Last week will go down in Delhi University’s history as an especially tumultuous one. Re-enacting their tired script with more skill than ever, the riotous mobs of the ABVP disrupted a seminar on ‘Cultures of Protest’ at Ramjas College. They violently attacked the students and teachers alike, and are currently busy maligning some of the finest teachers of Ramjas as “anti-national”.
While the University was still reeling under the shock of this violence, the Governing Body of St Stephen’s College announced that the college is on its way to attain autonomy. In spite of protests from students, teachers, and non-teaching staff, the administration has taken a decision that will adversely impact the college’s status as a public institution.
Parallels Between Ramjas and Stephen’s
Notwithstanding the yawning gap that appears to separate the brazen violence witnessed at Ramjas and the procedural aura of the decisions at Stephen’s, the two events are deeply connected to each other. The voices that ABVP’s gundagardi wants to thwart are precisely the voices that will be heard less and less in so-called autonomous institutions.
While ABVP’s tactics of intimidation are aimed at forcing students to think twice before questioning State violence in Kashmir or Bastar, institutional moves towards autonomy are aimed at eliminating these voices by design.
Indeed, the term ‘autonomy’ is a misnomer. The autonomy that the St. Stephen’s administration seeks is not an autonomy that will be conducive to a political culture of critique. It is not an autonomy that will nurture a space that enables us to speak truth to power and imagine a more just world. Rather, it is an autonomy that will compromise such possibilities for free and autonomous thought.
Under the Garb of Autonomy
By becoming autonomous from the public university system, such institutions seek autonomy from safety nets that allow teachers to be critical without fear of losing their jobs. They seek autonomy from subsidised fee structures and affirmative action policies that make it possible for students from less privileged backgrounds to study and struggle in the same spaces.
Indeed, they seek autonomy from the very real and material conditions of Delhi University that enable students to question power and organise seminars like the one that could not happen at Ramjas last week. Therefore, even if the hooliganism of the ABVP and the tactics of the Governing Body look very different, they lend themselves to very similar ends.
Row Over UGC Notification
If there’s one lesson that we can draw from the extraordinary students’ and teachers’ movement in India today, it is to recognise the connections between the barefaced violence of the ABVP and relatively discreet institutional changes that serve the same goals.
If the ABVP orchestrated a vicious onslaught on freedom of speech and dissent at JNU last year, this year’s recent UGC notification threatens to do the same, if less brazenly. By compromising the inclusionary aspirations guiding JNU’s admission policy, the notification will exclude precisely those marginalised students whose presence in the university makes social justice and dissent central to its culture.
Struggle is Not Just Against ABVP’s Hooliganism
Of course, it is no coincidence that the last few years have seen this two-pronged attack on universities assume a new ferocity. While institutional shifts that threaten to make our universities more exclusionary were inaugurated by the Congress, they are being pushed through more aggressively than ever by the BJP.
This is because universities are fast becoming the boldest bastions of critique against this fascist government. Now more than ever, there is a growing desperation to attack public universities.
As we fight against this attack, let us not forget that our struggle is against ABVP’s hooliganism, but it is just as crucially against insidious institutional shifts that get much less press, despite threatening our universities in similar ways.
We owe this to the tireless labour and love of the on-going students’ and teachers’ movements that are asking us to see these connections. We also owe this to the profound publicness of our universities that, despite all their flaws, have nudged and nurtured us to imagine a different, more just world.
(The writer is an ex-student of the Delhi University. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)