Political and Apolitical Students – Making and Remaking Political Spaces

“Write down two achievements of students' movements in Kerala”. (2 marks)

Ten years back,I blinked at this question and calculated how the loss of two marks will affect my total marks in the social science end term examination. I wondered what sort of a question this is and what the point of such a question is in a social science paper. Why could they not ask me about Salt Satyagraha or Poona Pact? They could have asked me about Boston Tea Party or the various dates of French Revolution. Stupid examiners! Why would anyone ask me about a group of rowdy men who pelt stones at buses and burn public property? I thought all they do is disrupt smooth functioning of schools and the state for no reason. I also considered them stupid because they did not know they were being tools in the hands of political leaders.

I was relieved when the lady teacher said that no one had written answer for that question. She looked at us and said that this was the problem of studying in an all girls' convent school. She asked us whether we know who fought for the bus fare concessions for students or who resisted the privatization of education. I blinked along with the other uniformed girls. I did not know.

My love for beef made me political.

There was supposed to be a beef festival in the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) where I was doing my MA. I was eagerly waiting for the organizers to serve us tasty, juicy beef. I had an extra reason to look forward to the festival because beef was neither cooked nor eaten at my home. I was not part of organizing the event and I let the progressive political students take care of it. I sat back and read my books to crack the NET exam. While I was in the middle of literary theory, I heard noises outside my hostel. I ran out and saw a large crowd in front of the men's hostel where the beef was supposed to be cooked. There were loud arguments and a group of “apolitical” students started throwing the half-cooked beef in and around the men's hostel. To me they were the “apolitical” ones because political ones were those who organized the protests for improving the mess conditions in the campus. Those were the first set of protests I ever participated in my life. Good food was the only thing which mattered to me.

Should not we, as students, guard our academic spaces against increasing homogenization? Are we going to let someone segregate us on the basis of the food we eat? If we, research scholars and students, hesitate to talk to the masses, people like Rahul Eashwar and Rajith Kumar will occupy the spaces of public intellectuals spewing conservative, regressive mantras.

Disappointed and in deep anger, I cursed the ones who disrupted the beef festival. I went out with my friends and ate beef biriyani. Nevertheless, I was angry. I did not understand the logic of disrupting the beef festival. I was aware of the gomatha sentiments and all. I was a Hindu too, you see. But to me, it felt rational to stay away from eating beef if you don’t like the taste or if you feel that it is holy. I did not understand the need to stop others from eating it. But later I heard that these “apolitical” ones peed in the vessel full of beef! I did not understand why they would do it if they considered it holy. I was confused. I realized things were not as simple as it seems and food was not outside the functions of power.

I wrote on the beef festival in a Malayalam magazine called 'Campus Alive' only because my friend asked me to write about it. While I was writing the article, it became clear to me that I am not writing about a silly incident which occurred in a campus. You see, campuses are considered different from the society. It is a “pilleru lokam” as they say in Malayalam. It means the world of infants. The unreal space. A temporary not-so-serious space where young ones, especially males, think they know all about life when they do not. But the process of writing opened up new realities which brought in the politics of spaces.

Campuses as deeply political spaces

"What do you mean by Politics?"

This question was asked to a fellow researcher at my institute during his Ph.D defense viva. I wondered why a senior professor was asking such a basic question. Anyway, the patient and left-with-no-choice defender replied that politics here does not have any direct connection with the ballot box but politics is anything which involves power. He added that every activity you do is a response to the working of power. In that way, your activities can affect the power relations in the society and that can affect who wins while counting the ballot box. This conversation made sense while situating myself within the campus where there were no visible political activities. Student political organizations are banned and one of the deans tweeted that he would not like to have any discussions on politics, religion and sex with the students. Not talking about certain things and silencing the voices of the different indeed serve certain parties in politics. By not participating in the political activities they are supporting the politics of the privileged. I strongly believe academic spaces are extremely important in breaking these silences and creating new ways of thinking about the society.

Campuses are not spaces of the ignorant. They are not the spaces of the foolish young ones. We are talking about those ones who are at the threshold of citizenship or are already citizens of the country. Like J. Devika argued elsewhere, it is a huge blunder to infantilize the students in campuses. Who else are going to read, discuss and participate in the current social activities? Who do you think form the larger group of people who collect data and interpret social realities? I believe the student community, especially research scholars, should start speaking out and participate in the formation of political opinions. Research scholars should raise voice against the increasing pseudo-science stunts encroaching the scientific community in the country. Should not we, as students, guard our academic spaces against increasing homogenization? Are we going to let someone segregate us on the basis of the food we eat? One of the many voices which spoke against the saffronisation of the school textbooks was of a young woman working in a rural development school in Purkal. If we, research scholars and students, hesitate to talk to the masses, people like Rahul Eashwar and Rajith Kumar will occupy the spaces of public intellectuals spewing conservative, regressive mantras. Kiss of Love protests can be seen as a good start which brought young women and men back to the discussion tables. I hope it won’t end there.

Not talking about certain things and silencing the voices of the different indeed serve certain parties in politics. By not participating in the political activities they are supporting the politics of the privileged. I strongly believe academic spaces are extremely important in breaking these silences and creating new ways of thinking about the society.

The liberal spaces in campuses are shrinking. Gender segregation in classrooms, hostels and even in messes is heartbreaking. Authoritarian administrations headed by unqualified Vice Chancellors are high in numbers today. The spaces for debates and reformation has decreased even within the student community. I remember students and teachers fighting over political and religious matters over tea and sutta in EFLU. We used to fight tooth and nail but always came together again. The language was not divisive but was that of dialogue. We corrected one another and got corrected. Being in doubt was not a bad thing. We lived with our contradictions. During struggles, we became more compassionate.

Women and spaces

Coming back to the first instance in the write-up, why was a student in all girls school unaware of other political activities? Are the student spaces primarily a masculine space? I am aware that student community is not a homogeneous entity but is punctured by class, caste and other categories. However, just like class divisions, gender divide is also a serious concern among students who participate in political leaderships. One of my female friends who was active in student movements told me it was very difficult to be heard in most of the meetings and if at all they listen to her it was because of her upper caste status. This seems true in most of the student organizations. Student organizations should not be just a reflection of the society where gender inequality is perceived as normal but these organisations should set examples by behaving in a gender sensitive manner. Feminism should not be just an add on, but it should be an essential way of seeing and living. The recent protests in Calicut university, EFLU, and “Celebrating Love” event in IIT Madras saw a huge participation of women. Newer and creative ways of imagining protests are required to invite and invent spaces by women for inclusive political activities.