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The Politics of Openings, the Politics of Closures State, Nation and Universities in India and Africa

We are academics raised and educated in various parts of the world, and now living and working in South Africa. The predicaments of its higher education landscape and society mark our work and thought. In this article, we approach that story from our other locations: the rest of the African continent and India.

Student protest in South Africa,

We are academics raised and educated in various parts of the world, and now living and working in South Africa. The predicaments of its higher education landscape and society mark our work and thought. In this article, we approach that story from our other locations: the rest of the African continent and India.

In both spaces, a critical encounter between higher education, student protests and movements, broader society and polity has been playing itself out. Student movements have challenged authoritarian governments in many African countries and continue to take centre stage there. Currently in India, in the name of nationalism, a divisive and increasingly totalitarian state is leading an aggressive attack on universities. Last month saw a concerted attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)—a university community renowned for its egalitarian ethos and thoughtful, incisive critical inquiry. This week University of Hyderabad’s students and teachers have been at the receiving end of police brutality.

Against this backdrop,  we briefly chart the pre-history of the clash between wilful states, market logics, narrow nationalisms on the one hand and, on the other hand, progressive politically conscientious student protesters and movements in India and various parts of the African continent. These histories mirror each other and we believe juxtaposing them against each other can be generative for the South African and other contexts.

Students and State: Clashes on the Continent

 ‘Modern’ higher education in Africa took off in the dying days of colonialism. In the British colonies regional universities were set-up to service sub-regions: the University of Ibadan and Fourah Bay College for West Africa, Makere University College (as it was then known) for East Africa. In the French colonies, identified potential local collaborators with demonstrable amount of ‘manners’ – the èvoluès – were sent to some of the best institutions in France. Children of local elites especially benefitted from this arrangement.

Confronted by the reality of stark racism in 20th century France most of the evolues began reassessing their place in society. Gradually they began to resist and renounce the ‘rational’ system they had been schooled to serve under the rubric of mission civilisatrice: Thus was born pan-African (in the broad sense) anti-colonialism under the aegis of Federation des Etudiants d’ Afrique Noire en France (FEANF). A similar process was taking placing with the students in England, Portugal and Belgium and the USA. From Nkrumah, Nyere, Cabral, Senghor, Kenyatta to Mondlane one can draw a line of students who later opposed the system they were groomed to maintain.

Fast-forward to the post-colonial moment. Universities were established across the continent as vehicles to staff the new states, as incubators of ideas in the service of a national project and as symbols of nationhood. The going got off to a good start. Free education and lavish accommodation became available and students became a special layer, which the nascent nations invested in. For example soon after earning his first degree Chinua Achebe went on to head external broadcasting at the then Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.

With time this uplifted social segment taught to think and question turned their critical eye towards the political structure. Sections of the student movement became strident critics of the numerous one-party state and presidencies for life. Increasingly leaders saw them as rival politicians preparing the ground for their own political careers. Gagging orders were put in place with the presence of police informants across campuses. Progressive leaders such Julius Nyerere of Tanzania banned political organizations and publications under the pretext that they propagated foreign ideology. Criticism is supposedly un-African, if directed at the state. Universities lost their darling status.

The road map to crush the universities was laid out in the wake of the structural adjustment program when following the debt crisis of the 1970’s the IMF and World Bank insisted that Africa does not need higher education as part of  its economic recovery package. Africa only needs basic education! Compared to basic education, the rate of return relative to investment in higher education was said to be sub-optimal. Henceforth higher education must be outsourced to the West. Africa provides basic education, the west provides higher education. The decay in facility, teacher exodus and rising authoritarianism further distanced the erstwhile chosen students from regimes.

But the so-called second independence struggle against dictatorships and one-party states once again galvanized students across the continent. Underlying the overthrow of Hastings Banda in the first multi-party elections of 1994 was the synthesis between between struggling students at the University of Malawi and larger masses. Student struggles contributed in no small measure to the fall of Abdou Diouf in Senegal, Mobutu in then Zaire, and the challenge to Paul Biya’s continuing dictatorship in the early 90’s in Cameroun. In neighboring Zimbawe however, as Brian Raftoplous reminded us in his recent talk at the University of the Western Cape, the state mobilised an exclusionary language of nationalism and engaged in an aggressive politics of othering as it sought to contain the ferment on its campuses.

Today education is commodified in differing degrees across Africa. Student protests against fees, mal-administration and levies are a constant. Their ability to connect with popular discontents could be a defining moment in the struggle against the continent-wide neoliberal consensus. As students, teachers and universities challenge the rising global plutocracies in the name of market, can they also counter the cultural fundamentalism that the state has deployed in places such as Zimbawe (and is doing so now in India) to crush dissent?

In India, this state backed identitarian claim to culture and nation has placed significantly subaltern student population, leaders and teachers of universities such as JNU, University of Hyderabad and others under siege. But despite many attempts at slandering student leaders their supporters and teachers, the students have spoken back to cultural fundamentalists and the state in eloquent, incisive and inspiring ways. And, the whole country as well as many across the world have been listening. We contextualise and explain:

The Indian Encounter

In 2014 a new Indian government came to power. It was the third time that a government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP was coming to power. It came to power on the back of an estimated billion dollar advertising campaign projecting its leading man, Narendra Modi, as pragati purush or “development man.” At the time many (including two authors of this article) questioned the development claims of the growth model that the campaign espoused. We also recalled the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat that took place under Mr. Modi’s watch leaving nearly 1000 peope largely from the minority Muslim community dead.

