Response to the Many Responses to our Note: “On the Student Protests in the English Department, University of Delhi”

As expected, our Note ‘On the Student Protests in English department in DU’ has met with a lot of impassioned rejoinders. This tells us two things. One, there is absolutely NO attempt to understand or acknowledge the larger socio-political concerns that we have tried to put forward. Two, the responses only provide us with further evidence that substantiates our earlier points.

In our initial Note we had expressed our sympathies for the students of the Delhi University Department of English or DUDE (as it is being put), who we thought were at the receiving end of a botched up selection process, for which we hold the department and the university responsible. However, in spite of this, we raised 3 issues. We argued against focusing only on the 3 teachers (two of whom are from the SC and ST categories) and criticized the inability of the students to look at the larger forces and processes behind the selection. Secondly, we expressed our anxieties about the ‘merit discourse’ that the students were disseminating, both in their letter and in their protest. Lastly, we pointed to the irony of the fact that when a general group of students of DUDE are speaking out against caste and islamophobia in the classroom, for the first time in its history, they were also (knowingly or unknowingly) targeting the first SC and ST teachers to ever enter the same department, through reservations, from the time of its inception, in 1922!!

However, our arguments have been met with extreme panic and hostility. We have been accused of “needlessly politicizing an open and shut case,” “granting victimhood to oppressors,” and “setting aside that basic concern” of the students protests, and we are being asked to urgently express our “stand on the student complaint” or in other words, tell the students how they should deal with the newly appointed bad teachers in their good, liberal classrooms.

First of all, we would like to say that our attempt was not to deal with the student complaint or the demands of the protest and to offer answers or solutions to it. Instead, we were trying to make a comment about the particular discourse that the protest was putting forward. As we have already said, whatever might be the problem at hand, in its representation of this problem, both the complaint letter and the protest clearly presents the academic space in DUDE, as inherently ‘liberal, radical and progressive.’ The unscholarly, casteist, racist, sexist and islamophobic behavior of the 3 teachers are then presented as unbearable aberrations, which threaten this space. This unproblematic acceptance of the DUDE curriculum and classroom is reproduced all over again in the responses from both students and teachers to our Note. Here too, the DU classroom is referred to as a “space for debates and peroration,” where students have a “freedom to argue, to say things that are increasingly censored outside, to participate if possible.”  Let us remind the protesting students that this imagination based on ‘reclaiming’ lost standards (however that might be defined or towards whatever purpose) is very much reminiscent of the anti-mandal protests. Then too the attempt was to ‘reclaim’ and to safeguard educational institutions as ‘islands of excellence’ and the fear was about the ‘fall in standards’ brought by the alien intrusions of reservation candidates.

 Moreover, such an approach to the ‘problem’ completely legitimizes the violence inherent in a completely elitist Delhi University department, which went without reservation or non-elite students for decades together. In fact, even after the forceful introduction of reservations (in the 90s), the DUDE has not changed in any way to address the post-reservation and post-Mandal composition of the classroom. Even as English Studies is changing the world over, and even in many Indian universities (take for example the central universities in Hyderabad) the English department in Delhi University is still stuck with an old fashioned syllabus, with its major thrust on colonial and racist English texts and their nationalist/casteist Indian counterparts. Often these nationalist texts are taught almost uncritically, with a caste-blind reading. Here, as many of us know, any interrogation (if done at all) focuses only on Class and Postcolonial analysis and is legitimized by a very white/savarna Gender discourse. Issues of caste and other social structures of power within this nation are mentioned superficially and are safely relegated to token spaces, to be explored by those who have been affected or interested.

Many of us in the Ambedkar Reading Group who are students and teachers of English literature are the victims of such a syllabus, curriculum and classroom structure. We are witness to the extreme alienation and discrimination that most marginalized students and teachers face daily in a such a space that strictly holds on to its ‘elite’ syllabus, ‘elite’ English, its ‘high’ standards of writing, evaluation and pedagogical tools.

Moreover, the protesting students tell us that our is motivated and is a “petty ploy born out of bile and resentment.’ Teachers who have come out in support of these students on Facebook also think that we are unnecessarily politicizing the issue and moving towards a politics based on ‘particular interest,’ which they think is “laughable and politically regressive.’ In short, even as the students and their struggle are granted full legitimacy and support our concerns are squarely dismissed with the use of numerous negative adjectives.

