Battle of the moustacheUniversities should produce ideas and expand the sphere in such a way that it becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Last week, something published in the Kantipur daily struck me. It was a news that was explaining the battle of the moustache—junga ko ladaain—happening at Kathmandu University. It reported how the Kathmandu University that remained unaffected by the wave of partisan culture that was eroding trust in other universities, including the greatest and oldest Tribhuvan University, was becoming a victim, too. As the Kathmandu Post reported, for the first-time ever since the university was established in 1991, the institution of higher education has been paralysed for nearly a month by protests.
Political meddling has long held hostage our universities. There is a power struggle among the men in the university to hold position, wealth and decision-making privilege. Most institutions of higher education are in a lamentable state. Yet, people who want to ameliorate the condition of the educational institutions are divided, and at best, caught in a catch 22 situation.
The day the news came out, one of my students was defending her preliminary PhD proposal at the Arts Faculty of Kathmandu University. But I was told some sections in the faculty were padlocked since teaching staff and employees have been demanding the formation of independent associations in the university. Needless to say, this was affecting academic work. This sorry state of affairs left me deeply pensive for Kathmandu University—where academicians were usually dedicated and sincere towards their work. I could not help but ask: Where had things gone wrong?
Similarly, I am dismayed by reports of the erosion of academic work at Tribhuvan University (TU)—the country’s oldest and the most reputed institution of higher education. At TU, I meet students who are engaged in their research. Similarly, classes are running at full swing at different departments in different schools. I meet the head of the sociology department Dambar Chemjong directing people to clean the environment. I don't agree when my contemporaries, that include some emeritus professors and others who used the university only to augment their careers elsewhere, say that Tribhuvan University has completely collapsed and has lost its sheen.
Then I ask myself, what am I doing there for half a century if not academic work? What are the brilliant teachers and students doing each day with their readings and research? But what is also true is that there are problems.
So what plagues Nepal’s institutions of higher learning? Freeing universities from the grips of political parties is the first corrective measure that we need to take. But doing so is difficult for two reasons. First, students have become pawns at the hands the politicians who often mobilise them to fulfil their vested interested. Students have helped them by calling general strikes, marching with torches and banners on the streets facing the wrath of police actions.
Second, the most serious part of the narrative, is that the parties have hegemonised—in Gramscian sense—the students' affiliations with their parties by creating the illusion that the students' organisations were their party wings. The indifference of the leaders of Nepali Congress, while their cadres from the youth wing fight, is heartbreaking, to say the least. But the story of students associated with communist parties is not much different, either.
As institutions and people who would take up the cudgel to free the universities from the grips of the political parties become weaker, this poses yet another problem. The uncanny growth of crony capitalism, aptly called asepase punjibaad in Nepali, has added to the difficulty.
There are problems related to education, curricula and regular academic practices. But all of it is affected by the slow debilitation of active academic agencies that could be students, teachers, taxpayers, civil societies and good politicians. To take one example, Ramkumari Jhankri—currently a member of parliament and former president of All Nepal National Free Students Union—is one such name who has commendable knowledge about the process of freeing academic institutions from the grip of the political parties. In her speeches, Jhankri says though she owes it to the political party for her political rise, it is a great folly to entrap the students into a hegemonised structure of the so-called party affiliations of the students.
It is a great loss that universities have become unchallenged playing grounds for political and government leaders. The lack of resistance to this kind of phenomena has worked in their favour. Quite naturally then, these leaders see power, money, clout and aggrandisement that they can exploit by influencing the academic autonomy with the authority emanating from their executive power; they hold the highest positions in the university structures as chancellors—and surrogate chancellors. The surrogate chancellors are mainly responsible for cutting contact between free academics and the university policymaking process.
But there is good news, too. Highly qualified academics are working at different institutions, faculties and universities of Nepal. They have the knowledge and wisdom to decide how universities should be structured as institutions of liberating education—that includes medical and technical subjects as well as humanities and the social sciences. The greatest requirement, therefore, is to create a caucus to work openly as free academic activists, draw plans, produce ideas and expand the sphere in such a way that it becomes a force to be reckoned with, and whose voice will compel those who are hegemonising it all, to listen to them and realise that the battle of moustache is a burlesque and a sham.
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