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Saturday, February 29, 2020

When students are restive: A dialogic civic engagement is essential for hope to triumph over hatred

While protecting the right of students to dissent, we also need to reeducate ourselves about keywords such as freedom, democracy and equality.

Written by Rukmini Bhaya Nair | Updated: January 24, 2020 11:35:32 am
students protests, JNU protests, Jamia Millia Islamia, CAA protests, NRC, NPR, Youth leading protests in India, Indian Express In the student protests that have occurred across the country over the past month, we have witnessed clashes that could partially be described in terms of Weber’s notion of “disenchantment”. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

A politician not hungry for power is almost as hard to imagine as a tiger that abjures meat. His natural diet is power, particularly over the grand narrative of history. An academic, on the other hand, is a herbivore, whose predilection is for interpretative ambiguity, an abiding tendency to ferret out the flaws in received historical texts. The metaphoric division among these groups is demonstrable. There’s a Marx for every Marat, and a Gandhi for each Gibbon. History arranges, too, for occasional disturbing confrontations, in a broadly Weberian sense, between these putative “types” of social agent.

In the student protests that have occurred across the country over the past month, we have witnessed clashes that could partially be described in terms of Weber’s notion of “disenchantment”. True, political parties have quickly jumped on the bandwagon and aligned themselves with or against the movement. Yet, among university students, the slow burn of a smouldering resentment has been apparent for some years. This was bound to flare up sooner or later. From focused anger against caste and religious discrimination and severe fee-hikes to a generalised discontent about mediocre teaching and a lack of prospects after graduation, students have felt disenfranchised. In certain situations, they have committed suicide, surely the ultimate act of protest. Only last semester, one of my best students in the engineering sciences told me that he did not want a job, nor did he want to do research; he just wanted to “do nothing”. Small, everyday anecdotes like this raise big troubling questions about a story that has captivated us of late. This is the joyous narrative of the “demographic dividend” wherein an overwhelmingly young, aspirational India on the move will beat all odds. The irony is that it is exactly this population that is now showing signs of acute distress, manifest in their widespread opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

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Several analysts have, however, raised the question: Why these particular inflexion points? What is it about the CAA and NRC that has so mobilised our youth? It is here the idea of “disenchantment” could help us — and we will certainly need such framework of analysis as these “leaderless” movements develop.

The argument, following Weber, would go a bit like this: As individuals born into modernity, we are not disenchanted just because something awful happens to us personally, such as a series of tragedies in the family. In a society like India, we might rely on the traditional consolations of karma or kismet to explain these terrible happenings. The personal is decidedly not the political here.

Disenchantment, on the other hand, takes hold when large, shared ideals such as those fostered by contemporary nation-states appear to fail citizens or when there are severe clashes of ideology about how to arrive at a cooperative goal such as universal employment or healthcare. Political ideals immensely bigger than personal dilemmas tend, in short, to trigger affective “disenchantment”. Both the CAA and NRC turn on the central concept of “the citizen”, which is precisely the sort of capacious domain that can inspire ideas of national unity, as well as widespread disenchantment. This is because they raise for the youth of this country (and for all of us) a difficult question that may have gone unasked in their lifetimes, namely: What makes someone a citizen and can some citizens be less equal than others in the eyes of the state? So fundamental is this query about the constitution of our society that we cannot shy away from a vigorous debate on the subject. And we must remain stubbornly committed to protecting the rights of our students to gather peacefully and speak out forcefully. We have also to reeducate ourselves, almost 75 years after Independence, about the meaning of words we have since often carelessly taken for granted — keywords such as freedom, democracy and equality. This dialogic “citizens route” is our only, fairly narrow, path towards “re-enchantment” or the magical triumph of hope over hatred.

Weber maintained that people can be so charmed by the ideals that “charismatic” leaders place before them that they are ready to put their material well-being and even their lives at risk for these idealist causes. India, of course, has had no dearth of such charismatic personalities both in its “religious” past and its “secular” present. However, it is when such leaders are seen as non-performing or manipulative that the processes of disenchantment set in. Weber (a thinker whose lifespan ran roughly parallel to Gandhi’s) was himself pretty disenchanted by the post World War I scenario. He regarded the bureaucracy of his time as an “iron cage”, discerned “dirt, muck, dung and horseplay” everywhere, castigated politicians as “windbags” and opined that leftists like Rosa Luxemburg belonged in “the zoological gardens”. Do we not hear echoes in these choice phrases about our own current discontents?

To return here to the theme of student unrest with which I began, we know the word “student” is paired with the word “teacher” in an inextricable semantic conjunction. Like “parent-child” or “husband-wife”, not to mention the Hegelian “master-slave” duality, an understanding of one part of these expressions implies knowledge of the meaning of its “other”. It is this long-standing relationship that has been destabilised today. As a teacher over the past 30 years, the naïve thought that I want to end with concerns the reversal of the basic “teacher-student” pairing in an environment where mesmerising new enchantments that Weber never anticipated have entered our world.

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If Thomas Carlyle wrote in the 19th century, at a time when the diversification of knowledge via the technological invention of the printing press was well underway, that the “true university” of his day was “a collection of books”, perhaps the true university of our times is the Internet. An immediate reconsideration of the teacher-student, guru-shishya, compact is prompted by this simple comparison. Today, our cellphones are not only our most intimate companions but de facto the most go-to sources of knowledge. They are our most creative teachers — or are they? Certainly, we have to concede that our students are much more at home in, and ready to engage with, this beguiling virtual world than we are. Online witnesses to methods of dissent ranging from Me-Too marches in the US to student uprisings in Egypt and Hong Kong, they have observed the exhilarating power of tiny hand-held devices to bring down entire regimes.

Concurrently, the awesome power of robot-avatars and social media to guide our emotions and of tech-companies and governments to covertly watch, not to say control our actions, now requires us to radically update Weber’s crucial insights concerning enchantment and social action. A revised partnership agreement between teachers and students is therefore urgently called for as we enter this unknown nth space of citizenship. There’s no doubt in my mind that it is in this cyber-world of augmented reality that vital battles over possible disenchantments will be fought in the future. In the present, though, we are left with Weber’s implicit suggestion that the best political action cannot but extensively involve our universities since “it is the intellectual who transforms the concept of the world into the problem of meaning”.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 24, 2020 under the title “When students are restive”. The writer is Professor of Linguistics and English, Emerita, at IIT Delhi. The views expressed here are her own. Her latest book is Keywords for India: A Conceptual Lexicon for the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Peter deSouza.

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