They’ll come for you next

I saw ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing’ tonight, probably the best film I’ve seen this year (alongside The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, but they’re completely different genres – I could say ‘A Night of Knowing Nothing is the best political film I saw this year, but that would take us down the annoying path of ‘what is political’). There was only one other person in the cinema; this may be a depressing reflection of the local audiences’ autofocus (though this autofocus, at least in my experience, did tend to encompass corners of the former Empire), but given my standard response to the lovely people at Tyneside‘s ‘Where would you like to sit?’ – ‘Close to the aisle, as far away from other people’ – I couldn’t complain.

The film is part-documentary, part fiction, told from the angle of an anonymous woman student (who goes by ‘L.’) whose letters document the period of student strikes at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), but also, more broadly, the relationship between the ascendance of Modi’s regime and student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi in 2016, as well as related events – including violent attacks of masked mobs on JNU and arrests at Aligarh Muslim University in 2020*.

Where the (scant) reviews are right, and correct, is that the film is also about religion, caste, and the (both ‘slow’ and rapid) violence unleashed by supporters of the nationalist (‘Hinduttva’) project in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

What they don’t mention, however, is that it is also about student (and campus) politics, solidarity, and what to do when your right to protest is literally being crushed (one particularly harrowing scene – at least to anyone who has experienced police violence – consists of CCTV footage of what seem like uniformed men breaking into the premises of one of the universities and then randomly beating students trying to escape through the small door; according to reports, policemen were on site but did nothing). Many of the names mentioned in the film – both through documentary footage and L’s letters – will end up in prison, some possibly tortured (one of L’s interlocutors says he does not want to talk about it for fear of dissuading other students from protest); one will commit suicide. Throughout this, yet, what the footage shows are nights of dancing; impassioned speeches; banners and placards that call out the neo-nationalist government and its complicity not only with violence but also with perpetuating poverty, casteism, and Islamophobia. And solidarity, solidarity, solidarity.

This is the message that transpires most clearly throughout the film. The students have managed to connect two things: the role of perpetuating class/caste divisions in education – dismissiveness and abuse towards Dalit students, the increase of tuition meant to exclude those whose student bursaries support their families too – and the strenghtening of nationalism, or neo-nationalism. That the right-wing rearguard rules through stoking envy and resentment towards ‘undeserving’ poor (e.g. ‘welfare scroungers’) is not new; that it can use higher education, including initiatives aimed at widening participation, to do this, is. In this sense, Modi’s supporters’ strategy seems to be to co-opt the contempt for ‘lazy’ and ‘privileged’ students (particularly those with state bursaries) and turn it into accusation of ‘anti-nationalism’, which is equated with being critical of any governmental policy that deepens existing social inequalities.

It wouldn’t be very anthropological to draw easy parallels with the UK government’s war on Critical Race Theory, which equally tends to locate racism in attempts to call it out, rather than in the institutions – and policies – that perpetuate it; but the analogy almost presents itself. Where it fails, more obviously, is that students – and academics – in the UK still (but just about) have a broader scope for protest than their Indian counterparts. Of course, the new Bill on Freedom of Speech (Academic Freedom) proposes to eliminate some of that, too. But until it does, it makes sense to remember that rights that are not exercised tend to get lost.

Finally, what struck me about A Night of Knowing Nothing is the remarkable show of solidarity not only from workers, actors, and just (‘normal’) people, but also from students across campuses (it bears remembering that in India these are often universities in different states and thousands of miles away from each other). This was particularly salient in relation to the increasingly localized nature of fights for both pensions and ‘Four Fights’ of union members in UK higher education. Of course, union laws make it mandatory that there is both a local and a national mandate for strike action, and it is true that we express solidarity when cuts are threatened to colleagues in the sector (e.g. Goldsmiths, or Leicester a bit before that). But what I think we do not realize is that that is, eventually, going to happen everywhere – there is no university, no job, and no senior position safe enough. The night of knowing nothing has lasted for too long; it is, perhaps, time to stop pretending.

Btw, if you happen to live in Toon, the film is showing tomorrow (4 May) and on a few other days. Or catch it in your local – you won’t regret it.

*If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of these, my guess is they were obscured by the pandemic; I say this as someone who both has friends from India and as been following Indian HE quite closely between 2013 and 2016, though somewhat less since, and I still *barely* recall reading/hearing about any of these.

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