Thursday, December 22, 2016

Revisiting ‘For God and Country’


On the 17th of December 2016, my school St. Xavier’s Patna conferred upon me the Distinguished Xaverian Award. With mixed emotions of happiness and humility, when I went back home carrying the citation, I wondered whether I had truly lived up to the motto that had been inscribed in my young mind since the very first day that I walked in awe into the campus: ‘For God and Country’. Over the years, rationality had become the guiding canon of my life and I thought I would examine what the motto of my school meant to me. When I looked at the gathering that evening, I was startled by the outstanding diversity among individuals: women and men from different cultural, linguistic, religious, ethnic and professional groups seated with quiet dignity.  On any day when I look outside the classroom where I teach, I observe different kinds of flowers and trees, different birds chirping under a blue December sky, different butterflies flitting from flower to flower. And if I look at the physical map of our country, I see tall, majestic, snow-clad mountains, wide rivers, gushing streams, fertile plains, plateaus, lakes, seas and oceans. If we are believers, then we are awed by the magnificent diversity of creation where the creator has structured our earth and the universe with the infinite metaphors with which our gratitude may be expressed. Even if we are non-believers and consider the material world as the only reality we are grateful to live in a world that has evolved over millions of years through a process of natural selection which is truly beautiful for its overwhelming variety. A passage from Samskara, the celebrated novel by U. R. Anantha Murthy comes to mind: ‘May the mind be like the patterns of light and shade, the forms the branching trees give naturally to sunshine. Light in the sky, shadow under the trees, patterns on the ground. If luckily, there’s a spray of water – rainbows’. The poetic rendering of diversity, the different beauties of light and shade is a critical reminder that difference can be appreciated and valued. The presence of sunshine on a winter morning is what we look forward to as indeed we look for the cool shade of the tree in the summer heat.
If we are able to observe and appreciate natural diversity then what happens to us that we are becoming progressively intolerant toward cultural diversity? Is there something innately wrong with the way we have constructed culture within the material conditions of production? This brings us to the understanding of culture which among a few select words in our lexicon is notoriously difficult to define. Culture is a complex of representations of who we are in all of what we do. The essentialist view of culture is often seen as a fixed property or essence that is universal to a particular category of people giving the impression of a simple society.  To propose that women are good childcarers because they are women, that black people are good at sports because they are black or Bengalis are good are arguing because they are Bengalis carries the notion “they are like that’ which is to engage in essentialist thinking. The basic principle of stereotyping any cultural group operates on essentialist lines as it reinforces the prejudices of one group towards the other. The non-essentialist view of culture suggests a multilayered complex social force whose characteristics are difficult to reduce into a simplified understanding. Culture is dynamic and perhaps more than ever with frames of reference undergoing major changes these changes have been substantial. Earlier the frames of reference were limited to family, location, limited social formations, religion, and in an extended sense, province and country. In an age of migration and globalization rapid changes have been witnessed in many of these structural formations. We used to belong, now we over-belong. We inhabit several spaces simultaneously and subscribe to multiple cultures.
Western episteme has constructed knowledge in binary pairs. We comprehend the world in terms of difference: day/ night, black/white, rich/poor, city/ village, upper/lower, good/bad, men/women. There nothing damaging about this form of pairing as long as they may be comprehended in terms of difference, for instance women are in some ways different from men. But in many ways they may be similar too. They may be similarly educated, they may share a friendship based on equality, they may share responsibilities at home, they may both be interested in poetry, and they may even wish to undertake an expedition to the South Pole or climb the Everest. But the problem arises when gender is seen as oppositional. The idea of opposition implies the creation of otherisation when a set of characteristics define one side of the slash with positive values and the other side of the slash with negatives. It creates a hierarchy of power privileging one over the other. That is when all the trouble starts.
This form of partitioning stemmed from the ham-handed experiment by Cyril Radcliff who hurriedly partitioned the subcontinent and the same form of partitioning through perceptions of opposition happens daily in muhallas and sitting-rooms, slotting by politicians and religious leaders in the unhealthy maneuvers in electoral democracy.
St. Xavier’s taught me that homogenization and reduction to a solitary identity is to miniaturize human beings. Simply put, it means that to be a good citizen, a good human being and a good member of a religious denomination, one need not demonstrate it by hating everyone else.
This needs to be reinforced in our daily lives by standing up to all forms of perpetuation of intolerance whether it is the silencing the creativity of of Perumal Murugan, the dastardly killings of Kalburgi, Panesar and Pansare, the irrational dictates of Khap Panchayats, the vanldalism at theatres, the mercenary cyberthugs spitting abuse in the social media, the brutality of ISIS, acts of wanton terror in India and across the globe, the burning of churches, the killing of Dalits, the violence against women, political mobilizations to rewrite a shared history and the manipulation of binaries equating dissent with sedition across university campuses and public spheres. This was not my country when I went to school. The rich cultural, linguistic, geographical diversities defined my country and that is the way to define it today. Diminishing the idea of India is to diminish India. I re-dedicate myself to the motto of my school ‘For God and Country’ to redeem the acceptance of the Distinguished Xaverian Award.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Democracy Deficit in the Academia

