examinations, sometimes on motivated miscalculations and sometimes reneging upon earlier assurances, was hardly ‘un-student-like behaviour’, so Amardip’s hunger strike baton was taken over from him, when he was hospitalised, by 5 other students of Presidency – Soham Das, Archisman Kundu, Sarat Sindhu Mukhopadhyay, Aishwarya Kazi and Srimati Ghoshal – who fasted for 46 hours till a meeting was finally convened by vice-chancellor Anuradha Lohia between administrative heads, faculty members and student representatives on May 21, 2015. A dialogue was established and most student demands conceded at this meeting, prompting the 5 students to call off their hunger strike to join their supporters in hailing this breakthrough as a ‘victory’, though doubting chimes can also be heard which wonder if these promises from the administration, like many others before, will be broken in the months to come.
Across the city, only a few months ago, #Hokkolorob at Jadavpur University fired the imagination of millions across the globe, sent into frenzied cyber-circulation by its current students, of course, but more notably by its huge network of alumnae, faculty and friends, followed by historically large protest gatherings in the city and a dramatic prolonged hunger strike by students that resulted in the enforced resignation of its vice-chancellor. In many other small and large universities in India, students have been gathering in hundreds and even thousands to brave the ire of autocratic administrations, at Himachal University in Shimla, at IIT-Jodhpur, in Aizawl, Mizoram, in the universities in Delhi (JNU, DU, Jamia), at others in West Bengal like Burdwan University most recently – students continue to agitate and demand, and arouse anxiety, empathetic anger and vociferous support in a cross-section of faculty and alumnae, as well as curiosity and political investment from the media. The silence around recent events at Presidency University, in contrast, is deafening.
In fact, there is a narrative that makes the upwardly-mobile middle class squeamish about dharnas and anashans and strikes—these acts remind them of non-work in socialist India. So, the best thing to do is to dismiss these acts as ones spreading negativity and a climate of ‘blackmailing’, as the VC of Presidency has alleged in the first and perhaps only press report on this entire event. Guardians, teachers, administrators and a large number of students themselves forget that the hunger strike comes with a solid argumentative pedigree. British and American suffragettes always used it for wresting political initiative in favour of a rights-based discourse. The Irish Republicans carefully, strategically deployed hunger strikes against colonialism. After the end of the Irish Civil War in October 1923, up to 8000 IRA prisoners went on hunger strike to protest their continued detention by the Irish Free State (a total of over 12,000 republicans had been interned by May 1923). Two men, Denny Barry and Andrew O’Sullivan, died on the strike. More recently, Guillermo Fariñas In Cuba did a 7-month hunger strike to protest against extensive Internet censorship. He ended it in the autumn of 2006, with severe health problems although still conscious. Reporters Without Borders awarded its cyber-freedom prize to Guillermo Fariñas in 2006. In India, there are instances galore. A most telling example is that of Potti Sriramulu, who died after undertaking a hunger strike for 58 days in 1952 after Indian independence in an attempt to achieve the formation of Andhra Pradesh. His sacrifice became instrumental in the linguistic re-organisation of states. All these are examples of incredible courage and serious investment in social change or resistance. Not just idealistic exercises, they have led to powerful practical gains, for the betterment of nations and humankind in general. The blight is with the other side actually: the puny little men and women who happen to be in charge of our education system and are unequal to a task that needs a sweeping, soaring, roaring vision.
