Much has been said about the recent protests of the Masters students of the Department of English, University of Delhi. Yet some things remain to be said, some need iteration. Although I am not directly part of this movement, it holds significance for me as an academic worker and as a Dalit in the university.
1) The most recent development are the responses to their complaints by the Ambedkar Reading Group (ARG) – their emphasis on the need to change the terms of the debate, to change the discourse, is well taken – responses that are nuanced, and express reservations that need to be distinguished from the low grumblings of teachers from various (including English) Departments; on occasion these grumblings have translated into an open stance, in some cases they have not. The charges levelled against the protesting students are of ‘casteism’ and ‘elitism’. The idea is not to defend the students. Responses to the ARG intervention clearly show that multiple tendencies exist within the struggling students and only the attempt to save the baby from going out with the bathwater is worthwhile. The fact that two of the three teachers against whom complaints were made were from the reserved categories may finally be the only basis for these charges. The manner in which the protesting students articulated their complaints does not in itself prove these accusations. The fact that a teacher does not take class regularly (one complaint) would have to be related to the teacher’s caste in some mysterious way for the complaint on this count to be casteist. Admittedly casteism can often parade in the garb of seemingly legitimate issues, but to imply that all such protests are casteists simply because they are made against persons who inhabit certain subject positions is to misrepresent too many complexities. Such assertions are often grounded in the compromised politics of a political correctness that tries to steer clear of complications that a multiplicity of conflicting subject positions produces. No an implicit casteism informs the early letter, and continues to colour some later responses to criticisms, and this needs to be addressed by the movement. But we must also recognise that this group is a heterogeneous one, and the movement is overdetermined by very many factors.
2) If a reserved category teacher lacks knowledge of basic texts (another complaint) it is a problem inherent to an inadequate reservation policy. This is an argument that has to be made by the defenders of affirmative action, not its reactionary critics. We acknowledge the disparity in the education available to different strata of society, and we struggle for justice, and end up having to make do (justifiably) with temporary solutions, such as affirmative action, to compensate for historical exclusion. The conflict between the interests of the reserved category teachers (livelihood, self-respect) and the interests of the students (of whom almost 50% are also from the reserved categories) for “quality” education should remind us of the incompleteness of such solutions. The offhanded, rather safely poised rejection by some, of the students’ complaint on grounds that they are ‘elitists,’ conceals the fact that much still remains to be accomplished especially in the lower rungs of the education ladder to ensure any semblance of equality in access to education. Instead of seeing this as a moment which forces us to recognise that the struggles of oppressed identities need to push themselves further, we get caught in the legalistic discourse of safeguarding the limited and limiting gains of affirmative action, even at the cost of alienating struggles emerging from other subject-positions. And to push it a little further: a teacher fails to explain what racism is and ends up actually deploying (perhaps unwittingly) a classic ploy used by racists to expound the naturalness of racial difference. Students complain against this. It is a strange irony that those who see themselves as being grounded in the anti-caste movement, seemingly forgetting the efforts made by the anti-caste movement to associate itself with the anti-racism movement, find it easier to call students elitist than to address the implications of the teacher’s arguments. But surely, the classroom too is an ideological space, pedagogy a moment of politics, and the teacher-student relation a power relation. Should we not take issue with what takes place in the classroom too? That ideologically compromised arguments and attitudes inform the practice of many other teachers is probably true, and the Ambedkar Study Circle’s attempt to highlight the lack of this recognition in the discourse of protesting students has to be registered; it is something that the movement too needs to address.
3) As to teachers, from the English Department and from other departments who have charged the protesting students of elitism and casteism, some introspection seems in order. What have they done by way of pedagogy, in any way for that matter, in their classrooms to address disparities in the cultural capital that students carry? (The efforts of the KSP Women’s Studies Centre in University of Pune come to mind.) This is not an ethical question (or not just that) to be addressed by individual teachers, but more than anything something to be struggled for collectively. Do not departments, syllabi and pedagogical methods, the way they are structured, foster elitism? Can elitism be seen to emanate solely from the attitude of students, many of who undeniably carry some amount of cultural capital, or is this elitism also materially grounded in the practices of academics here and now? The English Department, for example, stuck to the CATE (Combined Aptitude Test for English) for admissions to B.A. (Hons.) English for as long as it could. The argument was that the test is a better measure for students’ capabilities than Class XII marks, hence more ‘fair’ to individual students. The CATE basically tested students for skills that the university should provide them, and so invariably students with some amount of cultural capital ended up in the best colleges. (In a perverse way the Board exams, in which students who cannot speak and write correctly score 98 out of 100, may in a way be more democratic, for it does not always allow those with greater cultural capital to come out on top. It would, of course, be silly to say that one way of testing merit is better than another, but this observation should at least be able to bring out the manner in which elitism is fostered by those who continue to use the language of merit.) As a result not much attention is given to imparting the skills for which CATE tests students. How did English Departments develop the skills of the reserved category students admitted after relaxations of the selection criteria? If departments address these complicated matters the workload would increase, which in the current situation instead of creating more jobs will probably overburden teachers already teaching; the administration does not care how skewed the student-teacher ratio gets and how it effects classrooms. All the more reason for student and teachers to fight together; less reason for teachers to charge students of elitism that they have ended up becoming agents of.
