SocietyCampus Merit In The Time Of Nationalism: Why University Protests Matter

Merit In The Time Of Nationalism: Why University Protests Matter

I’m going to deconstruct this idea of ‘merit’ and India’s love affairs with the West’s destructive system of private schooling and public skilling, and why you should care about university protests.

Posted by Riddhi Dastidar 

Mitron. Woke bhaiyon aur behenon. Today, I have a little fingertip activism for you that will (1) help you feel good about yourself, and (2) actually have concrete impact.

You may have come across recent news on student protests at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

Before you TL;DR, here’s the takeaway:

In what is basically an open conspiracy, the system often attempts to crush dissent by attacking the spaces which allow it to flourish – publicly-funded universities. It does this in multiple ways – for instance, by disallowing free speech in the form of censure from fundamentalist groups and administration, by curtailing the freedoms of women through patriarchal rhetoric of ‘family/for their own good’, and by systematically making access to these spaces more difficult for those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

For those of us on the outside of these university protests, it is important to keep an eye on them as an indicator of whom the larger systems of governance and policy seek to serve. Additionally in this time of social media, fingertip activism often can be useful where small movements need noise to be made.

In the case of Jadavpur University, its time-tested, transparent practice of entrance examinations for 6 undergraduate arts courses – English, Comparative Literature, History, Political Science, Philosophy and Bangla – were sought to be replaced by the administration. The proposed replacement? 12th grade board examination marks or what the university Executive Council and West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee called ‘merit’.  

the system often attempts to crush dissent by attacking the spaces which allow it to flourish – publicly-funded universities.

While the course names alone make evident the absurdity of using 12th Board marks as a metric for aptitude in subjects like philosophy or languages, the situation was not as laughable for the 17,000 aspirants who were notified by text message to start sending in their marksheets. Many among them come from distant rural and peri-urban areas, and the Northeast. The entrance exam – part of the reason Jadavpur has one of the best Arts faculties in India – is what they count on to provide a fair shot at a world-class liberal arts education at subsidized fees.

As the situation stands, following strong resistance from the faculty, alumni and students, and an indefinite hunger strike by 20 students, the faculty-set admission tests have been reinstated – with 50% equal weightage to be given to board marks. This measure cannot be seen as a complete victory since the original debate began with resistance to this 50/50 proposition and the involvement of ‘external experts’ in the admissions process.

This solution would still exclude students who fared badly in their 12th boards. Overall, the situation is reminiscent of what Naomi Klein calls the ‘shock doctrine’ – where a state of crisis is created by administration and resolved in what appears to be victory of the resistance, while insidiously passing through objectionable measures whose true implications are lost in the situation of crisis – the crisis here being the rushing of students on hunger-strike to the hospital after their health rapidly deteriorated.

Also Read: One Test To Judge Them All: Why Jadavpur University Entrances Matter

But why is this specific college resistance important? Because the stakes are too high, and even for a single year, this is a dangerous precedent. Meanwhile in Delhi the women hostellers of Jamia Millia Islamia are fighting the reinstatement of 9 PM curfew in the university brochure after the administration acceded to a 10 pm time in March. Concurrently, the students of Kolkata Medical College are on hunger strike, demanding transparent hostel allotment with the Principal dubbing them ‘Maoists’ – a convenient phrase reminiscent of the bogeyman of the ‘urban Naxal’ used to legitimize the arrests of Dalit activists, protestors and academics in the Bhima-Koregaon protests.

For those leaving now, go – make some noise on the behalf of these movements. The nation needs you. You know, the nation comprised of living, breathing humans hoping for the opportunity to think and learn for the love of learning, to strive for opportunity; and in large part excluded from privilege and/or the 99%+ eligibility for admission to the Stephens/Jindal circle.

For those sticking around, I’m going to deconstruct this idea of ‘merit’ and India’s love affairs with the West’s destructive system of private schooling and public skilling. I’m also to going to talk about why you, yes you, sitting in your chaddies exhausted after a long day of work, just wanting Netflix, baarish and pakoda, mostly well-meaning you – should care about student and university protests.  

Still with me? Okay, so the trouble with one size fits all is that it’s a lie.

Anyone who has spent some time in the Indian education system, particularly government schools or budget-private school classrooms in under-resourced areas would know that there are stark differences in what are supposed to be uniform resources. You know, little things like the number of teachers actually consistently present and teaching in class, quality and medium of instruction, whether there’s drinking water, seating or toilets. Before you hit me with your ‘Ed-reform’ and  ‘board-toppers are always from underprivileged families’ rhetoric, let me point out that reform is a work in progress, and the toppers are the exceptions – which is why they make news. Is the exception really whom our systems are designed for?

the trouble with one size fits all is that it’s a lie.

Now, say we let ‘merit’ be the last word. The Jadavpur University Humanities department becomes another St. Stephens of sorts (which incidentally has actual admission tests and interviews after the board-cutoffs). Those already at the top of the caste-class hierarchy occupy the majority of the seats and the remainder get auctioned off through the backdoor. Evidence of backdoor arrangements can be found all the way from 2008 to the current day in Calcutta University which follows this ‘merit-system’. Those with families having political connections and/or capital get in. Those who don’t go the route of private universities.

