Of Complicity and Contamination in the Neoliberal Academy: Oishik Sircar

Guest post by OISHIK SIRCAR

Many years back as a naïve leftist graduate student in Toronto I discovered the meanings of complicity and contamination through a most ordinary event. As someone who believed that no artistic work should ever have restricted access because of copyright, I bought an online software programme that could break copy protected DVDs. I would get film DVDs from the university library and use the software to copy them onto my hard drive. In the one year that I spent there, I copied over 1000 films. Over the years I have distributed many of these films to my students and friends, and have made extensive use of them in my teaching and workshops.

By the time I was nearing the end of my stay in Toronto, I wanted to figure out whether the software would work in India – so that I can continue my copyright breaking enterprise. I was delighted to find out that it would, as long as I paid to extend the software’s use for another year. And at the time of making this payment, to my utter surprise, I saw that this software was copyrighted. The fact that a copyright breaking software could itself have a copyright was bizarrely enlightening. The software was a tool to rip through the oppressive regimes of copyright, and in doing so it also sought recognition from that very language of privatizing innovation. It got me thinking whether we could ever espouse and practice a politics that is not a constant negotiation between complicity and contamination. Whether a search for a politics of purity is both foolish and counterproductive? My naïveté has been gradually undone through events that I have observed and experienced since then. While I can treat this as a process of acquiring wisdom, it is nevertheless a disturbing wisdom to possess. It has also left a feeling of yearning for utopia in this world of cruel contradictions.

After returning from Toronto, I shook off my naïveté with such force that I ended up with a job at a university funded by one of India’s largest steel companies whose operations have wreaked havoc in the lives of adivasi populations in several parts of India.The promises of a ‘global’ teaching and research experience that the university offered was at that time too attractive to let go off. However, I had an explanation for it drawing inspiration from my copyright breaking software: that my complicity in earning money that comes from displacing adivasis will be offset by my teaching of revolutionary thought to my students, contaminating the sanitized space of this neoliberal university, and bursting the bubbles of privilege that most of my students were in. I committedly did that through my entire period of employment with the university, but at every stage I felt like an apologist for myself. I was teaching Marx, Fanon, Beauvoir, Ambedkar, Phule, Ramabai, and at the same time distributing readings to students available only through paid databases like JSTOR and Project Muse (I wish I’d known about Aaron Swartz then), or from books published by giant publishing companies who make access to knowledge prohibitively expensive, and consequently exclusive for students of a very privileged class, which of course my students were at this university. I tried hard to ensure that at least my academic writings were published in open access journals. It was a queer experience to see how students from this class were open to talking about sexuality, but very resistant to discussing caste, as if it had withered away as their class privileges accumulated. I was trying too hard to contaminate, and that seemed like a justification for my complicity.

Two particular events from this period of my life offer some interesting insights into the intimate relationship between complicity and contamination. I, along with a few other colleagues, received funding from a prominent US university to organize an international conference on protest. It had a trendy name: The Protest Workshop. The very idea of organizing a workshop on protest in a university whose funders have colluded with the state to suppress protests felt like a powerfully contaminating act, never mind the fact that the US university that was giving us the funds, received it from one of the world’s largest banking corporations, and was itself started with money earned from the slave trade! The conference did challenge academic arrogance, contaminate disciplinary purity and forged uncommon friendships. Few days later, a colleague sent me the link to an article by Arundhati Roy in the web-magazine Guernica, where she had commented on the workshop. Even before reading the article, I was thrilled to bits. It didn’t matter what Roy had written, but the very fact that she took note of the event was very exciting for me. Needless to say, I have always really liked Roy’s acerbic and incisive essays, since her The End of Imagination days. Her comment in the Guernica article was exactly about complicity. She wrote:

“There’s an iron ore and steel company called Jindal. They have iron ore mines, steel-making plants. The CEO is a member of Parliament. He also started the National Flag Foundation, because he won the right to fly the national flag on his house. They run a global law school just outside Delhi, which is like a Stanford campus in the midst of the most unbelievable squalor you can imagine. They have faculty flown in from all over the world paid huge salaries. They fund and promote cutting-edge artists who work in stainless steel. They recently had a protest workshop where they flew in activists to this unbelievably posh campus and then had protest poetry and protest slogans. They own everything; they own the resistance, the mines, the Parliament, the flag, the newspapers. They don’t let anything go.”

