The hashtag to watch in India these last couple of weeks has been #DalitLivesMatter. A continuation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement which seeks to expose the discrimination against and abuse of Black Americans in the USA, #DalitLivesMatter re-emerged with the death of Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad. The death of Vemula has generated a nation-wide moment of horror, anger, protest and commentary that we haven’t seen lately. Part of the reason might be that Vemula was a scholar within the university system — somebody that you and I might be familiar with. Part of it might be that he left a note that touched hearts across the nation. And a part of it might be because of the way in which we have imagined the future of education in the country.
Education has historically been considered as the panacea to India’s problems. And technologies have been seen as the vehicle that will deliver these solutions to a country that has been struggling with illiteracy borne out of lack of infrastructure as well as closed campuses that have excluded minority bodies. As the Dalit feminist scholar Sharmila Rege had mentioned in her work, it was only in the last part of the old millenia that we had finally started seeing new kinds of student bodies getting visible on large campuses. And strangely, the appearance of these bodies — women, queer people, Dalits — was not seen as a resolution of the problem of academia but the beginning of a new crisis in our education system.
While all the technology mediated experiments of knowledge dissemination — distance learning, TV-based education, building open universities, equipping classrooms with digital infrastructure, promoting one laptop per child — have been aimed at creating a diverse and inclusive learning environment, the universities themselves have been told that they are in a state of crisis. This crisis often takes the guise of merit, rigour, standards, talents, opportunities, employment. But more often than not, it is a masked way of complaining about these unwanted bodies, both as students as well as powerful professors and administrators who have now filled up our university systems.
It is no wonder then, that the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technologies (NMEICT), set up by the Ministry of Human Resources Development in 2009, proposes that, ‘For India to emerge as a knowledge super power of the world… it is imperative to convert our demographic advantage into a knowledge powerhouse by nurturing or honing our working population into knowledge or knowledge-enabled working population.’ To accomplish this vision, the mission seeks to provide high-speed broadband connectivity, low-cost access and computing devices for students, and high quality educational material in electronic formats.
The NMEICT betrays the same blindspots that the administrators implicated in Vemula’s death display — they refuse to understand that the purpose of learning cannot merely be employment in the service of the status quo. They seem incapable of realising that education is a privilege that is offered as entitlement to the chosen few. They imagine the learning process as merely one of access and ignore the fact that technologies inherit discriminations of the society. In fact, the reliance on technologies as resolving the crisis of education is a clear indication of how the crisis is imagined and what its solutions are.
Given the low bandwidth penetration of digital technologies in the country, and even poorer resources for Indian language education, the new digitally enhanced classrooms are marked for those who can escape our universities, teeming with these diverse bodies, to form their new cliques of power and belonging online. The entire programme is geared towards converting students into workers, ignoring the role that education has in reconfiguration of social and political orders.
The voices of anger and frustration that Vemula has left in his wake are stark reminders that digital technologies are not solutions, but merely a means by which the solutions can be offered to the crises of our education systems. And these crises are not about whether we have enough broadband access, but whether we have the capacity to think of our universities as spaces where the social, political and cultural contexts of students can be addressed . The university, will have to rise beyond Make In India campaigns and develop the capacity to accommodate and understand #DalitLivesMatter.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society Bangalore.