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  • Srijana Siri

“Azadi, Ra Vali and March On” — The Public and Private Moorings of Dissent

हर ज़ोर ज़ुल्म की टक्कर में हड़ताल हमारा नारा है!

At the face of any highhandedness, WE resist!

तुमने माँगें ठुकराई हैं, तुमने तोड़ा है हर वादा,

YOU rejected our demands, YOU broke your promises

छीना हमसे सस्ता अनाज, तुम छँटनी पर हो आमादा

YOU eat stolen grains that WE grow

तो अपनी भी तैयारी है, तो हमने भी ललकारा है,

So, WE are prepared, WE will challenge

हर ज़ोर ज़ुल्म की टक्कर में हड़ताल हमारा नारा है!

At the face of any brutality, WE will resist!

- Shailendra (translation by Srijana Siri)

“It was the last week of October. We had formed a human chain around the administrative block and would not leave without an answer from the Vice Chancellor. But within two hours the police dragged some of us from one side of the road to another. We screamed and shouted. It was a state of absolute frenzy”, recalls a first-year MA student at English and Foreign University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

Over the past month, the students at EFLU have engaged in peaceful protests demanding justice for a survivor, who was sexually harassed on campus on October 18. Demonstrating their solidarity with the survivor, and calling for the reconstitution of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), students have boycotted classes, made posters and held overnight candle vigils. “We will continue until our demands are met. That’s why three of our students have gone on hunger strike”, says one of the student protesters.

Unrest in university spaces is not limited to EFLU. Students in IIT-BHU, Varanasi have “launched an institute-wide protest and boycotted all academic activities” after a student was sexually harassed on campus on November 2. However, a notable feature in both these cases of student dissent is that they are public universities which are funded by the central government.

Public universities in India have long remained a medium of social upliftment. With subsidised fees and reservations, they attract an economically and socially diverse class of students. “Conversations about privilege and marginalisation, reciting poetry and singing songs over a cup of chai is not uncommon on campus”, says a final-year PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi.

Although about different issues, private universities in the country have also witnessed resistance and dissent over the past few months. Recent events at Ashoka University, where faculty members and a few departments threatened to boycott classes over the resignation of Professor Sabyasachi Das, are a testament to the same.

At Ashoka, uproar persisted for a while, but slowly withered away. Though not all demands were met, the faculty, students and administration cooled down their rage and momentum and proceeded to channel their frustration in different ways. The Student Government, in collaboration with Madhavi Menon and Aparna Chaudhuri, Professors of English, organised teach-ins, which can be understood as a form of protest, to facilitate further conversations and discussions about resistance, protest and dissent.

Hyderabad Police detaining students at EFLU in the last week of October - Photo sourced from the protesters at EFLU

Students writing slogans in the open amphitheatre at EFLU - Photo sourced from the protesters at EFLU

Highly popular initially, attendance and participation in the teach-ins eventually began to dwindle. No student-led protest marches took place either. Political resilience and urgency about academic freedom died a slow and painful death.

One might argue that protests in public and private universities feel and look different because the magnitude and gravity of issues in both these spaces are distinct. Yet, I would say that the differences in these forms of protests are not limited to variation in the issues in these spaces but emerge from deeper and darker crevices of society that shape the politics, convictions and instincts of students and faculty.

The Idea of University

There is no singular idea of a university. In an interview, Professor Sayan Chaudhuri who teaches critical writing at Young India Fellowship (YIF), said, “Universities have a normative responsibility that is encased in a romantic character”. They have an institutional structure that heavily focuses on outcomes but is also a site of intellectual reimagination and dynamic social mobility. This provides a certain sense of freedom and autonomy to students and professors, he added.

Public and private universities position students and faculty differently which might influence the nature of dissent. In a private university, students are often treated as customers, who are promised a product—the university—at the time of admission. The university in this context is a pre-conceived product, which has to be delivered carefully.

Increasingly corporatised vocabulary such as “world-class”, “top faculty”, and “best infrastructure” is found on the websites of private universities. Public relations offices try to maintain this perfect profile because they have student admission and revenue targets to meet. Even if we deny it, this vocabulary affects the structure and pedagogy of the university.

Public universities, on the other hand, do not have these structural tensions and pressures. Although other worries severely plague the already underfunded public universities, the student at large is not seen as a customer but as an individual exercising their right to education.

“It is difficult to establish a transactional relationship between myself and my university. I pay a nominal fee every semester. This allows me to disassociate education from any monetary value and approach it as a means of growth and self-questioning. My education is a part of me”, says Veena Ditta (name changed), a second-year MA student at JNU.

