• “The history of the University is fraught with all kinds of caste, class and gender solidarities.”

    Debaditya Bhattacharya in Conversation with Souradeep Roy

    January 1, 2019

    In the concluding part of this three-part series of interviews, Debaditya Bhattacharya explains his problems with the "liberal nostalgia for the welfare state" and proposes resolutions for the University space. Also included below is an excerpt from his book The University Unthought(2018). 

    This second volume in a two-part archive on the university is occasioned as much by the need to rethink the consecration of ‘nationalistic’ common sense at the altar of transnational capital, as by the forms of resistance generated by such structural collusion of interests. The twinning of ‘saffronization’ and ‘financialization’ in the imminent fortunes of the university is neither new nor unprecedented, and must, of course, produce in its wake the rage of resolute defiance. The broad sweep of more than two centuries of university reform – beginning with the origins of the modern European university to its first Indian imports in the colonial context, from the caste/class consensus in English-language instruction to post-independence policy directions (Radhakrishnan recommendations, Kothari Commission, National Policy on Education 2016 etc.), from the provincial trajectories of state universities to the impact of state politics on higher education – has been surveyed in historical detail through the chapters in the first volume. Much of the collective labour of our reflections there has consisted in exhuming the contradictions that belie this transition from the liberal consensus to the neoliberal compromise, in the global political economy of higher education. What follows in this essay is different – in that it seeks to pitch the question of the university’s ‘use’ on an alternative register. Shunning the policy demand for demonstrating utility at the level of disciplinary intersections with the flows of capital, I maintain that there are a radically other means of building a university of use.

    Drafting a manifesto for this ‘other’ university requires us to move beyond rehearsed idioms of despair and defence. The surviving variety of opposition directed at the repressive neoliberal university has, across contexts, taking recourse to nostalgia for its liberal past. The progressive intellectual response – couched in demands for freedom, ‘reasonableness’ and a return to the welfare model – is framed in a constitutional resort to rights discourses and the tenets of liberal humanism (Nussbaum 2010; Readings 1996; Beteille 2014; Newman 2000, 2001; Hovey 1999; Currie and Newson 1998; Smith and Webster 1997; Newson 1998; Rothblatt 1997; Soley 1995). There is a consequent romanticisation of the elite humanist quest for truth as an internal condition for democracy, and in the process,  liberalism is peddled as the political laboratory of social justice. The structural exclusions repeated by centuries of national-bourgeois hegemony are wished away through ‘apolitical’ fantasies of the welfarist state, and the university’s own legacy of class solidarities is left untouched by the charge of historical injustice. Forms of resistance, in their easy preference for nostalgic essentialisms about a not-so-distant past, remain far from challenging status quoisms that have made the university live out its own dangers. To advocate a return to the aporias of liberal democracy as inherently suited to the valorous ideal of academic autonomy not only misses Benjamin’s caution about the co-implication of neoliberalism but prescribes the disease for its own cure.

    In resisting the leash of a competitive global market that ties higher education to its foreseeable futures, what is forwarded by liberal fantasies of ‘academic freedom’ is a structural pretence of non-interventionist governance that has already pre-programmed the university’s afterlife to exalted advertisements of national ‘service’ and ‘growth’. The nation is reified as the ontological essence of the university’s being-in-the-world, whether in the abstract cause of a cultural regeneration or a more positivist ethic of economic self-help.

    An erotic education: re-imagining the nation

    It is this imagination of a ‘national university’ – teleologically oriented towards a normative consciousness of nationhood, and working to promote the bureaucratic interests of the state – that the pedagogue in Rabindranath Tagore shunned as a distinctively European legacy. Soon after his initial encounters with rural agricultural labour and the low-caste/Muslim tenants working on his family estates in Shilaidaha and Patisar, Tagore began taking an active interest in how the extant colonial machinery of education was geared towards producing specific forms of social exclusion and institutional regimes of disconnect. Struck by the degree to which formal learning had become an instrument of economic mobility and utilitarian opportunism wielded by the city-bred ‘bhadralok’ (genteel) communities – and much to the disadvantage of the rural outcaste –Tagore relentlessly argued for a re-evaluation of educational systems within the country (1997 [1937]: 490–1). Beginning his reflections with an essay originally published in Bengali in the magazine Sadhana, titled ‘Shikshar Her-pher’ (The Discrepancies of Education), he rejected the argument in favour of English-language education as inherently unsuited to the majority of student populations deprived of any access to social capital (Tagore 1988 [1892]: 565–72).


