by Surya Ghildiyal & Fabienne Engler
From the White Rose Society to Tiananmen Square to Anti-Vietnam demonstrations to the present day Hong-Kong Umbrella movement, students across the world and throughout history have been at the forefront of educating and organising against repressive regimes and policies. Consequently, universities have acquired a significant role beyond a place of work: they are places of conscience.
The Institute, however, is different, a difference proudly demonstrated in its modern architecture, extremely expensive student housing that pushes poorer students to the periphery, and an overall emphasis on CVs and professional development. Given how the Institute markets itself as an institution of “academic excellence… located in the heart of International Geneva” and its establishment in the aftermath of the appalling violence and devastation of the First World War, it is strange how this academic institution can foster political ambivalence on global issues (world affairs in Institute speak), especially issues concerning lives in the Global South, with such ease. The Institute has taught us the following lesson: the most employable of us are the ones flattest in their political positioning.
This ambivalence is palpable in the very (infra)structure of the Institute. The classrooms have been designed less as classrooms and more as conference rooms ready for consumption by international organisations. There is a lack of ‘hanging out’ spaces within the Institute. In case of full occupation of the kitchens on the disciplinary floors, the space at Salon Davis and outside the library cannot be used to have conversations over food. Students are expected to walk all the way to Picciotto Common Room – a place spatially separated from the Institute – to heat their food and eat! How does one exchange ideas and share thoughts beyond the classroom when there are no common spaces available? The very thoughtfully designed infrastructure of the Institute has reduced an academic institution to a place of use, instead of a place of learning and unlearning.
Additionally, the task of nurturing a political conscience is apparently outsourced to our respective initiatives, while the Institute aligns itself primarily to its role of shaping our employability. Various events organised by the initiatives such as LANI, MENA Initiative, CTRG and The Feminist Collective in the previous semester came as a breath of fresh (political) air. Many important conversations on various political struggles were started and solidarites were forged. We will especially remember the passionate event on indigenous land rights — led by indigenous leaders themselves and facilitated by LANI — or CTRG’s conference Race and Black Male Studies with Dr. Tommy Curry.
Furthermore, as the elected representatives of student body interest, one would expect the GISA student union to be at the forefront of various struggles at the Institute and beyond, especially considering that all the aforementioned initiatives are its formal offsprings. However, instead of voicing solidarity with international struggles like it used to, we came to realize that GISA has instead reproduced the politics of reputation espoused by the larger institution itself.
In a particular instance of brutal (and lethal) police violence against peacefully protesting students in Jamia Millia University in New Delhi last month, a solidarity statement was drafted by some Institute students. GISA misled the students into believing that 240 student signatures were required for the statement to be endorsed by it. This clearly went against GISA’s statute and, on being apprised of the rules, it retracted the earlier given number. It however, maintained its position to give voice to all student opinions and admitted that 11 people were opposed to the statement; whereas more than a 100 students publicly endorsed it. Consequently, it changed the statement from “the student body of IHEID” to “the concerned students”.
It clearly let a few individuals, who expressed in personal messages their opposition to a statement against police brutality and state repression, circumvent the democratic and participatory processes foreseen by its own statutes. In the previous three semesters, we have not come across a single global issue where the students of IHEID have been mobilised by GISA. So instead of “having an opinion” about tear-gassing libraries and beating students black and blue, we encourage the student body of the Institute to make use of GISA’s Article VI on GISA support for civil society movements and campaigns to reappropriate politics at the Institute. An urgent need for doing away with the politics of backroom negotiations and creating a more vibrant space and politically aware and active student body representation is called for.
This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.
Featured photo by Tanisha Rayamajhi.