She had encapsulated in lucid and compelling prose the troubling thoughts that had been with me since my first day of joining the university, rather from the day I discovered the complicity/ contamination complex of the copyright breaking software. It seemed there was no escaping this complicity: despite my ‘cutting-edge’ attempts at innovative pedagogy and pushing at the limits of conventional academic conduct. And it indeed was if we are to believe her. A few months later Roy wrote another piece in Outlook magazine, where she didn’t spare herself:

“But which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses. We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay in Tata Hotels, we sip our Tata tea in Tata bone china and stir it with teaspoons made of Tata Steel. We buy Tata books in Tata bookshops. Hum Tata ka namak khate hain. We’re under siege.”

Yet, something felt a little too fatalistic about her assessment. Was this an inescapable morass? If the spiral of complicity that she described was how things are, then, is doing what we do in the name of progressive/ leftist/ radical (not necessarily synonymous) academic work a mere attempt at occupying high moral ground? Is it a pathetic means to balm our own complicit souls? If we were failing our political commitments so miserably, was there any hope for redemption? (Pardon this theological expression, but blame it on Roy for using the word “sinners” in the first place!). I returned to the paralysing question: what is to be done?

Not that I had satisfactory answers to these questions, neither did I allow myself to get sucked into this inescapable spiral. I continued doing what I was doing. The classroom was my political playground, and I took the idea of developing radical pedagogies seriously. And it was time for the second event. Two scholar friends were visiting from Germany, and I wanted to organize a talk by them. So I approached another friend who taught at the Ambedkar University Delhi to collaborate. I wanted the event to take place in Delhi so that more number of people can attend. After all, travelling to the “Stanford [like] campus in the midst of the most unbelievable squalor you can imagine” was not so easy for Delhi-wallahs: though many did during the Protest Workshop.

My friend agreed and the talk was all set. A few days before the event was supposed to happen there was a gruesome video being circulated on YouTube that showed how Jindal Steel security guards brutally beat protesting villagers outside their factory in Angul, Odhisa. My day started with an email from a very well respected human rights lawyer friend who sent me a link to the video and wrote: “Just wondering, if freedom of speech and expression would include screening this film at the Jindal Law School, perhaps at the next human rights conference that they host.” The provocation was clear. On FaceBook another friend noted that nothing could justify her participation at the Protest Workshop organised by the university in the light of the Angul violence. Both of them said that they would never be part of anything organised by the university in the future: it was a call for an academic boycott. I asked whether the boycott can in fact be counter-productive because it would mean disengaging, and moreover will be unfair for the students at the university who would gain enormously from their visits. The response, in many ways correct, was that students need to get out of the confines of the university space to meet and interact with people who will boycott the university. Yet, it undermined the importance of the political space of the classroom: a space that can be collaboratively shaped by the teacher and students to represent a microcosm of the kind of world we want. A space to which they would have contributed if they had come to the campus.

The situation was an agonising one. On the one hand, all that I’ve tried to do to contaminate the university space seemed to have yielded little support from those outside the university with a similar political vision as mine (of course, there were some who have been very supportive, and to them I am very grateful). On the other hand the boycott was a political stand that I would also support; having been part of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel myself. How would I reconcile these two? Can I boycott the very university where I teach? What does all that I do and organise at the university mean in the light of this? Is all the talk about academic freedom at the university nothing but hogwash? Does academic freedom meet its nemesis when you start questioning the corporation that pays your salaries? Does it operate like the free market where everything goes, but critique is dismissed as drivel? Or will the scenario be very different if I were to speak through the collective voice of a teachers’ union, which sadly, was absent?

So a day before the talk was to be held, my friend called up to say that some faculty and students at their university have decided to boycott the event because it was being organised in collaboration with the Jindal Global Law School. The next day at the event, there were only 4 people, apart from the two speakers, in a huge room that could accommodate around 100. In the room where the event was to be held, there was a chair kept alongside the chairs of the speakers with a poster on it which read: “This seat is occupied in protest against the injustices committed by Jindal Steel, in Angul, Orissa [on] 25th January, 2012.” (See photo). The boycott worked, and I was glad it did, because it restored some faith in the power of resistance that can be achieved in a university space. And yet, I couldn’t be sure whether Ambedkar University students and faculty would boycott their own university because it is funded by the Delhi government, particularly in the light of police violence against the protesters at India gate recently; or if JNU students and faculty would boycott several projects in their departments funded by the Ford Foundation.

