Towards an Academia of Empathy: Political Unrests and Mental Health


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When the market logic of customer-service provider creeps into higher education, the pressure to constantly be productive in a circumstance where your basic existence as a student is under threat due to political reasons becomes a mental burden.

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When my friends were marching towards the MHRD against the fee hike, at the verge of thesis submission, I was in the library with a heavy heart for not being able to join them. The fact that many of my friends will drop-out if the proposed hike is implemented made me guilty for not adding up to the number of protesters. While anxiously waiting for the outcome of the agitation I saw my phone ringing twice, flashing the number of my research scholar- friend who is a student of Humanities. I disconnected the call and even before I could message her there came her SMS; ‘Want to talk to you. Urgent’. While trying to comprehend the urgency of the message, at the back of my mind, I remembered that she was supposed to meet her PhD supervisor that day. We have had long conversations on the repeated humiliations she faced at the hands of her guide for not meeting the deadlines and how she could not write a single sentence for weeks together after each such meeting. Eventually these meetings made her a social recluse culminating in her losing confidence in herself and the world around. She had confided to me that coming from a minority community the political unrest on campus made her mind hazy, which started reflecting in her work, making it impossible for her to meet the deadlines.


One always thought in vein that after the nation-wide protests triggered by the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Indian academia will make an effort to re-imagine the academic spaces to forge a better democratic environment. Soon after the onslaught on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) after the much controversial ‘anti-national’ sloganeering and arrest of student leaders, the death of Vemula and the subsequent turmoil in Hyderabad Central University, and numerous similar incidents, scores of students could not focus on their studies and researches — while some dropped out, some of them had to start therapy. In a context where even in normal situations mental health in academia is often overlooked, we are yet to identify and address mental health issues triggered by the political ambiance on the campuses as well as the country in general, which is taking a toll on our students.


Our campuses are facing unprecedented direct attacks from undemocratic pseudo- scientific forces like never before in the history of free India. In this context, we have seen many academicians asking the students to remain apolitical in public. Universities are spaces where asking questions and protesting against injustices are meant to happen for the fostering of a healthy democratic attitude in the new generation of the country. One should not forget that the youth with impressionable minds have always ushered in the wave of change worldwide. In Indian context, the society is entrenched in class-caste-gender discriminations which lead to graded inequality, for most of the young adults, entering a campus for higher education signifies upward mobility at different levels. Post-Mandal period has facilitated the opening-up of gates of higher education for large number of students from backward and dalit communities. When students are constantly protesting against these injustices meted upon them it is natural to be mentally exhausted. As a student who is sensitive towards her political surroundings, which essentially decides every sphere of her life, one of the pertinent questions which should be raised in this context is how one should deal/manage mental health issues triggered by the political situation. And as professors, who are the only authority in the university with whom students interact at personal level on a day-to-day basis, how could they extend a helping hand at individual level? The pertinent question here is how an educator can help in facilitating the work of a student who is keen to do his work but at the same time mentally overburdened by the socio-political unrests in her immediate surroundings. When even in a normal situation mental health issues are avoided from being addressed, it becomes all the more difficult to initiate talks about unsettling political events and their impact on politically conscious students.


Like my friend, many others also have guides who are largely from privileged backgrounds, who might/not be researching and publishing on underprivileged/politically charged realities with radical outcomes. At personal levels, these academicians keep themselves insulated from/ignorant about their students’ political sensitivities and graded privileges of class-caste-gender locations. When the market logic of customer-service provider creeps into higher education, the pressure to constantly be productive in a circumstance where your basic existence as a student is under threat due to political reasons becomes a mental burden. Not every student is lazy to break the deadlines; she might be dealing with her own personal demons while political/policy level interventions might be adding to her burden. Degeneration of democratic values in a society will always be met with questions and protests from the youth because the future in which they imagine themselves to age into will always be an idealist place. In this scenario the pertinent question is how do academicians become more sensitive towards mental health issues in general and also specially those triggered due to political reasons. Also, how can professors help in facilitating a support group within the academic system (or could also be at the classroom level) for both academic as well as personal nourishment and enrichment of their students? Can professors build trust in their students by becoming positive commentators rather than just being rote critics? Is it possible for the professors to include books/discussions in the classroom to address the political anxieties of students?


When goons were rampaging and physically attacking anyone and everyone they saw on the JNU campus on January 5th night, seeing some of us getting panic calls and messages from our supervisors, I heard one of my friends exclaiming with a forlorn look; “my guide must be busy typing his paper for publication”.  Engaging oneself in the process of knowledge production and dissemination involving research, publication and teaching are primarily required to enrich the academia as well as the academicians/students. For students who are engaged in knowledge production it is the responsibility of the system in which they are to provide them with an ecosystem that would facilitate their work. Definitely, educators need not be mental health experts/therapists but the significant question here is how much sensibility and nuanced understanding of the situation as an academic, and care/empathy should she have to understand the desperation of her students.


Jomy Abraham is a PhD Research Scholar at the Centre for English Studies, School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.

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