At the heart of an institution like Delhi School of Economics (D School) is an existential angst—to be or not to be political. So as to maintain its liberal image, and to appear like institutions in the West in whose image it has been modelled, D-School must appear to be in solidarity with marginal causes and issues that affect various kinds of people on the fringes—the poor, the tribal people, the oppressed and the disadvantaged. But in order to retain its elite, Brahmanical exclusivity, it must manage to do so without risking anything, without running into trouble with the university establishment,the ruling dispensation or the state or inviting the trouble on its premises. In effect it must appear progressive and liberal without conceding political or discursive space to people who are affected or genuinely in solidarity with them. It must keep the ordinary riffraff who cannot differentiate between discourse and activism at a safe distance. This has to be achieved through clinical precision of a surgeon and with bureaucratic acumen of a civil servant,making it impossible to hold anyone to account. As a result, the aggrieved are left with a sense of suffocation that is difficult to express in words. I will try to give words to this unspeakable feeling that is becoming more and more palpable as time goes by. I will begin with a personal account of the recent events in and around the campus.
The physical assault on students and organizers of the event titled Cultures of Protest in the neighbouring Ramjas College on 21st February 2017 is a case in illustration.Unlike the responses from institutions located as far away as South Delhi, initially very few students or teachers from D School felt it worthy of concern that their professional colleagues had been silenced and severely beaten up by ABVP goons at a stone’s throw from their own compound. However a few concerned students joined spontaneous protests outside Ramjas College the next day in their individual capacity. The protesters were outnumbered by the police, but it was unmistakably inclined to support a bunch of ABVP goons who were openly proclaiming that they would not let any of the protesting students leave from the place without being thoroughly beaten up. Sensing danger, and being hyper aware of my vulnerability as a Kashmiri who stands out from the crowd, and not too daring by disposition, I returned to the Ratan Tata Library (RTL). I had to prepare for a presentation I was to make in a seminar in Ambedkar University (AUD) the next day.
I soon got a message that people were being beaten up inside the Ramjas College. I went to check on my colleagues. The police was facilitating the attack by kettling the protesters outside the college in a manner that gave a motley crowd of ABVP goons free access from all sides. Theywere raiding in small batches and withdrawing, hurling bricks, stones and bottles from a distance and targeting specific individuals with whatever weapons at hand. The policemen did very little to protect the demonstrators and did not even attempt to arrest the attackers.Having no intention to get beaten up,I returned to D School in panic hoping to mobilize attention and help. While the students present near the library and around the JP’s Tea Stall appeared to show some concern about the violence I was reporting, not one person felt the need to get up and do something. Some of them sitting in groups turned around and started giggling amongst themselves. An ad hoc lecturer whose name I do not know, but a regular at the RTL shocked me by validating the ongoing violence:“Dekhobhai, rashtrawaad ke issue par koi compromise nahin!”(There is no compromise on the question of nationalism!)
Dejected, I returned to the library and tried to concentrate on my work. My phone had run out of battery while trying to capture the violence that ABVP and police was unleashing in tandem outside Ramjas while standing at a safe distance. My friends at the protest could no longer speak to me.
Someone walked into the library and told me that Burhan, Tahibaand a couple of other colleagues from the department of Sociology had been badly assaulted andhad to be taken to the hospital. I had had enough for the day. Unable to concentrate on my work and disgusted with D School, I shut my laptop and left the department. By the time I was on the road, the protestors had managed to reach Maurice Nagar police station, even while being assaulted byABVP goons all along the way. I tried to check on my colleagues at Maurice Nagar but was stopped by the police who had by then barricaded the whole area. I was able to speak to the injured on a borrowed phone for a brief while. They assured me that they were going to live to see another day and intending to file an FIR against the assaulters, even while the police was refusing to cooperate and ABVP was relentlessly attacking them. I headed home.
The next day, while some faculty members, personally inquired about the status of the injured and expressed regret over how democratic spaces were being shrunk, there was no attempt to generate a collective institutional response in the form of a joint gathering by the famed Delhi School of Economics, nor did any of the individual departments, including the Department of Sociology or the elected students body feel the need to speak to the students formally or facilitate any form of mobilization in solidarity.
What is worse, the next working day in response to the rumours of voluntary efforts by some students, D School establishment had arranged for the police to be stationed on the campus. The students had been individually pressurized by their respective departments, through public notices and verbal admonition that no such student meeting would be permitted. The D School director had issued a notice apparently “in the interest of the security of DSE campus” duly endorsed by the head of the department,Sociology that forbade any possible student gathering.The restrictions on the campus were atrociously severe, even while there was no credible threat of mobsters from outside coming in and attacking the students. I am strongly given to believe that the police and restrictions were in place to pressurise students not to offer any form of collective resistance to what was essentially a premeditated assault on free speech and the bodies of their colleagues in the immediate neighbourhood. Amusingly Ratan Tata library had issued an additional fatwa for some illogical reason that the members will have to carry their belongings out along with them every time they wished to take a tea or toilet break! How our bags in the cloakroom would threaten the security of the DSE campus even while the identity cards are checked and surveillance cameras follow us everywhere, defies me!
