They Did Not Know We Were Grass

R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. A petition with 167 signatures was sent to the administration, and no reply has been received. Some students and alumni organised a meeting regarding ways to move forward. COLLECTIVE was asked to speak at this meeting. Here we publish the text of their statement.

Thank you for giving us your time this afternoon. On behalf of my organization COLLECTIVE, I extend solidarity to RG Sudharson who has been unjustly terminated by the Madras School of Social Work due this political beliefs. I thank you for coming forward with your experiences and, I think I speak on behalf of all of us here, that we hear you and you are not alone in this struggle.

As I see this gathering today, I am reminded of the lines of the revolutionary poet Paash, who says (I paraphrase), ‘They thought they could bomb our schools and hostels… They did not know we were grass, we would grow back over their injustices.’ MSSW thought that they could eliminate struggling voices in campus by removing one teacher, and here we are, so many of us, thinking together about the way forward as a result.

You have shared the situation of annual fee hikes in self-financed courses and rampant sexual harassment in MSSW. Zooming out, placing developments in MSSW in context—not limiting it to a matter of a few bad teachers or a dictatorial administration—might add insight into how we got here in the first place. It might also indicate points of possible unity and struggle. So I would like to place before you a series of changes in higher education policy that has led us to this moment.

In 1994, with the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) being inked, education and healthcare were made tradable commodities that the darker nations would have to buy from the world market. These were the heady decades of ‘Liberalization, Privatization, Globalisation’ in India and our ruling regime was already committed to meeting obligations set by the imperialist world. The decades that followed have seen repeated attempts to deliver on its promises.

In line with WTO – GATS commitments, the Union government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee set up a committee to suggest ‘reforms’ in higher education in 2000. But instead of being chaired by educationists or academics, Mukesh Ambani was its convenor and Kumar Mangalam Birla was a member. These were two of the richest Indians. The ‘Report on a Policy Framework for Reforms in Education’, or the Birla-Ambani Report, as it came to be called, first suggested many of the changes in education policy that we are seeing today. The move to provide ‘financial autonomy’ to universities, the modularization of courses under the Choice-based Credit System as well as the entry of multinational educational conglomerates into higher education was, unsurprisingly, recommended by a committee headed by the country’s biggest industrialists. These proposals, though not adopted formally at the time, were reinforced during the 2005 Doha Round of negotiations at the WTO.

This was also the decade when the ‘Public-Private Partnership’ (PPP) was coined. PPP was championed in all sectors, including higher education, by Sam Pitroda and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the second United Progressive Alliance regime. A number of institutions, particularly in the liberal arts, were set up using this model at the time. Prominent among these would be likes of the reformed and expanded Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Ambedkar University in New Delhi and, your own campus, the MSSW. Even existing institutes were not spared. Public universities were forced to adopt a number of new courses on a ‘self-financing’ basis. This meant that fees would be astronomical in these courses, as decided by the seller, and curricula would be more closely tailored for the industry’s immediate demands. This linkage with the corporations and the market was also seen in premier research institutes like the IITs and IISERs. With a trend at large, self-financed courses we’re also more likely to have teachers recruited on a contractual or ad-hoc basis, who could be fired at will. Near-total contractualization of non-teaching staff, like security guards, sanitation workers or lab assistants, has taken place in the last two decades.

In some cases, high fees in self-financed courses would be accompanied with ‘targeted’ exemptions (a discount of sorts) or scholarships linked with ‘merit’, that is, academic criteria instead of need. Over the following decade, as the experience of TISS shows us, these fee waivers were gradually rolled back and the promise of placement-with-a-degree, which had made the entry of corporations into campuses more alluring, also dried up. In 2017, TISS stopped scholarships for students from the Non-creamy layer of OBCs and then also for Dalit and Adivasi students shortly after that.

To force through this massive privatization regime, campus democracy could no longer be tolerated. In 2006, accompanying the PPP model, came the Lygdoh Committee report. It curtailed the democratic rights of students, teachers and non-teaching staff and made unionization much more difficult. Progressive changes won by years of struggle, such as an elected Gender Sensitization Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) or an autonomous Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) were hollowed out. Institutions for preventing or redressing sexual harassment or caste-based discrimination were either never set up or were taken over by those at the top of educational institutes’ administrative hierarchies.

All of these changes have now been formalised under the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. The NEP, which deserves a more elaborate discussion, has been brought in for the Commercialization, Saffronization and Centralization of India’s education system. In many ways, it is to finally deliver on the promises made by India’s ruling class to the WTO three decades earlier.

These changes cannot come to pass. While revolutionaries like Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule showed us that education can emancipate, it can also prop up a deeply hierarchical and undemocratic order. NEP 2020 is part of a project to reduce Indians into cheap labour for the MNCs, it is a race to the bottom for India to be reduced to a hub of cheap labour and natural resources. Women and men will be forced to give up imagining that they can create a better life and world themselves than what they grew up in.

We know that when young people have come together, they have accomplished great things in the past. But this has not always been for the better. Let us not forget that Hitler’s Nazi Youth was made of students who burned books by Jews and Communists. But that should not overshadow either that it was young people who signed up for the International Brigade to liberate Franco’s Spain, the Red Partisans in Fascist Italy or the Red Army that seized Berlin from Hitler. In our own country, we have the likes of the young Ghadarites, Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association who dreamed of an independence we are yet to achieve. The organized student and youth today will also have to adopt the weapon of revolutionary ideology if we are to succeed.

I believe that looking back at the last three decades allows us to also imagine where we can build unity. Self-financing courses are what ‘justify’ that we have to pay such high fees even when our families have lost income. Self-financing courses are why progressive teachers like Sudharson can be expelled for taking his job as an educator seriously. It is why others are hesitant to stand with him, fearing similar retribution. Self-financing courses is what allows manual scavenging to be practised on MSSW campus, using hire-and-fire sanitation agencies, without being challenged. Self-financing courses are why we have to fear about our careers, about paying back the student loans some of us have taken to study here. Self-financing courses are why women fear to speak against a senior faculty member, afraid that they will be graded poorly or ostracised and denied opportunities for any mobility. Self-financing course are why we do not have democratic institutions like unions and GSCASH bodies to do anything about this. At the same time, self-financing courses can also be where students, teachers and non-teaching staff can come together.

Seeing everyone here today, I am optimistic about the possibilities. Once again, I extend all solidarity to Sudharson and to everyone who has been brave enough to stand by him, particularly those of you who are currently studying in MSSW. I am hopeful about what we can achieve. Inquilab zindabaad!

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