Chanting Sacred Election-Ritual Mantras by Regulating Free Speech: ‘A Status Update’ from EFLU, Hyderabad:Kt Hafis
This is a guest post by KT HAFIS
What follows is a ‘status update’ from EFL University, Hyderabad, with special reference to the recent regulation of free speech on social networking sites in the university. It follows the polemical structure of a facebook status update as it tries to bring in a new dimension to the nature and scope of the idea of public and public sphere. At the very outset, let me make this point very clear. We are not fighting for some anarchic and absolutist idea of free speech. We know very well that freedom of expression also means a lot of responsible thinking.
First, some detail about the facts of the matter before we reflect on the philosophical and theoretical problems that they posit in the face of the ‘here and now’ of student politics in Indian universities in general and EFLU in particular.Two students, Kt Hafis (the author) and Thahir Jamal were handed show-cause notices, issued by the Proctor’s office signed by Deputy Proctor Sujata Mukhri, for having expressed our opinion on Facebook regarding the anti-reservation remarks made by Mr. Tariq Sheik, a member of the administration and Deputy Dean of Student welfare, at a students’ general body meeting organized by the Dean of Students welfare to select the electoral committee for the upcoming students’ union election at EFL university. In that meeting, students sensitive towards the problems of representation raised genuine concerns about the absence of reservation in the central panel (President, Vice-President, General Secretary, Joint Secretary, Cultural Secretary, Sports Secretary) and against the denial of the posts of SC/ST, OBC, women, disabled and foreign representatives in the new constitution of the Students’ Union. These had been approved by the Vice Chancellor of EFLU and in response to a students’ struggle conducted the last year. The Deputy DSW said that “if they are worthy, why should students need any reservation?” He also cited the example of an American student who excelled in an election conducted in JNU few years ago. He also stated threateningly that either the election will happen under this constitution as it is, or never. No, we are not saying that Mr. Tariq Sheik intentionally made malicious anti-reservation remarks. But we do believe that the language he used carries a dismissive attitude towards reservation. He has internalized the language of the ‘enlightened’ meritocratic rationality. Besides, he was addressing the students publicly in his capacity as the Deputy DSW of a central University — in disregard of the Indian constitution and UGC guidelines. Moreover when it was pointed out to him that removal of the post of Foreign Students’ Representative from the earlier constitution would only alienate the foreign students further especially in the light of the recent clashes between Indian and foreign students on campus, the Deputy DSW said that the students are “conscious and mature enough” to ensure everybody’s participation in the electoral process even without the post of foreign students’ representative. However, by the time the meeting ended with 25 students being selected for the committee, it was found that none of them were foreign students.
Responding to this, one of the students of EFLU, Mr. Thahir Jamal KM, updated his status on his Facebook wall thus:”Zero is the number of foreign students in the elected/nominated election commission. This is how our ‘matured students’ conscious’ works, Mr. Tarik Shaik. Hearing your ‘conscious’ jnu nostalgia, I don’t feel pity on your anti reservation remarks. I commented below this status update :”I really feel somebody has to sue him under ‘sc/st (Prevention of Atrocities) Act’ for his anti-reservation remarks in public.” For these, we were given show-cause notices.
These notices ask us explain the comments we made on Facebook failing which we would stand ‘guilty’. We are accused of defaming Mr. Tariq Sheik. The salaried employees of the status quo seem to have twisted the whole meaning of the status updates in a way that poses serious questions apropos of the boundaries of the freedom of expression. It also makes us think about idea of defamation. We were actually raising an issue of public concern.
