Academic Freedom Can Never Be Bought : Lessons from Jindal and Ashoka

  • March 7, 2024

The recent incidents within private universities such as Jindal and Ashoka hold enormous importance. They reveal the blue-prints of the processes through which the commodification of education in India has been operative in developing undemocratic environments within institutions of higher education. They also reveal, dissent is often born inside the unlikeliest of spaces. One needs to find some hope in the fact that the suspension of the students at OP Jindal didn’t go completely unnoticed by their friends, classmates and peers. Indeed, there were protests on campus, short-lived as they were. However, it is too early to say if such sporadic protests would lead to any long-term changes within the larger social environments of the private universities as such, writes Amit Jugnu



By now, it is common knowledge for most of those concerned with the state of higher education in India that the two students at OP Jindal Global University, who had organized a discussion on February 10, 2024, on the topic Ram Mandir: A Farcical Project of Hindutva Fascism, have been suspended until August 1, 2024. It is also more or less a common knowledge that the other group of students, who had led an “intervention” on the aforementioned event, chanting Jai Shree Ram, continue to attend classes within the university. It has also been reported by media outlets that raids have been conducted in the hostel rooms of the students who supported the two organizers of the event, and how the two were literally dragged out of the campus by the security guards. 


As such, there is hardly anything that is terribly novel in these series of events. Similar incidents have occurred around the campuses throughout the nation, over issues ranging from demanding ceasefire in Gaza to discussion events centered around the politics of the newly inaugurated Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. For example, less than a fortnight ago, at Ashoka University, right across the highway from OP Jindal Global University, a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s celebrated documentary film Ram Ke Naam Par by a campus student group — Democracy Collective — was stopped by the university administration. Members of the group were also summoned for “discussions” by the authorities. It has also been observed that the students who had organized a pooja on campus to celebrate the inauguration of the temple at Ayodhya, didn’t receive any such summons. In other words, in both cases, a policy of selective disciplining has been practiced. 


The message seems to be loud and clear. No critique of the current regime or its politics would be allowed inside the premises of institutions of higher education, whether public or private. The Proctor’s letter issued to the suspended students at OP Jindal Global University, suggests as much. As the letter stated, “You were found to have been putting up posters and engaging in conversation that involved extremely derogatory and provocative words and/or phrases aimed at detrimentally affecting the integrity and tranquility of the University space” (emphasis ours).  The letter further informed the students: 


 […] The Constitution of India itself incorporates the idea of negative liberty, and actively rejects positive liberty. This implies that while the academic spaces within JGU celebrate the right to free speech and expression, one cannot turn a blind eye towards the reasonable restrictions that must be upheld to ensure that the fundamental rights of others are not violated. In this light, since its inception, the JGU administration has consciously kept the University space absolutely apolitical to cater to neutral academic discussions that explore all sides of an issue/debate (s) (emphasis ours) 


The students were then chastised for “Using the campus premises to conduct politically motivated and religiously derogatory discussions (s) without any authorisation.” Of course, how this letter, deemed to be confidential, as these letters should be, landed on Rashmi Sawant, the far-right writer/influencer’s X (previously Twitter) handle, is another story. One that is awaiting an investigative journalist’s excavation!


However, that is not what this essay is primarily invested in. Neither is this essay terribly interested in reinstating how academic freedom was violated in this case. While the violation of academic freedom is indeed an important issue that needs to be vehemently discussed, as such, much has already been written on that issue by other commentators. What this essay, then, is primarily interested in, is pointing out that both Jindal and Ashoka universities are very specific kinds of institutions, which have emerged within a socio-political climate of the nation’s increasing acceptance and embracing of a model of education predicated upon intensifying privatization. In some ways, both of these institutions embody the very policy of privatization enshrined in NEP, and they have been established much before the NEP was formally accepted, ratified and institutionalized. Yes, these are corporate-run private universities, not to be conflated with the other large public university systems in India. After all, it costs more than 9 lakhs per annum to get a BA degree at Jindal, and more than 11 lakhs at Ashoka. 


