Dissent as education: Teaching in a time of repression

by Mahendran Thiruvarangan

We have stepped into another year. What does this new year hold for us? There is hardly anything that is new that also gives us hope today. The hike in value added taxes, continuing land grabs in the North-East, the impoverished conditions amidst which most Malaiyaha Tamils eke out their lives, the repressive culture we see within our universities and the war in Gaza are among those that mark the bleak historical moment that we live in. I cannot help but begin my piece on a note of despair.

Many of us hold that education awakens in us a critical consciousness, encouraging us to speak truth to power and raise critical questions about political and economic systems that produce inequalities and exclusions. Critical inquiry and scholarship that can lead to egalitarian change is impossible when dissent is disallowed at educational institutions. How would one describe the intellectual climate that prevails at our universities today? What steps have we taken to ensure there is room for unhindered exchange of ideas and perspectives within our universities?

I begin with a personal note. Last December, I returned to teach in another semester, but not with the same enthusiasm that I used to feel. Two recent incidents at my university urge me to reflect seriously upon the idea of the university as a place that nourishes dissent and diversity. In October 2023, an event where Swasthika Arulingam, a lawyer and trade unionist, was invited to speak on the independence of judiciary, could not take place as planned due to opposition from the students on the grounds that she had characterized the LTTE as a fascist force in a previous speech. In December, two members of the general public who came to participate in the Jaffna International Film Festival, held at the University, were turned away because they were wearing shorts. The shorts ban, I am told, is prevalent in many other universities, too, in most cases, imposed by students.

Five years ago, when I joined the University of Jaffna, I saw it as a place that was slowly emerging out of the long shadows of violence that the North witnessed during decades of Tamil militancy which resulted in, among other destructive developments, the othering of a section of Tamils, including students and academics, who refused to accept the LTTE’s supremacy or Tamil nationalist politics. However, continued interference by the military in the various affairs of the university, including the appointment and removal of Vice Chancellors, the barring of a Law academic from practising as he appeared in a case where the military stood implicated, and the memorialization events for the slain LTTE cardres and Tamil civilians killed during the war, posed a threat to the intellectual activities and student activism, within the university.

The two recent incidents create in me a sense of worry, mainly because a significant segment of the academic community and general public in the North rushed to justify these incidents, especially on online platforms. Does this mean that the space that slowly opened up within the university and the North to discuss different political views is likely to shrink in the future not just because of the state but also due to the actions of forces from within the North and Tamil nationalist groups? Certainly, the University of Jaffna is not the only university in the country where dissent is discouraged. I hope these personal reflections trigger a national conversation about the conditions amidst which our state universities try to function as places that accommodate dissent.

I turn to my students who wait for my classes with hope or due to compulsion. I turn to those who speak or are silent in my classes. Students are a complex, heterogenous group, a community of its own that is inflected by the contradictions seen in larger society. They are also shaped by their personal experiences, the state and its violent actions, the nationalist media and political parties, the sub-cultural practices that they have inherited from their seniors via hegemonic, homogenizing acts like ragging and diasporic actors with polarizing political agendas. The teacher is one of the many persons that students interact with on a regular basis. The din of nationalism and cultural parochialism amidst which the student’s ideas about culture, nation, education and justice take shape requires the radical teacher to go the extra mile and try in innovative ways to start a conversation on criticality with the student. This process involves difficult discussions both inside and outside the classroom. It also rests on our willingness to dismantle hierarchical teacher-student relations. As Paulo Freire wrote, eloquently, “education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction by reconciling the poles of the contradictions so both are simultaneously teachers and students.”

The democratic space that we create or fail to create in the classroom has consequences for our students about who they turn out to be, how they view their university, the larger society and their politics. The discussions that we have or fail to have on the exclusions that nationalism and cultural policing produce have serious implications for their social outlook. Sadly, large sections of the academia across the state universities are reluctant to challenge the nationalisms that prevail in the country. Many of them naturalize nationalist exclusions in the name of self-determination and anti-imperialism or by sustaining the false binary of the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed without attending to their discursive similarities. Universities have to prioritize critical conversations. It is a pact that we make with both our students and education itself. This may be easier said than done as often the teacher is othered too because of their identity or theoretical/ideological approach not just by the administration but also by students. Yet, we, as teachers with a commitment to democratization must explore new ways of engaging and challenging our students (and administrations) without being paternalistic and without succumbing to romanticized narratives which conjure up the undergraduate as torch bearer of revolution. There is a great deal that we can learn from intellectuals like Rajani Thiranagama who engaged with their students and supported them during times of trouble, even as they challenged them on their politics.

Framing education as a mechanical process of studying the world’s problems and finding technocratic solutions is one reason why our universities have become intolerant of dissent. We need an education that is empathetic towards the different forms of exclusion, pain, and trauma observed amidst and around us. An education that calls for self-introspection among communities, especially on instances where communities made blunders even as they fought for change, is necessary. I say this specifically in relation to the Tamil struggle for liberation and the role the University of Jaffna played in shaping that struggle and the blunders that the academic community in the North made when they failed to speak up for members of the academia and students who faced threats from both the state and militant movements.

These are also difficult times for the higher education sector in the country. The imminent privatization of education and the deliberate attempts to weaken student movements and dissent seek to de-link education from social justice. The material conditions amidst which education happens today has a bearing on the quality of our academic activities. There is a recruitment freeze in force. The brain-drain is taking away whatever meagre human resources we have. Creating sites that encourage dissent is impossible without necessary investment by the state. The ongoing economic dispossession overburdens the teacher and the student and deflects their attention away from creating an educational atmosphere where discussions can be diversified.

Searching for hope in a system derailed by repression and economic assaults requires greater solidarities. If the system is crumbling and the peripheral universities have to bear a disproportionate brunt of the havoc, the universities with better resources have to step in and provide support. The huge inequalities observed within our university system, between different Faculties in a university, and the manner in which universities outside the Western Province have been neglected by the state is a problem that many in academia are reluctant to discuss. It is now the onus of the teachers’ unions and student bodies to discuss how resources can be shared and come up with a proposal that can be used to compel the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Higher Education to re-think the way resources are distributed within the public university system. They should also unitedly advocate for more budgetary allocation for education.

Hope is inseparable from discussion, reflection, solidarity and action. The future of our education system depends on how we take forward these processes and work with our students in making universities places that foster critical consciousness.