Unsolicited Advice, Aunties and JNU: A Great Middle Class Pastime

Nothing stirs the nation like a controversy that has the words JNU emblazoned on it.

It has everything that the uncles and aunties of the Hindu middle-class love to hate. Opinionated young adults and irreverent young women bringing attention to themselves, fearlessly questioning authorities. It’s the middle class’s dream come true, for now they get to admonish, rebuke and sermonise all with that tingling relish of pleasure and satisfaction.

It is a day well-spent when you get to whip out the familiar trio of condescension, classism and casteism packed in the garb of well-meaning advice; advice which is laughable and so cringeworthy that you are almost forced to be embarrassed on their behalf. Because sharm toh unko aati nahi.

To enter this discourse is to enter a living room which has some of your least liked neighbours and relatives. Well-meaning aunties who find it hard to grasp the concept of unsolicited advice. From “Beta, you should put besan and milk on your face” to “nobody will marry girls with so many degrees”, they keep giving.

The problem with unsolicited advice is not only is it unwanted and ignorant of the realities, it is usually intentionally provocative – meant to conjure some special reverence for them.

(Now we aren’t those women who want to shut down other women by calling them ‘aunties’, but when opinions are this patronising towards the youth, one is greatly reminded of one’s extended family and relatives, who you must be respectful around even as you are seething from the inside).

Take for instance the range of conjectures, advice and supposedly well-meaning queries that have come the way of JNU students from aunties Geeta Bhatt, Monika Halan and Smita Prakash.

Let’s start with Dr Geeta Bhatt, a learned woman with lots of alphabets under her name. She has an essay prepared, armed seemingly with facts and figures of JNU’s political history.

The academician calls the protests a “conspiracy” (such a 1970s theory) and lies through her NDTV piece delegitimising the locus standi of the JNUSU. In reality, the Delhi high court had permitted the JNU EC to declare the 2019 poll results, thereby forming the JNUSU in accordance to the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations. 

A screengrab of Dr Geeta Bhatt’s other offerings on NDTV.

More so, the anti-national slogans of 2016 were part of the doctored videos circulated by the likes of Zee News. Nothing has been proved to the contrary yet. And the students and faculty protested against the disbanding of GSCASH – which was instituted as per the Vishakha guidelines and the ICC – has been opposed precisely because it dilutes the salient features of the Act.

Sorry Aunty G, your facts are wrong. You are moving away from the reasons as to why ‘this’ particular protest is important. You’re simply employing a strategy that is well known to debaters – if you don’t know much about a topic, buy time, digress and dig up a previous controversy.

Also read: JNU: The Emotional Cost of Protesting

LiveMint‘s consulting editor Monika Halan took the baton and dove straight into the heart of the matter. In our humble opinion, Halan is likely the admin of one of the course modules of WhatsApp University. She advocated a three-pronged solution to the ‘problem’ of JNU: that the rich in JNU can volunteer to pay for the poor, kickstarting ‘full market price courses’ and that JNU be relocated to a spot where land prices are low so that malls, sporting complexes and the like be built there instead.

“Should the students who are financially able to pay not come forward themselves to pay market prices for education, boarding and lodging? A noble way to fight for those without is to offer to pay their share yourself rather than expect another set of people – the taxpayers – to pay.”

This is a university, not a charitable institution. The rich and the poor pay the same fees, eat the same kind of watery dal, bear the same kind of heat and cold, get bitten by the same set of mosquitoes and avail the same kind of library privileges.

A university is all about equitable space and celebrating the idea of an equal shared space. Nobody is doing anybody a favour. This is the space that is supposed to give women, minorities, Dalits and lower castes a sense of dignity and equality. It is a public university, and not a private university that has “market price” courses.

Lastly, a mall? So more gated communities instead of increased accessibility? Should we even spare a thought to the potential environmental damage such a proposal would bring about?

Her implication of education being a self-financed model fits hand-in-glove with Smita Prakash’s extremely concerned interjection.

As for journalist Smita Prakash, what can one say? Surely, why would a youth from Sasaram, whose father earns Rs 6,000 a month, want to get a master’s degree in Russian, which has hardly any job opportunities? So much benevolent classism. Why should the poor nurture any kind of ambitions? Of course, their aspirations are to be ridiculed under the guise of concern and pragmatism.

But it is too much to expect the esteemed Great Indian Middle Class to educate themselves just a tad bit before shooting their mouths off?

Such opinions are dime a dozen on Twitter and these were only a sample. Every JNU issue is a reflection of how anti-knowledge and anti-egalitarian we have always been as a society. The over-arching sentiment seems to be – how dare students study this cheap and on top of that, instead of being grateful, protest and take to the streets when there is, at best, a “marginal” fee hike?

As a society, we have never liked the questioning kinds of boys and girls. And further, JNU is seemingly affirming the idea of a university as a shared space and community. The best way to delegitimise such a space is via gratitude and money. Invoke the most convenient bogey of the moral outraged tax payer and restrict access by raising the fees.

Also read: How Divisive Politics Have Entered Our Drawing Room Discussions

Our Trio here do not want to acknowledge that it is simply not a JNU issue but that of equal access to public education. It is about fixing the system and not merely dismissing it by shifting the campus to some forsaken land or simply shutting it down.

Not one of them asked the government to step in and increase public spending on education or demand more affordable spaces like JNU. Not one of them is interested in the student lives – that they live in the most basic of living conditions and often go days without running water.

Not one of them is interested in the dreams of the young students who not only aspire to do good for themselves, but to enrich India’s educational diversity.

Instead we have the dramatic bemoaning of vandalism and how students should be students and not fall prey to ulterior motives of the scheming opposition.

The tweeting middle class needs to get over the strategy of infantalising students as a way of delegitimising the issue at hand. Protests are not supposed to be pleasant. A pleasant protest over tea and scones did not win women the right to vote.

However, the next time such ‘well-intentioned’ women (and men) start sermonising, you know it’s time to be that badtameez ladki and politely show them the door by saying “ok, aunty”.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty