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University: The State’s Kitchen?

By Akanksha Ahluwalia, Ishan Mohan, Sagar Sachdeva


Its all about fresh produce” 

Let’s start with addressing the elephant in the room. The celebrity entrance of the century that saw the DU Vice-Chancellor appear for the university festival, “Antardhvani”, on an elephant – and it was perfectly normal, thank you very much. The Vice-Chancellor made his presence felt on the second most popular metaphor of trampling upon, after year-long protests over the policy changes his ‘reign’ had ensured in the fourth most populous university of the country, Delhi University. It was in the infancy of our engagement with academics that we encountered the effects of policy changes on central universities. The covert drive towards privatization and standardization of higher education logically ended in the arbitrary installation of the semester system on unsuspecting departments. The transition from an annual system to a semester-based format led to a bureaucratic splicing of a Eurocentric syllabus in an arbitrary fashion. Our utopic aspirations around the university space that we – as students – carried were inverted before we knew it. We had believed the university to be a centre of learning, an ideal space for free discourse, and rigorous academic and artistic fervour.


“Canteen? No, it’s a café” 

When in reality, in our first year of undergraduate degree, we were assigned three separate teachers for an individual unit that consisted of Hard Times by Charles Dickens, and one of the ad hoc professor’s tryst with teaching lasted only but a day. Class was turned into an organisation of scepticism where the teacher metamorphoses into a teaching object, an object that can be substituted with another object endlessly, with the prescribed syllabus in the foreground. The students were forced to spill over the campus and find alternative spaces beyond campus walls.

The literature course consisted, in the first place, of a dominantly British literature curriculum, imitating a Eurocentric initiation into a canon that has been derided in our post-colonial experience multiple times by the very faculty forced to teach it. This same syllabus then was not crafted, but simply screened under a lens of decency and vote-bank politics. A. K. Ramanujan’s “300 Ramayanas”, considered as a potential text of conflict, was banned from our syllabus, and it was only when a select few ‘safe’ students were candidly taught the essay by a brave professor, that we felt like an organised resistance like the French schools under German occupation. The university became a space of opportunities for committing sedition, and not opportunities in general. The doe-eyed students who entered the university, who were so keen on getting introduced into circles and spaces they had only seen wisps of in school, were now faced with a volatile and suffocating space of dominant ruling-party politics and high-handed administrative policy.

The university micromanaged “student activity” and controlled access to spaces. Screenings could be disrupted if they questioned the state, chapters erased. Even student magazines were constantly hounded by the spectres of decency. Hosting departmental lectures and seminars often required funding from sources outside the college. Institutional funding was either scarce, or – mostly reserved as it were for the Science and Commerce streams – declined to the irrelevant self-indulgent humanities departments. No wonder students had to go begging sponsorships from private-corporate donors. As a result, the university became the space of public endorsements and private advertisements. The installation of the latest Pepsi vending machine in certain colleges of DU exhibits the penetration of corporate capital into the university. The machine invites participation from the students, gives them directives and if the directive is achieved, a free Pepsi bottle is delivered, and the process is reproduced ad nauseam. Much training for the souls soaked in hallowed university traditions of critical thought lay there! The departments who could do anything about this, maintained a professional distance, and played it safe. The college for them was the extent of their universe, and what happened beyond the walls of their classrooms, an abyss that did not in any way threaten their positions, was out-of-bounds.

The university, therefore, works like a bureaucracy where compliance is expected and rewarded and any form of argument, dissent or indiscipline is reprimanded. And, in turn, the university made this routine easier with the FYUP – which was introduced to avowedly ‘reform’ undergraduate learning by providing greater flexibility to students – but through its insistence on imparting required ‘skill-sets’, turned the university into a centre for vocational training. But for everybody else, it was a space for committing sedition and getting swallowed into a set of regulations wherein the dos and don’ts foreground the utopian image of endless possibilities it poses. We soon started to comprehend the illustration of Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus within the orthodox University space.

Carrying on from an undergraduate degree, the students who are willing to stay in academics are required to sit for an entrance exam, oscillating between a half-objective, half-subjective to a completely objective format in 2016 that tests students on their memory and not interest. Due to the administration of the entrance exam in a fully multiple-choice format, the test is based on the format followed by the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and, therefore, the process of acceptance was generalized. The attempts made by different departments to highlight the futility of the newly proposed format were met with a terse one line response, “plea considered and dismissed”.

