Guest post by DEBADITYA BHATTACHARYA
This piece has long been in the coming. Soon after the summer of student protests in India exposed the terror-apparatuses of the state and unleashed a new vocabulary of progressive political resistance, the students of a certain Central University of South Bihar (in Gaya) went on strike against the university administration in the early days of August. They however were not fighting to protect constitutional rights, because their daily encounters with the university had already come to rest on a structural suspension of many such rights. Like those of speech, of rational thought and scientific inquiry, of gender-equality, and of resisting what Vemula called the event of being reduced to one’s “immediate identity”. These students merely decided to fight for their right to a degree.
They had come together to demand statutory recognition for courses that they were enrolled in since 2013, but most sections of the national media at that time deemed the issue ‘sub-national’ enough to be granted space or audience. Reporters from the local print-media were – in what seems like accepted practice across public institutions in the country – barred entry into the university campus, and hearsay reports constituted the stuff of low-key news-briefs with little context or compassion. Those who attempted to organise public opinion by writing on social and alternative media spaces, were – in a classic division of interests that administrative bureaucracies are deft at provoking – urged by students themselves to withdraw. The reason was simple: each social media post or conversation around the issue was declaredly spied on by the university administration in order to ‘detect’ subterranean alliances and “outside support” (as if it were a terrorist conspiracy!), and students were individually targeted and intimidated for passing on internal ‘secrets’ to ‘outsiders’. I know of specific Facebook posts which had been taken print-outs of and convened surreptitious meetings over, where administrative heads and proctorial board members put their heads together to crush the germ of student dissent and ‘outsider’-mobilizations. The agitated students continued in their own ways, despite open threats of disciplinary action and reminders of exam-time tactics of penalisation. The Vice-Chancellor marched off to Delhi to strike bargains for an interim settlement-package with officials in the ministry, and returned to meet the striking protestors with as much of an assurance as threats of expulsion.
With nothing apart from an urgent sense of despair, the striking students returned to their classrooms after nine days of spirited resilience verging on the final call for a mass hunger-strike. Almost three months passed since then, and the administration has again characteristically lapsed back into a rehearsed indifference and principled non-negotiation with students on the matter. Every day, I see and come to know of students lamenting their decision to enrol in a course of their choice – little knowing then that the (NAAC-accredited A-grade) university was duping its applicants into academic programmes which had no affiliations or approvals from necessary regulatory bodies. Every day, I encounter the utter despondency resulting from the dream of social mobility that public institutions advertise as their privileged constitutional commitment and noble democratic intention. Every day, the ghosts of a forced unemployment and an uncertain future chase the children of many who unquestioningly poured their life’s savings into the bare carcass of hope.
This write-up, once left off, issues out of that everydayness of an assault on the structures of higher education as we all know, but also in locations that generally lie outside what ‘the [prime-time] nation wants to know’. It translates into a plea and a pledge to forge intimate solidarities and fight the fascism that confronts us as much in the disappearance of a Muslim student from a university campus as in daily attacks on the dignity and privacy of women students from provincial towns or the deliberate persecution of those demanding ‘access’ to ‘quality’ academic infrastructures in non-metropolitan spaces.
Those ‘Other’ Universities?
The Central University of Bihar – renamed in a December 2014 Amendment as Central University of South Bihar (CUSB) – is one of the 15 new central universities established and incorporated by the Central Universities Act 2009. Seven years into its existence, the university still functions out of two separate temporary establishments in Patna and Gaya – while construction work for its permanent campus is underway in the provincial suburb of Panchanpur. Expectedly, the lack of permanent physical infrastructures to house the functions of the university has been used by its functionaries to justify all kinds of administrative oversight – and to demand a moral ethic of ‘patience’-as-obedience from the student community. Basic infrastructural provisions like hostel accommodation, mess meals, power back-up, drinking water, laboratory equipment, medical facilities and common room spaces have consistently been denied, discontinued or disrupted in the excuse of not having a permanent campus. The first Ordinances of the university, reportedly approved in the recent past, have still not been made available in the public domain. Consequently there are no policy-checks on the arbitrary powers of the administration, or even safeguards in the form of a “machinery for redressal of grievances of employees and students” (as Section 28 Clause 1 of the Act provides for). With no teachers’ or students’ associations therefore, university communities are left to fend for themselves against daily instances of bureaucratic censure and repression, in the lure of petty gains or positions of authority. A largely nomination-based Students’ Council under the Dean of Students is mandated by the Act to function as a sham of a rights-body, but even that does not exist – apparently, for lack of space!
