• Disciplining the Cherry Orchard: Campus Tales from Delhi

    Somok Roy

    March 26, 2018

    Image courtesy: Aryamaan Bose

    For the past two years, the country’s premier universities take to the streets every spring, in defence of our constitutional rights, walking past tree lined avenues with sagged semal branches, singing songs of resistance and freedom, ushering in the march of spring in an otherwise ujdā dayār. The Leviathan fears being reduced to a paper tiger, and every year, in its moment of unconcealed nervousness, ends up de-legitimising its existence. Trapped in the turgid waters of insecurity, the whale tries to destabilise the sea — causing a shipwreck or two — but in vain. The seafarers’ spirit has managed to survive all orchestrated assaults and attacks.

    In February 2016, the Jawaharlal Nehru University was declared the greatest threat to the nation (mother) — the one embellished with the matrimonial trappings of barbed wires, de-sexualised in her maternal identity, and reduced to an exploitable resource-base for her sons. The mere act of being a “citizen” of a democratic country, as opposed to a “subject,” can earn you the coveted tag of being an “anti-national,” for citizenship entails the freedom to think, ask, critique, sing, and read, sans censor; dance, eat the food of your choice, solidarise, resist, and most importantly, love. The imagined community of subjects defines itself by demarcating it from other imagined communities, and perpetuates its existence by creating borders within. Any transgression, even in the realm of ideas, rattles the Leviathan. When such imagined transgressions translate into performances of resistance, the State unleashes its brute force on the masses, and perhaps, helps in demystifying power for people.  

    On 23 February, 2018, a long foot-march organised by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) and the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) was supposed to cover a distance of around 13 kilometres, from the University’s north gate to the Parliament. The call issued by the JNUSU made an “appeal to the JNU community” and the “citizens of Delhi” to join the long march “…to ensure that the continuing injustices in JNU and across universities are put to a halt.” The leaflet counts gender justice, social justice, academic freedom, accessible and equitable education as some of the prime agendas of the long march. It also addresses the topical issue of autonomy, which has been quite aptly phrased as “the wholesale selling of JNU.” In an unprecedented move dubbed as “historic” by the Central Government, the spineless University Grants Commission (UGC) granted “autonomy” to 52 universities and 8 colleges, a great leap towards privatisation and self-financing, ringing the death knell of the public education system, which, in accordance with the ideals of the Constitution, made education relatively accessible for people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds in an otherwise stratified society. The UGC notification had one recurring refrain in almost every clause, “…with the condition that…. shall have to be paid from their own revenue sources and not from Commission or Government funds.”

    The police stopped the march at the Sanjay jheel area; attacked the protesters by using water cannons; and finally resorted to the done and dusted show of brute force — lathi-charge. I was alerted to this brutality by a friend, who, like me, couldn’t join the foot-soldiers from JNU. We frantically started calling people to check if they were fine. Apparently, 23 people were detained by the police, and several others beaten up.

    However, this doesn’t surprise people who have witnessed February 2016 in JNU, or February 2017 in Ramjas College. I’m reminded of the catalytic role played by the police in last year’s disruption at Ramjas, by remaining comfortably numb and passively facilitating the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s (ABVP) siege of the campus. Questioning the “autonomous status” of the select institutions granted by the UGC, and deeming it an “abandonment’ on the part of the government, implies a refusal to buy the State’s narrative, an embarrassing failure of the ideological apparatus of the State. Hence, it becomes imperative for the state to invoke what Althusser called the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) – the army, the police, the court, the administration, and the prisons, all of which “function by violence.”