In response to my public outburst on social media, I was unexpectedly shouted at by my own supervisor for not having taken cognizance of the staff meeting that the Department of Sociology had called in response, in which it had issued a rather strongly worded statement against the ABVP assault in Ramjas and called upon the University administration to take strong action. Since the statement had been handed over to the authorities and the police and was not in public domain at that time, I was not aware of it.Such show of courage is appreciable by D Schooland Delhi University standards. If the intent was to express genuine outrage and not to merely provide a bureaucratic cover to the department, why were the students not offered the safety of the department building to talk about what had happened and plan a collective response? How would such a meeting among the students affiliated with the departmenthave breached peace?
Despite the restrictions, a few students did manage to circulate black ribbons amongst themselves in a hushed manner to express their disgust and outrage at the violence. A few faculty members from the Department of Sociology also joined the demonstration at ITO to register their protest. A bunch of us, including students and a few faculty members participated in the demonstration that eventually took place on the 28th February 2017,six days after the event. All of us who went, did so in our individual capacity. It was in the demonstration that I got shouted at by my supervisor and other faculty members for having expressed my outrage over the deadness of D School on social media. While I acknowledge I had not inquired with them about their internal, official communiqué with the authorities, my anger and outrage over the feeble response offered by the institution of which I consider myself a part, has not subsided yet.
The connected issue is the manner in which Delhi School of Economics, including the department of Sociology is increasingly making it difficult for students to organize activities on socially relevant themes or film screenings and such by piling on bureaucratic procedures and technical caveats. While it was difficult to get approval for events earlier, the new heights of unreasonableness have been reached under the present regime. For some strange reason it won’t allow the lecture halls to be used by students for any self-initiated activity even if one is vacant while the regular classes are in session. This amounts to disallowing any meaningful activity by students or faculty who are not meant to attend the class.
What kind of a liberal academic institution worth its name requires permission of a director to hold a slam poetry and black badging session by its students on its premises –the permission that was summarily refused! I guess remand homes and mental asylums offer more freedom and do not infantilize their inmates in such a retarded manner. Ramjas deserves appreciation for daring to attempt an event to reflect on the idea of protest and dissent and standing by the organizers as far as it could. In a similar situation, the D School director would have penalized people for thinking such seditious thoughts! No wonder the students of D-School look so spooked and repressed! They can’t push for greater freedom to avail the unutilized facilities such as the plush Vivekananda Hall going waste for the lack of activity and imagination; or press for operationalizing the dysfunctional or erratic facilities (like lifts and toilets) meant for the disabled; or utilize open space for meaningful interaction and cultural activities at their will! Instead, D School permits a wrestler type of a man from the administration to bully students, particularly women into not smoking even while they are doing soaway from people,without imposing themselves on non-smokers. The responsibility for the deadness of D School falls squarely on the authorities who have allowed stupidity to creep in and in the process generate an infantilising atmosphere that suits their conservative politics.
The trend is simultaneous with the infestation of Ratan Tata Library by people like Rakesh Sinha,theofficial spokesperson of Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh(RSS) who has virtually turned the space into his private public relations facility even while he is officially not part of any of the departments on the campus or the library. An ex-student from D School or a scholar from a related department has to struggle to get permissions to sit in the library, and if/when the permission is granted, it is offered for no more than a month at a time. Mr Sinha has been using the space for his non-academic enterprise for about a year now. But no rules or bureaucratic limitations seem to apply to him. Despite his intellectual bankruptcy and the venomous communal ideology he spews on corporate media every night,something that negates the very essence of the institution, that many people must find disturbing for its potential to incite violence, the library staff treats him like a privileged member (a virtual son in law) whose sacred manifestation is worthy of adulation and worship. Apart from wasting a chair in the reading room that could be used by a serious scholar interested in what the library has to offer, the frequent presence of TV reporters he brings on the campus does not bother the conservative and overly restrictive D School administration. (While slam poetry by its own students does!) The virtual takeover of D School environs by a figure like RakeshSinha, whose real purpose for being there may well be to provide intelligence to his bosses on what a liberal academic space like D School is up to, or to scare students and academicians into silence with his disturbing gaze,is an apt metaphor for what is wrong with D School.
One may argue like some do that academics has to remain at a certain remove from ordinary forms of engagement with world of politics in order to maintain a certain level of criticality and openness to doubt and reflection. But even if this were held to be true, academia, particularly disciplines of Sociology and Anthropology cannot withdraw from the social and the political to the extent that it loses touch with reality and becomes absolutely self-referential. While arguments on either side of the debate carry some weight, they cease to be relevant once there is a physical assault and systematic silencing of people in the name of nationalism or on grounds of ideological difference. Complete avoidance or half-hearted involvement in the issue only exposes the moral bankruptcy of the institution.
The author is Research Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics