July 04, 2020
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Why Are Students Angry? Is Conflict Over Public-Funded Higher Education Only Reason?

Fee hike during times of privatisation coupled with debates over ideology, caste-exclusionary elitism and gender equality are among the main reasons why university students are up in arms

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Why Are Students Angry? Is Conflict Over Public-Funded Higher Education Only Reason?
The Opposition
Students of JNU, Delhi, protest against fee hike and draft hostel manual
Photograph by Getty Images
Why Are Students Angry? Is Conflict Over Public-Funded Higher Education Only Reason?

They are a bunch of vandals. They are the spring itself. They are freeloaders and parasites. They are the gene map of the future, of possible futures. They are an unruly, seditious mob. No, they really are the ones who bring life to democracy, the ones in whom freedom breathes its purest air.... Students! It’s often with a note of exasperation or scorn—one that hides a deep suspicion, even dread—that the world outside looks at university campuses. For all the belittling, nothing outside of war and religious/cultural animus seems to bring about such stark binaries of opinion as the image of protesting students. Why? Each day now brings profoundly troubling news. Something or the other is in deep crisis—the Constitution, political morality, entire sectors of the economy, the climate, and all of them at once. But if you looked at mainstream or ­social media, it would appear as if the biggest question in front of the nation is a bunch of students protesting. Why? Because it is war. Of another sort. The image of angry, dissenting students has come like a regular punctuation mark, an irritating comma, in recent years. That too in a field of seeming unanimity ­otherwise, whether in terms of electoral politics or mainstream headlines. It happened first on the FTII campus in Pune, then the Rohith Vemula sui­cide capped an extraordinary season of defiance in Hyderabad. It takes JNU, however, to get the citizenry really upset. The question everyone asks is: why are the students angry? Almost, how dare they protest? And, shouldn’t they be studying and getting a job instead?

No one in India asked these ­questions when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989, after ­student-led protests brought million-­strong crowds into that iconic venue in central Beijing, defying China’s ­authoritarian one-party rule and seeking various freedoms. No one asked this when American students protested against the Vietnam War five decades ago, forcing the Nixon ­administration to blink. Or when the Soweto uprising by Black students in 1976 set in motion a chain of events that turned history’s page on the world’s last legally racist regime. Or when students without count became the lifeblood of India’s freedom movement—joining Gandhi, or sundry revolutionary movements, filling up jails. It’s only the ruling elite in each instance that asked the question. It’s only after freedom that dissenting students again became a troubling bogey, with the Naxalite movement. Or Assam. Or the protests against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism. A whole galaxy of mainstream politicians—from the recently dec­eased Arun Jaitley to the jailed Laloo Prasad Yadav to Nitish Kumar and Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad—found their life’s calling as protesting ­students before or around the Emergency. In world history or in India’s, student politics has been so deeply constitutive of politics that the question “why” can only come from those utterly innocent of history.

Scripting The Change

Protests in Jadavpur University.

But history finds its linkages. The powerful #FeesMustFall protest led by university student Shaeera Kalla rocked South Africa in 2015, forcing a rollback of fee hikes. For the past few days, Kalla has been tweeting in solidarity with protests by JNU students in Delhi. The immediate cause is a doubling of hostel and mess fees, to about Rs 60,000 a year—India’s annual per capita income is around Rs 1.26 lakh. (As of this week, they have rejected the offer of a 50 per cent concession in the hike.) The issue of fees, however, is embedded in a deep disquiet over the new policy approach to public-funded education. News came half-way through the JNU protests—in between marches, placards, lathicharges and shows of solidarity on other campuses—that even ­institutes like AIIMS, India’s premier medical school, would see fees going from Rs 6,000 to Rs 70,000.

The quality of output of AIIMS was never in doubt. JNU produced a recent Nobelist in Abhijit Banerjee; two of its alumni­—Nirmala Sitharaman and S. Jaishankar­—are in the Union cabinet. It could be easily argued that India needs to extend the existing model, not ­dismantle it. Clearly, there is a crisis. Students and academics call it ­commodification of education. The proposed fee hike will make JNU unafford­able for a substantial percentage of its students: an exclusion that will lead to erosion of diversity (see May the Nation Meet the Varsity, p.40). A JNU alumnus walking in a protest march says ­education must be free and accessible to all. Says Jitendra Kumar, now pursuing PhD in Persian from Delhi University, “JNU had fiercely protec­ted its accessibility, and ensured it rem­ained within reach of the poorest. Now, they are attacking even that one beautiful university.” This spirit chimes across campuses. Rohith Vemula’s suicide had come seven months after the University of Hyderabad stopped the Dalit research scholar’s monthly stipend of Rs 25,000. In his memorable suicide note, he made a request that the accumulated amount be paid to his family.

