The University is a Graveyard. Burn it down

By Anubhuti Agnes Bara for

“…It leads to no good if institutions that grant titles, qualifications, and other prerequisites for life or a profession are permitted to call themselves seats of learning.”

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_Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

This piece might seem exceedingly hard-hitting, gloomy and murky. Nevertheless, this is the stark reality of the times we live in. Let me, at the outset, make it crystal clear that this is not an act of seeking attention, sympathy, playing victimhood or a callous attempt of mindless “left”-bashing. I, as a final semester PhD Adivasi student who has been politically active in several struggles and movements in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and beyond, rather seek to give a positive negation of things and put forth my opinion on a possible way forward for students’ movement within University spaces across the country through a case study of JNU. The latter has ostensibly been called the “bastion” of the progressive, more so left politics, for several decades now and often looked up to as a “model” University. It has witnessed remarkable struggles and movements, the fruits of which we are still reaping. Nonetheless, is it really a “model” University? Or for that matter, have we as the grand JNU community done enough on our part to that effect?

Do we even realise that our “fights” for social justice and campus democracy are lost battles? That it’s been two years since Najeeb’s enforced disappearance and he still awaits justice? That due to the UGC Gazette Notification dated May 2016, there has been a collective disappearance of the marginalised from JNU? That students were suspended and targeted for raising their voices against the draconian Notification? That the VC and his cronies sexually harassed a female student in the Committee Room of the Ad Block and got away with it because no one cared to speak about it? That the Administration Block still has those hideous grills? That Dalit Research Scholars, Muthukrishnan (Krish), and Ghanshyam Das, are not alive to tell their stories? That Krish, belonging to a humble Dalit family in Salem, Tamil Nadu, who struggled very hard to get through a PhD. course in the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, facing discrimination at various levels in the University, paid a heavy price for being a Dalit, who was compelled to hang himself early last year? That Ghanshyam’s mental health was seriously affected while being compelled to discontinue his PhD. at the Centre for Philosophy, JNU, and to living an ostracised life in dreadful conditions in a tree shack near the 24*7 Dhaba on Campus, with no one lending an ear to his problems?

It becomes very easy to speak against institutional murders when they happen miles away in other Universities, but what happens when they transpire within our Campus? We resort to dirty politics over dead bodies, so much so that we refuse to even acknowledge that Krish hanging himself was very much an institutional murder. Such issues remains sidelined due to filthy calculations and manipulations. The fact that Krish did not even feel the need to leave behind a suicide note since (perhaps) he knew nobody would ever understand, that he could not confide into his fellow batchmates of the Tamil community of his Centre, does not haunt us at all. This is what we as the grand “JNU community” have done. We want “scapegoats” like Krish, Rohith, and Najeeb to do and sustain our filthy politics and fulfil our own ulterior, selfish motives.

The term “movement” has become an oxymoron in JNU. My biggest fear is that the ongoing momentum will also die down akin to the other recent struggles over the years. Social justice and gender justice are two very loaded terms, which we as the JNU community, have failed to ensure at several junctures. We have killed reservations, social justice and consistently failed to address the questions of gender(s) in a streamlined manner. Still, before the elections, brownie points will be counted – “100 meters’ barricade! Ad block reclaimed! Thousands of people! Najeeb! Lyngdoh! Surveillance! Fascism! JNUSU Constitution!”

The so-called progressive forces including the Union, the Teachers’ Association and several organisations have slyly called-off those meaningful struggles and continue to do so. Noticeably, even the space(s) of so-called “struggle” is/are hegemonised by the dominant forces which claim to be progressive. For somebody like me coming from a marginalised background, who has time and again advocated for and participated in numerous offensives like the blockade and lockdowns, ultimately finds no space to voice one’s opinion in the decision-making processes. These self-styled progressive claim (at least on paper) that their politics is for the liberation of the marginalised. Contrarily, these forces have solely spread hatred, characterised and reared by mistrust, brahminical arrogance and the growth of personality cults, which in my view can never be tolerated in progressive politics, to say the least. Their praxis reeks of the continuance and maintenance of the existing rotten hierarchical structures and their hegemony, manifesting in hallow rhetoric and visionless politics. Also, their social principles have not developed beyond the level of the liberal press. Moreover, they have been proactive catalysts in hastening the process of turning the University into a graveyard. There are countless instances that can be quoted here in this regard, but I will refrain from doing so since all of us are well-equipped to carefully introspect and reason on our own about it.

More importantly, these very forces are vociferously advocating the need to “save JNU”. Such myopic visionless articulation will lead us nowhere. The fact is that there is nothing to “save” in JNU. What we are witnessing is not an attack on the JNU community. Rather, it is an offensive on our right to (quality) education, which has been vulgarised under the current regime. Manifestations of this can easily be seen in all Universities countrywide. It is not as if JNU was an all-inclusive haven for gender justice and affordable education. Just because it is pinching and affecting us even more directly since we are now being maligned, threatened and beaten up for being a part of JNU, since our chairpersons have been removed, since we oppose compulsory attendance, we say ‘save JNU’ and ‘we are JNU’? Undoubtedly, this VC is impossible and way ahead of S.K.Sopory (ex-VC), ruining everything, more so after 9th February 2016.

However, he has just been doing what was left undone by the previous VC. Why such selective amnesia? Why this hangover of the 9th February? Why do we keep forgetting that there is something known as dialectical and historical materialism? This perturbs me immensely!

