Authority and Hubris
A History of struggle(after class) against the Office of Student Life
-Sparsh Agarwal (UG 19)
In my first year, I remember writing a bunch of articles wondering and questioning what our Ashokan Ethos should be. My ideas were rather myopic and one dimensional. But there were others who pitched in from the student body. It was an enriching discussion where people questioned whether there can be such a thing as a singular “Ashokan Ethos.” These were important discussions that needed to take place because Ashoka was still being constructed brick by brick, idea by idea, society by society, course by course. But somehow, in the last few months, it seems as though the students are no longer debating this issue anymore. The OSL has entered this, debated, and settled it unilaterally. All Ashokans must now only organize events who’s “objectives must align with Ashoka University’s vision for liberal education”, and clubs and societies will be approved on their “alignment with University Ethos and Values.” And who will decide what these ethos are? Obviously, the OSL. And who will adjudicate on whether someone is following these values? THE OSL (Keep up). What about the student, you ask? They must follow, for this is what is demanded of a “liberal education.”
This is my 7th semester in this University, and suffice it to say that along with the first couple of batches, everyone in my batch took a huge gamble to come to Sonepat. We were enticed by the promise of intellectual stimulus, the air of creative energy, and the hope of a new educational institution devoid of bureaucratic babus and hegemonic regulators akin to other Indian Universities. For the most part, Ashoka has lived up to its promise. Academically, it is preparing to propel the Indian educational system into new stratospheres. Administratively, on the other hand… What is Ashoka doing administratively? Is it doing enough? Is it doing too much?
I doubt if anyone in the OSL has read about what totalitarianism is, so let me do you this favor (because I know that you definitely are reading this). The OSL no longer says, “You should do it because I say so, without questioning it!” They now seem to know what’s best for us, and claim, “You should do it because, even if it is unpleasant, it serves our Nation, Party, Humanity, (or in this case) Ashokan Ethos!” They want to have the power to control every aspect of our public and private lives from how we hold events, when we hold them, where we stick posters, what we post on the meme group (whether that might be against Ashokan Values), what are the contents of our rooms, whether someone has a mental health problem or not, how to patronize those on aid, how we write our emails, and whether we can joke about having juice stalls during APL (remember that?). If you question them about anything, you can see them arrogantly shrugging, and/ or getting appalled at how students could even question them. When asked to disclose facts, the standard response is “this is sensitive information.” Most of what they do is confidential, but they have no respect for the confidentiality of the CASH or CADI committees. There is now a stinking fear of the OSL. People are afraid of actions being taken against them. In the imagination of the students, the tentacles of the OSL are far-reaching, and there is no escaping them. And that is exactly what totalitarianism is.
Let this be a reminder and a clarion call for all those who are reading: this University shall never fully be ready. For the moment someone says that it is ready, it also becomes static. With every incoming batch, ideas of Ashokan values must be debated and constantly evolved. We cannot let administrative totalitarians tell us what values we must espouse. We have our critical thinking skills, our classroom learning and the guidance of our Professors, to help us engage with that. We must not let the destiny of Ashoka be hijacked by inherently illiberal individuals, lacking imagination, sitting on the 1st floor, promising to protect “Ashoka’s liberal education.” For if we let them do so, they shall convert this hallowed space to look like just about every other Indian university.
So let me ink, bring to the public foray, and disseminate the bewildering question that all of us have been asking in corridors, and rooms, whispering to each other: “What is the point of the Office of Student Life?” But let me make it a more constructive debate: “What SHOULD be the role of the Office of Student Life?” The OSL needs to be reminded that their mandate has and should be that of a facilitator — to facilitate a healthy and enriching student life on campus. They were never given the role of becoming the policing force or the judicial appellate. And as for legislating on what Ashokan Ethos should be? Please leave that to us. I understand that some of you are former YIFs, but remember that prefix- former.
In a recent conversation that the founders, Mr. Sinha and Mr. Gupta, had with the ASP cohort, a lot of things became more transparent. What was most visible for us was that members of the middle management (read OSL) of this University have been consistently keeping the founders in the dark as well. Not only were these founders unaware of some of the important decisions taken by the middle management, they were also not told that the process of arriving at these decisions no longer involves the other group of founders — the university’s students.
The OSL has to be structurally altered, it needs to be accountable to someone who is not also a part of the OSL, some people will have to resign (because an unconditional apology is just not good enough), and their mandate will have to be redrafted. The only way to tame this leviathan is to ensure that we meditate upon the question that I have posed, have more direct conversations with the governing bodies, and get out of our rooms and collectively mobilize so that it is the students who determine what Ashokan Ethos is, and the OSL goes back to do their actual jobs — helping us organize events.
Sparsh Agarwal is the former Opinions Editor of The Edict.