Change And Challenge

Hope versus Fear

Sunalini Kumar

Yes it's a simplistic dichotomy, but there is really no better way to describe the current Delhi elections. On the one hand, a little ragtag army of Davids behind "Mufflerman", as his faithful supporters affectionately call him, a person in baggy sweater and sneakers.
On the other hand, a massively funded, aggressively confident political formation, openly backed by the corporate bodies and full-page ads, riding a national "Wave" higher than most Tsunamis, topped by the 56-inch chest of "Modiman", even if recently modestly covered by a 12-lakh rupee vest.

On the one hand, a fearful and awed media establishment donating PR for free to the seemingly invincible King of Gujarat, and on the other, an aam aadmi, a volunteer-cadre run campaign and a palpable vibe of trust and openness on the ground.

Hope is what has sustained the Aam Admi Party (AAP) campaign until now, one which has begun to look more and more concrete as the results draw closer. It is fear too that when considering elections again, on a much more humble scale—at the level of the University. Delhi University teachers just voted to elect officials for the Academic Council and Executive Council of the University—statutory bodies of the University that are in clear and present danger of being dissolved if the Knowledge-Industrial Complex has its way in the near future. For they function on the increasingly archaic-looking principle of workplace democracy—a principle that nobody seems to really understand, leave alone support. Much more convenient to simply empower the VC to take all decisions. Which would be wonderful if the VC had descended from heaven solution in hand for the myriad plagues of vast and complex universities, just as people hoped Modiman could offer to a nation of 1.2 billion. But the inconvenience is this: the number of scandals involving past VCs—charges of plagiarism, unsafe research conditions (and by unsafe one can mean radiation-in-the-chemistry-lab-level unsafe!), shielding sexual offenders, silencing any inconvenient voices, the list is sordid and long... should be enough to wonder if this office is seriously compromised. More importantly, one should wonder further if that actually is the plan, dumbed down and compliant universities topped by bullies, so when in doubt, appoint a retired army general or naval chief as VC, as many especially minority institutions have had the grand luck to recently experience. Attention!! Learning!! March Past!!

None of this should surprise anyone of course. This is a country that spends an abysmal 3.1% of GDP on education, (below not only almost all the developed countries with the exception of Singapore) and arch rival China (which has since the 1950s provided a nine-year compulsory school education to a fifth of the world's population, apart from supporting an expanding list of top class universities) but also below countries like Burkina Faso, Samoa and Saudi Arabia. The low spending on education has remained constant, like Brahma himself, while other political and economic indicators have swung wildly from this comer to that. Neither Nehruvian "socialism" nor Modi-ist "development" have found place for education, for hiring and training teachers, for infrastructure, for equity and access, for even real merit or quality which is supposedly the hallmark of a market system. So teaching increasingly attracts either the very privileged, or those with no other options, creating a swelling reserve army of footloose adjunct faculty across the country and a field day for authorities who would always prefer a vulnerable employee to one who has secure employment and a chance to assess her situation. The link between tenure and academic freedom has been recognised and pursued since at least 1940 by University Professors in the US. What is amazing is that the conversation hasn't even started here.

Take the entry qualifications for university teachers—either an almost comically arbitrary examination called the National Entrance Test (NET) or a PhD. The NET examination is possibly the only examination in India that a genuinely talented scholar is embarrassed of passing—so inexplicable are its questions, and so random are its results. With an average pass percentage of less than 10%, the thousands who don't qualify must enrol in one of a tiny handful of decent universities for a PhD. This in itself would be no problem at all of course. But what awaits these PhDs at the end of years of research on meagre research grants and practically no infrastructure? At a recent interview for permanent posts in a college in Delhi University, 200 candidates were interviewed for 8 posts! Nearly half of them—a hundred—had PhDs from good universities. NET is exempted for teachers in some of the better private universities that have been set up recently. But the catch is that while; you don't need a NET, you probably don't stand a chance without a foreign PhD. By foreign is meant from one of the recognised First World universities. So where do these thousands of Indian PhDs go, after years spent preparing for an academic career?

Back to the public universities, where an absolute epidemic of contractuali-sation combined with stressful working and service conditions including no possibility of promotions, leave alone pension, leave and medical benefits has meant a pervasive culture of fear and self-censorship amongst faculty members. Staff associations—teachers' unions—where they exist, are demoni-sed—the current Delhi University VC famously denounced them as illegal bodies that were made up by the teachers themselves. There is a widely-felt sense that surveillance—both formal and informal—is on the rise, that colleagues are ratting on each other to authorities, and that classrooms and tutorials are being watched for any signs of anti-establishment talk. One visible result is the construction of the good teacher as one who is intellectually self-effacing, competent without being brilliant or charismatic, and ultimately a conformist. This of course has long term consequences for that other archaic thing that apparently research can't do without—freedom of thought and ideas. Ramachandra Guha's points to the damaging absence of a genuine research culture in India, in the midst of what he terms the staggering vanity of the powerful in academia.

The vanity of the powerful is only matched by the mousiness of the not-powerful. Recently, Spiked Magazine published the results of a survey of universities in the UK, and concluded that more than half were in serious danger of becoming anti-free speech zones. This survey is itself controversial, since it argues against student unions policing speech in order to rule out fascist, sexist or other extremist views. It is arguable that these views do need policing in fact, even if of the mildest and most self-regulated form. However, what is at stake at universities worldwide is the freedom of various members including teachers to speak without fear, and it is such a survey that Spiked's survey indirectly points to the need for. One surprising—perhaps not so surprising—finding is that the more elite and better funded universities fare worse on free speech norms.

The only reason this country still functions is because there lies a high tolerance for collateral damage as a society. Long before the Americans introduced the euphemism to the global vocabulary by carpet-bombing parts of Afghanistan and Iraq, Indians already knew that shoving their way to the top without looking down or back is the way to go. Perhaps Mufflerman is a powerful portent. ooo
[It was written before the results of Delhi elections were out]

Vol. 47, No. 34, Mar 1 - 7, 2015