It’s shock and awe as administrators, bureaucrats and capital are savaging the institution, destroying teaching, learning and research

“What is the Third Estate? Everything. What is it being reduced to? Nothing. What does it aspire to be? Everything” (modified version of questions asked and answered by Abbe Sieyes, France, January 1789).

Currently in the midst of a Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA)-led indefinite relay hunger strike, DU, over the last three years, has witnessed agitations by students, teachers and non-teaching employees rooted in anxieties about all that is happening to higher education and our workplace, the university:

1. The terms and conditions of work are becoming worse, more burdensome and increasingly insecure — especially for the rapidly expanding number of ad hoc teachers — beginning to negatively impact academic activity and even intimately private domains;

2. Our work itself — teaching, learning, research — is being emptied of depth, creativity, meaning and the possibilities for inspiring critical thought, in a word, quality, as rapidly as it is being taken out of our real control, arbitrarily and thoughtlessly semesterised and variously “reformed” from above, and subjected to meaningless and demeaning forms of bureaucratic monitoring, quantitative measurements and accountability; and

3. Our 90-year-old University is being consciously destroyed and dismantled to pave the way for the large-scale commodification of higher education.

It is unfortunate though hardly surprising that apprehensions expressed by large numbers of teachers regarding unmanageable chaos that would ensue and the catastrophic consequences for academic standards and students’ futures — especially of the most vulnerable — resulting from major structural changes thrust upon DU in a mad rush in the form of semesterisation for example, are coming true. Students and teachers have become collateral damage of hurriedly taught, hastily cobbled courses, rampant administrative ad-hocism, and the collapse of systems of examining and evaluating performance. The next wave of shock and awe is set to hit DU in 2013 as the Administration drags us mindlessly into four-year-study schedules and meta-Universities.

One moment supremely symbolises the destruction and impoverishment being wrought at DU: the decision taken by the VC-in-Academic Council to excise A.K. Ramanujan’s brilliant essay, “300 Ramayanas” from the UG syllabus even at the cost of legitimising prejudice and the “politics of hurt sentiments,” a politics that has been central to fascistic mobilisation on a world scale.

Teachers’ and students’ anxieties are compounded by the fact that the VC and his team, entrusted with taking on board our fears, suggestions and concerns are refusing to even meet with us, declaring instead that the DUTA, the most important democratically elected teachers’ body whose struggles have contributed immensely to teachers’ lives all over the country, is an “illegal welfare association.”

This is reminiscent of November 7, 1942 when Hitler, rolling through Thuringia on his special train, suddenly saw the awed faces of his wounded soldiers staring in at him from their tiered cots in a hospital train. Angered, he ordered the curtains to be drawn, thereby denying himself the miraculous human moment of reaching over to a wounded soldier. This would have meant Hitler acknowledging the nightmarish results of his military adventure, an intrusion into his reality that he so dreaded, he preferred pretending it out of existence.

The DU VC’s refusal to meet with teachers and their representatives is corroding his own humanity apart from the fact that neither the DUTA nor resentments and concerns will cease to exist for lack of acknowledgement. If anything, this is only fanning the flames of discontent at DU.

An attack on freedoms

In fact, DU continues to be in turmoil above all because the wider restructuring of higher education being pushed through by the Indian state at the behest of Capital has meant an attack on freedoms, democracy and rights, without which no university can hope to flourish. Those meant to ensure that our institution remains a public University free of violence, harassment and discrimination so that we may read, write, think, love and evolve without fear have been doing their utmost to terrorise and humiliate teachers and non-teaching employees, blanket the university with fear, turn it into a prison and squeeze the life-breath out of it. They continue to crack down on unions and trample upon hard-won rights, including the invaluable rights to organise and protest in a bid to turn DU into a machine, and employees and students into courtiers and slaves.

Let us be clear about the enormity of what is happening. Teachers, tasked with bringing the universe into classrooms, encouraging students to explore, interrogate and debate, teaching them to think critically, act independently and together as equals and discover the meaning of being fully human, are being told NOT to think, NOT to speak, NOT to participate as equals. Teachers, students and non-teaching employees are, being silenced and robotised, losing control over work and workplace while our university is savaged at the hands of administrators, bureaucrats and Capital.

This is the darker meaning of forced semesterisation, the continuing refusal by the DU Administration to debate further academic “reforms,” the violation of University Ordinances and democratic procedures by them, and the string of repressive measures, including the cancellation of all categories of leave for teachers on days of protest.

If we allow fear to rule DU, give up the right to organise and protest and allow cultures of democracy to slip away, we stand to lose everything, including the capacity to fight for improvements in, and increased control over the work-process, to debate and struggle for quality and meaning in academic pursuits, and to demand equal participation in “imagining the impossible” within the university and beyond. The DU agitation today is driven by the clear awareness that everything being at stake, and the defence of liberties and rights paramount, different forms of protest, including a future general strike may be the only ethical options available. This is what Savio meant perhaps when he said in 1964, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine…makes you so sick at heart, that you’ve got to make it stop,” a speech reminiscent of Camus’ words, “There are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.”

It is also driven by the imperative that the right to protest and other rights like the right to take different categories of leave have been fought for and won by generations of women and workers over the past two centuries. We owe it to our past and present as working people to strengthen these instead of allowing an authoritarian administration to take away something they have never given in the first place. Human beings have survived, and the meaning of being human expanded through protest, including through the hunger strike, incidentally the commonest form of protest during the centuries of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. “Among the messages of these hunger strikes were: we will not be property; we will not be labour power; and we will not let you eat us alive.”

Sometimes, as in the present moment at DU, hunger strikes and a general strike may be the only ways of protecting our rights, keeping alive the Sieyesian imagination and recovering control over work, workplace, our lives and dreams. It is this that will create a university that is inclusive, free and academically, culturally and intellectually rich.

(Mukul Mangalik is Associate Professor of History, Ramjas College, University of Delhi.)