University: Sit-in or Shutdown?

Ragini Jha and Ankit Sharma

The last few years have signalled the heightening of tensions and escalation of violence and confrontations within university spaces in India. While this phenomenon can be made sense of, as it often has been, in terms of the growing dominance of the institutional form of the state and its ‘takeover’ of the university, what must also be accounted for is that an uncritical celebration of the strength of the left to defend the university against both capital and the state has ineluctably accompanied such an understanding of the phenomenon in question.

We will, however, argue that what our leftists and the left-liberal crew often take, quite proudly, to be a sign of resistance is, instead, a cyclical phenomenon of repetitive reactions and defensive exertions, which needs to be unpacked.

The Left and the Nation

Let us begin by focusing on the oft-used phrase, ‘universities under attack’. What needs to be asked here is precisely which university or what section of the university is under attack. Our contention is that what is primarily at stake when such assertions are made – whether the context is the violence at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, governmental crackdown in JNU, or the Hok Kolorob protests at Jadavpur University – is the university in its precise liberal-humanist conception.

To take the example of the occurrences at Ramjas in 2017, the core issues were played out, yet again, through the category of nationalism. While the right under the leadership of the Sangh Parivar has declared hegemony over nationalism, and attempts to gain a greater foothold in the university through this precise claim, the left, together with its free-floating ‘radical’ and liberal sympathisers, has unreflexively sought to respond to such reactionary manoeuvres by posing its own alternative conception of ‘progressive’ nationalism against it. The so-called left in all its various strains and stripes has done no more than attempt to appropriate the nationalist identity in various ways, and in ways that underscore its intellectual and cultural dominance within the framework of Indian nationalism – lecture series on nationalism, appeals to the ‘true’ historical narrative of the Indian nation, and their identification with the historical trajectory of ‘progressive nationalists’ such as Bhagat Singh. All of this, needless to say, is devoid of any materialist analysis of either the politics of nation and nationalism in its South Asian specificity or the current ascendancy of the ultra-reactionary ideological variant of this politics in India. What one sees, instead, is that these progressive-nationalist articulations of the left are, not surprisingly, accompanied with frequent appeals for strengthening a public sphere based on communicative rationality, and thus a politics of free speech. This forms the basis of the ‘truth’ of history of the Indian nation and its teaching; and that, in effect, amounts to an uncritical reproduction of the liberal-democratic ethos, which is constitutive of the modern university, and which has historically been one of the integral ideologies of capitalism.

At another level, if we were to consider merely the form of protest marches, whether during the JNU agitation or the Ramjas incident, we would see that there is an increasing attempt to visually display one’s allegiance to the nation, or the assertion of the left’s history of the nation — through flags, tricolour face paints, showcasing the subaltern history of India as if it is something integral to it as a nation and so on. Alongside, there has been an attempt to maintain the basic common denominator of left liberal solidarity, such that there is little in terms of any agenda or programme that may potentially accentuate the contradictions within the larger ‘progressive’ student body that the left envisions and seeks to lead.

As a result, what one has by way of the left’s politics of so-called anti-fascist resistance are chants of Bharat Maata ki Jai, on the one hand as an assertion of nationalism and, on the other, the call for an ‘azaadi’ of ‘vaad-vivaad’. After the initial violent assertions of nationalism and the ‘non-violent’ protests and defence of intellectual ideals, both sides carry out marches with much fanfare, share it on social media with self-congratulatory and politically-charged notes on who has the correct stand and is, therefore, right. While the challenge to the left is clearly in terms of claims to nationhood and nationalism, it is interesting to note that the left replies in kind. In such circumstances, one is compelled to ask, what is the meaning of left – does it seek identity, form and meaning only through the category of the nation-state, a category constitutive of capital as the basic unit of organising the international division of labour? For instance, in order to forge a broader popular-democratic unity, one often sees no red flags while there is an abundance of symbols of the nation.

