I write this with deep anguish hoping that our vice-chancellors and heads of the higher education institutions will listen to a common teacher. Every day we hear news of our colleagues dying, dying because they could not get oxygen support in time or because they wasted time running from hospital to hospital. It is heartbreaking to see young colleagues, in their 30s and 40s, dying. Many more are struggling for life.

This is about teachers. But there are innumerable students who are desperately appealing for oxygen, hospital beds, many suffering themselves, many for members of their immediate and extended families, many more for friends. Some we know, but there are many more we will never know about.

In all universities, we have contractual teachers. At the University of Delhi, where I teach, there is a vast number of teachers working as guest faculty. Many of them have not been paid for a long time. Some of them have been hit by the coronavirus. The university has not even thought about their survival. There is not a show of sympathy for members of the faculty who are dying almost daily. How will their families cope with this sudden disaster?

Social media platforms are acting as communication channels for those seeking help. There are desperate calls for spaces to be converted into makeshift Covid-19 support centres or hospitals. Mosques are offering their premises, gurudwaras have started oxygen langars and also temporary medical support centres with beds and other facilities.

Relatives of Covid-19 patients outside a Delhi hospital. Photo credit: PTI

There are journalists who are doubling as relief workers. Citizens have mobilised themselves into small and large networks to support the battle against the unknown. Political workers have plunged into action. Many others are rushing oxygen cylinders, arranging ambulances and monitoring hospitals to keep an eye on vacancies for the needy.

Response by universities

How are we, as universities responding to the cries engulfing us? Two days ago, I got a circular from my authorities that supposedly gave relief to students. The dates of the final examinations have been extended by two weeks. The reasons cited are that some of our colleagues in the examination section are infected by the virus.

Let us listen to a student before designing question papers. The note was written shortly before Delhi University on Tuesday decided to suspend online classes until May 16.

“A collective of students took an initiative for the suspension of classes a few days ago. I, along with 250 other students, supported them by signing the letter. Other Delhi University colleges joined in solidarity. Some colleges have suspended the classes for a few days. Many have not. 

There is no uniformity in the actions being taken by different college administrations. The second and third years have their exams this month, but the response from the university for the cancellation of these exams is very vague. The exams have been postponed to June. Why can this not be done with the ongoing classes?”

I recall the debate that kept the university community busy last year was whether we should have online or offline examinations.

Universities have never ever looked so disconnected from the real world. Teaching never so vacuous. Pretending normalcy when the world in which they are located is collapsing. The large emptiness of the campuses has never been so stark.

Why is it that universities and colleges have not opened up their spaces and offered them to be used as Covid-19 support centres?

Last year, when the government announced a mindless lockdown, the first thing universities did was to shut down completely, have their hostels vacated and force their students out – students, many of them who had to go back to their crowded dwellings. We know so well that the majority of our students do not have the luxury of a separate corner for themselves. They get their own space for the first time in their lives when they get a seat in a college hostel.

We know that for every student who is fortunate to get a place in the hostels, there are scores who do not. Even then, the first and only response from universities was to drive students out and secure campuses from the infection.

Universities did not feel to start a dialogue about the unprecedented challenge that this pandemic had thrown us. We did not exchange notes. Private universities, with much smaller classes and much more resources, proudly claimed that they were satisfied with their online experience. What was it? Was there a study? Did we jointly think about it?

Migrant labour crisis

In Delhi and elsewhere, we saw distraught labourers walking, trying to find a way to escape the city that had shut its doors on them. They were walking past the walls of colleges in Delhi such as Ramjas, Hindu, St. Stephen’s, Miranda House, SGTB Khalsa, Kirori Mal and Hansraj with vast, empty campuses.

This mass of humanity trudging back to nowhere was unaware of the indifference of our campuses. Campuses take pride in their role in educating people into citizenship. What does it mean to be a citizen if not to recognise our responsibility to strangers?

Universities and colleges did not think it necessary to use their National Service Scheme to extend support to people who had suddenly become homeless. Of course, our youth and many in the teaching community did rise up to the occasion. Students formed volunteer networks, started kitchens, moved from one end of the city to the other delivering food packets, water and chappals.

