This is a guest post by Rina Ramdev and Debaditya Bhattacharya
Students of JNU have been on an indefinite hunger-strike for over 15 days now, and the administration’s only official response so far had been the Vice Chancellor’s May 4 statement invoking the vocabulary of the ‘lawful’ and the ‘constitutional’ — in ambivalences closer to threat than appeal. The subsequent May 10 Academic Council meeting has been historic, both for its 53 members’ overwhelming denunciation of the HLEC report, as also for the indelible image of a fleeing VC now forever etched in campus folklore. Further, the Delhi High Court’s stay on the fine imposed upon one of the students lends hope for similar stays with the remaining beleaguered students’ cases. The VC has consequently been referring to the enquiry mandate as being sub-judice, only to grant it an interim legitimacy that may symbolically defeat the stridency of student resistance. Letters have been sent out to the parents of striking students, in an attempt to re-route intimidation and pressure through other non-official means of paternalism. Given the conditions of duress being thus created, until the HLEC’s report is revoked in entirety, there is every reason to believe that the administration’s vindictive punitive designs will leech into the future of university freedoms and campus democracy irreversibly.
Notwithstanding debates about the constitution of the HLEC or the ‘constitutionality’ of the hunger-strike as a mode of protesting its violations of procedure as well as principles of natural justice, what strikes us as tragically unbecoming of a university is an ethical crisis on the part of a group of teachers-turned-administrators. The HLEC Report accurately embodies this crisis. Despite the several discrepancies in its reconstruction of the incidents of February 9 (particulars of which might be of prescient legal significance in establishing evidence of administrative bias), the Report cleverly uses a measure of clinical detachment in its indictments. The document takes on a sheen of bureaucratic objectivity in the invocation of rules or statutes and the identification of lapses (Draft Material, Annexure III, TOR: 2), but finally ends serving an unequivocal mandate to the VC to penalise through harsh, disproportionate punishments twenty-one students for the said event.
Even before the recent public release of the report, the nature of its inquiry proceedings and sudden intervening periods of an uncanny quietude had invited sufficient alarm. Very little was expected of its dispensation of justice — especially when it was clear that the HLEC’s was a cover-up job for a government thoroughly disgraced by the university’s public solidarity movements. Expectedly, the quasi-juridical effect of ‘distance’ that the Report tries to muster through its narrative gives way to clear proof of prejudice, when it comes to the reporting of the content of slogans raised by the contending factions. This is where the cunning of ‘high-level’ neutrality comes apart as a mask. While the slogans alleged to be raised by the organisers and participants of the event are repeated thrice in quick succession to compound the force of prejudice in the reader, those of the ABVP provocateurs are falsified to the extent of reducing them to “slogans like ‘Vande Mataram’, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai'” (TOR: 1, p. 4). It is astonishing to note how the “material evidence made available to the committee” did not include videos of ABVP activists spewing hate in slogans like ‘Desh Ke Gaddaaron Ko, Goli Maaro Saalo Ko, Joota Maaro Saalo Ko‘, ‘Doodh Maangoge to Kheer Denge, Kashmir Maangoge to Cheer Denge‘ or ‘Pukaare Ma Bharti, Khoon se Tilak Karo, Goliyon se Aarti’, etc.
One is forced to ask: was it a case of carefully selecting evidence to justify persecution of pre-established guilt? While superficially steering clear of the original debate around the ‘anti-national’ and the ‘seditious’ as criminally culpable, the HLEC replays the exact same terms of the case — albeit as rational-official conscience and not in the frenzied cacophony of its ‘collective’ counterpart. What follows in the Report’s “Identification of Lapses” seems again to return to a veneer of non-committal objectivity, by faulting a range of agent-actors from the Dean of Students office, the Additional Dean of Students to the Security for failing to act responsibly in view of permission for the event. But the very next section tears through this veil of administrative impartiality by proposing bizarrely disproportionate punishments/penalties upon one set of students alone.