In sum, the category of nationalist identity through which the right attempts to make its claim on the university space, and the legitimacy of this identity as a category of political struggle is not at all under debate. In the face of the right’s authoritarian dissimulation that dissent is legitimate only as long as it does not challenge the Indian nation-state, particularly the way the right ideologically represents it, the left appears to have nothing more to uphold and defend than some kind of an abstract right of pure verbal dissent, thus construing the physical force the ABVP used to prevent the seminar at Ramjas an infringement of this Right.

Ours is a two-pronged contention. First, the left’s defence of the liberal-humanist imaginary of the university is no more than an affirmation of civil rights discourse, which in turn is premised on the twinned (bourgeois) conceptions of communicative rationality and public sphere. Secondly, we contest the quick and lazy theorisations in vogue that link university to capitalism in a rather instrumental and immediate and apparent way, wherein the doings of the current BJP government is seen as no more than a conspiracy to seize institutions and bring them within its fascist fold in order to advance the cause of capital in its corporate manifestations. While that is the appearance of how things are, and is certainly one of the aspects of how the Indian university is being transformed in this particular conjuncture, it is only the tip of the iceberg and does not go very far in laying bare the place of the university within capitalism or the digits of their mutual relationship as defined within and by the current conjuncture.

Our insistence is on the need for a much more detailed analysis of what is actually produced and exchanged within and by the university. To not do so is to indulge in the implausible: think of capital devoid of the dialectic of use-value and exchange-value. This, needless to say, sets up the problematic nature of the entire debate geared towards treating the university merely as a public sphere of reason and rationality, which can become more and more efficient through a process of progressive reform.

The Public Sphere of the University

The post-Independence era in India has witnessed the dominance of the liberal-progressive circle in the university, resulting in a politics of the university that is thoroughly informed by the principles and ideals of secular rationality and so-called scientific reason. What must be borne in mind is that these ideals and principles are actually ideologies that came into being in the process of organising capital and social labour in their mutually dynamic relationship in the specificity of post-Independence India, and which in turn have enabled that process and shaped its trajectory. It is in this light that the longstanding dominance of liberal humanism, and the public sphere it is constitutive of, ought to be grasped.

This is the context within which the current ascendancy of reactionary right-wing politics ought to be situated. The politico-ideological resurgence of the Sangh Parivar-helmed right-wing is arguably driven by the will to capture, dominate and reshape the public sphere. That, in turn, implies the ineluctable recomposition of capitalist class relations, which underpin the public sphere, in a way that the politico-ideological dominance of the right is ensured even as the hegemony of the logic of capital is reproduced and reinforced.

At this point, we would do well to remember that rationalisation a la capital – which is about the universalisation of social mediation, abstraction and exchange – is in its very constitutivity a subalternising process. That is so because without the existence of the unmeasured capital as a process that measures and thus rationalises cannot exist. And thus capital as that process of rationalisation and measure must, in order to continue being itself, also produce that which is unmeasured, unrepresented or the subaltern. It is precisely for this reason that capital is, according to Marx, “a living contradiction”. So, to the extent that the public sphere – and the communicative rationality of debate and (purely verbal) dissent that undergirds it – is an expression of capital as this logic of rationalisation, it is also the logic of hegemony that institutes itself through the repression of that which is not universalizable within its horizon of abstraction.

