“United We Stand”: Forging Solidarities

(This is the concluding instalment of a two-part article. The first part was published here on August 12, 2020.)

Part 2: Students, Staff, and Faculty, None Spared

Our academic freedom — and with it, the very idea of Ashoka — is in peril, unless we remake our university into a more democratic, inclusive, and human institution.

By Deep Vakil

The state-sponsored privatisation of higher education in India is a phenomenon that predates the new NEP. As the public university system is systemically compromised through underfunding and clampdown on intellectuals, private universities – even with all their flaws – appear to be the last standing bastion of freedom. To think so would be to ignore the sharply contrasting reality of oversized and corporatised administrations that are far more concerned with building and managing a public profile. Institutional governance in higher education is increasingly devoid of the voices of students, staff, and faculty. 

According to Todd Wolfson, professor and union organizer at Rutgers University, “administrators tend to ride out crises on the backs of those most vulnerable.” [1]

This account is borne out by Ashoka’s actions during, and even before, the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of a substantive commitment to the community’s welfare, Ashoka’s response ranged from passively ignorant to actively harmful. The contract workers laid-off by Ashoka became low-hanging fruit for an unsympathetic administration. (Part 1 talks about this in greater detail.) Yet another section of our community that is employed contractually fell prey to their indifference: Teaching Fellows and ICT instructors.

The Edict recently reported on their abysmal conditions. This included exceeding work hours, unequal pay for equal work across disciplines, and arbitrary non-renewal of contracts, which leave them feeling “disposable” and in a “precarious” position. A former ICT instructor said that they have “no esteem, no surety of employment, no way of addressing all of this when something like this happens in the middle of a pandemic… we are very vulnerable within the university community.” [2] They did not receive any support from the Faculty Council that is elected by faculty, and attempts to unionise were preemptively (perhaps even illegally) stultified. An audience with the VC led nowhere, except for unfulfilled assurances to do something.

Data collected by the American Association of University Professors shows that contingent hiring (i.e. without tenure; e.g. part-time professors, teaching fellows) has gone up by 15% over the last four decades. According to that report, the lack of “a responsible and reasonable commitment” between the university and teaching staff negatively affects quality of student learning, leads to inequity among academic colleagues, and compromises academic freedom. Requests for hiring data of contingent teaching staff at Ashoka were not answered by the administration. 

This attack on academic freedom by neoliberal forces cannot be read in isolation of the Hindutva forces. Suhasini Ali, president of All India Democratic Women’s Association, told India Today that the NEP delivers on the long-standing agenda of “saffronisation of Indian education system”, evidenced by various RSS affiliates claiming that between 60%[3] and 80%[4] of their suggestions have been incorporated. The erstwhile Ministry of HRD, as it was termed by Rajiv Gandhi based on the USSR setup, was renamed as the Ministry of Education, though the suggestion to further merge it with the Ministry of Culture was rejected. 

The underlying principle of this merger — to infuse nationalist values into education and pilot education for character-building of students — is reflected in the NEP. For example, the primacy given to “mother tongue” as the medium of instruction till the 5th grade, or the focus on revival and popularisation of languages like Sanskrit and Pali. [5] Other inputs by RSS in the NEP include the emphasis on “Bharat-centric” research through the National Research Foundation, the creation of a PM-led Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog as the apex governing body of education in India, and setting in motion a committee to revise content in textbooks. 

The ABVP lauded the NEP as a roadmap to “put India in Indian education.” Perhaps, what they are also celebrating is how it puts liberal out of liberal education. Quite literally, a chapter titled “Towards a more liberal education” was renamed as “Towards holistic and multidisciplinary education.” [3] Writing in the Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta finds it “difficult to read [the NEP’s emphasis on critical thinking and free inquiry] in a context, where as we speak, universities are being intimidated into political and cultural conformity.”

It would help to ground this context closer to home, and remember an incident from little less than four years ago, when Ashoka can be said to have “deferred to the sensibilities of the State or a majoritarian common sense.” [6] I am referring, of course, to the infamous petition led by six YIFs demanding cessation of hostilities and a plebiscite in Kashmir, that coincided with the resignation of two administrators and mathematics professor Rajendran Narayanan. It reminds me of the words of late anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, in an interview after being terminated from Yale for him political leanings:

“If you want to make an issue of labor conditions in Soweto, great, you’re a wonderful humanitarian; if you want to make an issue of labor conditions for the janitors who clean your office, that’s an entirely different story.”

In fact, privately financed universities are not protected against the onslaught of an authoritarian state. The businessmen who start and fund them nearly always choose to acquiesce to, rather than to defy, to such pressure. Private universities find themselves more prone to attacks on free speech, because neither do they have a “critical mass of students and teachers” that can be mobilised in such cases, nor do they have the collective consciousness that is often cultivated in public universities due to “bread-and-butter issues like pay scales and working conditions.” [6]

This explains why faculty at Ashoka is reluctant to make public demonstrations of solidarity. History suggests that powerful and democratic elected teachers’ associations are capable of resisting encroachment on academic freedom. Which is exactly what happened during the Kashmir petition, according to emails by Ashoka’s then Faculty Council accessed by Indian Express. These emails state that the two administrators who signed the petition were “asked to resign by the founders,” as was professor Narayanan, in “response to the pressures being placed on the founders by various powers.”

Ultimately, the emails spelt out a very unwelcoming future: “[T]his would very much be seen as a case of faculty dismissal consequent on exercise of free speech. … there will be much internal mistrust and discord that will place unsustainable strain on faculty-leadership relations. … Perhaps we may even be opening the door to further bullying and coercion at the hands of parties who are demanding the dismissal. In trying to save Ashoka we would have lost it.

What all this clearly reveals is that “the very lifeblood of corporatism [is] creating systems and procedures that sacrifice the needs of humans to the needs of institutions.” [7] Be it in Ashoka’s worrisome deference to authoritarian impulses against intellectual freedom, their callous negligence towards third-party contract workers, their irresponsible approach towards our ancillary teaching staff, or their handling of sexual harassment that is designed to shield the institution from legal liability, over protecting survivors and providing them with justice. Our examination has shown how this occurs at the confluence of the twin forces of the capitalist logic that governs our administration and the Hindutva ideology that pervades our political environment. The events on social media in the past few days have only vindicated the claim that this threat looms as large as ever.

Indeed, as was prophesied in 2017, Ashoka is on the verge of being lost. For my fellow student politicians, the first step is realising that the administration, no matter how lenient to your appeals, is not your friend. “The best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them.” [7] This insight is hard to miss when one places an old quote about our contract workers, given to The Edict by an administration member, in context of their recent actions: “They are more than just a team of workers sent by some vendors — they are people, that matter.” Anyone who takes this statement to mean anything more than placatory lip service is, at best, naively delusional, and at worst, criminally negligent.

The corporate university will never really serve our needs, unless it is remade into a more human institution. Examples are galore, and we should be inspired by what is happening at Rutgers University, or more closer to the subcontinent, at Ambedkar University and NLU Delhi. The insidious forces of capitalism have only ever been restrained by unionist tactics of collectivising, organising, and mobilising. The tyranny of authority is only resisted by deep commitment to democratic norms and values. Translated into praxis, this means we must fight to tilt the balance of power and build governing structures that give a voice to all who have a stake in the future of Ashoka. The task ahead is that of forging new, strong, and lasting solidarities between students, staff, and faculty. Divided, we stand no chance, but united…

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Note: You can help the workers who have lost their jobs during this time of global crisis by donating to this fundraiser for the workers by the SG. The goal is to raise ₹10 Lakhs.

Bibliography:

  1. Beyond the Neoliberal University
  2. Ashoka University’s Irresponsible Approach To Ancillary Teaching Staff
  3. RSS affiliates welcome the NEP, say over 60% of their suggestions met
  4. National Education Policy: RSS wanted more, government walked the tightrope
  5. The RSS impact on New Education Policy
  6. A private university can be defenceless against a bullying State
  7. Why We Should Fear University, Inc.

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Deep Vakil (ASP21) was the President of the 5th HoR, and the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs in the 4th HoR. His OpEd column talks about public affairs at Ashoka, with particular focus on student politics. Views are personal.

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