Categories
Issue 10

University Spaces: Where the ‘Personal’ Becomes the ‘Political’

Politics in India often termed as ‘unreasonable’ and ‘non-educational,’ restricts our perception of a successful education to that of studying science. These professional fields of study encourage students’ engagement with science and development, more than social and political advancements. Moreover, they are not primarily concerned with ensuring social justice or equality. Indian psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy refers to science and development as the two new reasons of state besides national security, that have emerged since WWII. Indian elites have treated science “as a sphere of knowledge which should be free from the constraints of day-to-day politics.” As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, confined to mere economic growth and transactional language of goods and service, the term ‘development’ leaves out the ideas of freedom, and democracy. Universities catering to these ideas of freedom and democracy act as influential spaces for student resistance movements, and motivates them to participate in national politics by upholding their liberal stances. 

Science Says, “Politics, You Stay Away”

Politics involves the establishment of an egalitarian society and requires a developing relationship with technology to ensure each other’s survival as well as their contribution towards resolving societal ills. However, the Indian middle-class have come to view technology as a “source of legitimacy for science” and as a way of tackling all complicated social and political problems. This perception of technology operating in a political vacuum is termed as technicism, according to Schuurman. It maintains the political domination of the apolitical, technocratic, modern elite upon decision-making processes. This notion of science and technology results in their promotion by Indian elites as apolitical, according to Nandy. At the same time, it marginalizes available social and political solutions, by extremizing their excesses, as well as associating credible politicians, academics, journalists, activists, and students as anti-nationals. Science and technology, therefore, serves as a sole “escape from the dirtiness of politics” for most Indian elites. 

Although science and technology are perceived in isolation from politics, the question arises –  isn’t politics everywhere – in our personal spaces as well as educational institutions? Educational spaces, especially university campuses in India have allowed for the most expressive manifestation of politics in the past as well as the present. This engagement with leadership within universities encourages students to actively participate in national politics and pursue it as a career. There have been various student leader-turned politicians in India – Arun Jaitley, Prakash Javadekar, Shashi Tharoor and Nupur Sharma, to name a few. Alongside Kanhaiya Kumar who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Bihar’s Begusarai, Aishe Ghosh, the incumbent President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union stands as a Left-Congress alliance’s candidate in the West Bengal Assembly Elections. She says, “it is a big responsibility, but my politics will remain the same. The issues we fight for in JNU are an extension of what is happening across the country … I will carry these issues that I fought for in JNU to the people of West Bengal.” These narratives of students participating in national politics make one wonder, what is it about university campuses that produce eminent politicians in a country where most families are obsessed with wanting their child to pursue professional careers in science?

Technical Institutions in India: Technology and Social Empowerment?

The debates preceding India’s Independence, between political and scientific players entailed an establishment of a desirable relationship between politics and technology, however, their legacy appears to have been forgotten with time. The establishment of four IITs by the American team in India considered social patterns, political and cultural traditions as mere obstacles in their way, accompanied by the lack of imagination of the era to highlight the intersections of the two fields. Even though Humanities and Social Sciences were integrated into their curriculum, their scope remained limited thus, preventing intellectual culture, and the possibility of links between technology and social empowerment. 

The perceived free-of-politics atmosphere of the sciences is not to claim that technical institutions have never participated in national protests. Protests by students of IITs caste-based and religious discrimination is not unheard of. However, the constant monitoring of these spaces by state authorities seems to act as an impediment to their action towards other national issues. The existence of this vacuum is exemplified through a recent example, where a circular released by the IIT-Bombay administration warned its hostel residents against participating in “anti-national … activities.” The director called the Institute that “of eminence, with the primary purpose of producing high-quality engineering graduates and research that could be of help to the society at large.” 

It is crucial to note that these notifications arrived when students were protesting against the controversial CAA-NRC and the violence that occurred on university campuses like JNU, AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia. Concerned about its ‘scientific temper’ coming under scrutiny, the director further asked “its staff and employees to refrain from making statements that could ‘embarrass the relations’ of the institute with the central government.” Moreover, the desperate attempt of the government to control these institutions is evidenced by the news of the HRD Ministry issuing orders to technical institutions to keep a tab on their students’ social media accounts. The point here is not to focus on the legitimacy of this notice, instead, the possibility of its occurrence in the near future, with the most recent lateral surveillance and cyber volunteer programs. This incident marks the reduction of the intellectual agenda of the IITs to that of “suppliers” to the demands of the market economy to suit the goals of development, defined in technicist terms of industry, market and state. 

University Spaces As Challenging Hegemonic Structures

Universities either promoting a culture of politics or dismissing them is a consequence of the field of study and the cause that they stand for. Central universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, DU, AMU, HCU, Osmania and many more are often under attack for their anti-governmental stances. This attack is not confined to the students alone but is an intimidation process to label them as violent. However, their rigorous curriculum on arts, humanities along with sciences, allows for critical thinking and acts as a space for imagination enables students to engage with social and political subjects perhaps more than what one witnesses in technical institutions. It is these imaginations that lead to knowledge-production, that challenge hegemonic structures and present alternate narratives beyond the binaries produced by the status quo. Universities offering engagement with political science and related branches of study as a part of their curricula cannot survive without the collective aspirations of their students. Students function as enablers of resistance movements and engage with politics beyond socially constructed ideas of the term, furthering research possibilities within academia. 