Now if the university is grasped as one of the key institutional forms of the liberal-humanist public sphere then the process through which it operationalises and perpetuates itself as a terrain constitutive of certain class relations and their reproduction, and thus the (re)production of various types of the commodity of labour-power, is one that effects subalternisation at multiple levels. It is precisely such subalternity that is, dialectically speaking, the constitutive crisis of the public sphere as an ‘intellectual’ and ‘cultural’ expression of the logic of capital qua representation, social mediation and mutual commensurability. However, precisely, because this crisis of capital is immanent and constitutive of it, it generally tends to register itself as that crisis in systemic terms. This is exactly why, more often than not, the crisis of capital has a neurotic register, which amounts to return of the repressed. In other words, subalternity seeks to assert its materiality of unmeasuredness in terms of the specificity of its immediacy. And these terms are precisely the terms of the system qua measure and representation. This shows that not all forms of politics that emanate from ‘positions’ of subalternity are necessarily antagonistic to the system. In fact, subalternity, insofar as it is the constitutive obverse of measure and representation, is, as a term of politics, thoroughly systemic, albeit, in an anti-sytemic, recompositional key. It is in this precise sense that subalternity as a term of politics is counter-revolutionary. The ascendancy of reaction, signified by the electoral dominance of the BJP and the increasing politico-ideological assertion of other Sangh Parivar outfits in the university, and other parts of the public sphere and civil society, symptomatise precisely such a state of affairs.

It is, therefore, necessary that the objective ground from which such reactionary politics and its coercive civic violence emerge is laid bare in its concreteness through rigorous analysis rather than dismissively attribute such violence merely to the doings of criminal-minded ABVP or Sanghi goons. Unfortunately, much of the left – and the so-called liberal-radicals – is wont to do precisely that. In fact, this attitude of the left, which informs and shapes its purported resistance to such reactionary manoeuvres, is rendered, ironically enough, into a politics that seeks to conserve the system in its earlier composition. Little do these leftists, and their left-liberal fellow-travellers, realise that the ascendancy of reactionary, counter-revolutionary politics that currently confronts us is the logical culmination of the particular form and composition of capital, public sphere qua the university in this instance, that they seek to uphold and defend.

As a consequence, they insist that the existence of the university, as a liberal-humanist space, is threatened by attempting to show that they are the ones who are trying to ‘save’ or ‘defend’ the university by seeking to fight for and preserve its democratic culture. This would essentially serve to reproduce the university as a manifestation of the liberal-humanist ethos of communicative rationality and would thus leave the logic of hegemony intact. That would, needless to say, enable the systemically-entrenched leftists and left-liberals to conserve and reinforce their own location within the university, the bourgeois public sphere and thus also within the overall social-industrial process of capital. In this sense, the politics of the right and the left – insofar as it is a competition to control the public sphere a la the university in order to define the terms of such control, whether in terms of a reactionary nationalistic identity or in terms of a nationalist identity animated by secular rationality – is basically one and the same.

What is at stake?

The university is itself the terrain on which a moment of the larger battle is being fought. But this battle has not been an actualisation of what it potentially is – a contestation between two materially and objectively antagonistic tendencies. It is, instead, condemned to be a competition between two system-reinforcing ideological forms. Any resistance to the current ascendancy of reactionary politics on the ground, particularly in the university, would be effective only if it is informed by a politics of thoroughgoing socio-economic transformation. However, in order to come up with a strategic programme of such politics one has to begin by grasping the fact that a university must be concretely analysed as a specification of the public sphere as an expression of the capitalist dialectic of rationalisation and subalternisation. What such concrete analysis has to demonstrate is how subalternity operates along multiple axes, determining one’s position in the production relations constitutive of the university and the level of control one has over the knowledge production process.

Just to be clear, materially speaking, no university within capital can be imagined as the last bastion of the left from where revolutionary rearguard action can be envisaged. Rather, it is always already embroiled within first, reproducing segmented forms of labour-power, and second, alienating knowledge from its immediate producers. The first has always happened, and continues to happen, for example, in the form of different universities as well as departments regimented along a hierarchised chain of production. For example, an IIT reproduces a high-skilled technical workforce, whereas a regional engineering college, even while producing a similar kind of technical workforce, will end up producing a segment that is not on a par with the segment of the same technical workforce produced by the IITs.