The success of Jindal, Ashoka, Shiv Nadar and their ilk have made one thing clear over time: the middle class will pay for education. If it means mortgaging the house, so be it. If you don’t have a house to mortgage, there’s the family business to take over, shaadi if you’re a woman, or suicide. I don’t say this flippantly.

And for those at the bottom of the caste-class hierarchy, welcome to Skill India! It was created just for you and there’s no escape.

Whether it’s the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal or the BJP at the Centre, we have a government which worships ‘Indian culture’ while practicing the neoliberal rhetoric of ‘development’. Matlab, simple language mein, we’re going the way of privatization of everything, including education. Just like the US, same pinch!

In the States, university is optional. There’s the familiar trope of the liberal arts graduate who works at Starbucks to pay off their crippling student loan debt while crying over how they can only afford ramen. Then, there are the majority who go on to college for vocational training. The thing is, in the US, they have this thing called dignity of labour. It’s actually possible to make a good living as an electrician, for instance – and also not necessarily have your child grow up to be an electrician. In India, with our rigid hierarchy of caste and labour, it is not.

We’re going the way of privatization of everything, including education. Just like the US, same pinch!

Public universities have historically been spaces that enable upward class-mobility if you’re able to make it there. They are also spaces of critical thought, questioning and dissent. For many they are spaces where they first learn theories and frameworks that help contextualize their experiences of the world, provide the vocabulary to shape their struggle and transcend it. This is especially true of the humanities. How many of us in the Sciences after +2 have had occasion to critically engage with caste in the entirety of our education?

In 1949 the first University Education Commission in independent India set up a roadmap for Indian universities, stressing on the importance on autonomy in its report. As Anita Rampal writes in The Wire, the report also warned of intellectual arrogance that looks upon combining “work and study or ‘practical’ courses, especially those calling for manual craftsmanship, as suited to inferior minds, while professional courses are for intellectuals. This separation of skill of hand from skill of mind has greatly retarded the mastery of the physical world and has been a major cause of poverty, especially in India”.

Now the proposal for a Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) in 2018 seeks to do away with the University Grants Commission and encourage universities to fend for themselves by tying up with corporates – a move which will further push this exclusionary ‘development’ agenda and ensure dropouts from those not included in the circle of privilege. There is precedent for this in the sinister FYUP, met with heavy protest and ultimately scrapped at Delhi University. And all this under the guise of ‘autonomy’.

Confusingly, this professed support for autonomy comes at a time when archaic laws of sedition are being upheld to punish dissent, faculty find themselves under surveillance and censure, and students agitating for implementation of affirmative action find their own administration labelling them ‘fringe elements’. Not to worry – as of yesterday, we have 6 Institutes of Eminence in India selected to be administratively autonomous, including the yet to be established Jio Institute.

Also Read: Dear Bahujan Students, You Are Not Alone In This Agrahara

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned affordable private schools – the embodiment of development rhetoric profits from poverty. I spent some time teaching in one such, in Delhi’s Sangam Vihar. Let me paint a picture for you:

My students are all first generation learners, children of migrants who send them to an ‘English-medium private school’ because it’s the golden ticket to upward mobility. They dream of a different future for their children – one where they are not necessarily manual scavengers, domestic help or fruit-sellers. The staff is 8th-pass at best, paid less than Rs 2000/month and the principal an alcoholic who wanders infrequently into school with rum-breath and bloodshot eyes to beat the students into discipline. By the time they reach the highest grade – 8th – they will be unable to read a paragraph in English without stumbling. Director-saab and his wife sashay in on Diwali to smile upon this embodiment of ‘development meets poverty for profit’. After 8th grade, my students scatter across government schools where they mostly attempt to teach themselves. If by some miracle they pass their 12th Boards, in all likelihood the doors of universities of Jadavpur will be shut to them, unworthy of the standards of ‘merit’.

Public universities have historically been spaces that enable upward class-mobility if you’re able to make it there.

So what I’m saying is, I don’t know if you guys have heard but uh, governments and administrations don’t always do what’s in the best interest of the marginalized. That’s kind of where dissent is important. Universities hold space for this dissent. But we can do it externally as well. It is critical to support dissent where it happens, to support the autonomy to let these questions continue, and to let the marginalized access public-funded education. There are hard conversations we need to be having around how to make sure education and what we consider cultural capital is more inclusive, and how to ensure more marginalized communities get to an admission test in the first place. But perhaps we start here, at the bolstering of defense.

Maybe… we could be more than the generation that made memes. Maybe we could be the generation that fought really hard for inclusion.

Riddhi Dastidar writes and lives in Delhi. She loves cats and trees everywhere. She used to be a molecular biologist once but changed her mind. A few of her preoccupations: the female gaze and space, mental health, performing gender, families, childhood and alt-narratives. You can find her on @gaachburi on Instagram.

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