University vs Family: A Conundrum

Family dinners don’t always look like the initial scenes from Salman Khan’s Hum Saath Saath Hain. These days, you’re lucky to come away from them without truly damaging the liberal part of your brain.

At a ‘normal’ dinner party, a huddle of aunties and uncles will sip their whiskeys while trying to score points with ignorant ideological gibberish. In between, their endless ‘political incorrectness’ gets completely overlooked, much like bits of biscuits drowned in cups of chai.

Here, relatives applaud the police brutality against students while claiming it was the only way the police could have ‘retaliated’ given that protests are essentially ‘anti-national’.

Protesters sustained injuries, casualties; over 20 have even died – but “damage to public property” is more important.

Imagine that one day, you walk up to one of these individuals and gently unfold a whole saga of growing concerns about hate-mongering in the country, the industry of fake news, the basics of empathy and of placing religion below humanity. Suddenly, you’re grounded for three days for “acting over smart” and putting your nose where it doesn’t belong.

Why does India hate its students? Universities have always been a space for freedom and self-realisation. Indian families have disliked them because universities allow children to discover unrestrained spaces.

Thus in reality, as much as families want their children to go to good universities, a place not guided by socio-cultural norms is somewhat ideologically opposed to the family system.

The family is an institution that creates personalities. But the same families are also part of a system that idealise authority – which permeates families themselves. Such systems can be called anything but democratic.

Authoritarianism is an idea based on strict and unquestioned obedience, something Indian families have always valued. At school and at home, it is taught that you do not challenge elders – which further extends to male counterparts.

Another thing dear to Indian families is the element of “sacrifice”. From Bollywood’s Mother India to Sita’s ‘agnipariksha’ for Rama, India loves its moral conduct when it means giving up one’s life. In a developing country, we never grew up with a lot, and voluntary “sacrifice” was useful as well as publicly glorified. This “Indianness”, defined by respect for authority and uncurbed sacrifice, eventually infiltrated other forms of social life, including governance.

For the government, then, obedience is no longer a desired state, but a prerequisite. When a democratic government thrives on casual gaslighting, ignoring public discourse and suppressing voices of dissent, is it still democratic?

Foucault uses the term biopolitics to explore how our lives are directed by state ideologies that define our actions, outcomes and realities through institutions, including the family unit. So we have state ideals being replicated in a traditional domestic distaste for disobedience – we risk becoming ‘anti-nationals’ in the street and back home.

People in India like having a legitimate institution looking after them, and if unquestioned faith is all it takes, then we’ve been doing it all along. An Orwellian dystopia comes to life when we see students being detained or put behind bars for speaking their minds. It intensifies when we are taught at home to endorse it.

Considering our romance with authority, the hostility we’re seeing towards the student protests isn’t surprising.

Students are the biggest threat to this system. Universities exist outside the domain of religion, state and the family and provide for a space to think and express. The pursuit of knowledge as an institution emerged from philosophy, from people learning to question.

The university pushes us to create something better out of our surroundings, allowing freedom and individualism, both of which are problems in the realms of the family. The personalities manufactured by Indian families clash with those produced by universities.

Family institutions, proudly patriarchal, denounce university cultures by labelling them ‘Western’ in nature, ‘Communist’ or worse, ‘Feminist’. The ‘urban-Naxals’ in the country today are often from universities or, in some forms, connected to them – that is almost the only answer available when you ask who exactly an ‘urban Naxal’ is.

This is why the University is an indispensable pillar of any democracy.

As Mohmmad Sayeed, a former professor of sociology at Delhi University put it: “If you cannot make your opinion independent of your family, you need to spend more time in the university.”

Amrita Sivaram is one semester away from being a sociology undergraduate from Delhi University. A 20-year-old, she’s spent most of her life dreaming, dancing, and reading feminist literature – and is happy that she did.