    The police atrocities left people injured, bruised, and unconscious. But such violence is not merely inflicted on the corporeal, and it is not frozen in a specific temporal moment. The body of the protester, as a site of agency, must be disciplined through punishment in order to curb dissent. But the nature and intent of punishment transcends the physicality of its form. The visual image of a protester being charged with a lathi, or the presence of water cannons to disperse dissenting individuals, construct a political iconography of “fear, reverence, terror,” in the words of Carlo Ginzburg. Meant to serve collectively as a deterrent, the success of these images depends on the perfomativity of our memory. The proposal to install an army tank in JNU is a classic example of the use of iconography to militarise an academic space, to discipline citizens “visually.” At Ramjas, the administration is being extremely benevolent to the liberal arts and humanities students by creating a perfect setting for the study of Michel Foucault’s seminal text, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. A week before the acting principal was impeached for embezzlement, his office, in an unprecedented feat of shamelessness, issued warning boards reading, “You are under surveillance”, “Loitering in the corridors is prohibited,” “CCTV camera,” so on and so forth. Yes, we were being watched. As a member of Wordcraft, the infamous literary society that curated “Cultures of Protest” in February, 2017, I know how impossible it has become to conduct open-air sessions in the college without being subjected to the intrusive administrative gaze. Replace Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon with CCTV cameras. It hardly matters if the cameras are inoperative; that they are there and that you could be observed from a higher pedestal in the power hierarchy serves the purpose of the administration. The objectification of norms in the form of warning boards set ideal standards or codes of comportment, and their “non-observance” might invite punishment. The symbiotic relationship between the “norm” and “punishment” necessitates compliance on the part of the subject.

    At Ramjas, students have held their ground, and quite literally so. “Reclaiming spaces” is not solely a metaphor. The amphitheatre and its rear facing the ECA —which stands for Extra Curricular Activities, an awfully retrograde phrase — room is one of the most vibrant spaces in the college, and it has witnessed innumerable conversations, fearless and passionate, on topics ranging from war poetry to how different Lucknow’s khānā is from that of Delhi’s. The administration fears this part of the college, because it is here that people question, sing, dance, read, and love. Banking on the usual neo-liberal artifice, it invited two private food chains to set up counters near the amphitheatre, which, besides being a source of revenue, were meant to de-politicise the space. Sadly, students know how to savour burgers without falling prey to the oh-so-seductive-American-dream! On an almost pietistic spree, the authority got instructive boards installed at the ECA (as votive offerings to the students), appointed two guards to “monitor” them, and issued a couple of notifications on attendance. Social geographer Doreen Massey studied space as a product of social relations, which comes into existence as a result of acceptance or refusal of relations. The refusal to accept the authority’s paternalistic patronage, the refusal to be infantilised by the administration, the refusal to choose the ‘normative’ over the ‘democratic’, is what keeps alive the amphitheatre at Ramjas. It is the informed subversion of a megalomaniac authority that makes the freedom square in JNU a spatial manifestation of democracy. As Mukul Mangalik said in one of his recent speeches at JNU, we, the students, “…are doing to the survival of democracy, what spring does to the survival of the cherry tree.”

    To offer a glimpse of our culture of protest, the aesthetics of our lived experiences under the panopticon, and the sweet spell of āzādi, lost and found and fluttering in the storm, here’s a ghazal by my friend Ananya Pandey:

    Ghazal for February

    There is a dog on the road looking up at the city every day
    With eyes of a poem’s tireless wonder – I too try, every day

    On Rani Jhansi road, the houses have been half demolished for years 
    Here, construction and livelihoods carry on every day

    At the chowk as I pass birds pecking at busy grain 
    They plunge their hearts skyward, in uprising every day

    The air we used to breath free turned fire, a February ago
    When again will wind in Ramjas blow khulla every day?

    Wave upon wave of injustice brings new battles to the fray
    Harder are the oldest battles, to be fought again every day

    So many sorrows wash to my doorstep, some dear and some faraway
    Hardest are those that cannot be fought, only lived with every day.

    Ananya, how will your city of memories survive the earthquake?
    Force not a forgetting, or it will haunt its streets every day.


    Somok Roy studies History at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.

    Poetry by Ananya Pandey

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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