Similar questions arise in other contradictory academic settings as well: would those who boycott privately funded universities in India extend the same treatment to several Ivy League universities in the US, not only because all of them are very elite, were/ are privately funded, but also because many of them were set up by money earned through the slave trade?  Do we question the Rhodes scholarship and those who receive it at Oxford University because it was started with the fortune that Cecil Rhodes made exploiting black labourers in South Africa’s diamond mines? How should we respond to the works of eminent leftist scholars who are located in these universities that in many ways were funded by the bounties of colonialism, when they write about anti-colonialism? Or have these histories been adequately whitewashed for seducing aspiring brown scholars? Would those who boycott the Jindal Global University in India similarly reject invitations from any of these universities abroad – many of which today have very strong pro-Israel links and Zionist ideologies – to go and deliver talks and spend visiting fellowships? What kind of a pure space do they have in mind when they talk about academic boycotts here? I don’t mean to say that because we don’t do it there, we don’t have any right to do it here. Also, I am aware that these questions need to take on board administrative structures of institutes. As academics and intellectuals, we must critique, even if selectively. My point is that sometimes it is simply convenient to talk about contamination without acknowledging your own complicity.

In these narratives of complicity/ contamination, to which I have been an active participant, one seems to be present only in the other’s absence. Arundhati Roy powerfully implicates herself as an accomplice to expose the insidious circulation of private capital, but does not provide even a glimpse of what a politics of contamination might look like within practices of complicity. Or she blinds you with the spectacle of her contaminating critique that the passing reference to her own complicity is forgotten. May be contamination is something that you don’t talk about because that would be giving away too much of your strategy to the ‘enemy’. Contamination is something that you do: like Roy writing in the pages of a magazine like Outlook, with advertisements of several huge corporations punctuating her long essays; like her crossing the road into Mumbai Resistance, a counter meeting that was organised just across the road from the 2004 World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai because the WSF was being funded by the Ford Foundation – she delivered speeches at both venues; like her holding the launch of her latest book Broken Republic in the elite venue of the India Habitat Centre in Delhi and making the audience there uncomfortable with discussions about India’s forgotten citizens. Was she living double lives of complicity and contamination: one that she spoke of, and the other that she practiced?

My observations are mere conjecture and come from a need to draw hope and inspiration from others who are speaking out against the devastations of corporate greed while being located in the heart of neoliberalism and benefiting from its other seductive avatars in patriarchy and casteism. Take Mahashweta Devi’s participation at the latest edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, funded by Tata Steel and Coca Cola among other predatory groups, where she waxes eloquent about dreams and the written word. Take the recent interview of the renowned feminist sociologist Saskia Sassen by senior journalist and activist Meena Menon, taken during Sassen’s visit to Mumbai to speak at an event organised by Columbia University’s Mumbai Global Centre, one of the many such hubs that the university has started primarily across non-first world locations. In this interview to The Hindu, Sassen makes all the right noises about globalization, cities, and middle class protests that will make many leftists like me nod their heads in vehement agreement, and yet she disappoints by not saying anything about Columbia Global Centre in India’s occupation of a Nariman Point address in Mumbai. It was more disappointing because I was expecting Meena Menon to get her to respond to the uncomfortable question of private universities and the ways in which they colonise urban (and rural) landscapes in the name of spreading knowledge. Columbia’s gentrification of West Harlem is a case in point.

Are these acts a dual operation of complicity and contamination? If not, how do these people justify the pure politics that they espouse? Or is the intimacy between complicity and contamination a middle class left liberal concern only? A concern that I seem to be obsessively pre-occupied with because my bourgeoisie core cannot be adequately covered by the leftist skin that I wear on my body? Is it because several others like me, particularly within the university space, are trying too hard to justify why the kinds of lives we lead have so little to do with the people whose sufferings we talk/ write about and represent in our books, articles, films, art and installations?

Much before I began my life as an academic, I have asked similar questions: can I call myself a queer feminist, being an upper caste, heterosexual married man? Will it not be like the Hindu right saying that they are going to promote secularism? Should the undoing of my privilege be a pre-requisite for building solidarity with struggles that are challenging and resisting oppressive structures? Or is this a constant process of negotiation between complicity and contamination? Is this struggle a very very private experience for me? Have I turned the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ into a scandal of lies?