Internal contradictions within the Report fail its claim of objectivism, both at the level of narrative logic and investigative reason. The first instance of (implicitly anti-national) slogan-citing in the HLEC Report implicates Umar Khalid, Asutosh and Anirban as having “addressed the meeting while other students, [namely,…] were also participating in the sloganeering” (TOR: 1, p. 3). However soon after, it confirms that “[a]s per witness deposition (see all depositions), the same group of 10-15 masked outsiders shouted slogans” (TOR: 1, p. 4) — and in its disciplinary recommendations later, rues conclusively that the event was “taken over by a group of outsiders who created a charged atmosphere by raising provocative slogans” (TOR: 3, p. 1). Evidently, the administration’s favourite injunction against the spectral ‘outsider’ (parading alternatively as Dalit, Kashmiri, Muslim, etc.) traps it in a strange breach of identity-confusions. And just then, an atrocious leap of punitive reason holds a student, Mohd Qadeer, as culpable for “being seen close to Mr. Gattoo” (TOR: 1, p. 4) — an already-identified insider-sloganeer — and for their being “found in close proximity of the outsiders”. This represents a terrifying moment of the aporetic at the heart of the HLEC Report — where, the university’s circumscription within the ‘insides’ of safety are sought to be protected against the otherly contaminations of the dangerously close ‘outsider’. In response, the student is quarantined through punitive recourse to techniques of discipline.
The university administration’s combativeness against its own students strips it of the shield that teachers offer, seen for instance in the frontline positions taken by the JNUTA in its solidarising. In the formation of Committees, teachers are pulled out of their classrooms, distanced from both who and what they teach and a demand of objective analysis is made of them. Every committee necessitates the violence of an ethical conversion — from the informal egalitarianism of collegiality to the secret surplus of confidentiality. The teacher’s displacement from the classroom to the committee-room re-imagines ‘insiderhood’ as a nominated community of trust with limited rights of access, and hierarchically counterposed to the treacherous ‘outside’ — the realm of the potential immigrancy of ideas. This act of withdrawal into ghettoes of confidence (read: committees) marks the ‘project’ of governance as distinct from the ‘work’ of ideas — a project that consists in privileging the will of the institution over the interests of those who inhabit it. The same effect of institutional will, parading as cold bureaucratic reason, deems every form/instance of questioning as a breakdown of “law and order” — and by logical inference, views all of the university’s intellectual apparatus as extra-legal or at times illegal. Communities of trust, when insulated against pedagogical acts of insurrection and self-suspicion, convert doxa into the seeming ‘naturalness’ of reason. The everyday bureaucratisation of academia is at the same time a relentless penalisation of its institutional infrastructures, and a constant manufacturing of technical reference to the ‘state of emergency’ as internal to the project of governance. The teacher-turned-administrator, leading by example of a model code of conduct, has to alternatively play at being the teacher-as-patron, the teacher-as-police, the teacher-as-judge and the teacher-as-army at the perilous borders of a ‘national conscience’.
But, won’t these teachers-turned-administrators, when they walk back into classrooms and conference halls again, labouredly speak of academic practice as thought-experiment, thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ and testing the limits of reason? Have they rehearsed the rotes of classroom-wisdom only to be able to mistrust their material exercise as ‘excessive’ acts of indiscipline? Academic freedom, we believe, can neither be reduced to the liberal discourse of rights nor the technical-bureaucratic routines of the permissible. Because, in it lies the possibility and the onus of doubting the ‘reasonable-as-restriction’ — as well as its incarnation as forms of consensus, both national and natural. But, is objectivity so impersonally bureaucratic and unfeeling that it has to murder the radical adventure of belief and conviction at the altar of rules and statutes?
An event like a public meeting or a discussion or even a student protest are part and practice of both a vibrant democracy and a university’s culture, deriving strength as it does in this case, from the critical thinking that props the classroom experience. Within the urgent province of the teacherly function, the HLEC’s technicisation of pedagogical aporias — which is the very condition of possibility of dissent — stands as both a lapse and a grave dereliction. The huddling of teachers into committees might relieve them of every commitment to the ‘outsides’ of sovereign reason, but how long can they wilfully turn their backs to the precarity that hangs over the student protesting through days of hunger strike? Was the institutional persecution of Rohith Vemula not abundant in its tragic consequences that the administration and its committees continue to witch-hunt dissenting students? Beyond the secure cloisters granted by a repressive regime, there are futures that will mark and remember Vice-Chancellors and their Committees that ukased this hunger and hurt.
Rina Ramdev and Debaditya Bhattacharya teach literature to undergraduate students at Delhi University and the University of Calcutta, respectively. They have both done their Ph.D from Centre for English Studies, JNU. They are co-editors of Sentiment, Politics, Censorship: The State of Hurt (Sage, New Delhi, 2016)