Dividing Lines: The death of the university

The university must challenge the concepts of officialdom.

The university is one of the strangest, grandest institutions. It is a theatre of knowledge, a site for debates, a custodian of democracy and the epitome of pluralism. The university is also a bureaucracy. As an institution, it has possibilities. As an organisation, it has functional goals. It is in balancing between the function and possibilities within the wider ecology of the politics of democracy that the university has become one of the most critical and problematic entities today.

From May 1968 in France to the JP movement in 1977, the university has been the litmus of crisis and democracy. The recent JNU events are no different.
Over the last three months there’s been a resurgence of a new kind of politics in the university — the new generation pursues a politics that’s different from the ideological rhetoric of two decades earlier. There was wider pluralism of politics and, sadly, deeper polarisation. Not surprisingly, loyalty to the university often dominated commitment to the nation. Students both from the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party displayed loyalty and commitment to the university, placing it at a higher level than the demands of party politics.
The commitment professors showed in their acts of solidarity with the students was also impressive. Their lectures as a celebration of the university as a community did not go unnoticed. In fact, for many people, Kanhaiya Kumar was not so much an individual phenomenon but a symptom of this wider resurgence, an emblem of the playfulness of protest. Given the continuing protests at JNU and Hyderabad, one felt hopeful about the university as an institution.
The recent report of the JNU administration fining Kanhaiya Rs 10,000 and suspending Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid is a dampener. It is obvious that it is a bureaucrat’s report seeing the university as a problem of law and order. In fact, the university has been read as a subsystem threatening the wider polity with a huge concern being expressed about “anti-national slogans”.

The problem is not one of evidence. The problem is with a reductive mechanism where political struggle and academic theatre are seen as triggers of disorder. The report is punitive, a gathering of a confederation of clerks rather than being a document trying to articulate the visions and tensions of the university. Firstly, the document does not seem to realise that while violence may not be part of the university, disorder is an essential part of it. The uses of disorder, to use Richard Sennett’s felicitous term, is fundamental to the university. The idea of disorder is intrinsic to knowledge and to democracy. What bureaucracies and security systems treat as noise, the university welcomes as music, especially the music of ideas.

In fact, one should consolidate this point in ahistorical sense. The biologist and sociologist Patrick Geddes remarked in his town-planning report on Indore, that the history of the universities is not complete without the stories of dissent. The Greek university became the renaissance university by absorbing the fugitive ideas of the Pythagoreans and the renaissance university became the modern German university by absorbing the world of the encyclopedists and their frozen texts. Napoleon added to the university a democratic process borrowed from the Chinese — the examination system.

Without dissent, the innovation of the modern university system would have never been complete. Yet, the report from the JNU administration treats dissent, the protests over the nation-state as a law and order problem. The question is: Does the university have to be an extension counter of the nation-state? The nation-state often commands uniformity, while the university triggers plurality, thus making the politics of knowledge a creative and difficult balance between the two. By treating the protests as anti-national, JNU seems to consider itself a continuation of the civil service. It is as if the students are being subject to government rules.

Discipline and dissent have strange a relationship that needs to be worked out for every institution. For the university, discipline cannot be a policing function, a creation of the panopticons of surveillance. By prioritising security reports over witness records, the university is overdoing its policing function. To police thought will be the ultimate death of a university, which is an institution committed to the unpolicing of thought. The JNU report has overplayed the bureaucratic over the institutional functions of the university. In defining the recent protests as a law and order situation, the university administration has undermined its own critical role.

In discussing this, one cannot avoid the critical tension between the university in its cosmopolitanism of ideas and the nation-state with its innate uniformity of culture. Dissenting ideas often sound treasonous to the nation-state. It demands loyalty not just to the flag but to its official panoply of concepts. It is here that the university must and should challenge the concepts of officialdom. The university might have to tell the government and the nation-state that loyalty to the integrity of the concept of patriotism, nationalism, democracy, etc. might involve being treasonous to the current ideas of officialdom. Thought in that sense is treasonous and secession and treason in the domain of ideas the function of the university.

Given this, there is a danger of taking the report as a fait accompli. One has to challenge the report by challenging the axiomatic of its assumptions. There is need for a form of civil disobedience where a refusal to pay fines, like the refusal to pay tax, points not to the errant scholar but to the erratic university.

The JNU report cannot be read as a parochial event. Its implications for the future of other universities is important. Kanhaiya, Khalid and Bhattacharya are human rights figures in a broader sense. As academics, as future scholars, we must stand for the integrity of the university as a guarantee of the integrity of scholarship. This is the challenge before India as a democracy and a knowledge society.

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