- OPINION | The Death Of Student Power And How Governments Played Their Part
- BJP Govt Constantly Attacking Universities: AMU Students Union Honorary Secretary
- Education Not A Commodity, It's A Public Good: Shehla Rashid
- JNU Fee Hike Issue A Façade, There Were Ulterior Motives To Students' Protest: ABVP Delhi Secretary
- We Are Fighting To Save Last Bits Of JNU’s Essence: JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh
- OPINION | It'll Be A Shame If People From Disadvantaged Sections Can't Study At JNU
- OPINION | Death Of JNU Will Mean Destroying A Good Liberal University
- There Can’t Be Saffron, Green, White Or Blue-Coloured Education: Murli Manohar Joshi
- Lessons For The Elite
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.”