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Our White Knights in Whining Armour

This article has been written by Anonymous. In this article, Anon discusses how in this era of lockdown and Rigour Raj, perceived marginalised experiences have often been co-opted by Law School’s vocal elites to meet their own ends. Some food for thought, for the next time anyone feels like spamming the batch group or starting a mail thread.

This cover picture is from the NewStatesman. 

This platform recently published an article detailing the results of a survey that intended to bring to light a variety of mental health concerns that were plaguing the student body amidst the current pandemic crisis. The ostensible agenda of this survey (and the article) was to demonstrate to the magazine’s readers the fact that students’ mental health had, in fact, been adversely affected by the crisis and, while not explicit, that the college administration had somewhat failed in addressing the student body’s needs with respect to the crisis. To the writers’ credit, they focused on a general need for greater mental health infrastructure rather than pinpointing any particular administrative shortcomings. However, this article perhaps represented the culmination of the widespread “grievance-airing” (to put it politely) that the student body has been indulging in since the start of the lockdown.

The (Misplaced) Idea of India

This first began with batch groups grumbling that conducting Zoom classes would be inequitable to the student body, due to disparities in access to stable internet connectivity. (Un)surprisingly enough, this woe-is-me attitude seemed to emanate not from those members of the community that were actually facing difficulties, but from the (usually left-liberal) elites of each batch. These well-meaning individuals took it upon themselves to champion the cause of their cohorts whom they assumed would be grateful to them for speaking out against this obvious injustice being meted out to the lesser, hinterland-dwelling simpletons. In their eagerness to virtue signal and score points in the Woke Olympics, these elites forgot to do one crucial thing – take the time out to talk to their peers, if not one-on-one, at least on the batch group, and figure out how this apparent “lack of internet access” was impacting people. And therein lies the hamartia of Law School’s elite.

If they had, they would have discovered that middle India, contrary to elitist conceptions (which seem to be an essentialist rehash of Orientalist constructions), is not a vast jungle teeming with tigers and elephants, where there is no electricity, water, or network connectivity. Most of our cohorts, author included, are not located in such far-flung locales so as to lack modern infrastructure altogether. Financial access to this infrastructure is surely limited, but this roadblock was quickly lifted by the administration when they offered to reimburse students for data packs. Despite this, we see that the experiences of the marginalised (who are invariably lower caste and class) are time and again co-opted by the elite in order to further their own agenda.

Confronting Privilege

Perceived queer, Dalit, and marginalised experiences appear to be routinely used as talking points in lengthy emails sent out to the administration detailing their apparent apathy towards students, while actual consultation and discussion leaves much to be desired. Here again, well-meaning elites dominate the discussion both on Facebook, on batch groups, and in student representative community space. Passing the mic seems to be something entirely alien to these elite tastemakers, who confidently pronounce to their batchmates what new intersectional issue they should be outraged about today.

The most vocal complainants about home confinement aren’t those students who are from Chitrakoot or Asarganj, whose families have overcome generations of socio-economic barriers to enable them to go to college, but the ones who have cushy, air-conditioned 4BHK homes in Malleshwaram, Nariman Point, or Green Park (sometimes all three!). These individuals write lengthy emails to the administration and to their batches, detailing the intense mental pressure they are under due to having to serve their grandmother 3 meals a day, where their maid would do it before. Woe is me. Of course, we are all cognizant of the different ways in which an individuals’ mental health can be affected, but at least consider not using marginalised communities’ experiences to guilt-trip the administration. Confront your own struggles and ask for leniency on that basis – don’t piggyback off on ours.

It is this tone-deafness of the elite that needs to change. We all know someone with those classic manifestations of privilege – upper caste (and invariably class), generations of parents have been educated at the best schools money can buy, doesn’t need to have a monthly budget, never eats in the mess (it’s just soooo oily, ugh!), goes clubbing only twice a month, but most importantly, never lets go of a chance to talk about how poor they are because they still use *gasp* wired earphones, or the fact that it is soooo unfair that the Aditya Birla Scholarship is only open to the top 20 ranks (“seriously, they should at least allow all us general students to apply ya”), or how they’re probably going to have to “settle” for Singapore for their exchange next year instead of Europe because they have family there.

Enough is enough.

If you’re going to fight for social justice, then begin by confronting the immense privilege you come from, rather than pretending like your experiences are the same as those of your batchmates.

Always the Victim, never an Agent: On Academic Rigour in Trim III

The college’s new Vice Chancellor has been reduced to a caricature by community meme pages and batch discussions – haha, aCaDeMiC rIgOuR, am I right? Public fora seem to be abuzz with outrage – how dare he ask us to fire on all cylinders amidst this pandemic? How dare he think of us as scamsters when we fought tooth and nail to get electives? Fair enough.

It’s also fair to scoff at this outrage when you see those same people posting their reviews of a new Netflix show every other day up until last-last day, when the tone of their social media shifts to “haha, I’m such a baller. I’m doing my projects at the last minute but can’t help but squeeze in a 3-hour binge sesh of The Office. LOL DAE?” And of course, that other breed of I’m-too-cool-for-this-class-and-any-other-class, who openly admit to logging into Zoom in the mornings and promptly going back to sleep. I digress – I’m not here to point fingers at individuals.

