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Universities are Superstructures, not the Substructure of Society

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Message Prakash Kona

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What we have been witnessing at the University of Hyderabad, India in the form of protests following the tragic suicide of a Dalit student is a systematic attempt to demolish the character of institutions run by governments, whether at the center or the state level. Though ironically it is minorities and the weaker sections who need these institutions the most, the attempt to use a politics of intimidation to put an entire administration on the defensive is sickening and has a price tag attached to it.

Not only do the protests weaken the resolve of governments to take these institutions seriously, but they provide justification in the public imagination for private universities where we hardly see the kind of mayhem and anarchy unleashed by student pressure groups on the University of Hyderabad campus. In fact, just as Public Sector Undertakings (PSU's) were discredited following liberalization, the universities run by the government are bound to suffer the same fate. In the larger scheme of things, the welfare state will be replaced by the corporate state.

The student's suicide was a personal tragedy, according to the suicide note left behind, though there is a political angle and context to it. If, however, the suicide was meant to highlight the social condition of Dalit students in Universities, it doesn't look like the Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA) ever went beyond accusations of casteism randomly attributed to non- Dalits or those who did not endorse their point of view.

The phrase "you're either with us, or against us", popularized by George W. Bush, summarizes how the ASA looks at anyone critical of their excesses. I am not trying to absolve either the University or the government of moral responsibility in terms of what they could possibly have done to prevent the suicide. I am merely saying that there is no middle way with the ASA, and in that sense they share something in common with ultra-left or ultra-right groups that take an extreme stand, usually an illogical one.

Specific details apart, universities are superstructures, perhaps reflective of injustices happening in the world outside campus walls. If caste-based or any injustice must end, these things have to be worked out through mobilization of public opinion outside campuses. The so-called student activists either have no clue with regard to the implications of their actions, or it is sheer opportunism wedded to anti-intellectualism, when they destroy the possibility of dialogue except on their own terms. Intellectualism in the right sense of the term provides the tools to fight social injustice. I doubt if intellectualism is remotely a priority with the student activists. Facebook, twitter and WhatsApp take up more of the time of the youth, rather than reading books or being creative with ideas, leaving no scope for intellectualism of any kind.

The unhealthy concoction of politicians and pseudo-intellectuals on the University of Hyderabad campus and outside writers in support of these students, have made a rational and serious debate on issues surrounding the student's suicide virtually impossible. The activist students operating within the comfort zone of universities, a democratic space which they claim is not "democratic" enough, have demonstrated that they are not merely a pressure group but a lobby, and not averse to using any means, ethical or otherwise to achieve their ends. Revolutions begin at home and move towards the streets. Universities are controlled environments meant to produce specific results in the form of intellectual labor to meet the requirements of the real world. This attempt by certain student groups to claim "ownership" of university spaces makes them no different from other private stakeholders fighting for their share of property.

The student groups are reactionary and enemies of the downtrodden because they use the rhetoric of fighting injustice without in any manner contributing to alleviation of injustice. I have one question to leaders of these groups: How many people from the downtrodden sections have they met before embarking on the protests? How many homes of the poor and the weak have they visited to seek permission before implementing their plan of action? If it is the economic exploitation of the poor at the sub-structural level that pays for the creation and upkeep of superstructures such as the university, would it not be fair to ask the poor if they think these protests are legitimate or not?

Administration and the running of institutions is a highly specialized activity. This is something Socrates is never tired of arguing in the Dialogues of Plato. To treat an administration with contempt, to misuse the space on campuses where you enjoy freedoms that people outside the campuses do not, to interrupt the normal functioning of the university, as if that is why people come to these places and not to study and acquire a degree -- if that is the case, I don't think that universities should have any structure at all in the form of administration, faculty or the making of standards. They should simply surrender to the whims and fancies of groups that garner support through whatever means at their disposal.

My middle class parents could send me to state-run universities both for my undergraduate and graduate degrees because they were extremely affordable and with the subsidized education I could go abroad for a doctoral degree. I remember how amazed people I knew abroad would be when I told them how little I paid to get a BA and a MA degree. There is no doubt that the marginalized should be accommodated within the university system. But to attack the university's integrity through mobs and use fear tactics of ruining the reputations of teachers and administrators through social and other media simply means that no sensible, self-respecting person takes these positions and the poor and the middle classes ultimately stand to lose.

Given that we are a liberal democracy, reformist alternatives can safely be explored within a university. Radical changes need a different kind of platform that involves the masses cutting across the caste divide. Terming the "youth/student" movements as "by their nature impermanent and discontinuous," the historian Eric Hobsbawm notes that in the universities of the third world, the "typical ultra-leftism is to some extent a way of coming to terms with a new and disorienting form of life" and "rarely outlasts graduation." Therefore, one can be certain that very little in terms of change at the level of the substructure will come out of this "compulsory revolutionary service" (Eric Hobsbawm) of student activists across the subcontinent unless the activism is a prelude to a career in politics and the university is a means to that end.

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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