In the wake of the recent gang-rape in Delhi, along with many friends and comrades I had raised questions about the stunted vision and selective rage of the upper caste middle classes that never responded to Soni Sori, Manorama Devi or Bilkis Bano. But what right do we have to pass such puritanical judgments when our very locations of privilege will never ever be under any threat, irrespective of whether Kashmir gains autonomy, or the BJP rules India, or a new rape law gets passed? We were so caught up with claiming a wiser (critical in our language) moral ground, in distancing us from the populist frenzy at India Gate, and using the unnamed girl as the opportunity for inaugurating new academic projects, that I think, if she were alive and after recovering said that she wanted the death penalty for her rapists, we wouldn’t know how to respond, because our ‘intellectual’ opinions had already muted her – her being dead or alive didn’t matter.

These questions don’t have easy answers. I don’t even know whether they have difficult answers. I don’t even know whether they have answers at all. However, what I know is that these questions should never stop being asked, despite boycotts, despite the fact that I might still return to teach at another university funded by private capital, or a university funded by the state which is in turn regulated by private capital. And while these questions get asked by as many people as possible, it is also necessary, in fact imperative, to stop considering left academics as being free from the politics of complicity, even when we accuse others of selling out: to private capital, to misogyny, to the violent demarcation of disciplines. As the feminist historian Uma Chakravarty had very correctly observed at a conference I had attended: in a majority of heterosexual left academic households, the women inevitably work on gender/ sexuality, while the man works on caste/ religion! So much for our criticality.

We might do better to strengthen our belief that teaching does have a radical transformative potential, a reason because of which many of us are academics, if we take ourselves a little less seriously, and infuse indeterminacy in our ideas. An indeterminacy that does not lead to vagueness, but one that propels more exciting political possibilities. And as a young academic with a declared left political ideology (yes, that’s the word I’ll use – little indeterminacy there!), I’d expect some indeterminacy from those I look up to, the ones who I draw inspiration from, to take the politics of indeterminacy more seriously than they have so far. I am aware of their courageous works (and sometimes acts) of contamination. But to foreground their complicities will make them more human, fallible, and accessible to me, and I am sure to many others like me who are torn between complicity and contamination in our initial days in the neoliberal academy, that increasingly treats the leftist scholar doing humanities and who resists turning their students into technocrats, as an outcaste. It will be an act of generosity if you sing to us the Gill Scott-Heron song to dispel the myths of infallibility that surround you: “Yes so tell me why can’t you understand that there ain’t no such thing as a superman? There ain’t no such thing as a superman.” I don’t know if this will do anything to our vision of achieving a just world, but it will most certainly make us be truthful to the work that we do, and have the strength to counter our complicities with stronger strategies of contamination.

The author is a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow at the University of Melbourne, and continues to be associated with the Jindal Global Law School as Honorary Research Fellow with the Collaborative Research Programme on Law, Postcoloniality and Culture that he had founded. Contact: oishiksircar@gmail.com

23 thoughts on “Of Complicity and Contamination in the Neoliberal Academy: Oishik Sircar”

  1. Very well put. I have long thought about few of these points raised above. Still searching for satisfactory answers.


  2. “the undoing of my privilege be a pre-requisite for building solidarity with struggles that are challenging and resisting oppressive structure” – in so far as that solidarity building also involves displacing other solidarity builders ( who are much further down the road of privilege undoing, the answer methinks is yes. ‘Solidarity building’ exercises bring very real and tangible material/social benefits to many- it is most probably a privilege adding exercise in many cases. The problem with the formulation as you have it is that it does not confront the varying levels of complicity – but that matters. If one discounts the element of choice in the level of complicity, and only talks about complicity with a capital ‘C’ -amra muri-murki ek dor kore dicchi. What you had said just before the quote you made -“can I call myself a queer feminist, being an upper caste, heterosexual married man? ” – why this want to self characterize and then half-lament ‘falling short’? Everyone lives their politics – putting up a self-label is a cue for an observer to make an average between the advertised politics and lived politics – the result being somewhat better, along with the safety of ‘full’ disclosure. If the distance between propaganda and lived reality is called hypocrisy – is a self-identified ‘non-casteist’ upper-caste person who marries, say, another self-identified ‘non-casteist’ upper-caste person, more or less hypocritical than those who declare preference for intra-caste coupling? I would say they are more hypocritical, if they claim any element of superiority in comparison to their frankly casteist fellow-citizens on the question of attitudes towards caste. One can call oneself whatever they want, but if the labels are to have any meaning, their living, I feel, has to be demonstrably different from those who would claim that they are, say, straight and anti-feminist.