The framework for the Act of 2009 was guided by the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-2012) of the Indian government with its “special focus for improving access and equity [of higher education] in remote regions and geographically disadvantaged places” (Clause 3.3.1 of the Report of Working Group on Higher Education), and it was distinctly bolstered by the immediately preceding Yash Pal Committee Report (2009) urging the Ministry to “respond to the needs of different regions in India in order to ensure not only equity and access but also quality and opportunity of growth along the academic vertical” (Recommendation xvii, Article 3.4, Report of the Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education). Pledging to a democratization of higher education, the Act instituted new universities in 12 Indian states and incorporated 3 more erstwhile state universities as central government institutions within their respective territorial jurisdictions. Keeping with its declared purview of expanding reach, each of these universities was set up at a relatively remote location – mostly, rural or semi-urban – with hardly any semblance of an extant academic culture. This was important, in that these places were now expected to benefit from the traffic of cultural and intellectual production, as much as the reduced social costs of learning were to make university education affordable and available to many outside dominant class-constituencies.
What happened instead was just the opposite. The newly-established universities, with far steeper fee structures than the older metropolitan lot, not only aided in structurally excluding those that they were avowedly catering to – but they also used their geographical segregation to appropriate local feudal modes of functioning in the way of self-contained personal fiefdoms.
Managing Enrolment Markets
The sham of social justice advocated by the rhetorical bulwarks of the Act crumbled, when online application-cum-admission procedures hit enrolment numbers for postgraduate courses of study and the lack of subsidised residential facilities translated into mounting living costs for the few outstation students who were eventually admitted. Dismal intake ratios – despite much-hailed policy narratives of ‘access’ – forced the university to justify its funding through a hasty cobbling up of undergraduate courses in education and law. The same perception of duress, linking ‘intake’ with ‘funding’, continues to be used against postgraduate departments now, to force them into opening up graduation modules in compliance with CBCS norms. As a result, an informal process of implementing the much-maligned Central Universities Bill is already under way, accruing legitimacy to a one-size-fits-all agenda for homogenising higher education even while there is intense opposition from primary stakeholders.
The reason behind student protests in CUSB echoed a similar pattern of incidents, albeit under an erstwhile government. The UGC’s call for ‘innovative programmes’ in 2013, coupled with the ministry’s constant nudge for increasing student numbers, saw the university opening up integrated dual-degree programmes in B.A./B.Sc. B.Ed and B.A./B.Sc. LLB. On the apparent advice of the ministry, the university administration did not care to seek approvals from regulatory bodies like the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) and Bar Council of India (BCI) for the newly-instituted programmes of study. The NCTE subsequently issued a public notice deeming the said courses in the School of Education as illegal and unrecognised, and it later only agreed to grant recognition to the university’s curriculum prospectively from 2015 – while leaving two batches of admitted students in the lurch about the validity of their degrees. In the time that elapsed, not only has the university not been able to secure any assurance of positive intervention from the UGC, NCTE or the ministry – but it had instead unflinchingly gone ahead and introduced a Masters course in Education this year, again without having received the nod of NCTE. Admissions for the Masters course were completed in June-July this year, all the while manipulating applicants into believing that all necessary procedures were complied with. When the beleaguered B.Ed students went on strike, the university – fearing an imminent backlash from those freshly admitted into a yet-unrecognised M.Ed course – suddenly decided to suspend the new course “for the time being” without cancelling their admissions. It was around the same time that the administration of CUSB decided to discontinue yet another course started last year – Bachelor of Vocational Studies (B.Voc) – and the students registered in the programme were either handed out one-year diplomas or forced to write ‘letters of volition’ seeking admission into some other undergraduate course at the university.
In Search of Eklavyas
The arm-twisting tactics thus evidenced at these new universities as administrative ‘commonsense’ derive their legitimacy from local networks of hegemony and everyday contexts of social-economic privilege. The geographical disconnect that these universities carefully brandish as their distinguishing feature – against the sociological instantiation of the liberal-metropolitan university – is used to play out out fantasies of ‘consensus’ from both student and teacher communities within. The incursions of the Hindu Right are alarmingly visible in the recent spate of appointments, and with administrative figureheads referring to Eklavya’s gurudakshina in faculty meetings as the mythical model of ‘obedience’ that must be exacted from shishyas. The movement of women students on campus is constantly policed, as much as their residences are raided by male members of the faculty at any time of the day. Students are questioned about their personal relationships and intimacies at random, while the conduct of examinations is made to mandate surveillance-procedures on their bodies without even a hint of suspicion.
