It's a 'class struggle'

The current round of protests at JNU are not about the right not to attend classes. It is a much more serious issue that is struggling to find a language to articulate itself. It is, in essence, about the life of the mind in an increasingly technocratic world.

Critical thinking, to think against the grain, and to live a life that is infused and inspired by ideas, rather than the lure of money, comfort and power is a very uphill task in a world marked by the pressures of a secure life. Students of JNU continue to carry the burden of this cross that society at large has by and large given up in succumbing to the imperatives of pragmatism.

One needs to understand the life on campus and what it does to scores of students coming from extremely deprived backgrounds. JNU does not merely transform their social status but it enables them to undergo a metamorphosis of sorts in enabling them to develop a reflexive self. This reflexive self is a guarantee of sorts for a dignified life outside the campus in a society plagued by prejudice.

JNU does not merely teach philosophy but an ability to live a philosophy. This is a process that is delicate and ephemeral. It is an everyday life that leaves nothing unquestioned and thereby creates a sense of meaning in questioning the immediate identity that one is born into and one is often reduced to living.

That's the point Rohith Vemula made in his dying letter - the burden and suffocation of being reduced to one's immediate identity and "to a thing".

It is the anxiety to protect this internal critical culture on campus that has taken the route of protesting against the mandatory class attendance. The current administration is beyond even an elementary debate on this issue. It does not understand what students wish to strive for when they protest against mandatory attendance, they would compulsively merely look at it as an act of indiscipline.

I am afraid much of the larger society would also fail to make sense of this protest as being anything other than a protest to preserve a privileged unaccountable lifestyle. Even most parents of the students might view it as a self-goal, given the pressures of career and settling down.

Classrooms are unique spaces in JNU. They are not merely for a monologue by the teacher, for information to be consumed by the students.

In fact, classrooms are part of the larger learning process that goes on in many other sites on campus, including at the dhabhas (one of which used to be open till late night hours has been ordered to be closed well before midnight by the current administration), post-dinner talks (that have been made virtually impossible, again by the current administration, by invoking many procedures and checks to get permission to organise a talk), study forums, and informal discussions with the faculty.

What students gather from these sites form a loop to critically interrogate what is being taught in the classroom. It is this unique loop that compensates for the insurmountable gap in social location, linguistic skills within the student community to make the classroom a more even playing field.

It is a constant tussle between experiential knowledge and textual and professional skills that remains aesthetically unsettled in JNU. Students coming from marginalised backgrounds, who are hesitant to speak up in the classrooms in the first semester of their joining JNU, gain in self-confidence to raise issues even as they struggle with English, and the categories of social sciences.

Right to self-confidence

A change that would otherwise take perhaps decades is a kind of a marvel to witness in JNU in a few months' time. Self-confidence is gained from the space that swims against the tide and refuses to be judgemental about issues of lived diversity.

It is not about the right not to attend class, but it is about how clamping down through rules will dislocate this rather ephemeral idea of self-confidence. It is the complexity of demanding the right to self-confidence that takes the language of a protest against mandatory attendance.

Having said this, it is a fact that classroom attendance has never been a problem in JNU. Even if it were, then it calls for a debate on pedagogy and it cannot be viewed as an issue of discipline. In fact, my own experience has been that classes overshoot the allotted time.

Right now, even as protests are on, students are asking for classes to be taught outside classrooms, sitting in corridors on cold winter days. The protest is to preserve this unsaid and sometimes difficult-to-verbalise process that students are anxious to protect.

It is a conflict yet again between an idea of education that is marked by discipline, standardisation, information without questioning, technical education versus an idea of education that allows you to bridge the gap between thinking and being. Students are, in the true spirit, taking a cue from Marx, once again reminding those currently heading the university that "educators need to be educated". Class remains the missing link in all of this.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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