Needless to say, the high cost of education in these institutions, turns the students into consumers, thus transforming the very nature of the social relationships on campus. Furthermore, to put it bluntly, these are educational institutions frequented by the children of the 0.1% of the country, a fact that endows upon these universities a very specific kind of class culture. If the mission of the public universities had been to train future citizens and workers, the mission of the private universities is undoubtedly to train future consumers and ruling elites. This is often reflected in the absence of student union bodies inside these campuses, and even when such bodies exist, they are often termed as “student governments” or “student councils.” Such nomenclatures invariably aim to depoliticize student life and activities on campus, a point that has been clearly emphasized in the letter of the Jindal proctor to the suspended students. 


In fact, if closely read, the Proctor’s letter becomes an important document which redefines the very institution of the university. And, it does so, by emphasizing quite succinctly, that the university is an apolitical space, where one engages in “neutral” academic discussions, without trampling upon the “fundamental rights” of the others. While there is much to be unpacked here, what stands out is the fact that without necessarily naming it as such, the letter builds up its own arguments while wrestling with a spectre — the spectre of the (left) dissident student movements inside public university campuses. Juxtaposed upon that spectre is the shadow of the kind of left-liberal, committed scholarship that such movements often gave birth to. 


A total eclipse of academic freedom within Indian universities would mean that the ghosts of such movements and scholarships are totally exorcized. Yet, such a process inevitably poses its own problems. 


For example, the universities in question have, so far, constructed their USPs (unique selling point) around the notion of academic freedom, or to use a more everyday parlance, “wokeness,” so to say. Conversations with students and faculty of the said institutions often reveal a kind of smugness, interlocutors are told, and these spaces are “special.” There is a widespread feeling that not only is it possible to bypass the bureaucratic red-tapism of the public universities here, but also the very  fact of the private ownership of these institutions renders the issue of governmental control on curricula irrelevant. 


To put it simply, for the new privatized university in India, academic freedom itself has operated as a commodity, and the students have availed themselves of such, in lieu of a huge amount of money. The faculty, even the ones who are committed to social justice, have participated in that commodity creation, by often turning a blind eye to the classed and commodified nature of the entire project, even as the project stood upon their material, intellectual and affective labour. Within the everyday life of a private university, this commodified status quo is achieved in many complicated and not-so-complicated ways. So is the student and faculty complicity. A detailed exposition of such is not the goal of this essay. 


What this essay wants to point out is precisely where this particular incident at Jindal, violates the institution’s own commodity ethics. The students who were suspended, and kicked out of the campus in the wee hours of the morning, according to the very logic of the institution’s commodified education, not only had their rights violated as students, but also as consumers. One might say, this is a perfect example of the kind of incomplete and imperfect neoliberalisation one witnesses in India, in almost every sphere. Yet, that very phenomenon of incomplete neoliberalisation throws light on the contemporary political climate in important ways. 


Indeed, what was observed, the language of incomplete neoliberalisation very quickly transmuted itself to a language of political autocratism. One is tempted to say that this is what fascism looks like. Aren’t all fascisms born as they are of the inherent contradictions of capital, ultimately predicate themselves on curtailing the rights granted by the institutions of liberal capital, limited as they are. 


The events that transpired at Jindal, thus also constituted a social pedagogy. A social pedagogy that taught the students, that one’s status as a consumer, would not provide one with any protection or insularity against what the current regime deems to be an act of political-ideological transgression. Not only that, like all fascisms elsewhere, any kind of leftist efforts to organize, would feature high on that list of supposed political-ideological transgression. Yes, the two students who were suspended belonged to a Marxist student collective called Revolutionary Students’ League (RSL). 


It is, indeed, noteworthy then that the services of the security guards who were deployed to drag the “erring” students out of the campus, had been literally bought with the students’ own money. In many ways, then, the university comes to resemble the state and becomes a crude reminder of the fact that the police and military that a state unleashes on the dissenting, protesting masses, are, after all, maintained with and through the citizens’ own money. The message is loud and clear then. In India, right now, if one dares to raise one’s voice against the current regime, one’s class privileges won’t necessarily provide a cushion of protection. Neither would logic or rationality. As the arguments forwarded in the suspension letter, prove. Thus, any critique of the political philosophy of Hindutva has been coded as “religiously derogatory,” reminiscent of the ways in which any critique of the state of Israel is coded to be “anti-Semitism” by the Zionist establishment and its allies. 


