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.

Life or business as usual? Lessons of the USS strike

[Shortened version of this blog post was published on Times Higher Education blog on 14 March under the title ‘USS strike: picket line debates will reenergise scholarship’].

 

Until recently, Professor Marenbon writes, university strikes in Cambridge were a hardly noticeable affair. Life, he says, went on as usual. The ongoing industrial action that UCU members are engaging in at UK’s universities has changed all that. Dons, rarely concerned with the affairs of the lesser mortals, seem to be up in arms. They are picketing, almost every day, in the wind and the snow; marching; shouting slogans. For Heaven’s sake, some are even dancing. Cambridge, as pointed out on Twitter, has not seen such upheaval ever since we considered awarding Derrida an honorary degree.

This is possibly the best thing that has happened to UK higher education, at least since the end of the 1990s. Not that there’s much competition: this period, after all, brought us the introduction, then removal of tuition fee caps; abolishment of maintenance grants; REF and TEF; and as crowning (though short-lived) glory, appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students. Yet, for most of this period, academics’ opposition to these reforms conformed to ‘civilised’ ways of protest: writing a book, giving a lecture, publishing a blog post or an article in Times Higher Education, or, at best, complaining on Twitter. While most would agree that British universities have been under threat for decades, concerted effort to counter these reforms – with a few notable exceptions – remained the provenance of the people Professor Marenbon calls ‘amiable but over-ideological eccentrics’.

This is how we have truly let down our students. Resistance was left to student protests and occupations. Longer-lasting, transgenerational solidarity was all but absent: at the end of the day, professors retreated to their ivory towers, precarious academics engaged in activism on the side of ever-increasing competition and pressure to land a permanent job. Students picked up the tab: not only when it came to tuition fees, used to finance expensive accommodation blocks designed to attract more (tuition-paying) students, but also when it came to the quality of teaching and learning, increasingly delivered by an underpaid, overworked, and precarious labour force.

This is why the charge that teach-outs of dubious quality are replacing lectures comes across as particularly disingenuous. We are told that ‘although students are denied lectures on philosophy, history or mathematics, the union wants them to show up to “teach-outs” on vital topics such as “How UK policy fuels war and repression in the Middle East” and “Neoliberal Capitalism versus Collective Imaginaries”’. Although this is but one snippet of Cambridge UCU’s programme of teach-outs, the choice is illustrative.

The link between history and UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East strikes me as obvious. Students in philosophy, politics or economics could do worse than a seminar on the development of neoliberal ideology (the event was initially scheduled as part of the Cambridge seminar in political thought). As for mathematics – anybody who, over the past weeks, has had to engage with the details of actuarial calculation and projections tied to the USS pension scheme has had more than a crash refresher course: I dare say they learned more than they ever hoped they would.

Teach-outs, in this sense, are not a replacement for education “as usual”. They are a way to begin bridging the infamous divide between “town and gown”, both by being held in more open spaces, and by, for instance, discussing how the university’s lucrative development projects are impacting on the regional economy. They are not meant to make up for the shortcomings of higher education: if anything, they render them more visible.

What the strikes have made clear is that academics’ ‘life as usual’ is vice-chancellors’ business as usual. In other words, it is precisely the attitude of studied depoliticisation that allowed the marketization of higher education to continue. Markets, after all, are presumably ‘apolitical’. Other scholars have expanded considerable effort in showing how this assumption had been used to further policies whose results we are now seeing, among other places, in the reform of the pensions system. Rather than repeat their arguments, I would like to end with the words of another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who understood well the ambiguous relationship between the academia and politics:

 

‘Very unwelcome truths have emerged from the universities, and very unwelcome judgments have been handed down from the bench time and again; and these institutions, like other refuges of truth, have remained exposed to all the dangers arising from social and political power. Yet the chances for truth to prevail in public are, of course, greatly improved by the mere existence of such places and by the organization of independent, supposedly disinterested scholars associated with them.

This authentically political significance of the Academe is today easily overlooked because of the prominence of its professional schools and the evolution of its natural science divisions, where, unexpectedly, pure research has yielded so many decisive results that have proved vital to the country at large. No one can possibly gainsay the social and technical usefulness of the universities, but this importance is not political. The historical sciences and the humanities, which are supposed to find out, stand guard over, and interpret factual truth and human documents, are politically of greater relevance.’

In this sense, teach-outs, and industrial action in general, are a way to for us to recognise our responsibility to protect the university from the undue incursion of political power, while acknowledging that such responsibility is in itself political. At this moment in history, I can think of no service to scholarship greater than that.