Prof. Shyam Menon: Acts of an insecure state

With over three decades of academic experience, Professor Shyam B. Menon, former Vice Chancellor of Ambedkar University, New Delhi, is well placed to reflect on the current standoff between the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the state, the repercussions of the state’s misplaced vendetta, and countervailing strategies for the road ahead. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

There have been several instances in various parts of the country where university autonomy has been significantly undermined by governmental intervention. It is a shame that we are so obsessed with [New] Delhi and the metropolises that we are indifferent to, and oblivious of, what is happening elsewhere.

The university, by definition, is a largely self-governing community of scholars and professionals. However, we have always seen a tendency on the part of the state to exert control over public universities. This is a colonial legacy. This tendency has become exacerbated in recent years. The appointment of Vice Chancellors has become a political act. Executive councils, syndicates and boards of management, even academic councils, are packed with political appointees and bureaucrats. The creation of statutes and ordinances, even those pertaining to academic matters, are often subject to approval of the Visitor or Chancellor or the government, as per the provisions in the various university Acts.

There are controls that come with procedures involved in public finance. The release of every grant comes with a set of conditionalities. There are regulations promulgated by the UGC [University Grants Commission] and other accrediting agencies even on academic matters which, to begin with, had been guidelines. Such guidelines are increasingly becoming fiats, non-compliance of which will attract punitive action. These are policing measures and they stem from control freakery on the part of the political and the bureaucratic state and often take the form of insistence on standardisation and uniformity, which undercut university autonomy and reduce all public universities to mindless bureaucracies.

These mechanisms of control are used selectively and often as a way of putting an institution or academic community in its place. Whenever a particular university has to be targeted, there are enough legal provisions which can be invoked for exercising control. In such times, statutory offices like that of Vice Chancellor act as agents of the state.

The control freakery on the part of the state is almost like paranoia. I find it difficult to understand why governments feel so insecure about universities. A confident state would find the university a safety valve for the release of excess pressure mounting in the larger society. The university has the capacity to contain within its fold voices of dissent. In doing so, it acts as a creative lab for testing new and exciting ideas. It is always an insecure state that resorts to repression and ham-handed attempts at silencing free expression. If the free flow of new ideas is blocked in institutional spaces, they are bound to find expression in unexpected ways in the wider society. But it is the symbolic appeal of university as a potential source of dissent and divergence that is too seductive for state actors to resist attempting to control.

There is a deliberate attempt in the electronic and social media to discredit students in public universities as a pampered and irresponsible lot parasitising taxpayers. Nothing can be further from the truth. Public higher education is no longer the preserve of the rich and the privileged. A large segment of students in public universities are first-generation seekers of higher education from families with modest means. I know from personal experience as a university administrator under what extraordinarily difficult circumstances a large proportion of our students live. That they achieve creditable levels of scholarship in spite of these difficulties needs to be celebrated.

This argument that public higher education should not be subsidised is being made largely by those from privileged backgrounds who have, for generations, been the beneficiaries of subsidised higher education. That the hue and cry for stopping subsidies for higher education is becoming louder just when higher education is being opened up and made accessible to the poor and the marginalised cannot be a coincidence. It is clear that those who are putting forth this argument are the ones who do not want a major shift in the present status quo of extreme inequality. Students pursuing liberal studies bear the brunt of this prejudice. This is part of the larger anti-intellectual ethos prevalent in our society.

The public school system has expanded exponentially in the past few decades, making it possible for a whole generation of young people from among the poor and the marginalised to graduate from school and reach the doorsteps of higher education. These young people are only too aware that the gates of privilege in our society are guarded by private property, higher education and employment in the organised sectors. Since they are from backgrounds that do not carry social capital, the only possibility for them to pursue their legitimate aspiration to move beyond their vulnerable socially marginalised locations is to pursue higher education of acceptable quality. If they have no access to quality public higher education that is subsidised substantially, they have no chance to pursue their aspirations.

Any move to withdraw state subsidy for public higher education cheats the poor and the marginalised out of their only chance for possible social mobility. There is no doubt that the first victims of such retrogressive moves will be the most vulnerable, viz. Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women.

Encouraging private entities to establish institutions of higher education while starving public institutions for funds seems to have been the trend right through the post-liberalisation era. The recommendations of the Ambani-Birla report submitted to the NDA-1 [National Democratic Alliance] government, although still an unofficial document, seems nonetheless the direction that all subsequent governments have adopted for higher education, notwithstanding a couple of major initiatives by the UPA-1 [United Progressive Alliance], like the enactment of quota for OBC [Other Backward Classes] and the establishment of a new set of Central universities. Many public universities, particularly State universities, have been forced to commercialise by starting self-financing courses. Programmes in certain branches of the humanities and social sciences are being rendered unviable and face the threat of closing down.

The major struggle for those of us who understand the significance of public universities in a highly unequal society such as ours is to campaign aggressively for a drastic increase in public funding. No democratic country would let public universities fend for themselves without a substantial state subsidy. Student fees can never be expected to compensate for deficit public funding. Increased public funding is the only way to keep access, inclusiveness, equity and quality intact. There is also a need to campaign for disabusing the public from the illusion that a democratic polity can do without public subsidy for education at all levels.

Campus movements may be addressing specific campus-related issues. But, actually, they are voices against the established order when it goes awry. Given that democratic processes are being blatantly subverted, while institutions that are meant to protect these are under siege, and much of the media have been bought over and silenced, it appears that we are in for a fairly long period of protest and resistance. When the opposition fails to protest either inside legislative spaces or outside, the action then shifts naturally to the spheres of culture and micropolitical and social movements, including campus movements.

Discontent in society also finds expression in campus movements. Since students are disengaged from the established order and are not (yet) in its power relationships, they have relatively little to lose in mounting and sustaining resistance against the establishment. More than other constituents of a university community, students are likely to take up the cudgels on these issues and sustain the momentum of resistance and protest. In fact, we are witnessing signs of this already in various parts of the country. There are only limited institutional spaces left with the vibrancy and dynamism needed to exert a corrective influence on the larger society. The university is one such. It is important to protect the integrity of these spaces. My sense is that it is the student community that is likely to be the major protagonist in this struggle.

One thing that is worrying me, though, is the factions and fissures within the student community. Perhaps the time has come for students to understand the big picture of our sociopolitical circumstances and the historic role that they are poised to play in influencing and shaping it, because theirs is the highest stake in the future of our democracy.

No democratic state can sustain beyond a point its war with its own institutions of learning. It will be like the body being at war with its brain and its soul. The state will lose its legitimacy if it alienates intellectuals and creative people. There may be attempts, for myopic reasons, to suppress and control institutions of learning and their capacity for independent thinking and creativity. But beyond brief periods of possible despondency and lull, the intellectual and creative spirit of a country like ours cannot be thwarted. It will rise again like a phoenix.

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