The truly evocative Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto, South Africa centres around stones. Stones were thrown at fully armed Apartheid police at a protest where the police ended up killing Pieterson, a 12-year-old school student. In 1976, black students were marching against the forcible teaching of Afrikaans and the different school curriculum for them. The storm of protests that kicked off then took a long time to end Apartheid, but historians see this particular protest — on the attempt to control and subvert education — as a vital turning point.
The haunting image of Rohith Vemula and his fellow students, after being thrown out of their hostel with their things, a steel box, a portrait of Ambedkar, rolled-up sheets and mattresses, is not as far from Soweto as one might think. Everywhere that inequality is an article of faith, philosophy, science, economics, literature, etc, have been the preserve of the privileged, and the underclasses have to study things suitable for “lower” jobs as janitors, pump-fitters, plumbers, etc — “skills” vital for a society that has to use “cheap” labour, unburdened by thoughts, ideas, too much science, delusions of equality. The system the British put in place in India was to educate the natives so that they could be small cogs in the bureaucracy. There was a need to groom brown sahibs, but it was vital that everyone did not see education as a right. When Tagore returned from the Soviet Union and wrote of the immense strides made there in educating everyone, in Russia Theke Chitthi (Letters from Russia), it was promptly banned in India by the British.
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Education did prove to be a dangerous idea. Whether it was Raja Ram Mohan Roy or other members of the Bengali intelligentsia, it was writings, newspapers, analyses and ideas that not only influenced them but were later used by them to propagate and reinforce the belief that Indians were capable of leading and pushing the Empire back. For important revolutionaries like Surya Sen (Masterda), who was impacted by the Irish revolutionaries, and Bhagat Singh, who was influenced by how Lenin fought back the Tsarist machine, it was education and knowledge that played an important role.
In recent times, a pattern is emerging in how the Centre has been reacting to student “unrest” or assertion. Panchajanya’s denouncement of JNU as an “anti-national den” last year was not an isolated comment. The bullying by the HRD ministry of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Chennai and, now, the repeated hectoring of the University of Hyderabad to “take action” against “casteist, extreme and anti-national” elements, to quote a letter by a Central minister, is not innocuous. It is at the heart of the government’s strategy to suppress those who protest, speak, argue and dissent. It is also an acknowledgement of their power as nodes of action that could influence thought. The FTII has been an issue that continues to simmer because it is important for the government to assert itself in creative areas, which are disruptive by definition, and perhaps in this government’s wordlview, need special handling and a strong shot of mediocrity to snuff life out.
There are those who question why a student’s suicide or protest is “politicised”, and not left as a housekeeping matter for the “administration”. Universities, we are now told, should be private, sanitised spaces where you pay huge fees; the purpose of education must be to just “skill” you to get a highly paid job. But historically, access to knowledge has been an area of deep contestation and always deeply political. Whether it is the idea of merit or the concept of rote, both have their roots in how it was ordained that texts and mantras should be memorised and kept a secret — only whispered into the ears, literally, of the privileged. This is not a problem of Hindu mantra jaap alone. Quranic hifz, or rote, defined how learned you were. Questioning was impertinence; it got you scaled in school and rusticated from college.
The great debates in northern India after 1989 over reservation showed how political education was in India — by denying that it was political. Centuries of discrimination was forgotten, as a case was made for “merit”.
V.P. Singh, once the darling of the meritorious middle classes, fell out dramatically with them after he espoused the cause of those condemned to be “skilled” in only one sense and denied the privilege of studying or doing jobs done by the “meritorious”. He once told a gaggle of press persons that he would buy the “merit” line only when it would be argued that land, going by “merit” on the ground, must belong only to the tiller.
To argue that knowledge, getting a university education, and what you do at university, is not political is in itself a cleverly disguised political argument that bats for letting things remain the way they are. The NDA push to snuff out opposition by curbing student activity is not the first attempt at remaking the campus into something in between the market and a robot factory. Several chief ministers, many of whom are themselves products of student movements, have ensured that student leaderships are not allowed to blossom and elections in universities have been curtailed and banned. If a “good” or “adarsh” education is continued to be seen as one that involves mindless rote, a rush for “coaching” and trashing of student activism, questioned as “anti-national”, then we need to worry whether the “nationalism” that is sought to be pumped up is our version of Pakistan’s atrocious anti-blasphemy law.
Private universities often now boast of some fine scholars and students. But in a country like India, can private universities be the model? The role that state universities play in providing quality and a level field for all to come and be influenced by the power of ideas cannot be overestimated. Public universities offer an opportunity to persons like Rohith to break out of the rigid rules that those at the bottom are expected to play by. So when an effort is made to squeeze oxygen out of those spaces, the results are devastating for the most deprived.
Education, even literacy, is held to be a privilege in India but our reputation for inefficiency obfuscates that fact when questions are asked about why the majority will not be schooled and needs to wage long struggles, across ponds and huge distances, to meet a teacher. Rohith Vemula became stardust so tragically but not before stating his case to a nation in pursuit of coaching classes and higher fees for skills, which had forgotten the role education plays in the making of a truly democratic and equal nation, an idea that scares so many. He truly made a star-class argument, but paid too high a price.
(This article appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Closing the university’)