II The Idea of the University
‘This artifact that is the university has reflected society only in giving it the chance for reflection, that is, also, for disassociation. The time for reflection, here, signifies not only that the internal rhythm of the university apparatus is relatively independent of social time and relaxes the urgency of command, ensures for it a great and precious freedom of play. An empty place for chance: the invagination of an inside pocket… Then the time for reflection is also an other time, it is heterogeneous with what it reflects and perhaps gives time for what calls for and is called thought. It is the chance for an event about which one does not know whether or not, presenting itself within the university, it belongs to the history of the university. It may also be brief and paradoxical, it may tear up time…’ Jacques Derrida, ‘The Principal of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils’ (1983)
What does the space and time of the university mean to us? What has it ever meant, and what does it mean today? Across the world, and in India, the idea of what the university should be for the young people who have primary claim upon it is changing so rapidly that we have no time to blink, in step with the demands of globalization, for an efficient work-ethic, for excellence in ‘results’, for productivity, for the best ‘placements’ in jobs, for maturity and wisdom and stability well before their age, alas – for knowing, in other words, that in a choice between attending classes and bringing one’s friends from outside to sit and chat in the canteen, blindly and unquestioningly one should know that one has to be in class. It must be harmful nostalgia that most of us remember our university days best by the times we spent outside of classrooms – other than some of the best hours that the classrooms did offer us, those outstanding lectures and tutorials we would leave even the most scintillating gossip sessions to attend. It is definitely against the logic of fattening the GDP that students are believed to discover the freedom to think and act for themselves on the university campus, growing from their younger schoolkid disciplined selves into independent personalities who will learn to savour the world only because they taste its possibilities as much in the classrooms and examination questions as in the playing fields, the canteens, the streets, the festival auditoriums, the porticos, the lobbies, the steps, the verandahs and the corridors – sitting, standing, reading, talking, singing, romancing, politicking, arguing, fighting, loitering.
So for our now-proudly-market-economy-oriented vision of success and development for ‘our nation’ which must lose no time in striding ahead on all fronts, all our public universities must aspire to the management school-finishing-school model of higher education, or die. And this slaughtering of all freedom to think, and just be, on university campuses is being achieved systematically by the silencing of each of the constituencies on campus by the administration – most shockingly of all, perhaps, of the faculty whom they are being able to buy over by alternating threats and carrots and by appointing new teachers whose academic credentials are forfeited to other criteria altogether. Which, incidentally, as the students complain bitterly, makes it all the more tough to sit through long class hours of inane ‘lessons’ when they can do far better by reading up texts themselves over cigarettes and coffee at midnight. Somewhere, the administrators are doubling up their mistake – to tighten the leashes of students to make them stay in classes throughout the day, they need to at the very least hire teachers who will make it worthwhile for them to do so. The argument that students pay smaller fees at public institutions and therefore take studies lightly will therefore be mitigated by raising the charges of educational services and pushing for the privatization of state-funded universities, no doubt, already half-begun by the encouragement of bidding for ‘projects’ to bring one’s own money for one’s own research – also then to cause the veritable death of the arts and humanities, which hardly attract such funders. But tightening the noose around students’ behavior on these campuses should be guaranteed then by teaching that attracts and inspires – which is not the case if one is to go by the spate of new recruitments at many of these old/new universities (Delhi University, Presidency are prime examples), according to its students who are surely its best judges.
III Hedonism and the University: A Dream Deferred Dries up Like a Raisin in the Sun
‘The “hedonist” cannot, in contrast, avoid being immersed in campus politics; for her, everything becomes a matter of “principles” despite the fact that nothing remains a matter of “honour” in its rough and tumble. The “hedonist” thinks she learns from real life struggle as much as through studies, teaching and research; and has passionate commitment to altering the conditions and institutions in which knowledge is “produced”. The “hedonist” does not take conditions and processes of democracy as given but as ones created through acts of struggle… For the best among the “hedonistic” teachers, there is nothing but hostile pity for the best and brightest rationalists who teach and know but have not lived; for they have not experienced through teaching “the [awful] daring of a moment’s surrender – which an age of prudence cannot retrieve”.’ Upendra Baxi, ‘Teaching as Provocation’ (1990)
It is not surprising – in fact, it is symptomatic of the reinvented ethos of Presidency as a university, perhaps – that in this current difficult, combative scenario of distrust and non-communication between the various constituencies of the institution, the only news being highlighted by its administrators and the media is PU’s first MOU for ‘a long-term industrial partnership’ with ‘arguably the country’s best private sector laboratory’ to make its fresh science graduates ‘industry-ready’, as a recent report in the Times of India boasts unabashedly, and ‘help them land a job right after college.’As a student has asked with astonishment at this bragging from PU, ‘What about producing scholars?’ Those days are clearly over for Presidency, when students grumbled and cajoled and labored to move from ‘dis-collegiate’ to ‘non-collegiate’ to ‘eligible’ for exam-taking via many negotiations with famed and beloved Dilip-da in the college office, and teachers were pretty proud of students who wanted to stay students forever. Those who even once entertained the vile thought of landing a job straight after college with the best of the private sector enterprises were grandly, emotionally dissuaded and persuaded to stay on for higher studies.
