TISS Elections: Fathima Sulthana of PSF on post-pandemic challenges
Progressive Students Federation candidate Sulthana talks about importance of student unions in post-pandemic campuses.
One of the premier universities in the country, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), was the first to declare the Students' Union election after the pandemic, which will take place on October 21, 2022. The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on students' daily lives. Fathima Sulthana, General Secretary of Progressive Students’ Forum who is currently pursuing her PhD at TISS, speaks to Indie Journal about the various changes witnessed on campuses and the challenges faced by the students during this period. Sulthana has been at the forefront of students’ struggle during the two years when the campus was shut and after its recent reopening She also discusses the impacts of growing religious fundamentalism sponsored by the ruling Sangh Parivar government on campuses, the privatisation of higher education leading to an erosion of students’ rights and the growing resistance against these.
How have university spaces changed after the pandemic? What have been the effects of these changes on the students?
University spaces have changed considerably after the pandemic-induced lockdowns. The lockdowns were extremely challenging for the student community especially due to the decline in the quality of education in the online mode, the digital divide and financial difficulties. Many universities including TISS continued to levy the pre-pandemic fees even during the online classes while most of the campus facilities could not be accessed by students leading to added financial pressure. All this had led to the deteriorating mental and physical health of students, many of whom were forced to discontinue their education. I myself was forced to opt for deferment during the first year of online classes due to the financial challenges and the declining student aid and scholarships for marginalised students. Another aspect is the change in norms and regulations that were instituted by the administration at various universities under the pretext of the pandemic which led to the curtailing of students’ rights and stifling of student movements.
Besides the above immediate changes within the campus, there is also the larger aspect of the sharp right-wing shift in Indian politics and society. This has definitely had an impact on the functioning of higher education institutions and TISS is no exception. The administration has been almost completely saffronised. All actions of the administration reflect the larger goal of privatisation of higher education followed by the Central government. The growing state-sponsored bigotry, religious fundamentalism and toxic nationalism have slowly but steadily found their way into the campus. The Sangh Parivar and Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated forces are doing their best to find their hold on the campus. The challenge is that these forces project themselves as ‘apolitical’ or mask their real agenda in the language of social justice. They have to be called out and resisted at all costs for TISS to remain a space that upholds secularism, social justice, and other progressive values.
Could you elaborate a bit more on the changes that have taken place at TISS?
The most important change has been with respect to the undemocratic and insensitive manner in which the administration has been dealing with the students. The administration has taken a sharp right-wing shift where some key appointments were done of individuals who were openly communal, sexist and casteist. After the campus reopened, several norms were arbitrarily changed or new regulations were put in place that effectively curtails the scope of students’ activities and creative engagement within the campus. The administration merely sees the role of students as simply to attend classes, write exams and obtain a degree and all other forms of engagement that are so critical to the overall personal, political and academic development of students, especially in a premier social science have been neglected. Spaces for critical debate and discussion have been severely clamped down. An example of this would be the changes in regulations regarding the organising of events. Earlier, students were able to organise events and public lectures on issues of academic and social interest but now the administration has changed the norms to allow only faculty or schools to arrange such programmes.
The infrastructure facilities available to students have been reduced after the reopening. The number of hostel seats available has been sharply cut. More students are forced to stay outside the campus paying the exorbitant rents in Mumbai. We have been demanding to reinstate the off-campus hostels which were in operation till the academic year 2019-20. The administration has refused to even discuss this matter with the students. The cyber library which was earlier available has now been discontinued particularly affecting the students from economically marginalised sections many of whom do not have access to personal laptops. There are also widespread concerns regarding the dining hall facilities. The quality and quantity of food served have fallen.
Apart from this, there have been attempts to restrict the physical movement of students to and from the campus premises in the form of a change in timing norms. There are also increasing reports of moral policing within the campus. Common spaces on the campus which could be utilised by students have also been restricted. All of this has made the campus more inaccessible to students, especially from marginalised communities. Student scholarships, placements and the number of SC/ST/OBC or students of diverse sexual orientations have been decreasing. In fact, it has been at a historical low. The number of teachers to students is currently at 21.8 students per teacher against the norm of 15:1. The overall result of all this has been the sharp drop of TISS in the NIRF rankings. The sad reality of TISS is that the entire academic quality and reputation of TISS is destroyed by its own administration.
You spoke about the anti-student changes within the campus. What has been the reaction of students regarding these changes and the administration’s response to these?
The approach of the TISS administration has been quite deceitful and strategic. They exploited the fact that due to the two-year lockdown, most students are new to the campus and not aware of the way things were before the pandemic hit. This has been used to come up with arbitrary changes in rules and regulations in the hope that they will not be questioned. They have used misinformation and threats to keep the students in check. In spite of this, there have been students who called out the administration on their anti-student policies throughout the last two and a half years. Students, led by the Progressive Students Forum, had raised the issues and launched multiple campaigns during the lockdowns and after the reopening to get the administration to listen to the student’s concerns.