While some students believe in a romantic idea of education, others feel that larger issues of caste, class and gender position students differently in relation to the administration and even professors. “Our marginalised identities are very exposed in a university setting, yet we know that we do not owe anyone anything here. We are here because of our merit. It is our constitutional right to access education like this”, Veena believes.

The position of a student as a customer in a private university places certain constraints on them. A third-year student at Ashoka says, “We pay so much for our undergraduate education, it is an investment. We need something in return like a good job or a graduate school seat to feel that it was worth it at the end. That is the goal”.

Dissatisfaction with the college administration, courses and other issues are discussed and complained about at length in dorm rooms and casual chats at Ashoka. But hardly do they cross over to the political realm. The weight of apathy, disinterest and underestimation of students’ stake in the university actively shape a very commercial idea of education, which dangerously distances students and the university from the political, social and their multiple configurations.

Graduate students in the Faculty of Arts, at Delhi University, echoed a different idea of a university and education. They believe that taxpayers paying their professors to teach makes their education an inherently political act. “Our education is a product of something larger than ourselves”, said one of the students. Therefore, they consider resisting any “undemocratic and oppressive” policies or events their moral and ethical responsibility.

Differing ideas of a university also have an impact on the pedagogy and structure of the institution. Naeva Abraham, a second-year student of Political and Computer Science at Ashoka believes that Ashoka’s nature of student engagement with social problems might be the reason for a limited protest culture.

“Ashoka is physically and intellectually isolated from the centre of political action. We interact with social problems at an academic level and not a personal one. Living on campus is fairly comfortable so it is easy to pretend that everything is normal”, she remarks.

“We talk about Marx, Freud, Butler and Ambedkar in the classroom. But do we ingrain them and bleed their resilience?” Naeva asks, “Do we integrate ourselves into it? We will write about Ambedkar, we will read Ambedkar but talking about Ambedkar is a rarity.” Even though classes and pedagogical structures at Ashoka enable a thinking human, a dissenting individual outside the classroom and social media is yet to come.

The idea and vision of an institution like Ashoka also emphasises and prefers a high level of academic engagement with ideas rather than a political one. The webpage reads, “well-rounded individuals who can think critically about issues from multiple perspectives, communicate effectively, and become leaders with a commitment to public service”.

Without a diplomatic, neutrally worded aim like this, it is difficult to secure funding for such a young university in the current political climate.

What are the stakes?

The paucity of data in private and public universities about social diversity increases the difficulty of determining the relationship between social background and student protests. The All India Survey of Higher Education 2020-2021 report shows that 20.3% of all students enrolled in higher education are from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. 37% belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities.

As reservation and affirmative action measures in private universities are limited, it is safe to assume that public universities have a much more socially diverse student population. Although private universities like Ashoka and Krea have robust financial aid programs, the extent to which they account for caste and class background is unclear.

No robust, credible report detailing student diversity in social background has been released by either major public universities such as DU, and JNU or private universities such as Shiv Nadar University (SNU), and Ashoka.

However, my conversations with students from these universities revealed specific aspects of the social composition of the student body and its relationship with dissent. A few second-year economics students from Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), observe that within DU, there is a hierarchy of colleges with varying levels of diversity.

Tanya Sharma (name changed), an economics student from St.Stephens believes that the elites tend to join colleges like SRCC, Hindu, Hansraj, LSR and St. Stephens. “More or less a homogenous mixture dominates the North Campus. Tiffs between colleges both on an ideological and competitive basis have always been there. To avoid violence, protests here are mainly controlled by the Delhi University Student Union (DUSU), which is rarely active”, she said.

“DUSU was active for two weeks before and after the election this year. Youth wings of national parties were also involved. Akil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) and Congress parties were prominent. These elections are mostly seen as a launch pad for youth leaders into mainstream politics and nothing more”, Tanya concluded.

But this feature might only be an undergraduate college phenomenon. JNU, given that it is a postgraduate institution, has a more socially diverse and politically resilient student body. “I have met people from more diverse backgrounds here at JNU than anywhere else, but we still have a long way to go”, said a third-year PhD student.

“We have causes to believe in because it is our lived experience”, says a Dalit PhD student from JNU who wished to be anonymous. “Our lives at JNU are a privilege. We have worked to achieve this education and that’s why we will not take it for granted. We will talk about it and protest if anything hinders quality subsidised education. The protest during the fee-hike in 2019 is an example”, they continued.

JNU students marched from Ganga Dhabha to the Parliament shouting slogans like ‘Fees Must Fall’ on November 18, 2019. Photo Credit: Samim Asghar Ali

One of the protesters from EFLU said with conviction, “Students here at EFLU and in other institutions like Jadavpur have the courage to go to the administration block and encroach the office of the authorities because we have a lot at stake. It is literally our life, our protection and our family’s survival that is at stake”.

