Why has Rohith Vemula’s comet-like passing moved so many, breaching all the usual barriers? Perhaps the answer lies in the deep dread of comets we have inherited from our ancestors, of the dhoomketu as an ancient omen of impending disaster. We think we weep for the single soul who scorched our skies, but in truth, our anguish is for the bigger catastrophe that is being foretold. The larger calamity here is that the institution in which Rohith committed suicide — the Indian public university — is also trying to do the same.
Before explaining how and why this is happening, it may be useful to ask if it matters. After all, if no one really misses HMT watches, telegrams or Modern bread today, what difference would the passing of the public-sector university make? Unfortunately for us, the public university is more important now than ever before. It is the critical site where the future of the social justice agenda will be decided, and the fate of this agenda, in turn, will decide whether we have any future at all as a democratic republic.
If this seems exaggerated, consider the following: Inequalities have grown sharply in neoliberal India, with the wealthiest 1 per cent owning more than half the nation’s wealth, while the poorest 50 per cent own less than 5 per cent. There is a strong caste dimension to this inequality — not one of the 55 dollar-billionaires that India boasts of are from the “lower” castes, but these same castes form a disproportionately high share of the poor by any definition. Now that the “trickle down” thesis has been disowned by its own devotees, how is this growing, continually reproduced inequality going to be redressed? Given our failure to redistribute land and our inability to even tax wealth adequately, higher education is the only significant resource for social mobility that we can hope to offer the have-nots.
The good news is that formal access to higher education has expanded exponentially. Between 1991 and 2013-14, total enrolment in higher education has increased 6.5 times (from 49 to 323 lakh); the number of universities has nearly quadrupled (184 to 723); and the gross enrolment ratio for the 18-23 age group has almost tripled (from 8.1 per cent to 23.9 per cent). The bad news is that the bulk of the expansion has been in private colleges, which now account for 65 per cent of the enrolment and 75 per cent of the institutions at this level. Rampant corruption is the bane of this segment, with extortionist fees and fake institutions, like the one in Tamil Nadu that goaded three young women to commit suicide last week. Such rackets flourish because of political protection — every aspiring neta owns a college or three, and “educationist” is now the most common occupation listed by our parliamentarians. In the absence of genuine philanthropy, privatised education deepens inequalities because, effectively, it only offers a choice between the fraudulent and the prohibitively expensive.
But the really bad news is that the burden of our hopes must perforce rest on an institution that seems to be rapidly self-destructing — the public university. Its crisis is precipitated by three main factors: First, the secession of the vocal elite who can afford first-world fees, and who no longer care about Indian institutions. Second, the manoeuvring of global and local private players entering the lucrative Indian market for higher education, who may be indirectly or directly undermining state institutions. Third, the cumulative erosion of governance structures for which politicians and academics must share blame, which has resulted in ad hocism, incoherence and sheer lack of care in policymaking. Autonomy has become a shield for the arbitrary authoritarianism of pliant academic administrators eager to implement every whim of the regime in power. The overall impact is that the public university is shrinking in stature; instead of the confident, open and liberal institution that it once was, it is becoming insecure, narrow-minded and conservative.
In the midst of the broader crisis, Indian higher education faces the toughest challenge in its 155-year history, namely the inclusion of hitherto excluded groups. The combined effect of reservations and economic and demographic change has radically diversified a student body that used to be relatively homogeneous, being mostly from the “upper” and “dominant” castes. Caste and class inequalities expectedly translate into grossly unequal endowments of social and academic capital, but unlike in privatised education, these inequalities do not produce a hierarchy of segregated institutions. Political interventions like the 93rd constitutional amendment have ensured that even the elite segment of public higher education — which used to operate under a kind of tacit caste apartheid — is now integrated. Tensions are highest in elite public institutions where the already entrenched castes (who enjoy the luxury of believing they are casteless) bitterly resent the breaching of their erstwhile monopoly. It is also here that the intangible yet yawning gap between formal access and substantive inclusion is most clearly felt and most zealously guarded. The rhetorical question asked by the guardians of this gap — “After getting admission, fellowships and facilities, what more do ‘they’ want?” — points to the truth that access can be unilaterally enforced but inclusion cannot, because it requires the recognition of the other.
The elusive nature of this recognition and the myriad subtle ways in which it can be intentionally withheld are very hard to describe, but Rohith evokes them eloquently in his fragmentary writing. Eliciting and nurturing such recognition is — or should be — the main mission of the public university today. Institutions that refuse to even try are effectively killing themselves as centres of learning. The body lives on in buildings, campuses, salaries, fellowships or degrees, but the soul — the whole that aspires to be more than the sum of its parts — is gone.
We can truly share something only when we acknowledge others as full owners, when we concede that howsoever different they may be from us, their claims to ownership are no different from ours. If we cannot share our universities, we will soon be unable to share our nation.