Morality and obedience in Indian universities
The chancellor asked 10 girls from the protest to meet with him, but they refused. They said that it is an age-old practice in BHU to suspend around 10 students during any such uprising to curb the protest Photograph: (Twitter)
Benaras Hindu University (BHU) has been in the news for some weeks now largely on account of student agitation. Reacting to a regime of discrimination and blatant authoritarianism, students took the offensive when a case of sexual molestation was passed off as eve-teasing and the authorities came up with absurd counter arguments that revealed their deep prejudices about caste and gender.
The police roughed up students and staged a lathi charge while the authorities did not even attempt to address the situation with either common sense or basic empathy. What was unusual though was the simmering anger among students that manifested in a sustained agitation taking to the streets for public action.
This one act undid the stagnation that has characterised BHU for decades, rendering the angry students into political subjects. This is undeniably an important moment and requires some analysis.
Does it, in fact, embody a growing reaction to the way BHU has historically crafted its identity since its inception, as a centre of Hindu learning amidst its embrace of modernity, science and technology, and which involved as scholar Leah Reynolds says, a redefinition in terms of clothing, architecture, time and lifestyle? Or, is this something more immediate, simply episodic in its nature?
There are no easy answers and one can only attempt a cautious explanation of the problem by placing it within the larger context of the crisis in higher education, one that cannot be placed at the doorstep of any one party. Needless to say with the present dispensation that chooses to define its nationalist commitment by invoking Hindutva, the problem assumes greater gravity especially as dissent is quite ruthlessly silenced.
From the very time of the establishment of the university, the issues of safety of women students were confused with those of chastity and generated typical authoritarian responses. However, the current situation is even worse and stands out as a cynical expression of extreme politicisation of institutions.
The issues of safety of women students were confused with those of chastity and generated typical authoritarian responses.
At every step, the University authorities seem to have mismanaged its affairs, flouted conventions in making appointments, subverted existing bodies entrusted with gender sensitisation issues and crushed any possibility of responsible student politics.
Critical thinking has been positively discouraged in the name of docility and obedience, the University failing to recognise that rigorous scholarship is predicated on the ability to question existing frameworks. This appears even more anachronistic as governments and government-supported institutions remain formally committed to progressive social action that includes protective discrimination and affirmative action for caste and gender.
Why is this so? Is this unique to Benaras Hindu University? The answer is a partial yes and no. Higher education in India, especially over the last three decades has faced a crisis following politicisation by the government (apparent in rampant unfairness in appointments), bad management of funds that either arrive too late or are too spare to sustain any activity and growing disinterest within the academic community to redesign and overhaul either curriculum or pedagogy.
The results have been disastrous even as numbers of student enrollment have grown and alongside with it, the aspirations of large numbers of students for whom access to higher education is a real game changer.
It is therefore especially heartening and poignant to notice that girl students have taken the initiative to agitate, protest and take to the streets.
In Benaras, the situation is even more dismal as the university sees to have become an extension of the rabid Hindu ideological apparatus that covers up the failure of the administration to provide a decent education and a conducive academic environment by invoking the most regressive ideas about morality and obedience.
It is, therefore, especially heartening and poignant to notice that girl students have taken the initiative to agitate, protest and take to the streets for in this assertion lies the possibility of producing a real shift in the way public institutions like the University need to function.
Universities, howsoever, they may wish to enunciate their mission, are not patriarchal families with the Acharyya wielding the rod to punish errant children. It is and will remain a space where learning is pursued with passion and the freedom to think is fostered and nourished, where teacher and student ideally participate in a mutually shared space.
It is hoped that the recent events produce a slow chipping away of the stagnant values that have overtaken the institution, making it a mockery of even the ambivalent ideals that Malaviya started with.