This holds true for the humanities and social sciences as well. Imagine a place like JNU or DU or Ambedkar University and compare its students with let’s say those from Rohilkhand University. Once we do that even anecdotally we will see how the role of the humanities and social sciences university system is pretty much the same: a mode of structuring aspirations and thus segmenting the same forms of labour-power. In Delhi University, for instance, we see this in operation also at the level of colleges: North Campus colleges vs. South Campus colleges, vs the School of Open Learning (SOL), etc. To further establish this point, our process of inquiry led us to a ‘student’ worker, who was a student at SOL, while working as a security guard in the DU arts faculty.

As for the second point, alienation of knowledge from its producers can best be understood in terms of the research work that takes place in the departments of humanities and social sciences. Control over knowledge production and dissemination, in terms of topics of research, along with the syllabus and pedagogical tools employed are, in varying degrees, beyond the control of students, and often teachers too. The degree of control over knowledge production itself may be determined by one’s position in the university.

For example, as writings of Dalit students have made clear over time, they often cannot get supervisors they may want, or work on topics they choose. Temporary teachers get far less time to work on their own research, and have to be far more careful while changing pedagogical methods. Further, the ideal of the universal public sphere of the university breaks down the moment when knowledge produced elsewhere, in a different socio-economic location, gets appropriated for and preserved within the university system as canonized knowledge.

In these ways, and others, one can say that there are processes of multilinear subalternisations within the knowledge production process. In such a scenario, historically, the dominant position over what type of knowledge is to be consumed and produced has, in many ways, been the left liberal, with the concomitant ideology of the universal right to dissent, the sphere of reason and rationality, and the freedom to endless debate. That is, the dominant terms of the public sphere have been liberal humanist. It is precisely this dominance that is being challenged by the so called ‘fascist forces’, or the ABVP. To be clear, one must keep in mind that subalternity is being understood as multilinear and processual at every level and in (and beyond) every organisation.

Further, on the question of the ABVP, while they are challenging the dominance of the left over the public sphere, this in no way means that the right wing is positing a destruction of the public sphere, and the ensuing ‘repressed’ is entailed through its logic. Rather, the politics of the right is that of the takeover of the public sphere of the university on its own terms, and through the assertion of its specific identity and form. The right wing, to be clear, wishes to merely recompose the public sphere in order to change the terms and ownership of hegemony— simply put its project is not that of a revolutionary counter-public.

What becomes pertinent at this juncture is the question, what constitutes the ‘right wing forces’? That is, in what form do we understand their antagonism with the left liberal, and their wish to take over (read reconstitute, not destroy) the public sphere of the university? The persisting terms ‘lumpen’ and ‘goons’, as well as oft-shared visuals on Facebook, which indicate that members of the right have never read a book in their lives, are somewhat misleading in this new conjuncture. Gone are the days when the ABVP would resort to bringing people from akhadaas, generally identified as the lumpen goons, now they have their own student mass in universities, be it regional universities or metropolitan centres like Delhi University. In addition, the left-liberals accuse the right wing (as well as Ambedkarites) of assimilating, and erasing, economically grounded differences within the university. Instead of doing revolutionary politics on account of multiple, mostly conflict-ridden, segmented locations within the university’s system of knowledge production born through various socio-economic locations stamped on individual students and the value of his/her labour-power, the left-liberal sees endless identities along the lines of ‘class’, caste, gender and more recently race without first analysing the material ground that functions between these identities. They latch on to the first apparent form and build a representational ground of politics on it, without seeking to eliminate or attack the basis that produces these forms.

As a result, the left-liberal believes that through its propaganda of vaad-vivaad, practice of general body meetings and so on, it can ensure that each and everyone gets an equal say in the proceedings. However, is this actually the case?