The point here is that there is a definite culture of academic apathy amongst Law School students – from the entitled attitude towards extensions, to the dismissal of certain teachers as ‘scams’, to the pride taken in writing projects at the last minute and in dodging plagiarism software. Taking umbrage at these comments and defending oneself through social media diatribes will not make the problem go away. The fact that so many scoffed at the Vice Chancellor’s comment that focusing on academics is a viable way to manage one’s external anxieties goes to show the utter lack of value that our community places on structured academic learning. And no, Isha (the Indian elite version of Karen), your Human Rights professor expecting students to read for class is not ironic. Maintaining a routine and a semblance of normalcy is often calming to individuals prone to anxiety (and who are, more often than not, queer/Dalit folx).

While the value that one places on academics is entirely a personal decision, the answer cannot be to structurally do away with rigour altogether. There will always be reasons to deviate from academic expectations – some argue that this pandemic can be existentially terrifying, causing one to procrastinate. After this, we’ve still got to deal with climate change, with institutional casteism, with the unsustainable inequalities of global capitalism. Reducing the workload – which, if we’re all being honest, is not unmanageable to begin with – is not the answer. Rather, calls for strengthening of mental infrastructure and for the creation of community spaces that value and preserve mental health are the way forward.

Aditya Rawat’s group initiative is a great start. While the issues with online group therapy sessions were detailed in the survey article, it is also important to create spaces by and for marginalised communities as well. Elites cannot be a part of this process – not because they don’t have the right intentions, but simply due to the fact that a vast majority of the Law School community does not feel connected to these urban elites. We do not feel comfortable airing our thoughts and our grievances within that bubble, where an opinion that does not fit in neatly within their world-view is immediately placed under intense scrutiny, and the person holding that opinion castigated. Many of us have generations of patriarchal, caste-dominated, anti-poor, and anti-minority ways of thinking inculcated in us. It takes time to undo these ways of thinking – but elite impositions of right and wrong will not help. Give the marginalised a space to articulate her thoughts. Listen to what she has to say.

Pass the Mic – and Leave the Room

On a more sober note, we’ve been quick to co-opt the institutional murder of a class X Dalit girl (apparently due to a lack of resources and access to online classes) for our own agenda against the Vice Chancellor, implicitly making the statement that many of our own cohorts are in the same situation and being denied empathy by the institution. To this, again, we need ask ourselves the question – are we all really in the same situation as that girl was in?

We see the usual suspects scrambling to think of potential catastrophes that could befall a student during the exam and are quick to vilify the administration for a perceived lack of empathy towards the same. Yet, somehow, the wider community is yet to hear of a single incident of actual laptop / network failure. True, this exam set-up required us all to proceed with caution and not leave submission to the last minute, given the tendency of laptops to start hanging exactly when you need them for time-sensitive tasks. However, it appears that the students who were running from pillar to post concerned about this situation are, unsurprisingly, not those who are actually getting through Law School on a scholarship-funded laptop, but those with the latest MacBook (pardon the crude simplification).

The Law School community, to me, has failed in its social justice goal when we have this repeated romanticizing of the lesser-privileged as nothing more than a victim, dealt an unfair hand by the administration. The fact is that even now, public discourse is dominated by the privileged rather than there being a real platform for the lesser privileged to discuss their situations and grievances.

What do the disabled have to say about this new model of learning and evaluation? How is our compatriot in Kashmir coping – has the admin been responsive? What do the people besieged by Cyclone Amphan need? While it is easy to draw conjecture (see a certain student’s widely shared SBA Noticeboard post) and assume the worst of their situations, the only real way for a community to grow is by listening, not assuming.

A previous article here attempted to draw attention to this, but was sadly dismissed by some as being woke posturing by other elites. Perhaps it is telling that we see discourse that threatens to be more progressive than status quo as merely posturing while anything less so is dismissed as regressive and not even worth a conversation. A lifetime of living (and arguing) online seems to have hardened us all – it seems the only thing that brings us progressives joy is to smugly comment on how someone else’s progressiveness lacks nuance (present company included).

It’s time, then, to not just to pass the mic and give the sub-altern a platform from which she can actually speak, but also to stop seeing the sub-altern as nothing more than a victim of the administration. Robbing her of her agency to express her actual thoughts and feelings about administrative decisions and their impact on her mental health will reduce her to a talking point, an agenda to be championed in the pursuit of Woke Olympic points, but will never actually empower her or make her feel heard and seen by the community. Adding a few progressive buzzwords to your Twitter bio doesn’t make you a champion – and neither does posting smug commentary about how deluded those other champagne socialists are. You are doing nothing to better the lives of the people in your community, so don’t delude yourself into thinking you are. Social media activism is a minuscule echo chamber – instead, let your praxis show how you care about the marginalised.

Give us the space to articulate our thoughts. Let us decide how administrative decisions affect us. Let us decide whether this “academic rigour” is too much for us. In short, let us exist. Not as talking points, not as agendas, but as real, living people with agency.

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