Surajit C Mukhopadhyay | 17 APRIL, 2017
The university system is at peril in India. The target is especially the humanities and social sciences within the university more than any other disciplines. My friends, especially the students are at a great loss to understand the import of this systematic unfolding of a sordid drama of destruction. Some feel this cannot be true. Others more pessimistic are already privately writing the obituary of social sciences, literature and even fundamental science teaching.
This confusion has been hastened by the unprecedented assault of the government on the university’s autonomy, the relative ease with which a great institution like Jawaharlal Nehru University has been sought to be choked of research students and the overwhelming reach of matters technocratic.
Apparently all this is sudden. We were it would seem doing well, universities were being set up, enrolment figures were on a roll and homilies and paeans routinely provided to our great tradition of ‘tolerance’, ‘constitutional secularism’ and scientific advances. Looking the 21st century straight in the eye some even ventured to say that this century belongs to India. And then suddenly these bolts from the blue as it were.
But is it all that sudden? And is it merely the handiwork of certain political parties and their agents that we are facing this crisis? I would like to argue that what we are seeing today, this dismantling of liberal education and the attempted choking of dissent and critical thinking has a history that is not of recent vintage. It is a matter that was lying unattended for long, buried in the not so deep cavities of ‘bhadralok’ sub-consciousness.
I would like to underpin my argument from within the socio-political domain of West Bengal for two important but inter-related issues. One, the ‘bhadralok’, the Oxford online dictionary assures us, is one who is prosperous and wealthy and comes from a certain social class. Max Weber would have argued that the ‘bhadralok’ represents a status group. One may come from any caste or class, but having achieved certain social graces, especially learning and higher education along with prosperity, the status becomes more important and critical than the markers of caste or pure class.
And second, this status group has historically been a very important motor force in the life of the Bengali, especially the Hindu Bengali middle class, driving its members into professions such as medicine and engineering, higher administration and higher education. The inferences I draw here are also largely applicable to other parts of India. But I limit myself to Bengal for I know this land and its cultural values a bit more than other spaces of India.
I grew up learning, as must all have done of my vinatge, as to who a ‘bhalo chele’ is. Literally ‘bhalo’ means good and’ chele’ is a boy. So’ bhalo chele’ would obviously be a good boy. And a good boy by the daily use of the term is un-problematic. Its meaning is crystal clear. Yet, as sociology reminds us, the most difficult and problematic concepts are those that are embedded in our everyday language and usage. Our everyday existence renders them as simple easily understood descriptions of the world that we inhabit around us.
Without this everyday-ness of the word, we would not be able to make much sense of the social milieu. And herein lies the rub. For as soon as we take for granted the meaning of the word, we gloss over the layered meanings of such simple taken-for-granted things, the nuances as it were of words that begin with a certain meaning and end up with another.
So who would be a bhalo chele in the Bengali bhadralok middle class household? Obviously one listens to his parents, follows the instructions to the ‘T’. One who dutifully performs all the chores assigned. Or maybe by being a tad more adventurous one who goes that extra mile for the family. Upholds the family tradition, performs the rituals, and goes through the rites of passage as expected.
So our good lad is one who is a conformist. A person who is being groomed not to rebel. (That does not exclude the possibility of being a future rebel though. The Naxalite uprising of the late sixties and early seventies would bring home this point.) A bhalo chele is undoubtedly one who is unwittingly being readied for a world whose grammar and syntax are being taught to him now in the present.
The markers of goodness are easy to see. He goes to a good school where the discipline is extra large. As in XL T shirts. The school is usually where few can secure admission – our good boy has merit! And the scholastics are high. So high that he needs a few tuitions after school to crack the several acronyms that indicate the various examinations for engineering and medicine courses that our good boy is expected to get admitted to. After all how can a good boy be a ‘bhalo chele’ if he has not cracked the Joint Entrance or got admitted an IIT?
This where the assault on education takes place. An assault that begins from home and is fashioned and polished in the schools. What is being taught in this pedagogy of the bhadralok? The answers are all there for us to see. But since the answers are so plainly in sight, they are all well hidden. Buried. Not too deep. But just about. You scratch a little under the surface and you see this simple facile discourse is so problematic. This education is all about ‘merit’. Others who are not in your course do not have merit.
Merit is innate. You are born with it. And your status demands that you have merit. It’s something like the mandatory suffix of ‘Excellency’ for top government functionaries even when you know that it simply does not describe them. A’ bhalo chele’ is born. Twice born actually. Once as he is born in the bhadralok household. Good by ascription. Then as he moves into the coveted engineering or medical courses and tops it with a MBA. And all others are to be judged by this yardstick. Mothers and would be parents-in-law drool over this ‘bahlo chele’. You have to listen to their voice when they describe this great middle class achievement.
(What a nice boy does Mrs Roy have! Always listens to his mother and father. And do you know he is slated to be in an IIT? Oh! Really? Yes, but you know I have decided that my son would go this private university in the South. No politics baba! Very disciplined and they all have hostels where the wardens are strict. After classes are over, they have tennis and squash and swimming. Yes, very efficiently run and you know the best part of this? No strikes, gheraos…not the usual messiness. NO POLITICS)
It is this simple narrative where our clues lies buried – the sub-conscious of the collective. The middle class had a long time ago decided that its best interest is in the creation of docile minds, minds that are integrated to the powers that be. Dissent was a taboo in the household, in the school and must be so in the public space. And more sociologically speaking, since speaking one’s mind was never encouraged, never appreciated and since our pedagogy inhibits such wanderings away from the given structures, it has successfully created a large body of an oxymoron – the uncritical rationalists.
This why it has become so easy for the neo-liberals to dismantle the universities that are teaching critical humanities based sciences. The assault on JNU is but a symptom of a coming of age of the one dimensional man, a phenomenon that Herbert Marcuse the Frankfurt School thinker foresaw many years ago. This attack is the culmination and indeed victory of the ‘bhalo chele’, one who has always from his very childhood carried on with his father’s thought and his mother’s rituals.
It is also the victory of the state, for it has been able to drive home the point that compliance with power and genuflection to ‘no-criticality’ is an appreciable trait. Indeed, an ideal trait.
It is also the victory of class consciousness, for it tells the story of merit, as if it was a part of the DNA.
It is here that discourses of equality and justice, equity and fair-mindedness bite the dust. We have been successful in dismantling the habit of reading good literature. Prose must mean the text book that is prescribed in the syllabi. Others are trashed. It’s inside out. Outside is in. Who can afford to ‘waste time’ by reading Tagore or Manto, Maupassant or Hemingway. (In fact reading is closely monitored and certified. Classified according to utility.
‘Golper boi’, or the story book is a strange thing. Good number of volumes must be bought each year at the Book Fair. But our good boy is not supposed to while away time by reading them!) So when these assaults on our universities are underway we find very few who are outraged. For very few were socialized into thinking that the university is a space where you go to unlearn and relearn. Where debates and discussions are passionate and not confined to the syllabi.
A fear, indeed a paranoia about dissent is the hallmark of good solid middle class education. The political Right today is merely articulating this slow but steady build up within the family and society of an assault on thinking. That is why some universities are at the receiving end. Others are not. For we have been able to transform the university, this space of interesting dialogues and discussion into a supra placement agency. Therein lies the defeat of reason as well as its victory.
The ‘bhalo chele’ is not expected to rake up trouble. Bereft of any imagination of a world beyond markets and jobs, stocks and bull, he has already been made incapable of thinking. And when you are not thinking, why do we need to have a university. A placement agency would do nicely, thank you.