Decimation of education

J Devika | Updated on December 12, 2019

Class struggle: Students and activists demonstrate outside Mumbai University against the fee hike in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and the suicide of IIT-Madras student Fathima Lateef   -  PTI

Why the erosion of public universities — vital learning spaces that are not only accessible to the marginalised but also empower them to question the status quo — must worry us all

The unfortunate suicide of young Fathima Latheef at IIT Madras created such an uproar in Kerala that many felt it was Kerala’s Rohith Vemula moment, with its echoes of sectarianism-driven discrimination in education. Over the last few decades, young Keralite women have been migrating to Indian academic metropolises as opportunities have opened up. The admission system of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that awarded deprivation points, for example, allowed a substantial number of young women from Kerala’s Malappuram district to migrate for a critical and rigorous education. The positive impact of this has been evident to all of us who have been watching closely the discourse of democracy and community in Kerala — the contribution of young Muslim women empowered by a critical education and exposure has been remarkable.

The removal of the progressive admissions policy at JNU, as well as the terrible violence wreaked upon it in the past few years, took its toll. Not only did access become more difficult, JNU was also now perceived to be unsafe for Muslim students, especially women. Latheef’s death in an IIT raises another question: Are our campuses increasingly becoming sites of normalised, virulent, and rapidly spreading hatred of Muslims? Latheef held responsible for her death a professor who had allegedly discriminated against her for being Muslim. While institutional response was unforgivably slow, and even her friends were not quick enough in their responses, there were many voices decrying the perceived rampant Brahmin dominance and casteism there.

For Muslims in India today, it is a situation where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Some of the more naive followers of Hindutva believe that if only the Muslim embraced without question the idea of brahminical Indian culture and society and neoliberal capitalism, they would not be othered or undergo suffering. Hence their dismay, for example, over the bigoted protests of students at Banaras Hindu University against a Muslim professor of Sanskrit.

So one can well imagine the terror that engulfed Latheef. Growing up in a progressive family that encouraged her studies and career choices, and believing firmly that hard work and dedication would lead her towards full citizenship, she must have struggled to cope with the normalised hatred of Islam that is now almost omnipresent, like a menacing cloud of poison gas, in private and public spaces. She could also have encountered the subtle yet very real boundary-marking that teachers and students from academic metropolises do, often inadvertently — something which students from small towns find hard to bear, at least in the beginning. What exactly happened in the case must be sought out through a fair and thorough inquiry, and the guilty must be punished; however, it may be even more vital for us to seek answers to the more general questions that arise from this untimely loss.

As I try to look at her ordeal and death in the light of the changes that have swept Malayali society over the past three decades, I cannot help saying that we failed her too. In this period the widespread neoliberalisation of education fed into the general assault on citizenship by popularising the idea that the key to a successful life lay solely in acquiring skills and focusing on one’s achievements in formal education. Even reading became essentially an extracurricular activity, the benefits of which were to be reaped within formal education in the long term. This happened even when parents did not exert pressure; often peer pressure and what teachers believe is encouragement are enough to lead bright young people down this path. This trend intensified in Kerala as it became increasingly a migration-dependent society.

In other words, school education, especially among Kerala’s burgeoning middle classes, irrespective of their social moorings, produces anxious subjects, even when families are loving and supportive. Their anxieties are accentuated even more when the young person has to deal with a hostile public. The anxious subject tends to divide everything into that which may help or hinder their progress. Religious, cultural or social identities will be assessed mainly in such terms; even critical thinking is taken as an instrument for educational upward mobility. Not surprisingly, the brighter and more ambitious middle-class students who are female/Muslim/Dalit/queer are more likely to become anxious subjects, given that the exclusion of these identities is increasingly normal in India.

The cure for the anxious subject often lay in our public universities. In those spaces one learned to politicise such identities and discovered citizenship, pride and self-respect; one also learned that marks and the approbation of teachers do not exhaust the potential gains from education; one also realised that teachers can be challenged outside the classroom and that they are not infallible.

But it is precisely the cure that is being decimated right before our eyes — in JNU, Vemula’s alma mater Hyderabad Central University, and wherever students are allowed to heal themselves and become citizens. Our young people are crippled or killed, caught between the wheels of neoliberalised education and majoritarian fascist nationalism, and they are denied a cure. ‘Mother’ India, ‘Fatherland’ — indeed!


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on December 12, 2019

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