Sexism, casteism, racism and communalism are very common in Indian classrooms, from school to university spaces. The teacher-student relationship is mired in a complex web of mythical, moral and institutional inequality. Today, this lopsided power equation is somewhat skewed in the student’s favour if the student has considerable class privilege and is studying in an expensive private university and paying a hefty fee.
There are countless news reports available on the suicide and drop-out rates of Dalit and Adivasi students who leave our public-funded universities every day, year after year, due to harassment and alienation. The ones who drop out quietly continue to pay the price as they are forced to give up their future forever and carry the trauma for life. It is the same for many girls who face sexual harassment in various forms from their professors. Indeed, Indian classrooms can be very similar to brahminical Indian joint families headed by a patriarch, where students are “managed” till they fall in line and become ideal subjects of the Brahmanical state (read obedient and diligent).
As I watched the video of the student at Manipal Institute of Technology standing up against the communal remarks made by the professor, I also noticed the camera angle and realised that despite the silence of the whole class as seen in the video, this short recording was made by someone who decidedly planned to use it as evidence against the professor and in support of his fellow classmate. My experience of two decades as an academic has taught me that in the singular collective silence of a classroom, there are many silences to be found — the silence of fear, the silence of shame, the silence of nonchalance, the silence of dissent, silence of despair and, of course, the occasional case of the complicit silence of the student who chooses to be with the system. Most of our classrooms fall silent because they recognise the disproportionate power of the teacher, who often also enjoys institutional impunity and can single-handedly ruin the future of a student. We routinely see this in the way sexual harassment committees are formed and work in the university spaces.
Today, almost all private and public universities are deeply surveilled environments. Needless to add, most often the ones with more power have more access to this CCTV footage and thus also have more control over their subjects. CCTV cameras track every move of the students and employees and are often weaponised against the students when they try to raise an issue or feel a need for collective action on a complaint. It is another tool added to the bouquet to sustain the management of the ideal subject. Thus, it is not surprising that now cases of students using their mobile cameras to get reprieve are happening routinely.
Most of these leaked videos often follow a predictable path. They manage to create a temporary discourse. In turn, the institution responds and gives reprieve to the plaintive student which seems like justice but is not. Thus, we must be cautious as to its emancipatory power and also be deeply aware of the conditions which make its use a necessity. It is symptomatic of students who have no faith that the system will give them a fair hearing. It is symptomatic of our students having zero hope for justice from our systems. Largely, it is symptomatic of a broken system.
In these times, when the subversive and the violative moment captured over the mobile phone is consumed with equal gusto and transforms into quick-bait entertainment in no time, these video recordings, as evidentiary protests, also encourage the hyper-individualism of protest itself. In this instance, this particular video that went viral got some attention and thus the system responded and the student could get some temporary reprieve. But, at the same time, many other such cases would have been routinely silenced in the same system.
In a recent interview, the novelist, essayist and photographer Teju Cole wisely noted that this world does not need “fixing”, but it needs “repair”. Repair, he notes takes more time but is also restorative in a deeper way.
The suspension and the inquiry after the circulation of the video have been quick fixes for university spaces for decades now. We must caution ourselves against the restorative capacity of these quick fixes.
We must admit to the disproportionate power we assert over our students in our education systems. If we really want to do some work, we should start with some counselling and open-forum conversations with senior administration and professors.
The student at the Manipal University also used another word that has entered our university spaces. He asks his professor if his behaviour is “professional”. Often, professionalism implies a reduction of difference and bringing a certain steamrolled, clinical self to work. It is the vocabulary we have for decent behaviour for each other at workspaces.
We need to throw out this neo-liberal vocabulary and return to the language of taking a more humane self, in constant need of repair, in our classrooms and beyond them.
Anubha Yadav is a writer-academic-filmmaker, who teaches at Kamala Nehru College, DU