When I investigated this at Ashoka, I found myself scrambling for answers. A sense of student unity and urgency for political action was absent. Political disinterest and lack of experiential knowledge were rampant. There were hardly any answers or any inquisitive responses to my questions —What is our politics as a student body? What causes do we identify with and support? What are our issues and concerns? Why don’t we talk to each other in an informal setting about political issues?

In an attempt to think about these questions Debadrito Poddar, a second-year English and Creative Writing student says, “Everyone on campus is living individual lives. The structure of this university makes this inevitable. Hardly do people interact with each other. That how is it possible to expect any politics from students”.

“Without a student union, unity on student issues and developing our own politics is hard”, Naeva remarks. Public universities, especially post-gradute institutions have had strong student unions. Film and Television Institute (FTII) in Pune is a strong example. “Even if it is a small number of people, collective action is difficult to muster in Ashoka. How many people are willing to risk everything?” Naeva asks.

Confused red-bricks — The Question of Legacy

All my conversations with students and professors from different educational institutions in Delhi pointed to an interesting contradiction— the necessity and problems of bearing a legacy. Public institutions have a history. Delhi University was established in 1922. JNU was established in 1969. The students have decades of legacy to understand, find inspiration and continue.

In contrast, private universities like Ashoka or Krea and SNU are young. We are trying to build ourselves, our politics and our reputation. But in this process, there is an amnesia and emotional disconnect from the legacy we already have.

While the image of the student protests in the atrium during Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit from the university is imprinted in our minds, there are other largely forgotten stories of dissent within Ashoka University that are part of our legacy.

The Edict reported that on September 17th, students and professors gathered at Takshila to “discuss outrage against the arbitrarily implemented policies on campus that change the very fabric Ashokan student life”.

Photo taken in Takshila on September 17th, 2019 by Varsha Nitish, Class of 2020.

In the Spring semester of 2019, Ashoka students gathered on the first floor of the admin block during finals week to protest against the manner in which the CADI committee proceeded with the cases. Students brought their assignments and readings with them. The report details that it was considered a fairly successful protest where the demands of the students were met.

Yet, these protests rarely occupy front table seats for a conversation on the history of Ashokan protests. These instances go to show the potential that the Ashokan student body has to resist and protest. Still, something holds us back. Something that begets hesitation, silence and unwillingness.

This indifference among students is not uncommon in public universities. The first-year MA student and Protesters from EFLU dejectedly say, “Not everyone is involved in the protest and perhaps everyone cannot be involved”. There will always be people who do not care enough and have self-interest at heart. But we will preserve, she added.

A third-year B.Com student from SRCC had similar thoughts. “Most people do not have a clue of what is going on in the real world. All that concerns them is internships and placements”. Indifference, then, is not just a private university problem. It is a youth problem.

While students from SRCC act with some indifference, students in Ramjas College and the Faculty of Arts are more politically motivated. Many of them believe that protests and resistance are important for the sustenance of a university space that ensures the intellectual rigour and ideas of a student. “We have a legacy and need to honour that”, says one student from the Faculty of Arts.

This contrast in beliefs can be attributed to the structure and courses at the university. Ramjas and the Faculty of Arts host humanities and social science departments whose students are more likely to engage in and sustain protests.

Ashoka University, on the other hand, is beginning to morph into a confused space that is navigating the numerous connotations of a university. It has many ambitions - one of a liberal arts and science university, another of a research university, or even a business school with a well-funded Entrepreneurship program. The majority of undergraduate batches are opting for seemingly apolitical majors like economics, computer science and entrepreneurship with perceived chances of financial gain and jobs.

But in the midst of developing so many different characters of Ashoka University, students have failed to think of a kind of education where the very act of studying and talking about it is a form of protest. Assignments and readings need not be confined to the library or our dorm rooms. They can become an act of protest.

The image of a student completing assignments in front of the administrative building while standing up for the cause they believe in is a resounding one. It challenges the static idea of a student, education and a university and builds a different kind of legacy — one that weaves together academics and resistance, making it difficult to envision a kind of protest that works independently of either element.

Space and Slogan

Many rocks at JNU have a history, recalls Amit Sengupta in the book, JNU Stories: The First 50 Years. Parthasarathi Rocks is an escape for the students to relax, love and laugh. Neeladri Bhattacharya and Janaki Nair in the introduction of the same book write about the abundance of ‘waste spaces’ or empty spaces in the architecture of the JNU campus.

These ‘empty spaces’ slowly grew into protest zones. Freedom Square where Kanhaiya Kumar recited the protest song Azadi, rocks near the Dhabha or the graffiti on the academic buildings— markers of protest are everywhere at JNU. These graffiti do not just pertain to campus issues. They express opinions and thoughts on larger subjects of political and social turmoil.

