Sharing university narrativesThings went wrong when the political parties turned the students' organisations into party units.
Media people want to talk to me about the current problems at Tribhuvan University. That is an unprecedented experience for me, a "retired professor", so called in Nepali English parlance. When I receive calls from young TV journalists and newspaper reporters, I know what they want to talk about. They want to hear the opinions of a senior academic about the confusing events happening at the university locus called Kirtipur Campus where I return only once in a while. I realise that I glibly get drawn into the discussions about the situation in the university. I realise from the inquisition of the media people that the academic practice at the university is badly caught in a politicised quagmire in recent times. I also realise that there is no piecemeal solution to the problems of higher education in this country where other universities opened at different times in different regions are also going through the same kind of experience.
Hearing stories about the university where I spent the productive years of my academic career, I become pensive and begin to recall some of my past experiences. I remember what a senior karmachari had said while handing me the letter of retirement 15 years ago. He had said, "Farmers and teachers never retire." I remember that whenever I find myself earnestly engaged in acts of pedagogy and students' research work at the invitation of the department.
When a lady TV journalist asks me what I think about the never-ending padlocks, the carelessness in setting the exam questions and the physical assaults on teachers by students, I become sad and reflective. Instead of answering her questions directly, I recall in retrospection what I wrote in an essay after retirement. I wrote, "I began my university teaching during the reign of King Mahendra, spent a greater part of my time in this profession during the rule of King Birendra, and published strong essays against the system during the rule of King Gyanendra. I don't know if that had any impact on the minds of the students. But what I know for certain is that in the classroom I never deviated from the academic path. I always adhered to that."
I do not enter into any blame game when I answer the journalists' questions. I speak on the basis of my experience and the history of this university of which I was a party like other contemporary academics and students. When I joined the university as a lecturer around 1970, the mode of higher education was passing through a very important transitional phase. What shape King Mahendra wanted to give the university was not very clear. Analysts have drawn conclusions about his educational plans on the basis of his political ambitions of dictatorial orientations. The enunciation of the New Education System Plan 1971-76 spelt out the character of this system as "prepared By Command of His Majesty King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in consonance with the requirements of the partyless (sic) democratic Panchayat polity…” King Birendra gave continuity to that system after Mahendra's death in 1972.
I spent the greater part of my academic years like other colleagues teaching at the tertiary level. I never felt any pressure to join the Panchayat polity. We were free to develop curricula and teach our subjects at the university. Students never supported the Panchayat system and continued to form their independent unions that were either inclined towards the then banned Nepali Congress or the Nepal Communist Party. Their union activities never hampered their educational calendar. The university worked in tandem with a system of pedagogy shaped by the departments and its own curricular agencies. The students called their organisations "free students union", which is used even today. The students became a force within their organisations, elections, free colloquiums and some leverage on the university that took heed of some of their important demands. During the movement for the restoration of democracy in 1990, the political parties totally relied on the organisational and free political structures and modus operandi of the students. They found a good forum there and a strong mass that could take to the streets, raise slogans and call strikes.
That was ironically the genesis of the current problem of what is called the over politicisation of the university and its educational structure. My own understanding is that it is not the students but the political parties who overtly politicised the educational system of the country. They did so first by unscrupulously defying the educational norms that the students and teachers had maintained even in difficult times. The political parties who formed the government after successive elections blatantly created groups, not only among the students, but also among the teachers. They used the positions at the university as perks to be divided among themselves, which created a culture of sharing positions and power. It was one kind of neo-capitalist profit oriented culture that harmed the university's educational structure. Some critiques that include some journalists point their fingers at the students; but they do not spare the political parties, who as I said earlier, turned the university into a place for sharing positions and power.
Things went wrong when the political parties erased educational norms and turned the students' organisations into party units without qualms. I feel sad when I read news about the major parties assigning roles to their political leaders to settle disputes among their "student wings". Some nearly middle-aged party leaders who ceased to be students long ago become office bearers of the students' wing of the party. That is a huge anomaly and a greatly unscrupulous action. Little do the political parties and the students unions, especially their leaders, realise that such a culture is destroying the very fabric of education in this country. Students' political orientations and their political clout are recognised phenomena in our part of the world. It is a sign of the democratic polity. I have in mind the student activism at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, some of which I saw myself. But what was at the centre of the movement was the student factor whether that was political or not.
To cut short my argument, I say to the journalists and interlocutors that there are two historical phases of your mistakes. In the first phase, you turned the students unions into party organisations. In the second phase, which is now, your mistakes are corroding the health of the entire educational system. Now the narratives about padlocks and fasts, assaults on teachers and anomalies in the examination system are nothing but an indication of how far things have moved in the other direction. This is happening because you did not realise it in time, and are still not prepared to correct the course when it is becoming late.