4) Many leftist teachers have stayed mum on this issue. It is a political laziness that pushes leftists to take an easy ‘politically correct’ stance, supporting a kind of identitarianism that they would criticise in theory using nuanced political arguments. It is much more difficult to get your hands dirty, to be on the side of ‘elitist students’ against reserved category teachers. Such leftists must rememorise an old, relatively simple argument. Identities struggle, we struggle for an egalitarian world, and in the process of mediation end up with temporary solutions – affirmative action being one. Once institutionalised, affirmative action often leads to a kind of amnesia – those who have gained become part of the univers(al)ity that has historically excluded them, they forget the struggles of the past and those who still struggle. It is pretty much public knowledge that the selection of these teachers took place under shady circumstances. They were appointed by the administration in order to strengthen its hold. Their alienation from the struggles of the past is pretty much complete; in fact they stand in the way of that struggle, well and truly co-opted by the state. It is the anti-caste movement that must and will call them out. Our politics is not limited to defending upwardly mobile Dalit individuals, although this too has its role; we defend the Dalit movement, participate in it, for liberation of all Dalits (in the broadest possible sense).
5) The Leftist teachers who have in the past few years participated in various struggles against the administration and have raised concern over shady recruitments, need to explain their complete lack of engagement with the students’ assertions on such a closely linked matter. These teachers failed to enquire about the extent to which for some students the participation in the struggle was overdetermined by their concerns about their future in the academia, and undoubtedly also by the recent struggles in DU against the current administration. Those who wish to continue in the university see how such recruitments jeopardise their future. By not engaging with the struggle, even if by struggling against the compromised discourse that structures it, these teachers have missed an opportunity to constellate the segmented struggles of teachers and students over working conditions, to the detriment of all. The same is reflected in the teachers’ resistance to the students’ demand for an agenda-less joint General Body Meeting of teachers and students. Those who offered qualified support were more concerned with legalisms and procedures than with the possibilities the demand held for democratising education and for synchronising the struggles of teachers and students against the administration. Perhaps the early concerns about ‘student-feedback’ still troubles the teachers. When the students first registered their complaints some teachers argued that this is dangerous territory because it comes close to the VC’s ploy of pitting students and teachers against each other through mechanisms like student-feedback on teachers’ performance. This fear seems made it impossible for some teachers to imaging a student-teacher collectivity, perhaps they even fear it. But they should know that if this collectivity does not form itself, the state will, at some point, impose a form.
6) Now that some of the students’ demands have been granted – where do we go from here? In their response to the ARG, some MA English students called this issue “an open and shut case”. Were their problems with these three teachers all that brought the 200 students together in protest? Is the meeting of the demands the end of their movement? For those who see their future in the academia, it is more obvious that the struggle ought not to end here; there is much to be done towards gaining control of their workspace. But ought we not enquire about how the students were thinking about the struggle and what shaped their participation in it? Moreover, while some (or all) of them might hope for the Student-Faculty committees to lead to some meaningful engagement and democratisation, they have also seen enough evidence to expect the institutionalisation of the committee into a mere grievance cell where teachers address students’ complaints. Till the movement’s energy sustains perhaps this process will be stunted, but what about next year? How is the movement to ensure that it sustains, generalises itself? The movement did create a moment in which the struggles of various subject-positions could be seen to synchronise. The teachers have tried their best to squander this opportunity, and the anti-caste movement cannot connect with it till the discourse of quality and merit with its implicit casteism is chucked. But what can the students now do to further the possibilities their struggle offers?