  3. Brilliance, sir, Brilliance!
    If only our college still keeps attracting conscious minds as yourself, I’d believe it hasn’t been a total failure afterall.
    Thanks for an overwhelming read. :)


  4. Living in contradictions is fine, but the human mind wants to emerge out of it. I think that the real role of the intellectual is to resolve these conflicts and put forth a ground where the sources of conflicts stand recognized.

    If we study Marx and yet refer only to JSTOR, teach justice but hold faculty positions at the Jindal University, Jindal being one who has meted out unending injustices to the nation, it is a poverty of our thoughts and spirit.

    An intellectual is a pilgrim and just as a pilgrim cannot be a householder, the academic must be prepared for sacrifice. We must risk unemployment, ignonimy, and even anonymity when we pursue our ideals relentlessly. One cannot both be hankering after publications and promotions and positions at right places and yet remain critical of the system. If you do not wish to remain trapped in contradictions, then asceticism must be your constant companion. You may be isolated and ignored but these are the pains that must accompany your endeavour.

    Poets and philosophers have died in penury; but in every case they have created new levels for the intellect. To imagine that the profession of the intellect is only to earn a salary like any other profession is to be naive. One can of course be a tutor whether in private tuitions or in Universities abroad, but one cannot be an intellectual. The intellect is honed through honesty, which requires a certain level of material poverty. Embrace that, your contradictions will be resolved.


    1. That is a very noble thought..it is also a utopian one…of what purpose is such intellect when you can’t put it to good use..for example by effecting a change in the political theater of the classroom..or are you trying to suggest that just because students study at a university affiliated with a corporation, they have no right to access this vein of thought save by chance..your argument is contradictory for such smug, self riteous,holier-than-thou asceticism is not asceticism but a form of astheticism alebit for the self.


    2. “To imagine that the profession of the intellect is only to earn a salary like any other profession is to be naive”

      The (romantic) conceit of the intellectual?:)


    3. “The intellect is honed through honesty, which requires a certain level of material poverty. Embrace that, your contradictions will be resolved.” Thanks, Susmita, for your very sage advice. The last sentence of your comment does sound like one delivered in sermons by great spiritual leaders on Aastha TV. I will try to embrace “material poverty”, and keep you updated about my progress towards the resolution of contradictions. On other occasions, when you have prescribed this clinical antidote to other bleeding-heart contradicted souls like me (that is if you have met any, what has the prognosis been like? I don’t mean to trivialize what you are saying, just that the rock solid confidence with which you’ve said it has had a more bewildering than inspiring effect on me. Some auto-biographical vignettes from your life would make your comments sound more human. As of now, they sound disturbingly divine.


  5. This piece has put so well in words the unease that I have been feeling lately. As a student in what claims itself to be the premiere law school of the country, I come across a lot of discussions on caste, sexuality and oppression. I can’t help feeling uneasy about the irony underneath it all.

    This article has cleared a lot of things in my head by pointing out that I’m not alone. There really is nothing that can be done about the complicities, contamination and contradictions that go with the upper-middle class, privileged, academic elite trying to care about issues that they will never fully grasp. But it will always be important that we still try, and I will always feel guilty about having been born in (relative) privilege.


  6. Somehow the idea of pleasure as been sidestepped in this protestant discussion. I agree with the levels of complicity point made above, but this seems to be impossible to assess. I think it is important to recognise that those in academics or in the arts enjoy the good life, it may not (or it may) be the good life of a mall, but it may also be the cup of coffee and the book in a quiet balcony on Sunday afternoon, Feeling that it is important to suffer in order to be able to think is absurd. I think this stems from the leftist position that the subject can always be accessed, with just a little bit of honest elbow grease.
    Feeling guilty about privilege only goes to obfuscate the limits that such privilege places on certain lines of inquiry and the occupying of certain subject positions. some positions are not universally open to be inhabited; some trains of thought can only be pursued so far by those without the political authority. In order to make certain kinds of jumps (theoretically) in questions of caste or gender or sexuality or indeed capitalism one has to be politically authorized, ie a Dalit, a woman, etc..
    This doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done, but the final flourishes, the theoretical epiphanies, the leadership positions have to abdicated. The job of the empathetic elite is to act like an usher, to help bring those that matter to positions of perspective, but the decisions taken, the critiques deployed, these may not even be comprehensible, and must be accepted as such.
    And there is so much pleasure in this. This is the real elbow grease. As close to the satisfaction of production that the elite will every get. That we have to do the dirty work. The functional english classes, the principles of economics classes. the western political thinkers courses. And take pleasure in it.
    This whole “who pays the bills” argument is rubbish. Doesn’t matter where you are, its the working classes that pay the bill. They pay the education bill, the activism bill, the freedom of speech bill,
    The question is what are you doing to pay them back? And are you miserable/guilty while doing this? Or is it a pleasure to be of service?