Among a series of misadventures that transpired at these new universities since the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula early this year, we have seen the Central University of Haryana (CUH) administration filing FIRs against students for running a community page on Facebook and then abetting ABVP-sponsored goondaism against the staging of a play based on Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’, the VC of Central University of Jharkhand (CUJ) issuing suspension orders against a female colleague for inviting a retired teacher from JNU, the Central University of Rajasthan (CUR) students threatened with rustication for demanding basic living infrastructures like food and drinking water. While an enquiry committee set up by the CUH administration to look into the alleged ‘anti-nationalism’ incipient in Mahasweta Devi has recently had two of its external members swapped for reasons yet unknown, Central University of South Bihar (CUSB) has now gone ahead and planned a student-counselling programme on 8 November under the auspices of the local ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) unit at Gaya. The lecture-cum-counselling session, titled “Art of Controlling Mind”, claims to help students “know some techniques to control their mind” in the cause of “all round development”.
Even as the merits of using a university platform to have a Hindu religious organisation indoctrinate students during class hours are too obvious to guess, the language of ‘control’ thus bandied unmasks the autocratic injunction to docilise student bodies into prescribed codes of conduct and personality. The ideological ramifications of such programmes not only belie the constitutional foundations of public-funded higher education, but also go further to ordain an undeclared ethic of behavioural policing as part of the institutional regimes of discipline.
Probing the Economics of ‘Access’
At this point, one needs to ask a few questions. Why have those very institutions, which were intended to deepen the processes of democracy and social justice through formal infrastructures of higher learning, fallen prey to the most regressive authoritarianism, right-wing propaganda and informalised, unrecognised procedures of intellectual labour? Why has a distinct lack of democratic imaginative training become the most visible contour of spaces once envisioned as the policy-imperative of democracy with regard to public-funded education?
The answers lie in a decisive return to economic policy-directions within the education sector – of which a brief comparative analysis of budgetary allocations would suffice. Between 2009 (when the new Central Universities Act came into force) and 2016, the central plan outlay of expenditures under ‘General Education’ has been slashed by nearly 66 percent to a meagre one-third (viz. a reduction of over 19000 crores INR). This staggering decline in public funding for education strikes with even greater force when we are reminded that almost every year, the Union Budget has announced the opening of a slew of new universities and academic institutions amidst much fanfare. With more and more institutions springing up and a successively curtailed pool of resources to account for them, not only have essential infrastructures suffered beyond repair but even teachers have been forced to work on inhuman contracts on a daily-wage basis. Universities and colleges have had to justify their grants through enhanced numbers, increased student-fees and shoddily prepared courses that defy intellectual scrutiny by regulatory authorities – the exact flip side of the ‘democracy’ championed by the Central Universities Act 2009.
The Plan Outlay documents for respective Union Budgets between this period further point to a drastic 53 percent reduction in fund-allocations to the UGC from 4375 crores INR in 2009-10 to 2050 crores INR in 2016-17. This allocation, which typically includes grants ordained for central and deemed universities, reflects the attitude of successive governments with regard to the quality of public instruction in higher education institutions across the country. Add to this a 65 percent cut in non-plan expenditure allocations to UGC, IITs, NITs and IIMs in this year’s budget, as compared to last year’s. In the seven year period under analysis and starkly contrasting with projected GDP growth and inflation rates, the non-plan disbursal for UGC has in fact dropped by a thousand crores (that is, an estimated 29 percent). The case of school education is even more dismal, where the total budgetary expenditure (inclusive of plan and non-plan estimates) has taken a 71 percent plunge — to the tune of more than 20000 crores INR — between 2009 and 2016.
The reason why we need RSS shakhas and ISKCON swamijis to substitute the content of formal public education in the country with narratives of ‘achhe din’ is now left to anyone’s guess!
The road ahead of us is no choice, but a compulsion – and one that arises of the impatience to hold on to the vestiges of social justice as fundamental to a democratic imagination. This is a ‘nation’ that we may risk having to seditiously embrace – a nation where ‘access’ and ‘opportunity’ are not advertised at the cost of ‘resources’, but as a democratic condition for inclusive citizenship.
Debaditya Bhattacharya has taught at the Central University of South Bihar for about 2 years, before moving to a Calcutta University college. He has very recently guest-edited a magazine issue on ‘The Idea of the University’ for Cafe Dissensus.