“University works as a form of mediation between theory and practice,” claims sociologist Gaurav Pathania. Additionally, the space of the university acts as an equalizer. That is, it provides equal access to tools of resistance such as technology, digital media, and brings students from diverse backgrounds together within a common physical and social space for registering protests, which also fosters empathy amongst students. Apart from classrooms acting as a formal space for expressing opinions, it is the informal spaces within university campuses where “social education happens.” Hostels, dining halls, chai/dhaba spots, and libraries allow space for both interpersonal as well as ideological conversations. The expression of collective stances through art installations in these areas encourages others to contribute towards the cause at hand. 

Pathania claims them to be spaces where “private lives of people come together as public.” That is, where the personal becomes the political. These resistance movements, therefore, necessitate academic freedom in universities. Without the freedom to read and express ideas that do not adhere to the status quo, it is nearly impossible to extend these conversations to the realm of national politics. Understanding the intersectionalities of technology, society and politics, along with interdisciplinarity within academia is crucial to resisting the dominant socio-political structures in one’s daily life. The liberating space of a university complements major global movements, adding to their students’ ability to bring significant change through their political leadership. Instances of students becoming future leaders enhances the credibility of political academia, thus, erasing the notion of commonly associated “dirt.”  

Picture Credits: PTI

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 5

A Stymied Transition: How the Class of 2023 is adapting to ‘college life’ online

2020 has been rough for students everywhere. With the disruption of regular classes, being stuck either away from home or at home for months, and with some being directly affected by the coronavirus infection, the year has been challenging. College students had it harder than others because they also lost jobs and higher studies opportunities in addition to difficulties with assessment. While there has been some acknowledgement of the hardships faced by the class of 2020, very little has been said about the students who passed out from school this year and were college-bound right in the middle of the pandemic. They are now nearing the end of the first semester, but the journey till here has been full of stress.

The roller coaster of uncertainty started off when a nation-wide lockdown was imposed in the month of March–when high school students were taking their final Board examinations. The remaining exams were postponed. Board results got delayed until finally average scores were awarded to those who couldn’t take the exams. But this initial postponement led to further delays in admission processes that rely on the Board examination marks. For instance, many students aspiring to get into prestigious colleges like those under the Delhi University had to either gamble losing a semester and wait till November for admission lists, or let go of their plan and settle for a different college.

Most country-wide entrance examinations are conducted physically in person. Therefore, students who had to take tests like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test and Joint Entrance Examination (NEET-JEE), or the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), etc., were left hanging as the entrances were delayed for several months. It was not clear how, or whether at all, they would be conducted, given the pandemic rampaging across the country. Such circumstances affected students’ performance too.

Many students’ college plans that they had worked on for years were upturned and students were forced to settle for choices they had never even considered. Students had to consider completely new rubrics like the possibility of travel and online learning when choosing their college. And most unfortunately, several young people were not able to enrol in colleges at all. A major reason was because COVID-19 tanked an already plummeting economy, another was the economic loss due to floods in different parts of the country, thus increasing the financial burden on many sections of the population in India.

Since all learning was to be online for a while, parents might fail to see the merit in such an education. This has also been the reason for many students to not go to their college of choice, but just attend a less expensive program at a college that is in the city where they already live. Parents were afraid of the risk involved in travelling and living in a different city as the pandemic continues. Many students plan to get a transfer to a college with better opportunities in their second year, when the pandemic hopefully would have mitigated too.

After going through a rough time getting into college, perhaps the major part of uncertainty is over for the students. Most of the big decisions have been made and now they are focussed on their studies and other college activities. In fact, having gone through such a gruelling experience together, they already share something as a batch. College is a completely new chapter in one’s life, one that comes with the promise of freedom and excitement. For the class of 2023, all of ‘college-life’ has only been available online. They got Zoom instead of lecture halls full of chatter and group chats instead of college canteens bustling with groups of friends.

And yet, while the rest of us have been figuring out how to maintain relationships in a physically distant world, these students have been building new relationships from scratch, online.

Kavya, studying at a private college in Jabalpur, says that online classes are a bit dull, and she isn’t surprised that she often sleeps off during lectures and misses assignment deadlines. What she is finding unexpected, though, is how fun her online college life has turned out to be. Social media is the only space where they can hangout, and yet, it is not exactly a bad compromise. She and her friends sometimes skip classes together, have lengthy conversations on group chats and celebrate birthdays on video calls.

Being stuck at home may be an impediment to making new friends, but it might also be an important driver for the same. Young people who have probably not seen anyone other than their family members for months must feel a stronger urge to connect with others their own age.

Amaysi, a student at Sophia College, says that she has always been a people person and loves meeting new people. She was not expecting to have to make good connections this way. “I now know way more people than I might have been able to interact with physically.” says Amaysi. She has been busy helping organise her college’s annual intercollege fest, which is online this year. 

Online interactions are certainly very different from ones in real life. While that may be an annoying reality for most of us now, it is perhaps a better one for some. Individuals with social anxiety, who might experience stress being amongst people and hence behave unlike their usual selves, can find online interactions more easier. For such people, online college might actually be a space where they get to be themselves without much difficulty.

These students have not seen the actual buildings and cities that make their colleges come alive. For them college is just virtual interaction so far. The people behind the screen – their friends and professors – are the only familiar aspects of their college lives. And thus, finding these people behind the screen everyday is a blessing rather than an impediment, in a way. Of course, they hope to physically be together, and look forward to how much more real things will be for them. But for now, they are doing everything to make the best out of current circumstances. Online interactions with our loved ones, friends, family, colleagues, may not seem to be enough, but for the class of 2023, that is all they have to make do with, at least for now.

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

Picture Credit: “Gmail on Laptop in Dark” by Image Catalog is marked with CC0 1.0

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organization, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).