    1. I think there is a lot of good in what you say. I disagree perhaps in the glorification of the working class, but I can see your point in saying that they bear the brunt of the majority of things.

      I think a little less judgment and a little more honesty would do this whole discussion much good. Why is there this constant rush to jump in and label someone one thing or the other? Not every rich businessman is bad, and nor is every villager noble and kind.

      One of the shocking things in the article that Arundhati Roy had written for the Outlook on her encounter with Naxals, was that it was almost acceptable for them to use violence against the government, their families, the villagers, etc. because they were disenfranchised and this was a sacrifice for common good. If we are willing to turn harsh scanners on to those we accuse, we should also do the same for those we support.

      I would be more willing to take the side of the author and others like him if they were less keen to paint everything in black and white. There’s so much colour and so much more that doesn’t fit into their narrative otherwise. We should definitely focus on what we can do, and what’s being done, before we kill ourselves with thinking about where it’s all coming from and how terrible it all is.


    2. Dear Jomo: thanks for putting pleasure back into the conversation. If the discussion so far according to you has been protestant; the idea of “paying back” that you raise is very catholic. It can take a perverse bourgeoisie voluntarist turn, otherwise called ‘philanthropy’ in the language of neoliberalism. Am I reading you incorrectly? Did you instead mean ‘redistribution’ by “paying back”? If so, the first thing to be challenged in the academy has to be the ornamental dedications to wives that heterosexual male academics write in the prefaces to their books. It is the classic reproduction of sexual division of labour, decorated with insidiously beautiful words. If we are interested in redistribution, we need to connect the operation of the corporation that controls the academy, to the heterosphere of the family that controls both. That will be the toughest hurdle for any self-reflexive posturing to overcome.


  7. yes, the thinker-intellectual (the ‘honest’ one, so to speak) has to turn her/his head so many times in indecision that it is impossible not to think of some cubist image as opposed to the Rodin one that many of us were bred up on. on a serious note though, this was a rare timely reminder of the problem, or the gap, between the situation, its representation, and general liberal ‘calling’ of taking a stand — that way the photograph spoke volumes. i agree with one of the comments above that it is a utopian thought, and certainly worth all the trying. otherwise what are we doing here (and I personally think that the balance-sheet of virtue/sincerity method, and I know I am putting it crudely, is actually, or at least sometimes, a Christian impulse that survives as a secular remainder of morality/civic sense/go on adding). and, as and when i am writing in this web platform in/from a country like ours, where 80-year old illiterates are regularly exploited in a ‘systematic’ way (made worse by the law of averages that they come from some marginal community or other; but i don’t blame the system following the old rhetoric; but try to understand how it operates and engulfs, myself included) i cannot but be ‘complicit’ … so nothing is worth something if it aims at less than utopic ones!!


  8. Good effort my friend. But how about the degree of imbalance between complicity and contamination? I agree with your overall theory that no academic space is not devoid of complicity and all academic space provides some opportunity for contamination. If that is the case, then the proportionality of this balance between complicity and contamination is an important determinant of this ethical tussle among academics that you address here. For example, do someone who works for University of Delhi and someone who works for Gerry Falwell’s Liberty University are equally complicit to its patron’s philosophy? Can they contaminate with equal fervency? Liberty University faculty has to pursue the lines of its patron that could curtain their academic freedom and research agenda significantly. Harvard is privately funded, but no single individual plutocrat can yield as much influence on its academic agenda as Jindal could on his private university. You agree? You make several interesting yet non-equivalent comparisons across a range of institutions and individuals, using a very broad brush, while ignoring the degree of complicity that may define academic rectitude and help us differentiate between the more culpable academic from the less culpable ones. Arundhati Roy may be guilty of some complicities but is she at per with Suhel Seth who soaks in corporate money? A manager who works for Amul India is as complicit as someone who works for Monsanto? Your employment definitely curtails your ability to contaminate as well. Does the backgrounds of your students and those who study at Ambedkar university equivalent? Doesn’t that limit your ability to contaminate? What can you contaminate with JIndal’s students who go there spending lots of money with an objective to earn lots of money? I think you deserve to experience some guilt as long as you work at Jindal, you get paid more money for it also. So its fair game. But to use Kafila to seek expiation from this moral dilemma of a conflicted academic identity is an interesting effort. Your make smokes-screens of non-equivalencies to camouflage yourself here, which is perfidious at best.


