The politics of “our” failure

 

Sudha K. F.

sudha kfWalter Benjamin, the famous Marxist critic, in an essay on Franz Kafka wrote that there is "plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us". Benjamin, a Jew, took his own life fleeing from the Nazis, when he lost all hope of survival, by swallowing a handful of morphine pills, while in Spain, in September 1940.

It has been more than six months since Mudasir Kamran, a Kashmiri Muslim research scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, hung himself in his hostel room at the Basheer Men's Hostel. Probably those were the saddest and angriest days, spent as a student, on that campus for me. Many of us were part of a struggle that went on for more than a month to ensure what we believed was justice for Mudasir Kamran. The criminalization of Mudasir with regard to a conflict between his roommate and himself, by the Proctor through the act of sending him to the police station the previous night was the series of events which we believed led to the suicide.

What remains from the struggle for justice for Mudasir Kamran materially is probably just one stenciled portrait of Mudasir on the walls of EFLU. Numerous other posters, portraits and graffitti have been whitewashed, in a move to "clean" our campus and make it look "beautiful". Yes, indeed we need such erasures to purposefully forget not just the incident, but also to live with our cherished notions of "clean" and "beautiful". What was painfully shocking then, still remains. There were two suicides on campus after that, one as recent as last month.

So, three suicides in a span of seven months in a supposedly prestigious and elite central university in India. Do we need a more depressing atmosphere to live in? The suicides as acts of death are shocking themselves, but the reactions to these acts, in this prestigious central university are more dreadful and nightmarish.

English and Foreign Languages University is an academic "centre" where Humanities reigns and where we also have a culture of interdisciplinary studies in some departments. So there is the illusion of individuals who thrive on Literature and are sensitive and are taught to imagine many worlds, and are trained to be not just "good" academicians but also "good" human beings, unlike of course those doing Science. In addition to that, there is a sense that issues that became central to the critique of the project of English Studies, in classrooms, since the 90s, like caste, gender etc is not just an academic preoccupation, but questions of caste, class, gender, sexuality and other minorities are also actively engaged in by students outside the classroom.

But even a glance at the dominant views that have prevailed and circulated on campus, not just among students, but also a vast majority of teachers and administrators in responsible positions, will tell us that indeed, the study of literature is still the study of literature with a capital 'L'. It is still the liberal humanist project it started out to be. Structurally, it still perpetrates the "politics of failure" (as S V Srinivas put it in an essay on the dropout rates of Dalit students being high in English Literature departments in institutions of higher education in India).

The response to the struggle for Mudasir's justice was countered by bringing police to campus, on the part of the Administration. A large number of students expressed "fear", some expressed discomfort and believed that "some students" were unneccessarily "politicizing" a death. This response in one sense was aligned with the Administration's version that Mudasir deserved to be sent to the police, because his "violence" was beyond control, and yes was "mentally deranged" as the Proctor called him.

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One is left with the sense that, leave alone a liberal humanist project, higher education in these so-called premiere institutes have helped most people become excellent behavioral psychologists. The lack of structures of sympathy to understand these acts as mediated by power and the location of these students who have committed suicide is indeed shocking. What one is left with is a psychological explanation of the student as being already "mentally deranged" or already having been "disposed" to such an act. In this cause-effect positivistic explanation of suicide, what gets eluded is a range of labels that are written over students from marginalized/sub-altern sections.

It is not quite uncommon to hear upper-caste students on campus often voicing their discontent with the deterioration of academics on campus, all owing to the quota students who have arrived on the scene, post-Mandal. This meritocracy argument still prevails, even a decade after the events that followed the Mandal Commission debate that happened in most central universities in India in the 90s.

The very same casteist sentiments which govern the eligibility of a student's presence or absence in a premier institution like EFLU, is behind notions which dictate what can be deemed as a "student's issue" and what falls outside the purview of a "student's issue". Because when it comes to questions of "mental stability"/ health or "disposition", there is always-already an organic link forged between these categories and the supposedly "non-meritorious" students, from non-dominant locations.

When a student repeatedly "fails" in her/his exams, there isn't even a hesitant pause to formulate conclusions on the lack of "merit/intelligence" of the student, because he/she is here on reservations. There is not even a minute "wasted" to consider the casteism prevailing in the structure, from the apathetic attitudes of teachers to expectations and demands made on the student itself as coming from privileged locations, without taking into consideration the disprivileged location of the student.

The other suicides also saw a spate of insensitive comments. There is also the callousness espoused by a certain liberalism: "why are you so bothered about this when the student himself/herself did not want to live?" It is all very good when we can read Camus or Kafka and talk about existential angst. We will read Sylvia Plath in the classroom and quote her in our Facebook posts probably. We will also go onto write poetry on alienation of the "modern man". Yes, that is the admitted lines of how much we can engage with suffering, and be sympathetic. And after that, we are all just free floating individuals. We have some pre-ordained "freedom" which we can exercise, according to our whims and fancies.

What these responses seek to secure is a Pilatean situation- let us all collectively wash our hands of this situation and acquit ourselves of our collective failure. There is no serious engagement with structures of power that have made these acts happen. There is no serious thought on how individuals who are from non-hegemonic locations negotiate the everyday experience of living in an elite institution, at different levels of cognition, affect etc.

When we do start to think about it, a series of questions may emerge like: What does it mean to come from vernacular medium and to confront with English not just in your classrooms, but probably as the only mode of expression to fellow classmates? What does it mean to desire/love in ways which are not within the margins of normatively accepted parameters of loving/desiring set by dominant notions of caste, class, sexuality etc? What is the "politics of friendship" on campus? Do we have to take it for granted that because some of us can form friendships and have a support system, that everyone has the privilege to do so?

"Education is much more than a salary and a job; it is a way to a dignified living". says Mr Anoop Kumar, the founding member of the Insight Foundation based in Delhi (who came out with a documentary on suicides in higher education institutions in India called "The Death of Merit") in an interview. So, we really do need a reappraisal of our structures of sympathy and sensitivity and we urgently need to pose the question: Who has been given "an infinite amount of hope" for a dignified life?

What we have effectively pushed under the carpet are questions of oppression in everyday life, and our lack of sensitivity as a community to different modes of existence on an elite campus like EFLU. When are we going to put away our lab coats which enable us to make easy judgements built on the "mental stability" of a student, and confront the politics of "our" failure?

~

References

http://www.haaretz.com/chronicling-walter-benjamin-s-final-hours-1.449897

 Srinivas, S V. "The Politics of Failure", Subject to Change: Teaching Literature in the Nineties, ed Tharu, Susie, Orient Blackswan: Hyderabad, 1998.

~~~

 

Sudha K. F. is a 2nd year doctoral student at the Department of Cultural Studies, EFLU, Hyderabad. She is working on early Malayalam cinema as part of her research.

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