Undoubtedly, such rhetoric when deployed by institutions which sell themselves based on the claims of “academic freedom” and “liberal education”, have raised many eyebrows. But, here too, one needs to remember, where educational institutions themselves become business ventures, like any other entrepreneurial projects, an ideological-political capitulation to the state and ruling elites is not surprising. The very rules of the business dictate such submission. Again, what comes across quite clearly — academic freedom cannot be bought. Academic freedom cannot be reduced to another commodity of exchange, which can be consumed. At least, not for long.  


As it is, what the events reveal is that there are deep loopholes in the very process that turns education into a commodity like any other. For example, a closer reading of the suspension order, reveals, issuing a suspension notice to the students is not enough. A signed undertaking from the students that henceforth they won’t participate in similar events is not enough. There has to be a signed guarantee from the parents to that effect. Clearly, the institution does not consider the students to be fully-formed, autonomous political agents and subjects, although they are legally adults, well past the threshold of adulthood, set currently at 18 years of age. Needless to say, there is an explicit thrust towards infantilization in this particular punitive design. And, that is not an accident. Furthermore, that infantilization is inbuilt into the very logic of the financialized commodified education. 


To be specific, the students, themselves, do not pay the exorbitant tuition fees of the private universities as such. Their families do. Their parents do. As a result, the students in private universities come to reside in a sociological limbo, between “wards” and “consumers.” In fact, they become consumers only in a mediated, indirect way. As a result, the logic of parental- familial sponsorship of one’s education has been weaponized, to create a body of docile, de-radicalized and de-politicized students.


In very crucial ways, then, the private universities provide a reversal of the very socio-educational processes that have characterized the public universities in India. It is not that the public universities were idyllic spaces. In fact, one might argue, it is precisely within the cracks of the edifices of the public universities’ inequalities and many hierarchies that the private universities took shape. Yet, what the public universities did do was to create an overall environment of affordable education, limited as it was often to the upper-caste and the  middle-class, in spite of the affirmative reservation policies. However, one can point to certain notable exceptions too. The affordable, low-cost education, arguably, was one of the foundational elements on which the relatively liberal-minded cultures of the “eminent” public universities in India rested. It is precisely the affordable, low-cost education that made the classrooms of the public universities relatively diverse, thus creating an environment of exchange, debates and boundary-crossings, limited as they might be. In contrast, the classrooms of the private universities are notoriously homogenous, and that should not come as a surprise to anyone.   


Arguably, it is precisely those structural characteristics of the public universities that have contributed to the emergence of certain kinds of leftist student radicalisms within its premises. One can debate and disagree about the latter’s radical potential and the extent of its overall contribution in maintaining the larger democratic environment of the campuses, and it is indeed necessary to do so. However, what cannot possibly be by-passed is the fact that the students from certain public universities have provided a language and aesthetics — however circumscribed, however limited — of dissent during our broken present, when every other space seems to be engulfed in a deep silence of assent. The increasing commodification and privatization of education, indeed, wants to sound the death knell of such dissent. And, if we have to go by the picture that reality offers, indeed, that death knell has resounded quite loudly. 


The incidents within private universities such as Jindal and Ashoka, thus, hold enormous importance. Partly because, they reveal the blue-prints of the processes through which the commodification of education in India has been operative in developing undemocratic environments within institutions of higher education. Partly because, they also reveal, dissent is often born inside the unlikeliest of spaces. As a result, one needs to find some hope in the fact that the suspension of the students at OP Jindal didn’t go completely unnoticed by their friends, classmates and peers. Indeed, there were protests on campus, short-lived as they were. However, it is too early to say if such sporadic protests would lead to any long-term changes within the larger social environments of the private universities as such. 


However, what one can say for certain is, in order to contribute in any meaningful way in the struggles for democratization of educational spaces of our times, the Jindal and Ashoka students would have to go a long way in questioning and challenging their own class identities and privileges. As these events have proved, precisely because academic freedom is not a commodity of exchange, it has to be fought for. And, for the students of these universities, such a fight would entail cutting the very branches of the tree on which they are sitting. In terms of the histories of dissent that we have inherited, one cannot be too optimistic. But, who knows what the future might bring? But, whatever it is, the events at Jindal and Ashoka have proved that privately funded higher education in India harbours sharp internal contradictions, and currently is indeed standing at crucial crossroads.


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