While we are busy “saving JNU” and raising slogans of “VC must resign,” “social justice/gender justice,” we really need to stop and ask ourselves what it entails to “study and struggle” in a University like JNU. We often forget how Universities are not isolated spaces and that they operate within and reify the same structures of unequal (capitalist) production relations between various constituents of the University, namely, the students, teachers, staff, karamcharis and so on. Hitherto, the process of knowledge creation has in itself been hierarchical and reinforce the master-slave relationship, particularly that of supervisor-student liaison and the innumerable instances of discrimination, sexual harassment, denial of workers’ rights on Campus, to quote a few.

We hail Universities as centres of resistance against neoliberal assaults on education, as autonomous spaces, which have always striven for affordable, equitable education, prospects to learn and opening new vistas of knowledge. However, during the course of such struggles, we articulate in such a manner that ultimately helps in managing the crisis and status quo in the prevalent capitalist structure. This is not to say that these reforms, accomplished through the students’ struggles in Universities, are meaningless. Also, the new M.A. batch of students and other like-minded people in JNU have galvanised on their own for a lockdown of their Centres and Schools and are becoming politically conscious, and that this in itself, to quote a friend, is “achievement”. But “achievement” in itself is completely “fragmented and derivative” and should be seen “with regard to totality.” They do give us a breathing space, but will ultimately fail in the long run. History bears witness to this fact. Thus, we always need to remind ourselves that “no reform of any kind can render this institution viable. We must thus combat reforms, in their effects and in their conception, not because they are dangerous, but because they are illusory. The crisis of the institution of the university goes beyond (as we will show) the realm of the university and involves the social and technical division of labour as a whole. And so, this crisis must come to a head.” (Andre Gorz, ‘Destroy the University’, 1970.)

Why is it that we recurrently conform to the same old assembly-line trajectories and structures? Moreover, have we ever thought of the fact that no matter how many classes we take outside the given infrastructure, it will never democratise the unequal power relations that exist between the teachers and the students or make the social and gender differentiations fade away? For instance, in the ongoing lockdown of academic complexes (or similar mode of protests), when people experience “inconvenience” and by that “logic” want to attend classes within the school buildings, they seldom realise that it implies actually compliance of the very “logic” through which, the policy of compulsory attendance was foisted in the first place. Why is it that thousands of students turn up for a JNUTA/FEDCUTA/DUTA March and negligible numbers stay behind at the ongoing lockdown sites? This is not to deny the significance or importance of these marches, but the numbers are telling. Seemingly, we as students regard our teachers as irrefutable, infallible beings, whose teachings are akin to some supposed ‘word of god’, which cannot be questioned and doubted.

Thus, merely vouching for superficial reforms within the University would be equivalent to upholding the revisionist idea of Bernstein, whose catchphrase was “the movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing.” What then should be the aim? It becomes imperative for us to learn from our failures in the past and work for the destruction of this “structurally unsafe house, which has already claimed many lives.” (Toni Belly, Plan C Birmingham). We need to understand that as workers are alienated from their labour, the students are alienated from their knowledge and therefore recognize the University as a factory, where students are workers. Thus, the need of the hour is to work towards the dismantling, destruction and burning down the prevalent idea and structures of knowledge production and eventually the University. This has been the spirit of the students’ movement during the decades of the 1970s and several others world over. In the words of the Critical Theorist, Walter Benjamin, “it only illustrates the magnitude of the task entailed in creating a community of learning, as opposed to a body of officials and academically qualified people,” which would possibly lead us to grasp and appreciate, “the original unity in the idea of knowledge.”

Call me names for saying this, but I want this Jawaharlal Nehru University (and likewise every University) to be shut down sine die, dismantled, destroyed or burnt down for all the aforementioned reasons. This is not something impossible. While we register our solidarities with the students of the Central Universities of Orissa and Tamil Nadu in Koraput and Chennai, we need to persistently remind ourselves that their stiff resistance created such a crisis while questioning the status quo that the respective Universities were brought to a standstill. Until and unless the internal contradictions within University spaces, as discussed above at length in the case study of JNU, sharpen, and we rethink on ways and means to broaden the scope of our struggles and ideas to make it inclusive for all constituents of the University, no meaningful movement is possible. Let us work towards creating a new idea of a University, which is liberating for all such components. These are concerns not merely specific to JNU, but equally relevant for other University spaces and institutions as well.

If what I have emphatically argued for in this essay is still falling on deaf ears, then congratulations, we are so doomed! Congratulations to all you terrified workers out there, who are ever-ready for rote intellectual labour of bureaucracy, for furthering oppression rather than liberation! If this scenario persists for long then chances are that the Universities will only be left with heaps of dead bodies of the students, especially those from the marginalised backgrounds, who are being constantly targeted and victimized for raising their voices, discriminated against, denied scholarships and reservations, of the Karamcharis whose minimum wages are not ensured and labour rights rebuffed, of the sexually harassed women who face mental torture, character assassination, shaming of all sorts by their colleagues, classmates and so on! Mind you depression is very much political, as rightly pointed out by Bobby London, the co-host of On Resistance Radio on 90.7 FM KPFK and a Los Angeles based writer and journalist. Lot of us within Universities are contemplating and attempting suicide. Unfortunately, this is a non-issue for many across Campuses.Continue writing your beautiful term papers, dissertations and theses in sophisticated, flowery language on the rights of the marginalized, the oppressed and about their movements world over, about social alienation, humiliation, social justice, gender justice, equality and social transformation, dear “well-read” terrified workers! Viva la Revolución!

Anubhuti Agnes Bara is PhD. student in the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, who works on Adivasi Resistances and State Responses in Central India during the colonial and post-colonial era.