    1. “Your make smokes-screens of non-equivalencies to camouflage yourself here, which is perfidious at best.” Oh Dhrubodhi “my friend”, you shouldn’t have left the sentence hanging there and let us into what it would’ve been at worst? Now that you have called my bluff, does it make any sense for me to respond? Let me try to emerge out of the alleged smoke-screen and make few more “perfidious” points: yes, you are correct in saying that I engage in a conceptual collapsing of locations that are oranges and apples. However, I would disagree on your point about culpability. You say that there are purer spaces and people than Jindal and Liberty and Seth. And that in itself is an act of exoneration: I don’t think any one is more or less culpable. This act of measuring culpability will be nothing but a perverse masking of our multiple forms of complicity, within the academy and outside of it, particularly within the family. We would be highly mistaken if we fail to understand the sophisticated machinations of neoliberalism, especially if we are blinded by the liberal spectacle that distinguishes the public from the private, the corporation from the state. It’ll be good for us to remind ourselves of this prophetic quote by the French historian Ferdnand Braudel: “Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it is the state.” My aim in this autobiographical piece was to question left posturing within the academy: irrespective of their location in this or that university. Of course, the levels of complicity might differ, but I wouldn’t credit the location for that. in fact, it is the location that gets used as the smoke-screen to camouflage complicity. I was comparing people with similar publicly articulated ideological positions (Seth and Roy do not occupy the same ground), and trying to foreground my personal struggle to remain loyal to that position while being located within a highly contradictory space. However, I would think that these contradictions would’ve been no less intense if I were to teach at JNU.


  9. Great questions. One place that touched on this, this David Graeber interview, esp his response to this question:
    “Q: One of the tropes of #Occupy Liberty Plaza was that its participants were working together to build a small-scale model what an emancipated society of the future might look like. This line of reasoning posits a very intimate connection between ethics (changing oneself) and politics (changing the world). Yet it is not difficult to see that most of the services provided at Liberty Plaza were still dependent on funding received from donations, which in turn came from the society of exchange: Capitalism. Since the means for the provision of these services can be viewed as parasitic upon the capitalist totality, does this in any way complicate or compromise the legitimacy of such allegedly prefigurative communities?
    Gareber: …all social and political possibilities exist simultaneously. Just because certain forms of cooperation are only made possible through the operation of capitalism, that consumer goods are capitalist, or that techniques of production are capitalist, no more makes them parasitical upon capitalism than the fact that factories can operate without governments. Some cooperation and consumer goods makes them socialist….There are multiple, contradictory logics of exchange, logics of action, and cooperative logics existing at all times. They are embedded in one another, in mutual contradiction, constantly in tension…Communism already exists in our intimate relations with each other on a million different levels, so it’s a question of gradually expanding that and ultimately destroying the power of capital, rather than this idea of absolute negation that plunges us into some great unknown.”


  10. The earlier generation of academics who were mostly with govt. funded universities and institutes did not face such questions. But with proliferation of private universities, policy research think tanks and NGOs which employ academics/researchers such questions arise. It has been observed that while Marx urged changing the world tenured radicals ended up changing english departments, humanities and social science departments with not much impact in directly changing the world. The choices before academics are limited and when job options under govt. funded universities/research centers have shrunk joining a private university is not sin or an act in complicity. One has to be simply understand where one is situated and the limitations of ones own actions and pursuits as an academic.
    An academic in JNU/Delhi University can protest against an industrialist and issue statements but an academic employed in the university funded by that industrialist may not be able to do so as that is likely to jeopardize her/his job/career. I may be interested and qualified in joining Jamia/DU/JNU but if I dont get a job there and join a private university why should I feel guilty about it. So within the constraints faced and the given the contexts and situations one can act ethically to the best of ones talent and capability. Does anyone blame tenured radicals in ivory league universities for the policies of the universities. Is it not a fact that these universities which are keen to patent and earn royalties also allow space for those who question this.


  11. This post reminds me of the conversation that my friend and I had with Prof. Oishik outside one of our classrooms two years ago. Two thought- provoking and awe- inspiring Sociology courses later, we were befuddled as to why a man such as himself, would continue working in our University ( a place where our studentship is a constant reminder of many dilemmas and tussles, quite apart from the obvious elephant in the room). He simply said, and I quote- “It’s okay to contaminate sometimes” and on how he fights the danger of getting sucked right into what he stands against- “The best way to not get sucked in is through disagreements”. This post today echoes the conversation we had with him, and everything he said seems so much clearer today. It’s like a two part lecture. Thanks again, Professor!


