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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.

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