    The bard saw the university as a fit site for “not a meeting of individuals, but of various human races” – and in the course of which, all forms of collective cultural practice “must find both their freedom of self-expression and their bond of the federation” (ibid.: 556). He was even loath to use the word ‘University’ in describing his fledgeling institution to European collaborators since the burden of historical memory around the term invoked a need for structures of national-bureaucratic control and regimentation. Wary as he was of letting his call for ideational freedom and worldwide cooperation be swamped by regulatory infrastructures that passed for the colonial ‘idea’ of the university, Tagore pointedly responded to Sir William Rothenstein’s proposal to form a board of trustees for Visva Bharati in April 1921:

    Tagore’s “idea of an International University”, while resolutely opposed to every hint of an imperial inheritance, was to be paradoxically rooted in its own immediate contexts of “life growth” as much as it sought to provide ceaseless “intellectual hospitality” (1996 [1922]: 559) to the world outside. It was through this message of unconstrained cooperation with scholars from all nations that the poet-educator of Visva Bharati strove to “prepare the grand field for the co-ordination of the cultures of the world, where each will give to and take from the other” (1996 [1919]: 485). The governing logic of such a knowledge exchange, far from being competitively aimed at establishing priority claims, was to enable a respectful egalitarianism of difference – and not just a liberal-humanist politics of tolerance. It is for this reason that Tagore refused to heed Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and instead launched a reasoned critique of cultural isolationism as philosophically oriented towards an ethic of violence. Even in the heyday of the nationalist movement urging a complete boycott of colonial institutions of education, the political thinker in Rabindranath issued a public disavowal of what he poignantly phrased as “these organisations of National Egoism” (2001 [1921]: 55). In a series of letters addressed to C.F. Andrews (between late 1920 and early 1921, excerpts from which were later published in the Modern Review of May 1921), Tagore expressed his urgent distrust of the methods employed by Gandhi and reaffirmed his faith in the unstinted policy of cooperation as the only condition of possibility for his university:

    We have no word for Nation in our language. When we borrow this word from other people, it never fits us. . .  But I know Shantiniketan will not bring forth its fullness of flower and fruit if, through me, it does not send its roots to the western soil. . .. The idea of non-cooperation is political asceticism. Our students are bringing their offering of sacrifices to what? Not to a fuller education but to non-education. It has at its back a fierce joy of annihilation. . . [which] in its passive moral form is asceticism and in its active moral form is violence. . . . Therefore, I feel that the true India is an idea and not a mere geographical fact. I have come into touch with this idea in far away places of Europe and my loyalty was drawn to it in persons who belonged to different countries from mine. . . . Therefore, my one prayer is: let India stand for the cooperation of all peoples of the world. . . . I should feel proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as mine own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine. . . . When we have the intellectual capital of our own, the commerce of thought with the outer world becomes natural and fully profitable. But to say that such commerce is inherently wrong, is to encourage the worst form of provincialism, productive of nothing but intellectual indigence. (2001 [1920–1921]: 55–62)

    The attitude of ‘provincialism’ that Rabindranath perceived as the logical culmination of non-cooperative nationalism was never at odds with the utilitarian-pragmatic ends of modern education – committed as it was to a routine supply of “clerks, deputy magistrates, pleaders, or physicians” (1996 [1919]: 473) – because it merely attempted to wrest control of an alien idea of the university. Nor did it posit an alternative ethic of communitarian exchange against the colonial touchstone of the ‘nation’. Quite on the contrary, Tagore prophetically (and indeed instructively for our times!) identified its fantasies for a ‘National University’ as “only another name for a Hindu university” (ibid.: 490). The cultural mission appropriated by a nationalist order of resistance could not but breed, in the long run, fascistic self-aggrandizement of dominant intellectual traditions and a ruthless indifference to minority representations of history. Such an eventuality irked Tagore out of any residual sympathy with the agitational politics of Swadeshi, in that it increasingly anticipated the retrogressive forces of a genocidal culturalism.

    You can watch the rest of the interviews here:
    Part 1: The Making of a University: Interviews with Debaditya Bhattacharya
    Part 2: “By making the ‘anti-national’ institutions the best institutions, the government aims to privatise them”: Debaditya Bhattacharya

    Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches literature at Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal. He has recently published two edited anthologies on higher education, The Idea of the University: Histories and Contexts (2018) and The University Unthought: Notes for a Future (2018).

    Republished with the permission of Routledge India.

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