According to Indian Penal Code, Section 499, the following are the instances in which the idea of defamation stands invalid. It is not defamation to impute anything which is true concerning any person if the imputation is made or published in the interest of public good. It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatsoever respecting the conduct of a public servant in the discharge of his/her public functions, or respecting his/her character, so far as his/her character appears in that conduct, and no further. It is not defamation to express in good faith any opinion whatsoever respecting the conduct of any person touching any public question, and respecting his/her character, so far as his/her character appears in that conduct, and no further. Thus we have every right to raise issues which concern the public. Our aim is not to defame any particular individual. Our aim is to structurally reorganize the campus space so that no hierarchical prejudices can come into being which corrupts campus space. For the privileged students, rights are already there as a natural gifts. But for students of disadvantaged communities, he/she needs to constantly engage with the authorities. That means the authorities would not benignly grant them their legitimate rights. Therefore, it is our task to continuously struggle against the exclusivist idea of the public and the public sphere. The public sphere can no longer be conceptualized as a pre-discursive and empirical space where rational and mature individuals and groups gather and discuss matters of mutual interest and arrive at a consensus. It is our conviction that the public sphere needs to be rethought as a discursive space of dissensus which push things to the extreme so that the existential problems of ‘the part of the no part’, to use a conceptual framework developed by Jaques Rancier, are also brought into limelight.Also, we need to think about the context in which a student resorts to social networking sites. We have tried our level best to ensure that there would be no communication gap between the student body and the administration. All the time, we used to get cold and arrogant responses from the administration. When the administration does not behave democratically, the students of EFLU have no option but to resort to social networking sites such as Facebook to bring such matters into public concern.
We strongly believe that the upcoming election with its undemocratic constitution is not going to redeem our campus from the fascist pathologies of certain bureaucrats at EFLU. Despite the fact that there is an ongoing clamours for the rights of the underprivileged, EFLU, with all its liberal secular-credentials and multi-cultural pluralism, continues to be a damn elitist campus. To cut the long story short, EFLU is exclusively meant for affluent students who can speak good English. Thus, the revolt of the reservation categories will continue to erupt from time to time so long as the so-called unreserved general categories continue to stifle their voices and presence.
Though this is my first encounter with such an absurd bureaucratic threatening gestures, this is of course not at all a new thing to this university which is notorious for its bureaucratic paranoia. Many students (mostly from marginalized and minority communities) have been verbally threatened by members of the administration and have already been given show-cause notices for putting up status messages against the administration. We reject the admininstration’s Freudian father-figure posturing and its persistent will to continuously control its students’ freedom of expression. Obviously, the bureaucratic surveillance endorsed by the EFLU authority on the online activities of students shows the extent to which the paranoia of power can vent its monstrous fury on students. Sunaina Singh, the Vice Chancellor of the University, is capable of giving a crash course to literary and critical theory. Inside the classroom, she can teach Michael Foucault; she can also throw Foucault to her dustbin when she acts as a Vice Chancellor of EFLU. Here one is tempted to make an analogy between Sunaina Singh and Narendra Modi. Both of them use the language of globalization, productivity, efficiency, excellence and protestant work ethics. That means those who are ‘unproductive’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘weak’ — in other words, those who do not rise up to meet the ruthless expectations of global market economy are to be simply sidelined. The leadership of the vibrant India is exclusively meant for ‘cultured people’, and only the meritorious and the fittest may survive. This law of the nature says the weak will have to perish.
It should be acknowledged that the EFLU constitution, as Mr. Tariq Sheik himself has pointed out in his Facebook status update, (posted after issuing show-cause notices to us) is probably the only students’ union constitution in India which has reservation for SC/ST, OBC, minorities, women and disabled students in the school councilor posts. But we must also remember that this is so because of our constant struggles to expand the terms of democracy — only that way could we bring in such structural changes in EFL University. Although some reservations have been implemented in the language of appeasement among the 20-25 school councilor posts, there is no reservation whatsoever in the central panel. We are not fighting for some numerical and formal form of representation for nominal sake. We do not nurture any notions that cosmetic changes such as formal and peripheral representations can solve problems once and for all. But we do see that this is one of the options available to us. The creative forms of student struggles in EFLU have been playing a crucial role in bringing about these progressive changes. We should read the upcoming students union election as well as controversial regulation on free speech by taking into account all these factors. We demand that the part of the no-part should have a part in the act of governing and being governed. The paradoxical feature of politics, as Ranciere has rightly pointed out, is about the moment of politics when the order of police or the order of bureaucracy often “counts” the excluded “part of no part” by acknowledging that it exists. At the same time, it also ensures that it exists in such a way as to exclude it from genuine participation. This part of no part is thus visible in the EFLU campus in such a way that it is tantamount to remaining invisible. For Ranciere, politics is this order of counting that simultaneously produces a situation where the uncounted is contested and the invisible is brought to speech. If at all we celebrate any politics, it is precisely this politics of the “part of no part” that rises up and speaks.