  12. Thank you Oishik for raising several important points. I just wish it was less over-written with your personal angst. Anyhow, just to flag again the double standards of the academics who deride institutions like Jindal University without examining their own complicities.

    1. The same people would have no qualms about sending their children to expensive private schools like Shriram School or Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, which until very recently had no reservations also. Its only when it comes to college education that these people suddenly get all sanctimonious.
    2. The same people would have no qualms about participating in Private Universities in USA- like Brown University that you underlined. These are in fact not very different from huge Multinational Corporate Bodies. Many of these academics would have studied or collaborated with or taught in such institutions, many of which not only have dubious histories but also a dubious present. These Universities are often gentrifying real estate grabbing entities which marginalise black populations and their lifestyles in their vicinity severely, eg, University of Chicago, NYU, Columbia University and Yale University- all have documented ongoing projects of this kind, and all of them famous left-wing South Asia Departments, which academics from India freely participate in. And many of these universities were set up by robber barons and named after them. Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt are examples, while Uchicago was started by the Rockefellers.
    3. Many major Indian institutions have huge private sector presence, and are still not stigmatised in any major way. Tata Institute of Social Sciences, XLRI, CSCS Bangalore, IISC Bangalore were all started with Tata money. Even D School has a Ratan Tata Library. But somehow this doesn’t seem to rile anybody or call for a boycott. Let’s see how Azim Pemji University fares!
    4. Many of these morally superior academics are funded by private organisations like Ford Foundations, and indeed there is a clamour at any given time among Indian leftist NGOs and academics to avail of this money. Ford Foundation money was key to start the School of Arts and Aesthetics and the Centre for law and Governance in JNU. But again no moral problems for them there. In fact, its amazing how ridiculously servile they become to get money from such funders. Their research agenda too becomes suitably flexible.
    5.They have no problem availing of research or prize money from institutions like New India Foundation run with money from Infosys.
    6. Indian academics see no problem in working in institutions run by the Government of India, probably among the most violent entities in the history of the modern world, with the biggest occupation army in the world in Indian-occupied Kashmir, which continues to violate International law by refusing to hold a plebiscite as required under UN resolutions. While many of these people call for a boycott of Israeli institutions for having a similar, though much smaller, occupying force in Palestine, they see no problem for working for the even more blood-soaked Government of India. The precedent of the 1920s when Gandhi called for a boycott of Indian government’s educational institutions applies here, but am yet to hear of any Indian academic resign a government job in protest over the occupation of Kashmir.
    7. About elitism, many of these government colleges’ students’ demographic profile would be much more elite than any Indian private institutions. Feel free to compare students from Lady Shri Ram College with Jindal/Amity students, and you’ll see which is more elitist.
    8. They have no problem in working for colleges run by the Catholic Church, one of the most consistently regressive institutions in world history.


  13. “What can you contaminate with JIndal’s students who go there spending lots of money with an objective to earn lots of money? ”

    Why, you contaminate that objective, of course.

    I am a student of the first batch of that Academy. Needless to say, I do not claim to be a mouthpiece for the views of my colleagues. However, it is important that I clarify one thing in particular: Commodity and lifestyle fetishism is not a priority for a significant number of us -because- of the radical views we have been exposed to courtesy our teacher-comrades.

    The war of position, to borrow from Gramsci, is of peculiar significance to a newly created institution. When a culture is contaminated at its onset, it is bound to lack the same self-assuredness in its march towards conditioned apathy.

    Of course, we (again, referring to a somewhat small but significant number of us) struggled and continue to struggle with nomenclature, affiliation and identity related guilt. But we still hold dear those radical ideas that were set into motion in the first year of our legal education. And you know what, we refuse to be sacrificed before the idol of our tyrannical namesake nor before those who assume the moral high-ground to label us rich brats-to-bureaucrats.

    Let me tell you as insider, Oishik gave us direction at that crucial moment right after the violent buzzing haze of instituional birth, just before we could be snatched away by the worst forms of corporate culture.

    We were all architects of an escape hatch (that leads to whatever revolutionary roads we will it to lead) that exists to this day at JGLS.

    And for those of us who have chosen to open the hatch, we are indebted to each other.

    Truly and sincerely,

    Contaminated (on the long hard road to liberated).


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