Representational image. Photo credit: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Fortunately, the principal of one of the colleges on Delhi’s the North Campus offered space near his home to run a community kitchen. It continued for more than three months. But it was an exception. No college thought that its space could be offered as a temporary shelter or that its mess could be used as a kitchen to prepare food for the displaced people.

A mechanical circular asking the teachers to make donations from their salary reached us. And arbitrarily, the vice-chancellors decided to give the money to the PM CARES Fund. Some of us objected. We said we wanted to contribute to the PM Relief Fund and not the opaque PM CARES Fund. But the authorities had to prove themselves loyal to the masters and did not feel constrained by their accountability to their academic community.

Impersonalised teaching

Students dispersed and then started the online classes. We simply did not know what our students were going through. Then the questions of connectivity, broadband capacity and availability of study material came up. But we accepted the need to rush through the syllabus, even if grudgingly. A charade was being played and we were a willing party to it. There never was a period when classes had turned become so impersonal.

Semesters were shortened. There was a need to show how strong we were. That the pandemic had not been able to disturb our normal life, which we all knew was a lie. We needed to acknowledge that we were in a very abnormal situation. But we tried to deny it.

There are teachers, again the exceptions, who felt the need to reach out to the distanced students and establish an emotional connection. That, however, has been extremely inadequate. The fact that the universities officially did not feel the need to start counselling for their students and staff, including teachers, tells us something about what they are.

Academically and intellectually too, universities made no effort to respond to the pandemic. The departments of psychology, sociology, political science and literature could have collectively conceptualised and designed studies and research to understand the upheaval that society was experiencing. We failed.

I live in university quarters. In the early days of the pandemic last year, a colleague from Nagaland complained that people from North East India were being targetted. They faced taunts. We did not think that we needed to undertake a programme to counter this scapegoating. Then started a national hate campaign against Muslims, calling them super spreaders.

We did not react as an academic community. We did not even think that when we were in our classes online, many of our students, Muslims, were fighting, braving this obscene assault on them. We never ever brought up this issue structurally in our academic spaces.

A national hate campaign against Muslims called them super-spreaders after some of the attendees of the Tablighi Jamat meeting were found to be Covid-19 positive in 2020. Photo credit: AFP

There was no curricular response to the emergency that had thrown our collective life out of gear. Our law faculties did not examine the role of the courts. They did not encourage students to understand how pandemic jurisprudence was shaping us. What has changed between the judicial inaction last year and hyper-action this year?

Lack of support

I know that many of my students have themselves organised into groups, but we have played no role as institutions. When the situation started easing at the end of last year, many universities insisted that the teachers come to campus to take their online classes.

That when, in many places, there was no connectivity and in others unstable connectivity. There was no institutional support for the teachers. They were made to travel in crowded vehicles, exposing themselves to the threat of the infection. I have spoken to some of them. Every day they rise with the fear of being infected. Universities have made no extra effort to provide medical support to teachers and other staff members.

If you go to the website of the Association of Indian Universities, it gives the appearance that this us just another day in our lives. There are slides informing us of discussions about the National Education Policy, Access and Equity and vocational education – as if the association lives in a reality of its own.

The University Grants Commission is busy warning students against ragging, informing us about credit banks, good research practices, women safety and the equivalence of degrees. When I move from the site to my phone, I see messages crying for oxygen and hospitals.

It is surreal that to be engaging a class and suddenly have a message flashing that the person for whom you were trying arrange oxygen has just passed away. How to reach that state of equanimity in which you continue reciting the works of Muktibodh, fighting with the thought gnawing your heart that this death was not inevitable, that this death was an act of injustice. To develop a pedagogy that can address this sense of failure, of struggle against institutionalised injustice is a task we have to undertake.

I end again with a plea to stop, take a pause and collect all our resources to face the moment honestly.

The words come again from a student:

All we are asking for is a break. A break from the classes. Not because we are a bunch of idle students who want to do nothing, but this break will reduce our academic burden. Our professors have been taking classes continuously for the past year, given the discord in the academic calendar for the first year and the second and the third years. They deserve some rest, irrespective of whether they have been affected by the virus or not. A break just to keep us sane at the moment. I hope you consider this.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.