Our campus has already been traumatized by a number of disciplinary actions like frequent police patrolling, lathicharges, criminal cases against the struggling students, 24*7 surveillance cameras, strict implementation of bureaucratic rules as in the new Rule Book for EFLU administration. Every year, suicides happen in this university. The moralistic and self-righteous proctorial board, especially Mr. Harish Vijra, at EFL university can take pride in psychologically blackmailing Mudassir Kamran, a Phd student, badly enough to lead him to suicide. Those students who are demanding equality, justice and fairplay are being framed in criminal cases by the proctorial board. When students conduct a marginal cultural festival like Asura Week, it hurts the sentiments of the moral majority. When the puritanical Hindu-believers conduct Ayudha pooja within the library building, it is suddenly translated as Indian culture. We are still unable to grasp the logic behind the magical formula that one can secularize a public place through Hindu rituals.
Thus there are now mainly two kinds of struggles for the freedom of expression in EFLU. One fights for the freedom of upholding centuries-old colonial meritocratic selves coupled with pretentious secular values. And the other is from below which fights for the realization of true secular-democratic credentials such as equality of opportunity and equal representation. We are convinced that the important thing is to invent new language of equality which does not repeat the rationalist impulse of liberal-parliamentary democracy. Also, we do not consider the problem of social stratification simply as a policy-problem, as matter of social exclusion, which can be resolved through the implementation of some welfare measures from above. We are not that stupid to believe that those who are excluded can be easily included into the nationalist liberal-parliamentarian framework via welfare policies.
Recently the UGC has issued a circular with a view “to stop radicalization of youth” which also proposes that “effective programmes be launched in all educational institutions at regular intervals”. We can well-read the implications of this — the ways in which this may manifest in student politics in the university. We, as part of the student’s bodies fighting for equality at EFLU, are trying to set a new paradigm for student politics by tracing the roots of the problems associated with student representations in post-Mandal phase. We are not very fond of the word “radical” as the word has already been appropriated by the self-proclaimed radicals at JNU. To claim that we are counter-cultural radicals have become fashionable among student who wear the T-shirts carrying the romantic-heroic pictures of Che Guevera and Mao Tse-Tung. Till now, JNU has been operating as the big bro/Other of radical politics in India. We, the student bodies in EFLU, are trying to move the centre of the terms of discourse from the worn-out clutches of JNU paradigm of student politics, (which is tailor-made for the rationally enlightened secular-liberal humanists) by trying to invent a new language of equality, a new language of cultural freedom which speaks back to the power from below, disrupting the ideological beliefs which support the snobbery and common sense of the colonial bureaucracy as well as postcolonial liberal capitalists. Though the attempts to develop such a language have faced several setbacks, we are looking forward to reshape ourselves through constant self-questioning. Though the language of ‘Dalit rights’, ‘Muslim rights’, ‘tribal rights’ often falls prey to the liberal lobby’s pernicious rhetoric such as ‘communalization of politics’, and ‘reverse casteism’, it is precisely through these particularistic and sectarian struggles, we can hope to achieve the promised land of liberal democracy.
( Kt. Hafis is a PhD Student at EFL University, Hyderabad. He prepared this status update in consultation with Thahir Jamal)