The State of emergency and emergences: Democratising education

‘The battle against the KNDU Bill has brought to the fore the impulse on the part of successive governments to usher in a regimen of control, externally imposed discipline, authoritarianism and surveillance.’

By Sivamohan Sumathy

Kuppi Talk nears its half year mark in the midst of a pandemic. In these months, we witnessed the country sink into a mire of a COVID crisis, and an economic slump. It has also been a battleground of protests and counter protests. Through much of the past year, the writers associated with it raised critical questions about issues that the pandemic has created or exacerbated; issues that have far reaching consequences for education, not merely in their temporary modality, like online learning and teaching, or the closure of schools and universities, but in their very functioning as productive forces of civic and public culture. In summarising and distilling these range of concerns into a theoretical undertaking, and simultaneously pointing to the directions our engagement may take. I focus on the salient concerns besetting education as a whole and higher education in particular.

Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci are two notable activist theoreticians who have written on the intimate connections between the state and civil society. Gramsci’s name today is synonymous with hegemony while Althusser famously formulated the two-part constitution of the political state: the ideological state apparatus (ISA) and the repressive state apparatus (RSA). The military, as Althusser would say, is the repressive apparatus of the state, while the ideological apparatus is made up foremost of education. Both political theorists hold the view that the field of education is the site of play of ideological signification, namely hegemony. I draw upon these theoriesin exploring the connections between militarisation and privatisation, and militarisation as a state of emergency.

In the ever-increasing blurring of lines between home and work, work and out of work, open and closed, more open, and more closed, social distance and socially distanced, we enter a state of uncertainty. Order is imposed on this state of uncertainty, the workings of an RSA. A state of emergency impinges on public and private life, raising the spectre of a semi-totalitarian state in its crudest form, the military state. On the other hand, within the ideological field, the ISA—the normalisation of neoliberal undertakings, particularly those pertaining to reducing education to skills and competencies—theoretical underpinnings are understood not as political and ideological, but as natural. To this end, we need to re-evaluate the reforms facing the universities, schools and education as a whole.

De Military and demilitarisation: the task for an emergent democracy

The battle against the KNDU Bill has brought to the fore the impulse on the part of successive governments to usher in a regimen of control, externally imposed discipline, authoritarianism and surveillance. These forces already prevail in the university and in other educational spaces, where increased surveillance has been instituted through a series of monitoring mechanisms, orders of control exerted upon academic spaces; every activity of life undergoes a close supervision through a technology of surveillance. They range from close monitoring of the curriculum, policies being drafted elsewhere and imposed on the academic community, and circulars to CCTV cameras, body checks, barricades and security check points. These moves, old and new, go hand in glove with encroaching privatization of university spaces as government policies of funding, think tank proposals for the universities would demonstrate (Sumathy, “University as Institution: transforming the modern” in

“The University as Institution: Transforming the modern” in Neo Liberalism, Critical Pedagogy and Education. Delhi: Routledge, 2015). Previous Kuppi Talk articles too have amply touched on these aspects.

Educational spaces have always been hierarchical, and reforms have done little to address them; instead they have side stepped questions of class, ethnicity, gender, and other social faultlines, and exacerbated them in the disregard for a bottom up, transformative programme of education. Concerns like sexual violence, disregard for minority and women’s voices are apt to get even more lost than they are in the ongoing programme to homogenise the curriculum and to reduce it to a matter of skills and competencies.

The militarisation of education needs to be understood historically, contextually, and nationally. Militarisation itself is not a new story. The long years of the ethnic conflict, the war and its aftermath instituted the military establishment as a core unit of the governance structure of the state apparatus, an indispensable RSA. In post war north and east, the military was not only occupying ordinary people’s land, but also came to be a part of the structure of admininstration, the structure of the economy and the structure of higher levels governance. Civilian structures were overseen by the Army in the early years of post war north and east. Ex- military personnel were appointed as governors. The Army engaged in economic production and became an employer. This normalisation of the role of the military in civic political and economic life allowed surveillance of university academics and the monitoring of university spaces to take place with impunity, in the name of national security. An instance of this is recounted in. While the military in the north and east was not particularly a neoliberal establishment, they are a part of the RSA that oversees and gives form to the ideological maneuvers in education, privatisation, militarisation and increasing surveillance of academic life. The disciplinary mechanism in place at KDU, though absurd, is hardly eyebrow raising. KDU might seem like outright repression, but we had allowed the military as an institution to take control of our lives long before the KNDU Bill came along and long before we had been able to name it as such.

Militarisation, Privatisation and the Ideological State Apparatus

In the insidious combination of military order and privatisation, one witnesses a blurring of lines between the ISA and the RSA. The KNDU Bill demonstrates very clearly the privatising impetus couched within the act of militarization. The hegemonic apparatus, albeit complex, hinges on the persuasive power of a set of terms that draw upon populist rhetorics like employability, soft skills in higher education, performances, and demand. Critical thinkers in the field, too, have fallen into the trap of anecdotal referencing of the imperatives of education. For instance, Panduka Karunanayake makes thought-provoking remarks in his article

though I may not agree with his theoretical basis. He questions the superficiality of the received wisdom on efficiency and performance, much touted as the panacea for the ills of education. In his response to Kuppi Talk, he makes a painstaking effort to delineate the column’s preoccupations, engaging with it at a conceptual level ( However, surprisingly, and unwittingly, he makes a case for the neo liberal set of poorly conceptualised market reforms in education, in a reductive and simplistic move that demonstrates how hard it is to confront the ideological moves of the militarist and neoliberal paradigm of education.

Populist rhetoric has come to shape research as well. The Audit Office’s report on Arts Education is an instance of the shaky premises on which reforms toward arts education are founded ( The mantra of employability which Kuppi Talk writers have tried to counter and complicate is found everywhere. One is doubly confounded when funding organisations, like the World Bank, rather than academic bodies set the terms of discussion and reform on education and higher education.

Emergences: A counter hegemonic struggle

In the paradox of the state of uncertainty rests our survival as democratic beings. It is a productive statement of purpose. It invokes a renewed call for democratisation; an emergence within the paradigms set for us by the emergency of the pandemic call. For Gramsci, who called for a capture of the hegemonic field, democratisation of education is a political need. Much of the anecdotal superficiality of the prescriptive modalities of educational reforms stems from a lack of a philosophical and political inquiry into education and its imperatives. In alterity, I would argue that free education as a principle is the starting point for us today, not only for an analysis of sociological and political considerations, but for the formulation of a response to neoliberal reforms of education—reforms of the curriculum and pedagogical concerns. Free education is the motive force of a counter hegemonic struggle.

FUTA’s action today against the KNDU Bill, calling for a halt to encroaching militarisation of educational spaces brings back memories of our historic struggle for 6% GDP and the Million Signature Campaign. Today, another mighty force takes to protest, raising vital questions about education: Teachers. These struggles may not be sustainable over a long period and maybe riven from within. However, the field is set for a counter hegemonic struggle, a struggle that will push the boundaries of the discussion on education, opening up spaces for all voices to emerge, whether they be about privatisation or about hierarchies in the university space. The struggle should open spaces for a discourse on ownerships and marginalities, curriculum and access, language and languages and sexuality and sexual violences, ragging included. In other words, free education and the multiple mobilities it enables.