Photo Essay: The Walls that Speak

Universities are one of the most important institutions emanating from and catering to a civil society. Yet in many places of this world, institutions, people and the state are in a different relationship with each other. Students’ right to unionize and engage with issues facing them and people at large are often ignored. From the place that I come from, the situation is almost reflective of curbs or mind control that young people face today. In Iran, forces try to manipulate political activity and control freedom of student associations and make them subservient to the larger state power. As a result, many students’ aspirations of education are cut short as they conflict with their political ideals.

These curbs and restrictions inside university spaces are also often reflections of outside political atmosphere. In a politically restricted atmosphere, civil society becomes the first casualty of the state. Media also does not function without direct control, hence leaving out or ignoring people’s opinions. Internet functions in a controlled manner and disallows people the methods of engagement with rest of the world. However, in a democracy, such mechanisms of state control must be limited.

With this political understanding, in 2012, I came to New Delhi, to join a one year course in film-making. My college was close to Jantar Mantar near the Parliament Street. Every day I’d witness several protests and demonstrations, whether big or small, there. Jantar Mantar as an idea of a legal protest site impressed me a lot. Then I explored the Jawaharlal Nehru University as the best example of a functional democracy and an epitome of political freedom. There are hardly few walls that do not reflect on the political mood of students or hardly one place empty where posters for a political program are not distributed. For a student who is interested in social and political issues, it is safe to say JNU is their Mecca.

I witnessed this drastic transformation from a politically restricted atmosphere to an open democratic environment. This interaction with India made me serious and dedicated to studying politics in a serious manner. I went through the process of application in many universities and finally I ended up being a student at Jamia Millia Islamia.

In Jamia Millia Islamia, the environment is more clean and beautiful than many other universities in India. Especially during February and March, it is like a garden, with flowers in full bloom. Unlike JNU, there are no posters. Most of walls are clean and nicely colored. But this is not whole story.

Few weeks ago, while I was walking around in the campus, I saw a warning: “WARNING: YOU ARE UNDER CCTV SURVEILLANCE”. Why CCTV surveillance? And more importantly, why a warning? Are we actually students in Jamia or some threat there? Are we looking for an opportunity to do something wrong? What exactly are we being warned for?

Is there some un-democracy under this thriving democratic capital of India? There is a famous theory in management developed by Douglas McGregor: Theory X and Theory Y. Simply and briefly, these can be explained as: in theory X, employees are assumed as lazy people who try to avoid work, while theory Y considers them self-motivated people who enjoy their work. So, there is a kind of mistrust between management and employees in theory X. Therefore in theory X, the management needs to control and supervise employees while in theory Y, the management tries to provide good working conditions for boosting morale of the employees.

Therefore this WARNING signboard, I would say, reeks of the theory X oriented approach in Jamia. Most of the things inside campus represent a kind of fear, whether from the university management or imposed from outside.

Many of my friends feel they are in a military base because of excessive presence of security guards and thorny fences around the campus.  Maybe one can justify that the security guards, the fences around the campus and concertina wire on surrounding walls are to protect the university from potential attacks from the outside. But what about the inside?

When you look at Jamia a little more carefully, you see all these flowers are there to hide or reduce the effects of something else. The thing which is somehow visible and somehow hidden within the campus. Walls are not “clean and colored nicely” anymore. These are not like the wall of a university in the capital of the largest democracy in the world as I expected. But these walls are representing a certain enforced de-politicization of the campus.

[This photo feature was published first in EPISTEME, the annual magazine of the department of political science, Jamia Millia Islamia in May 2014]

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