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With the blinds drawn in Delhi University

by Mukul Mangalik, 19 October 2010

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(Published earlier in: Mail Today)

ON Nov 7, 1942… the train carrying Hitler stopped… at a siding in Thuringia. On the rails running parallel, stood another train carrying the wounded from Nazi armies.… his eyes met with theirs, but instead of the gaze reaching out, Hitler… ordered the blinds drawn so the reality that he was responsible for ordaining did not intrude upon him.— Slavoj Zizek

The Delhi University (DU) Vice- Chancellor’s (VC) single- minded obsession with hurriedly forcing his pet project of the semester system for undergraduates into the bloodstream of the Delhi University, no matter how toxic the fall- out, is of a piece with his seeming belief that he can’t be wrong.

One consequence of this blinkered vision and arrogance is his impatience with democracy, democratic procedure and unions, his thumbing of the nose at any questions raised and his obdurate refusal to demit office even though his term expired on August 31; another, his frequent runs to the courts; and yet another, that our university which should be foregrounding inclusivity and setting multiple standards for society, has become instead the source of a criminal radiation leak. It has refused to address the irresponsibility that resulted in the Cobalt- 60 tragedy with the seriousness it deserves and has become to boot, a playground for the money- making machine of the Common Wealth Games (CWG).

Threats

The University administration, with the arbitrariness and nonchalance to matters of the mind and imagination that have come to characterise its functioning, has also decided to take over the University Centre for bureaucratic purposes. A huge effort has gone into crafting this exceptional integrated academic, intellectual and cultural hub in a leafy corner of the Arts Faculty compound.

An institution that is willing— even temporarily— to dispense with a place that gives University life so much meaning is treading a perilous path.

A Vice- Chancellor who presides over such conditions and who, when faced with a mass agitation by teachers raising questions regarding rights and the state of our University, saying NO to the reckless imposition of a highly questionable semester system and demanding a comprehensive debate on academic reforms, scurries to the imagined safety of court decisions, needs to go. The longer he stays the more damage he will leave behind.

Letters threatening teachers with dire consequences for exercising their right to protest are rolling out from the office of the Registrar to the regular beat of an authoritarian drum. Pental is becoming dangerously trigger– happy in his frequent recourse to Emergency Powers for the everyday running of the University. This implies normalising the use of extraordinary powers and shrouding DU in fear, a sure way of sucking the life- breath out of any University.

The letters sent to College Principals between late June and now, asking variously for the names of agitating teachers so that punitive action may be taken against them, are pathetic exercises in trying to weaken the Delhi University Teachers Association ( DUTA) and silence legitimate opposition through intimidation. They speak of the complete loss of the moral authority, acceptance and hegemony of our VC over the teaching community.

‘ We expect to prevail through the foolishness of preaching,’ said the non- violent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison at Boston in 1838. That was a voice coming out of the bloody terrain of the movement for the abolition of slavery. If there is one space in the universe where this sentence can resonate with depth and ease, it should be the university. If there is one person more than any other who needs to ensure that like other ordinances and acts that govern the university, this principle too— even though it is not law— is upheld, it is again the Vice- Chancellor.

When this principle is sacrificed and authority begins to ground itself in fear and intimidation, a step has already been taken towards turning the university into a community of whisperers. The visible blow of the threat of punitive action against the teachers of DU has ripped a hole in the invisible sense of freedom without which no university can flourish.

Vision

Universities cannot do without VCs madly committed to nurturing the delicate sense of freedom and everyday cultures of democracy, equality and democratic practice. Unfortunately, they’re increasingly difficult to find. Pental, by going to court against teachers and choosing to wield the stick rather than trying to abide by procedures and ‘ prevail through the foolishness of preaching’, has failed the DU in incomparably large measure.

I wish Pental would stop drawing the blinds on us and on the reasons for an agitation that has been ordained largely by his manic, unmindful doings. I wish he could understand that agitations are not born out of nothing. I wish he could see that the enduring DUTA- led agitation has been acquiring increasing support across university colleges and departments because teachers have real fears regarding the grave implications of his contemptfilled, top- down mode of functioning for academics, unions, democracy and egalitarian visions and practices on campus.

If our agitation could work as an eyeopener for Pental, he could stop hiding behind the walls of hierarchy and prejudice, running to courts for comfort and issuing threats unbecoming of his office.

He may start recognising and accepting the right of members of the university community to organise and protest in multiple ways, listening to voices from the agitation and engaging open- mindedly with students’ and teachers’ concerns, doubts, and ideas so that we can seek to reinvent our university together as equals. Pental may even discover that student- teacher initiatives for ‘ reform and renewal’ have been coursing through ‘ Our Musty Ivory Tower’ much before the Administration woke up to this need in 2004! This process may be complicated, but we can be sure that it will be deeply rewarding for our University. It could also mean that protest and disruption, condemned by Pental as negative interruptions instigated by ‘ mindsets created in the 70’ s’, may come to be looked upon as being, with unions and their activities, valuable in themselves: guarantors of a democratic culture, windows into the individual and the social soul, and force- fields of creativity and previously unimagined possibilities; moments, in the exercise of rights that benefit us all.

Confrontation

It is tragic though hardly surprising that this is not to be. The blinds have been drawn. Our internal differences, disagreements and shortcomings notwithstanding, the VC’s frequent runs to the courts and the letters from the Registrar must be challenged politically and shown up for what they represent. The victimisation of even a single teacher must be understood as action taken against each one of us, a blow aimed at our union, the right to protest and the wider culture of democracy on campus, and fought against as such.

The VC must know that whether or not he throws ordinances at us or uses Emergency Powers, we are not going to let him escape responsibility for creating the conditions for the teachers’ agitation at the DU. We shall be in the courts if he drags us in there. We will organise nonviolent campaigns, public appeals and mass actions touched by a commitment to the delicate fabric of freedom and democracy. We shall seek to forge a unionism that will not shy away from looking into the same mirror that we hold up to the world, that will solidarise in the very moment that it seeks solidarity for its own struggle fought over specific issues in the general interest.

In the courts or inside colleges and on the streets, debating and discussing, we will do all we can to resist the nightmare that stares us in the face, conscious every moment in this process, that we are teachers hoping ‘ to prevail through the foolishness of ( organising and) preaching.’

The writer teaches in Ramjas College, University of Delhi

See also a longer previous article written on 5 July 2010:
The Blinds Have Been Drawn: Courting Help and Posting A Threat (PDF - 138.7 kb)