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When students turn into trade unionists

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Prakash Kona
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Student politics is lacking in commitment and a willingness to do the deeper work.
Student politics is lacking in commitment and a willingness to do the deeper work.
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I never heard of the 94-year old Rishang Keishing, the oldest Member of the Indian Parliament, until I read the news item on him, in the way he gracefully left the floor of the House on the day of his retirement, without being bothered to be noticed by anybody. Among other things, Keishing said: "I'm sad that Parliament now is not what it used to be. It's only shouting and shouting. Members of the Parliament now are like trade union leaders, they come here only to demand this and demand that."

The members of the Indian Parliament are elected by Indians: and not so surprisingly this is what the people in this country do too: shout and shout and make "demands" like trade union leaders. Unfortunately, this is the case with the so-called educated classes who come to the universities as well. My parents made me realistic by not giving me everything I wanted. I don't know about the parents now. I have a strange feeling that overprotected kids or kids who simply are treated as "products" of a consumerist generation of parents are used to the idea of getting whatever they want and the slightly liberal atmosphere of the universities gives them the illusion that they are entitled to behave the way they do like children at home.

While offering her support to students from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) who protested against the appointment of Mr. Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of the new Governing Council of FTII, Arundhati Roy says: "I am saying that these kids are the last people standing. They are standing up because we are really suffering an assault on the collective IQ of this nation." First, they are not "kids" even by way of metaphor. And what they were doing is anything but what kids do. As far as the "collective IQ of this nation" is concerned, I've no clue what that is all about.

One of the favorite positions taken by the students, which is not simply about Mr. Chauhan's right-wing credentials, is that he is a B-grade actor who also "acted" in porn films. I see no reason on earth why a porn star or a B-grade actor should not be chairperson of a Governing Council. It's an elitist position to take and hardly a democratic one. What have one's acting abilities to do with one's abilities as administrator and how can you link the two without good reason! If philosophers were kings as Plato imagined or if artists were at the helm of affairs we would not be living in the world we do, would we!

The bigger issue is the kind of support given to students by other well-known film personalities and writers who seem to believe that the students are morally on the right. I am fine with that as long as I think that they have done their homework in making an honest evaluation of the whole situation, something that I doubt.

Middle and upper class "kids" (in the Arundhati Roy sense of the term) are used to an Oedipal, thumb-sucking culture which continues as long as possible into their university life and beyond. I was one of those "kids" too but I was clever enough to figure out, thanks to advice from teachers and well-meaning people, that at the end of the day I could do more for myself with a degree and a position than without any. That's exactly what I did: took an education, took a degree and spent quality time with young people while learning from them instead of merely teaching them.

I don't think that universities should be producing "labor" for the corporations. But I do want students to be job-worthy which is why they come to the University. They need to be independent and be able to take care of their needs. My agenda is simple as I tell students: if I have a job that takes care of my needs and gives me a fair amount of autonomy and the time for an optimal creative life, I would want the same for you. While debating moral and political questions, I work to make the students aspire for scholarships and present papers at conferences and write articles that give them credibility.

If I must tell the students that they should go on protests and have police cases booked against them, it is "I" as teacher who should be on the streets for a cause I subscribe to. I have nothing but contempt for teachers and anybody else for that matter who themselves are unaffected by what happens, but want students to be going on protests and destroying their careers. That's the hypocrisy I decry. As someone who thinks universities are intellectual spaces where debate is possible without the component of slander and abuse, I would talk things out with students rather than ask them to protest at the drop of a hat.

Amidst all of this I only wonder why is it that the poor and the working classes are indifferent to student protests. This is not hard to answer. The working classes see education as means to liberation from drudgery. Their children never get to go to universities though they pay with their lives for the creation and maintenance of these spaces. I am deeply conscious of the fact that the poor of my country have paid for my education and I owe it to them to at least to make a platform from where they could speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, the students speak in the language of trade unionists, while not being working classes. Rather, I find their trade unionism self-centered and directed at gaining personal benefits. Everyone who speaks like a victim is not necessarily a victim. At the expense of the feelings of real victims who interestingly make very few demands, the students have created a culture of talking like "victims" and "workers" and making confrontational demands that leave no space for real dialogue. Universities are not spaces where students should begin their political lives or inaugurate their careers in politics except by intellectually challenging the basis of an unequal society.

Consumerism has created the image of the fun-loving, easy going, "cool" student who also happens to be scientifically gifted, an image popularized through Bollywood cinema such as 3 Idiots (2009). Someone should be reading the biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleick to know what it takes for one to be a genius. Perhaps Newton is the exception and not the rule. My point remains that labor and obsessive dedication are at the heart of even the most minor of human accomplishments.

Universities are supposed to encourage and create the space for those kinds of accomplishments wherever possible and not about where the young indulge in childish fantasies and mock education as being "bookish" and "monotonous." The idea of an inventor who does not need to "read," which in my view makes him or her profoundly anti-intellectual, is a myth popularized by Hollywood movies and you can see why as a nation the science and engineering departments in American universities have to depend on immigrants to run the system.

The bourgeoisfication of workers since the 1970s onwards has made working class movements aspirants for all the goods we see in middle and upper class homes. The idea of long-term social change with justice for all in view has more or less been made redundant thanks to the propaganda machinery of governments who took the assistance of the corporations. The thanks also goes to the trade unions and their unimaginative leaders who took away the idealism on which movements are built and bargained for anything they could lay their hands on for the time being.

Thinking, reading and writing are indeed hard work, though they give enormous pleasure provided you are willing to invest that kind of time and labor. I reject self-indulgent politics because that's not what change is all about. It is just cynicism of a different kind. Truthfulness and commitment to change are alien words in politics. For an intellectual they are sacred words. While I see more and more a trade unionist kind of Machiavellian behavior defining student politics, I wish that more of them would invest the same energy in thinking clearly and articulate for greater accommodation and inclusion of the weak and vulnerable sections into mainstream society.

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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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