If today all our concerns are brushed aside as irrelevant, unnecessary ‘scuttling’ of the real issue, we are surely moving into an arena where the concerns of some are going to be prioritized and legitimized to eclipse every other issue. This, we are sorry to say, is nothing but a reassertion of the exclusive, casteist and insulated politics of the anti-mandal agitations.

 Similarly, in all the responses to our Note we are again and again told:

Ø  “The castes of teachers we have complained against is specified nowhere by us”

Ø  “some complaint is against some SC teacher does not mean that it is the category of SC teachers whom the complaint is directed against”

Ø  “These teachers, we say it with utter confidence; have faced no discrimination in the classrooms” 

Ø  “the student signatories have very diverse identities” (and are not all upper castes)

Ø  “I am not casteist”

Ø  “They are not casteist”

 In other words, it is very clear that there is a vehement opposition to framing the issue in terms of caste. Such framing is seen to be irrelevant to the issue and is dismissed without a thought. Today’sHindustan Times report, which in its biased way, carried the response of the students to our critique (without even a mention of our position or Note!!!), also screams an headline: Complaint against teachers not driven by Caste, DU Students.

We would like to loudly remind the protesting students that this denial is the foundation on which caste thrives in the Indian public and academic sphere. Even as our classrooms, our pedagogy, our syllabus, our methods, examples, epistemologies, bodies, clothes, accents, friends, interests and our textbooks are made of, by and for caste (in combination with various other power structures) we have also cleverly manufactured a total inability to see or talk about it all. So it is not surprising that when a Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minorities Collective attempts to make visible, what everyone wants to keep invisible and unmentioned, there is such a vehement denial that ensues.

Moreover, there is an attempt to negate everything that we say about the casteist structure of the academy by reducing casteism to its dated and openly violent forms, such as “knowing the caste of the teacher”, “wanting to deliberately make them feel unworthy” openly “discriminating” or as a teacher in her response puts it “calling out someone in terms of caste.” One is shocked to see such reductionist understandings of the structure of caste from people who deal with similar problems with great complexity when it is class, postcolonial issues or gender.

This point becomes even clearer when we look at some of the issues the protesting students have raised in their response. The students claim that they know about “the challenges faced by the minority groups in terms of access to education and other opportunities.”  However, these very students tell us that they “are not at all of the opinion that belonging to a particular caste will necessarily determine the professional qualities that one nurtures.” Similarly the students also do not want us to make a connection between acumen and social background, between intelligence and historical location. (Hindustan Times had also emphatically displayed these statements by the students). Such a relation they feel will do injustice to the ‘intelligent’ among the backward castes that do not have any dearth of teachers “who are actually punctual” and who give “excellent coaching and intellectual training.”

In other words, in the field of education, which students of different categories have managed to ‘access,’ there should not be any more talk of difference in terms of caste or other issues. Here “quality”, “acumen”, “intelligence” are viewed as caste neutral categories and both people from lower and higher castes can possess all of this. Surely this is the best example of the merit discourse. It is exactly such a merit discourse that thrived in the anti-mandal times too, where the attempt to tie merit (quality) to caste was opposed by denying any such connection and by speaking of educational qualities – acumen, intelligence – as neutral categories. It is such a position that then led to slogans like: “Do not dilute Intelligence,” which was put forward by the medicos in Delhi who were fighting the Mandal commission.It is not surprising, though unfortunate, to see how the dominant academic sphere in the University of Delhi is still dominated by such anti-reservationist ideas.

So to conclude, let us once more make clear that, we are not ‘for’ or ‘against’ the protest. We are trying to put forward a completely different discourse that comes from the life experiences of the marginalized communities in Delhi University English Departments. The student protest for us is just an internal affair in the department, which, unlike the protesters claim, will pose no radical challenge to the real problems within a casteist and islamophobic academia.

In fact, we strongly feel that an agitation against the offensive remarks and teaching skills of 3 new teachers (two of them from the reserved category), which places them as the greatest threat to the inclusiveness and excellence of the Delhi University English Department, would do nothing but bring further harm to everyone concerned.

(THE POST WAS RELEASED DURING THE LAST WEEK OF OCTOBER 2014)

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