Protests in University of Hyderabad.

Photograph by PTI

Fee hikes are the face of creeping privatisation, and the State’s wish to retreat from public funding of higher education, framed within the draft New Education Policy. But they are not the only reason why ferment arises. There are debates over ideology, caste-exclusionary elitism and gender inequity. It was in left-liberal spaces such as JNU and Jadavpur University in Calcutta that the #MeToo storm broke out. The 2015 protest at FTII, alma mater of some of India’s finest cinema figures, was occasioned by B-movie actor Gajendra Chouhan’s appointment as chairman­—“not people one would want to learn from,” as FTII alumna Ashmita Guha Niogi put it. A four-month protest was sparked off in 2014 at Jadavpur by the molestation of a female student. In 2017, ref­usal by BHU authorities to act on a ­f­emale student’s complaint of eve-teasing led to protests that hogged TV news for days. Earlier this month, IIT Madras swam into headlines after the suicide of Fathima Latheef, a hum­anities student.

On the surface, these seem disparate themes. But girding them together are underlying themes rev­olving around various forms of freedom, or its lack. Akanksha, an MA (political science) student at BHU, exp­lains why they protested, even facing lathicharges, after the molestation case: “The guards of the proctorial board started asking the victim why she was outside the hostel after 6 pm.” Akanksha says it was a landmark in the university’s history and the girls celebrate their unity on the day every year. “We also took out a march in support of Dr Fir­oze Khan,” she says. Khan’s appo­int­ment in BHU’s Sanskrit department was met with opposition from a section of the university community due to his religious identity. Fathima Latheef’s parents, similarly, said harassment by Hindu professors due to her religion compelled her to end her life. The demand for professors apparently named in her suicide note to be arrested has not died out yet. Religion had popped up last year too, as a major protest at AMU provided fodder for a polarising national debate. The stud­ents union hall had a Jinnah portr­ait—put up in 1938 when he was conferred a life membership of the union—and the local BJP MP wanted it removed. ‘Protesters’ entered the campus, provocative slogans and clashes ensued, followed by the familiar sequence of more protests and lathicharges.

Protests in FTII, Pune.

Photograph by AP

Suicides due to institutional causes lend a morbid edge to the debates. It’s an act of moral defiance that the system finds difficult to counter. One such was the case of S. Anitha, a Tamil-medium state board student who committed suicide after failing the centralised NEET exam in 2017. A district topper with cent per cent marks in physics and math, the Dalit dailywager’s daughter had earlier implea­ded herself in the Supreme Court case against NEET. The snowballing protests framed a different kind of inequity. Yet, the courts have frequently expressed society’s doubts about ‘student protests’. Even in neighbouring Kerala, a hotbed of student activism, a 2017 high court order explicitly endo­rsed the right to rusticate and banned prote­sts on campus, arguing that such practices had “no place in a constitutional democracy—much less in academic institutions”. The uproar was near-­unanimous­—if students were muzzled, it would leave exploitative and chauvinistic practices by institutions unchecked, said students.

The criminalisation of student protests saw a farcical peak at Panjab University, Chandigarh, after a fee hike in 2017. An alleged attempt by protesters to force their way into the VC’s office led not just to a lathicharge, but also ­sedition charges against 66 students! “The charges were dropped later, but the students still have to go to court every month for other cases,” says students council president Kanu­priya Devgan. “Their careers are at stake. For what? Fighting for your rights? Is education a commodity like onions that it should get expensive?”

Student protesters in Hong Kong.

Photograph by Getty Images

The squeezing of public resources comes against a scenario of scarcity. The biggest issue at the Chandigarh campus is of hostels. “I’ve seen students crying for hostels. They can’t afford the new hostels built on the public-private partenership model,” says Kanupriya.