What were the major campaigns and protests that happened in response to the actions of the administration?
Resistance comes from the unfair policies that are imposed on us and as a student whose rights are curtailed, it becomes extremely important to be a part of them. The first major campaign that happened was the ‘Fees Must Fall’ campaign which started around January 2021. We questioned the charging of the full pre-pandemic fees during the online mode when almost all of the campus infrastructure and facilities were inaccessible to students. The administration was forced to listen to the voice of the students and many of the irrelevant fee heads were removed from the following semesters. This was a significant victory for the student community which gave us a lot of confidence and showed the power of organised solidarity among the students even during the toughest of times.
Another major protest was the ‘Re-OpenTISS’ campaign beginning in August 2021. This was in response to the refusal of the administration to reopen the campus even after the pandemic had slowed down and most campuses across the country reopened fully or partially. This was a long and continuous struggle that went on for months. I believe this was largely responsible for us students being back in our rightful space, the TISS campus. We wrote multiple times to the administration, called several public meetings to build student solidarity and called the administration out on their excuses and misinformation tactics. In the end, we gave an ultimatum to the administration to announce the reopening of the campus by November 30, 2021, failing which the students would physically come and occupy our campus. We got the support of a large section of the students and ultimately the administration announced on the date of our ultimatum the reopening of campus.
Even after the reopening, the students faced many issues on campus. Curfew, dining hall hygiene, Wi-Fi connectivity and change in library timings were some of them. Library timings were cut down drastically. We wrote multiple times to the administration about the difficulties and tried all possible means to get them to talk to us. They were all met with silence and then it was decided to take the campaign to the next level by calling on the student community to break the new library timings. Many students joined the call and occupied the library after closing hours to read and study.
Initially, the administration responded with threats and intimidation and defamed the students who dared to question them. But seeing the resolve and solidarity of the students they were forced to change the timings back to the pre-pandemic hours. It is clear that over the last few years the TISS administration has turned quite apathetic to the concerns and well-being of the student community. But with a united student community willing to stand up against the anti-student policies, we can safeguard and achieve what is rightfully ours.
What is the role of the student union in addressing the issues you mentioned?
A proactive and dynamic student union is critical in the current context. Defending the secular space in universities is the primary responsibility of any union is the need of the hour. This was very much proven during the last two years when arbitrary anti-student policies were imposed upon the students. It would not have been possible had there been an active Student Union whose primary concern is the well-being of the student community. Whenever students raised their voices against the policies, the administration responded with threats and intimidation which they could never do with a student union because the union is a constitutionally mandated body within the academic council. The academic council is the highest decision-making body and the President and General Secretary of the student union is its members. So, any changes that affect the students will have to be discussed with the union and they can oppose any and all moves that adversely affect our interests.
Even in the past, whenever there was a strong and proactive student union, many of the proposed changes that could affect the well-being of students such as fee hikes and arbitrary changes in norms were resisted. Student unions were also instrumental in bringing about several initiatives that benefit the students. One such example I can think of is the setting up of off-campus hostels back in 2016, which the current administration has shut down. An active Student Union also plays an important role in student aid, scholarships and other forms of assistance to students.
You spoke at length on the campus issues and students’ resistance to them. Could you tell us a bit more about your journey and personal life?
I come from a working-class family facing severe financial constraints. Everyday life is a struggle and education takes a backseat as survival is much more important. My identity as a Muslim woman makes the struggle even harder due to the social/economic marginalisation faced by the community and the constant threat of violence under the rule of right-wing fundamentalist forces. I am the fourth child among six and am the first generational learner in my family. Coming from such a background and having learned in vernacular schools, it has been a dream come true for me to be able to do my Masters and PhD in a premier institution like TISS. Even after reaching here in 2019, the journey has not been smooth due to the increasing cost of education and the decline in financial support and scholarships. It was my friends and comrades, who supported me through these difficult times without whom I would not be where I am.
The lockdowns were difficult due to the lack of access to digital infrastructure and I had to take a deferment. Through my TISS journey, I got involved in progressive student movements. It was this experience, together with my own personal experiences as a Muslim woman that gave me clarity regarding what is happening in our society and how it affects the student community within TISS and outside. The academic, cultural and political exposure has been a core to my learnings at TISS and the opportunities that I had with interactions and peer learning have been immense in shaping me.
The increasing commodification of higher education and the right-wing shift of educational spaces make me fear for the future of people like me in these institutions. The rise of fundamentalist communal ideologies such as those of the RSS and Jamaat-e-Islamiis worrying as it makes students from marginalised communities even more vulnerable. Over my years in TISS, we have witnessed this happening and we are determined to contribute my all to the resistance against these forces.