The left and the left-liberals, when they have been at their radical best, have imagined the university as a space that helps in redefining the socio-economic location of students within the larger society. That is, the university space, constituted by a spectrum of different universities and departments, and through a process of multilinear subalternity, is understood as a ground that provides some opportunities for upward mobility. However, this is a reformist and progressivist political framework that presupposes the law of value and the principle of exchange. Such a framework, needless to say, does not seek to re-order or annihilate the system of social labour in the university as regimented by capital. The leftist political project in Indian universities is solely for the purpose of improving the representational standing of social and economic groups through education and providing upward mobility beyond the university, to differing degrees.

As a result, there has been no attempt to engage with the concrete social locations of student masses mobilised by right-wing political forces and the materiality of their myriad disaffections that have found organically default, and thus reactionary, politico-ideological idioms to express themselves. The left feels the perpetual need to celebrate unity since it is always blind to the material interplay of such relationalities, or merely politicize them along the lines of empty solidarities; when in fact, subconsciously it feels threatened by their existence.


To further elaborate on the points made until now, it is important to realise that with the unprecedented increase in levels of automation and the generalised dispersal and functional simplification of the production and labour process new kinds of ‘skills’ and thus professions have arisen and declined rapidly. For instance, call centres witnessed an unprecedented boom in India a decade ago. This is no longer the case. At another point, management professions saw a boom and now these are declining as well. In this rapidly changing environment of social labour, it becomes necessary for universities to re-fashion themselves at a similarly accelerated rate in order to preempt the general dissatisfaction that grips the extremely precarious student/youth segments. This helps ensure the continued legitimacy of such universities. In light of this constant refashioning, precarity and a flattening of hierarchies within different professions, which renders their continued segmental operation irrational, conflict among different segmented socio-economic locations become even sharper and more intense. This is because there is a lag, which inevitable, between each of the university system’s response to the new demands of both the labour market and the market of other commodities, particularly the so-called immaterial ones.

In such circumstances, what comes across as a homogeneous right-wing student/youth front is actually, at a deeper level, a disaggregated mass of individuals rebelling against the sufferings that they confront on account of their differentially precarious situations being animated by and articulated within the horizon of value. Within this revolt is an incipient articulation of collective control over the process of production and consumption of knowledge within the university system and the socio-economic formation at large. In its systemic registration, the revolt that holds this incipient articulation in its womb is in terms of enhancing one’s access to what is on offer within the university-based education system has to offer and this, therefore, often takes the distorted form of attacking the left-liberal ideological dominance and the disciplinary dominance of humanities and social sciences in the university-centric higher education system.

A detailed inquiry of what the university is, and how it is located within the logic of neoliberal capital is a much more fruitful exercise at this point. This will enable us to grasp the university in its constitutive centrality to capital as a site where knowledge is appropriated from its actual producers, and thereby envisage it as a terrain of struggle along this axis of production and alienation of knowledge. It will also enable us to make sense of the world of social factory – and its constitutive segmentations and contradictions of the intellectual and the manual – in its entirety in the cellularity of the university system.

Along with this generalized look at the relation between universities and capital, it has also become important to analyse the contemporary shifts in the labour market and its effect on a student in any discipline. A rigorous reading of the state of the working class in general will tell us that precarity and a progressive flattening of the ground of skills has become the dominant tendency of capital now. This is precisely its neoliberal specificity. This has meant not only a diminution in the value of labour-power but has also spelt a significant decline in the price (value of labour-power as expressed in wages) of labour-power as well.

A university pass-out, even from campuses such as JNU and DU, won’t earn much. The majority will work as copy-editors, join some IT firm, work as unpaid interns in a corporate firm, an NGO, or a media outlet, or will try to get one more degree, ideally a specialised one that is based on the kind of labour that the market needs. Hence, one’s years in the university as one’s years of apprenticeship and waiting set discretely apart from the later years when one enters the labour market and the world of production (value creation), clearly, no longer holds. The university today is, as the example above shows, a way by which capital now seeks to systemically manage and regiment its ever burgeoning relative surplus population. In such a scenario, a politics attacking the existing university system is far more fruitful than one that fights a losing battle for its preservation.

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