Nandita Narain, associate professor of mathematics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and former president of the Delhi University Teachers Association, says the State’s retreat began in the wake of globalisation when education started being seen not as a right, but a luxury—those who want it must pay for it (see It’s the Birla-Ambani Plan, p.50). From 4.14 per cent of the GDP half a decade ago, the ­Cen­tre’s budget ­allocation to ­edu­cation has come down to 3.4 per cent for 2019-20.

Heritage Of the Young

Anti-war students shot in Kent University, USA, 1970.

In terms of its proportion to the total budget, the decline looks minor. But just look at the ­immensity of the ­challenge India faces in preparing for the future, and then at how paltry both those figures are. “Lack of sufficient public funding over decades is largely responsible for this sad state of affairs,” says development ­economist A.K. Shiva Kumar. “Concerns of ­equity, ­affordability and quality have to be ­addressed. The increasing trend towards privatisation is worrying.  State-funded universities have played a major role in ­extending access to ­quality higher education in most developed ­countries. We forget that a majority of senior professionals in India too have been ­beneficiaries of a heavily ­state-subsidised education.”

Is there a counter-view? “I am not ­saying don’t subsidise,” says IIT Ropar ­director Sarit K. Das. “But whom should we subsidise? Flat general subsidy never works. Let it go to people who deserve it. There are two ways. Demarcate student fees according to socio-economic status, or directly transfer money to those below the poverty line.” A line that has been taken across the board with human development policies—and, as many ­development experts would say, not with much success.


Vox Pop

Ambika Subhash
MA in economics, JNU

At NIT Calicut, we faced such high academic pressure that two students committed ­suicide every semester. The ­attitude of ­teachers worsened it. Say, if a ­reserved category students got low marks, they would be told to find another college. I have faced that myself. Students at IITs/NITs face a lot of trauma, but are ­unable to speak: they are afraid of losing a Rs 20 lakh package. I just feel so free, so happy in JNU. The fee at NIT was raised from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1.2 lakh per semester over the past six years. Of 6,000 students, only 60 came out in protest. And they were targeted viciously by the administration.

Vishwas Kukreti
PhD in econophysics, JNU, ABVP member

Freedom of expression is like a string instrument. If you loosen or tighten the strings too much, you can’t play. It’s only when the tension in strings is optimal that a fine sound is produced.

Syed Wajahat Ali
BA in political science, JMI

Only god or devil can be ­apolitical. I wasn’t given a ­hostel seat as I participated in a protest demanding a ­students union. Living outside costs me about Rs 10,000 a month. My ­father retired five years ago and this expenditure is not easy for him to manage every month.

Sayantani Banerjee
PhD in linguistics, IIT Delhi

If a chief minister can buy a ­private jet with taxpayers’ money, why can’t it be spent on the education of students?

Biswarup Baidya
Department of international relations, Jadavpur University

Many students coming here are the first generation in the family to get an education. Does the government even know what the fellowship money means to them? Is the government ­making fun of them? Even if they don’t get a fellowship, the low hostel fee plays an ­important role in their survival.

Brig (retd) G.B. Reddi
Political commentator, Hyderabad

The root cause of proliferating student protests in India is ­excessive politicisation of ­academic institutions. Instead of promoting unity, ­ethics, ­values and discipline among students, and improving the quality of education, ­academics in India today are mostly sowing the seeds of divisiveness based on their left- or right-wing ­ideological orientation.

Ranjini Basu
PhD, Development Studies, TISS, Mumbai

We need diversity in ­classrooms, among teachers and in the choice of courses. If you are surrounded by your own kind of people, you’ll remain ­ignorant of so many realities.

Hamza Tariq
President of NLSIU Student Bar Association, Bangalore

We were also against a fee hike, but nothing came out of the protests. We are still ­planning to approach the courts. The hike is quite ­substantial—for example, I paid Rs 1.8 lakh in fees last year and now it’s Rs 2.35 lakh. I think universities should pursue other ways to get money. Allocation to education as a percentage of the GDP has only decreased since 2014.

Sitaram Yechury

“The struggle in JNU is part of a larger struggle to protect ­public-funded education ­institutions from government ­interference. These attacks on higher education are a result of the Centre’s quest to make ­education a privilege. This scheme fits into their ideological construct, where in order to ­establish a Hindutva Rashtra, they have mounted an assault on reason and replaced rationality with irrationality. This agenda is very dangerous for the future of India. JNU is a bastion of learning and needs to be protected from the designs of the government.”

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