The Gujarat pogrom was the culmination of a violent polarizing politics that has a long, unfortunate history in India. In the late colonial period as the freedom movement began to come into its own, an image of the Indian nation also emerged. The search for recognition and an affirmative identity that would heal the colonial wound turned into aggressive nationalism. For members of Hindu nationalist groups the Indian nation should be cast in the glow of a robust Hindu culture whose dominance may not be questioned. The exclusionary and masculine character of such a majoritarian culture especially relegates minorities to the status of social and political minors.

Indeed the last seven decades of independent India have seen socio-economic marginalization of the minority Muslim population, continued atrocities against the so-called untouchable groups or Dalits, and well-documented state repression in regions that have seen struggles for self-determination—from Kashmir, to Punjab, to the North-East. The Hindu nationalist BJP, its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh, and affiliates have not been the sole agents of this state of affairs. Far from it! They have however been extremely complicit in some of the worst expressions of the majoritarian ideology and culture underwriting the many tragedies of the Indian nation, and its violence.

 India became a nation on the back of a violent partition that killed at least a million people. When the BJP came to power in 2014 many anticipated a new wave of violent polarizations this time backed with state force. However few could imagine that this force would strike so crudely but repeatedly at young students from some of the most marginal groups in the country engaged in generating emancipatory thought and politics at some of the country’s best educational institutions. Their teachers are also not being spared. For the story of India is not just the story of aggressive nationalism, marginalization of minorities and repressive laws. India’s story in the last seven decades of independence is also the story of internationally respected institutions like JNU and University of Hyderabad (UOH).

Such institutions are respected for the excellent research and many outstanding students they have produced; they are respected for the safe space they provide to youths from across the country to learn, debate, discuss and dissent. Importantly they are respected for the immense contribution that their students and faculty have made to formulating socially and economically just, inclusive visions of India that counter its divisive, violent forces, and for repeatedly interrogating Indian society and polity when it fails to live up to them. Faculty and students have carried out these robust interrogations in classrooms, in academic writings, in the public domain, as journalists, as members of social movements and political parties, and in the country’s everyday life.

At this moment in time, this socially just vision, the students, faculty and institutions that  embody them are under siege. They are under siege due to the actions of a university administration and police force that crackdowns on students demanding inquiry against practices which discriminate against Dalits; they are under attack from a state that has readily imposed charges of sedition punishable with life imprisonment against students who had allegedly raised slogans questioning the nature of Indian nationalism. Some like Rohith Vemula have been driven to suicide.

At the same time sections of the media have been fostering suspicions and jingoistic passions against entire student bodies and teachers for instance at JNU for disagreeing, dissenting and critiquing the ruling party and its’ affiliates view of India. Any and every critique of an aggressively homogenizing nationalist ideology, market driven state policy or the state’s armed forces is now being dubbed ‘anti-national.’ Consequently much loved and respected institutions, their progressive members, and critique itself are being minortized and criminalized.

Just Belonging? Some Questions for South Africa

Closer home, in South Africa, the Anti-Apartheid movement gained inspiration and sustenance from school and university students. Ideas, muscles and tactics were exchanged between campus and factory. Protest action is not new to South Africa; but for many “born-free”, young South Africans born after apartheid,  student politics has just started becoming a familiar space. Right now however, the combined weight of private security on campuses and criminal charges threaten to demobilize a nationwide movement that was, last year, asking hard questions about the nature of the polity, society, economy and education.

Students are also asking questions of each other. Three weeks ago, the Trans Collective at UCT stridently reminded us about the ways in which they have been written out of the student movement. They reminded us about the closures that can and have come to mar many movements. These closures may emanate from patriarchal attitudes leaving little space for women and those who do not identify with predominant gender categories; they can also emanate from majoritarianism and cultural fundamenatlism. The situation prevailing in India, and what transpired in nearby Zimbawe and some other parts of the continent gives us pause and compels us to ask: how can university communities articulate forms of just belonging, which counters new hierarchies and old—the hierarchies generated by the market, by feudal and caste relations, and by sexual preferences, gender, race and religion? If a majoritarian culture threatens a space such as JNU in India, how can black students and staff on the African co
 ntinent, where they constitute a majority, rally against the dominance of the market-economics in higher education and their societies without turning majoritarian themselves?

We look forward to students and university movements in South Africa and on the rest of the continent taking a course, which can draw upon and engage with the many small insurgencies across their respective countries while abiding by the most inclusive version of pan-Africanism. Universities and students on the African continent might then offer a notion of just belonging and citizenship that is not narrow, and does not go down the violent divisive path that India has, which many there are trying to counter. They may then be able to undo the legacies of colonialism and the inequalities of a growth-based model not in a way that simply overturns old hierarchies to place the ones on bottom on the top, but in a way that possibilities of such stratification are themselves displaced.

Thank you to the authors for submitting this article to portside.