Student Protests, Policing, and Academia: A Fine Balance?

By Kanchana N. Ruwanpura

“Actually speaking, madam, there is nothing I can do. Sometimes the law works just like a lemon-and-spoon race.  The eviction has to take place. You can appeal later.” A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

JNU Student sit-ins; Courtesy: Dr Wilfried Swenden

It is late April 2016; I had wanted to scribble some thoughts on what was supposed to be India’s finest hour in a neoliberal age under a Hindutva government after a trip to Delhi around mid-February.  As usual work pressures got in the way.

Mid-February in India was a time that we, a small group of academic colleagues and I were in Delhi, which happened to coincide with Make in India week.  India was showcasing to our global world its capacities and capabilities, where with a wandering and excluded populace, to paraphrase Kalyan Sanyal, it was a post-colonial economy ripe for further capitalist development incursions. It was also a time when the University of Edinburgh had a high profile academic delegation visiting India, headed by the Principal, to scope potential collaboration opportunities.  During this same time, India was also facing a grave crisis within its academic sector and some of its more laudable characteristics and values, the respect for the law, for pluralism, for diversity and dissent, were all under threat.  India was also being unmade.


A call to academic administrators, both in South Asia and the UK, to engage with their students and appreciate the fact that they have become the critical citizens that Universities aspire to produce, rather than clamping down on protest or standing by whilst others do. CLICK HERE FOR THE CAMPAIGN AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH

For those of us with short memories or even wholly unaware of social unrest in other parts of the world or are unable to appreciate intricate connections between different global spaces, India’s Make in India week started on February 13th 2016.  It was launched with an opening speech by its Prime Minister, who claimed that India was involved in its “biggest branding exercise”, extolling the virtues of India’s capitalist capabilities and the steps the India state had taken to facilitate the needs of capital by rapidly overhauling its infamous bureaucratic red-tape. A day before a student activist leader at one of India’s premier Universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), was arrested for sedition.  His crime?  To have dissented; while trying to break a scuffle between students protesting against the execution of Afzal Guru, who was allegedly involved in the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, and a right-wing student group (ABVP  – the BJP’s student wing), Kanhaiya Kumar’s critical speech was used against him on grounds of sedition and nationalism.  Being no scholar of India, I rely on Shirin Rai’s penetrating analysis, which notes that events around Kanhaiya’s arrest, the policing and fear propagated within JNU was undoubtedly a moment of sacrificing democratic governance for short-term electoral gain. What I can say based on first-hand experience on the JNU campus during a few days was the admirable solidarity between academic staff and students opposing a heavy-handed University administration; teach-ins and sit-ins on a daily basis in front of the administrative offices – on a platform that contested state intrusion into its academic space.

Wall of Solidarity, JNU Administration Building; Courtesy: Dr Wilfried Swenden

There can be no doubt that when we permit policing and surveillance priorities to make incursions into academic spaces, which were fashioned to educate, promote and nurture critical thinking and civic values, we emasculate the very meaning of academia. The Indian state was deliberately sabotaging academia as a space of critical thinking, civic consciousness and dissent; there was no space for students who demonstrated integrity, intelligence and desire to create an alternative vision of a different India.  If we had any doubt as to the Indian state’s motivations, once the international solidarity pressured the Indian state to remove the presence of Delhi police at JNU, one only had to turn its gaze towards the University of Hyderabad where peaceful student protestors are being dealt with similar violent harassment since January 2016.

Why pen thoughts about it now; in late April?  When the University of Edinburgh’s high profile delegation was in India at the time of policing events unfolding at JNU, in our attempts to woo India, not too many of my colleagues dared to voice their unease, if there was one, in the public blogs maintained. Where, those other than Wilfried Swenden and Roger Jeffery, made reference to these episodes, they referred euphemistically to an India that faces many challenges, despite its many promises. This is all an internationally outstanding University since 1583 was publicly willing to say; during courtship one does not make sensitive public pronouncements – or so I thought.

People and Planet; Courtesy: Mary Hanlon

It appears in late April, there is more than just public courtship at stake.  At the University of Edinburgh, the group People and Planet have been peacefully protesting and urging the University to divest investment from fossil fuels (a long running campaign not just at the University of Edinburgh but also British academia and globally).  From information shared by EUSA with the academic community, six students were informed that they were to be subject to a disciplinary inquiry – giving them a short time frame, until April 22nd 2016, to respond.  To a collective letter sent by the academic community in support of the student protestors, a University administrator responded to clarify any misconceptions that we – the academics may have; the investigation was to be about any allegations of potential misconduct.  While the students did have a right to peaceful protest, the University also had a duty of care towards working staff – “the right to protest must be balanced with other University responsibilities….”.  That the University decided to embark on this shameful exercise during the revision period and just before student examinations, a stressful time for students, is not just a question of poor timing and judgment, it is also about University administrators making decisions to be heavy handed and send a message to peacefully protesting students that they too will set the parameters on spaces for dissent.  So despite the University of Edinburgh’s laudable proclamations of making a world of critical thinkers that have shaped and influenced the world – and indeed it has, it too joins the slippery slope of curtailing the space for critical thinking and dissent within academia.

Whether this occurs in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Britain itself, the unfortunate upshot is likely to be the same – dissent and peaceful protest is to be curtailed; policing and surveillance is to be the norm*. So even in the absence of any specific allegations of excessive behaviour on the part of students and indeed despite having alternative plans around working spaces for its staff, the law and University regulations are invoked to undermine the critical and precious space of academia.  It too is suggesting, quoting Rohinton Mistry from A Fine Balance, “Sometimes the law works just like a lemon-and-spoon race.  The eviction has to take place.  You can appeal later.”


* The ways in which academics are compelled to engage in the policing and surveillance of overseas (T-4) students, as per the diktats of UKBA compulsions, and how the University and indeed all or many universities have uncritically embarked on wide-scale surveillance of its academic community, students and support staff alike, are of course all part of the creation of a surveillance society in the West.  How we too are sleep-walking into a Stasiland, a la Anna Funder, and mimicking the worst excesses of the former Communist bloc seems to evade the notice of University administrators.

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