This is what has always distinguished the public universities and colleges in the country from the IITs and IIMs and the professional law schools – that they have guarded and nurtured fiercely a certain romanticism about academics neither wisely nor too well. This bit of idealism is neither irrational nor lazy. Far from it: it is this spark that lays the foundation of thinking and doing big. It makes one argue, innovate and dream up fundamental changes in academia – not make hack-writers and technicians out of fine minds and generous souls. No world class university can excel without fanatical and fundamental love for and investment in one’s discipline, for one’s space and one’s community, and such a love alone shows in rage, protest and dissent as well as in excitement, colour and song – not in mannequins who trot to class and examinations and abide all instructions without a question or a murmur.
It was this sort of recklessness about the love of one’s subject and the edgy heady college space one once inhabited – a footlooseness of wanting to study for the heck of it and a waywardness, a ‘canteen culture’, that baulked at the brittle enchantment of jobs at top-rung private corporations the minute one stepped out of 86/1 with a bachelor’s degree – that then determined the ambience of Presidency’s premises where an old clock without hands atop the main building had remained a signifier for decades: when you entered college, time stopped still. But this was no elitist idyll, in Presidency or Burdwan or Kalyani, not of the kind that the new private universities mushrooming across India are I believe brashly, unashamedly offering now – a finishing school for landing the best placements elsewhere. Time stopped still because it was a hurly-burly world, in which classes and lectures and tutorials and examinations vied with romance, poetry, theatre, film festivals and college festivals, book fairs, student union elections, sloganeering and postering; loitering on the sports field in winter and mingling with the street and the city and its people who swept in and out of the open gates of college, with the smell of ganja wafting up from below the classrooms which made students at lectures more drowsy and alive all at once.
So I would make a serious claim for the ambience of such institutions we are setting ourselves up to lose so quickly in the course of half a lifetime, that of a simmering smoldering political existence that makes students ready for lives that will always sparkle and burn, and not for the most cushiony job placements. Presidency, as many other colleges and universities in India do, used to teach its students “to transgress” in bell hooks’ words – to constantly reach for more than what the set syllabi and administrative traps tried to contain them with – to resist the norm and to dissent. It may be clichéd to say that learning happens as much outside the classroom as inside it but this is true of all living institutions everywhere. The kind of internationally renowned universities that the keepers of Presidency are naming to defend their insistence on attendance in unworthy classrooms above any other kind of learning on or outside campus are actually far cleverer than them in providing an atmosphere of freedom and excitement on their campuses with never an imposition of attendance registers and a valorization of examination results; they merely provide the best teaching and infrastructure and make certain academic commitments mandatory and assume that students will be attracted enough as well as ultimately passionate enough about the discipline and institution they have fought to enter to make good those requirements.
This would work just as well for Presidency and other public universities in India if they only believed in granting equal space and respect to the most important constituency for them, the students. And if only they – the administrators, the faculty, the alumnae, the guardians, the media commentators and many of the students themselves – really understood, with Docherty and Derrida and Baxi and so many other contemporary constructive and/or radical thinkers about education, that the true idea of the university is premised on freedom to think and to explore and to take risks and to come out of it all sometimes flying, sometimes sprinting and sometimes limping – but always having learnt by grappling with the new and the challenging on the students’ own terms. Then perhaps this deafening, deadening silence of the lambs would begin to bleat and bleed again.
Brinda Bose did her undergraduate degree in English from Presidency College, Calcutta. She now teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.