The right to academic freedom is not a fundamental right but a rationally considered academic right. The right to academic freedom is a right to be free from the interference of the state and governments and function to build an egalitarian nation. However, every right conferred upon an individual or an institution carries with it certain social responsibilities. These responsibilities give universities and institutions a significant opportunity to contribute to the qualitative development, intellectual, cultural and political growth, to interrogate inequities and generate forms of knowledge to shape the society it serves.
A free spirit of enquiry is mandatory for intellectual journeys toward discovery and the absence of hierarchic control reassures the autonomy and dignity of the stakeholders in the process. In over three and a half decades of teaching, I have witnessed a widening gap between what a university is supposed to be and the routine practice. The privileging of the office over the classroom, of administrators over teachers and researchers resulting from market utility, so beloved of the post-WTO education-as-service-industry has alienated higher education from its social obligations in shaping a just, fair and an equitable social order. It is not by accident that a hierarchic bureaucratic order has been set in place for the triumph of market statistics through the exercise of power and control. The nineteenth century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon for surveillance whose material manifestation was the colonial cellular jail in the Andaman Islands. Today many educational centres including colleges in Patna University are contemplating the use of CCTV cameras in public areas of institutions and shockingly in classrooms. The use of cameras in public areas, if used for security purposes rather than administrative espionage is justifiable, though not entirely desirable. In classrooms it is a disgrace to the dignity of the teachers and students, participants in the process of learning and producing knowledge. Teachers are evaluated every day by students and peer reasearchers and students evaluate teachers once a semester for official purposes. These official purposes are ill-defined because in most cases the results are never made public because the system is usually complicit with ideological and often irrational forms of vested interests. The deserving might make the undeserving top occupant of the hierarchic order very uncomfortable although experience teaches that the pachydermatous skills rather than academic and intellectual attributes are among the preferential virtues.
Transparency in evaluation and authorized recording of lectures for the benefit of students would be far more effective than this undignified form of espionage. Again, these covert operations would hardly be of any relevance if the recruitment were to be fair. Its need critiques itself. The academia works best when the best traditions of democracy fertilizes teaching and learning, a true participatory partnership that inspires and motivates the pursuit of excellence.
University campuses, its public spaces: libraries and classrooms; teachers, students and employees constitute the ‘public sphere’, a term popularized by Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School. In the dichotomous positioning of the state and civil society, the public sphere constitutes a site for contested public opinion which functions as moderating agency against ill-conceived exercise of the state’s authority or the violation of civil codes. Thus the public sphere is plurally constituted and engenders diverse views and practices while creating space for dissent against discrimination, injustices and inequities. The growth of true democratic traditions is directly proportional to the development of the public sphere. In India, sadly, its educational systems, unable to produce a ‘critical mass’ because of the suppression of the public sphere has created what Noam Chomsky calls a ‘democratic deficit’. It is the ruinous lack on part of the state institutions to sustain and perpetuate democratic principles. Contrariwise, they obstruct the sharing of opinion and information and actively discourage dialogue and dissent. While India continues to uphold the colonial sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, it fails to appreciate the value of enlightened laws such as Section 43(1) of the British Education Act of 1986 which states ‘ Every individual and body or persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers’.
Are we then surprised when intolerance of diversities and threats to the constitution engender forms of exclusionary knowledge to which unthinking subscription entitles life and citizenship?