Because postgraduate teaching is centralized within the university and colleges are assigned just for tutorial classes, the number of seats offered was decreased, and the number keeps reducing as you keep progressing. In this process of filtering, structurally, opportunities for higher research are successively reduced. The classrooms provided to the Masters students were incapable of accommodating the number that was originally admitted. Classes would often turn into a spectacle and finally a competition where seats were supposed to be reserved and the students who could not manage to sit inside the classroom would sit on the ledges attached to the classroom windows. The technological infrastructures assigned to the department were in a state of decay (even in the age of Digital India!) and the microphone decibels were only accessible to the students that procured the first four rows.


“Biryani? More like Veg Pulao” 

Meanwhile in a minority institution in 2006, the students’ unions of the Jamia Millia Islamia were banned from the campus as the university administration felt they were exercising power in areas they had no jurisdiction in. The campus was hence a forcibly depoliticized space that did not tolerate collective activity. Moreover, the proximity of the campus to Batla House and other ghettoized colonies apparently made security on campus a cause for ‘concern’ for the authorities. The 2008 Batla House incident, and a general presence of “suspicious” minorities in the area, meant the campus was constantly under a state of vigilance by the police. It did not help that the campus is sliced in half by an arterial road and now a metro line, bifurcating and weakening the “safe area” a campus can provide. The JMI campus is therefore hounded by active guards who are under strict orders to check student activity and self-styled vigilante moral policing from some of the more conservative students and professors who try to “protect” students from indecency, and so forth. In the face of such restrictions, the last year has been an interesting one for student activity on campus. Initially, there was the silent protest of feminist messages on sanitary pads pasted all over the campus, followed by the Pinjra Tod movement, the FTII protests. Later, the JNU protests also proved to be too infectious for the depoliticized air of the campus, and resulted in JMI’s hesitance in joining the Vemula debate or the JNU march for Azaadi. Student activity however was also subject to self-censorship, and could not be too organized as JMI is forever a soft-target as a minority institution in an easily radicalized country.

JMI then becomes the prototype of a university in a state that would rather not deal with the idea of difference, in the excuse of a possibility of violence arising of it. Most recently, around 15th of August, undercover police forces, in civilian attire raided the boys’ hostel, unannounced, and apparently without administrative sanctions. JMI is the security-state the country is on the way of becoming. It is, in fact, ghettoized in the city as well, with even auto-drivers advising Hindu students not to go to “little Pakistan”.


“How many credits is the last course, anyway?”

The university, as an object-out-there for the dreamy-eyed student just out of school, therefore, transforms into a lived space of relations with time. And it is in this living, that the abstraction the University is, gets felt in concrete relations with fellow students, professors, administrations and so on, within the campus-space and beyond. The State is then present, dispersed in these very relations, wherein it institutionally disciplines them. A curiously injunctive document titled “UGC Guidelines on Safety of Students On and Off Campuses of HEIs” of 2015 was only one of the interventions in these relations that attempted to promote the University as an ‘apolitical’ space of knowledge-consumption, within monitored and predetermined movements.

The fortification of housing complexes, methods of identification using biometric technology, emphasis on women’s safety through safety shuttles and Community Service Officers, and so on, create a parent-warden-counselor nexus of surveillance. This technology is invested with pre-judgments regarding campus issues like sexual violence against women, adulthood, health and what-not, therefore determining the direction of public discourse around these issues. It is at the interface of the ‘apolitical’ and political assertion – which includes not just student-party politics, but also the curriculum, the campus space and lifestyle – that the University is located.

And speaking of locations, we all know what happens when we type in “anti-national” on Google Maps!

Photo: Hindustan Times

Akanksha Ahluwalia, Ishan Mohan and Sagar Sachdeva were abducted and forcibly made the guinea pigs of the semester experiment at Delhi University. They survived through their Bachelors in English Literature only to see their juniors fall deep into the pit of FYUP. Akanksha completed her Masters in English Literature from Delhi University; Ishan has done his Masters in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia Islamia and is now pursuing his M.Phil in Film Studies from JNU, while Sagar has completed his Masters in Sociology from Ambedkar University and is currently working with CCK. The three are extremely vocal about the horrors they faced in the dungeons of DU, but also thank the university for teaching them how to make the best out of any disaster that might strike them in the face.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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