This Student Federation of India (SFI) poster is on the backside of the Central Library, JNU.

The poster above depicts a woman menstruating on a Brahmin’s head, with a baby emerging from behind. Dipsita Dhar, the former President of SFI believes, “This is our way of defying the stereotypes which have been built for women. The notions of purity and impurity, good and bad are being opposed”.

Such spaces are a privilege that many public or private universities in India do not have. Arjun Bhandari, a fourth-year English and Political Science student, who was also here during the protests condemning the resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta in 2021, believes that Ashoka lacks open protest spaces and the ability to utilise existing spaces for protest.

“Most of the protests after Pratap’s resignation were conducted in the atrium. They happened because Pratap as a professor and administration had a lot of pull and students came from across the country to study with him. But, how many people can the atrium realistically accommodate?”, Bhandari asks.

Graffiti, which Professor Sayan Chaudhuri believes is a form of social text that is rebellious by nature, is also absent at Ashoka. The only place where graffiti was in abundance was the smoking room (SR). Naeva thinks that even if we graffiti on walls the administration will ask the didis and bhaiyas to clean it up.

Recalling the recent candle vigil that Democracy Collective organised to stand in solidarity with Palestine, she says that they lit candles but were wary of leaving them there. “The whole point of a candle vigil is to leave the melted wax there as a mark of protest. But we couldn’t. We were sure that the didis and bhaiyas would be asked to scrap the candle wax off the floor”, she remarked.

“Even when we put up provocative posters about worker’s rights or any other political issue, they are taken down. Then, what is the point of a protest when the people you are protesting for have to deal with the aftermath of it?”, she asks.

Arjun also notes that protests in Ashoka are very anglicised. There is a single language used. Therefore, a singular narrative. However, English is not only the language but also the sensibility of many of these protests. Emotions of emancipation, protection and upliftment of the subjugated are more palpable than feelings of solidarity, respect and empathy with the oppressed.

“When we demand better working conditions for the didis and bhaiyas or better mess food, our politics must translate across languages for more people to join. It cannot be assumed that everyone speaks English. We need protests and slogans in Hindi, Tamil, Manipuri, Kannada and other languages to make the people we are protesting for feel belonged and at the centre of the agitation”, he says.

The multiplicity of languages will enable students to enter into dialogue with the national political consciousness that largely plays out in regional languages. Without that, our cause will be limited to Ashokan soil and not expand to issues that our country and the world are dealing with.

At this juncture, I am reminded of my conversation with an EFLU student who said, “We are using slogans from many languages—Azadi in Hindi, Ra Vali in Telugu and Freedom in English. We are pursuing our fight for justice in many languages”, they added.

Student protestors at EFLU also believe that slogans in different languages facilitate them to interact with the history and meaning of these slogans. “Using Inquilab Zindabad connotes something powerful. Its history motivates us deeply and places our protest in conversation with many others that precede it. Our struggle, therefore is not arbitrary but well-reasoned and important”, they said.

What might the future look like?

Bleak. With batch sizes at Ashoka increasing every year, it is difficult to mobilise collective action, unity and politics. A student union too seems to be a distinct dream. National organisations like the Student Federation of India (SFI), and the All India Students’ Federation (AISF) do not have a presence in Ashoka. Political parties in Ashoka like Leher have failed to uphold political mobilisation and push for individual political responsibility. But, as it has always been in protest, the students will have to pave and carve the way.

The current government has been successful in creating docile students fearful of questioning and talking. They have upheld the facade of facilitating critical thinking, and entrepreneurial spirit through the NEP. The effects of these are visible in both public and private spaces.

Public universities- where the government makes administrative and academic appointments, and controls speech, movement and thought in its enclosure. Private universities, though slightly less vulnerable, are not completely immune to the censorship acts by this government. Ashoka is an example.

As a result, neither public nor private universities can be worshipped as a bastion of academic freedom, protest culture or student activism. I am sympathetic towards JNU and admire its resilience to protest and believe in various causes. But by no means do I advocate that the protests at JNU are the only legitimate forms of resistance.

Student resistance has to engage with multiplicity in both theory and praxis, especially in an environment of political and moral void. Hence, our responsibility as students to listen, read, sing, question, write and dissent regardless of institutional affiliation matters more than ever.

In Arjun’s words, “Disruptive protests will only be a reality when students work up the courage to write to their professors that they are standing up for a cause and will not come to class. Invite the professor to please join them and bear witness to their cause and protest”.

For such a bold statement to make its way into our inbox, conviction and determination must replace fear and hesitation. A reimagined, original form of protest is required. Political interest, moral courage and sustained restlessness are essential. Docile bodies must be transformed into restless yet grounded individuals. Until then, only silence will remain.

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