Ominous signs in universities – Frontline

On November 11, the Delhi Police used lathis and water cannons against hundreds of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students gathered outside the convocation venue of the All India Council for Technical Education to meet Vice Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar as part of their protest against the commercialisation of education and anti-student policies. This happened after two weeks of strike by students and teachers against a steep fee hike that threatened enrolment of poor students in the university, 40 per cent of whom come from economically weak backgrounds.

More than 30 students were injured in the police action, with one sustaining a fracture and another fainting after being hit on the head by a baton, said Saket Moon, vice president of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU). The students held the Vice Chancellor, at whose behest the police action allegedly took place, solely responsible for the situation worsening. Even after being in office for three years, he had refused to meet them on any issue whatsoever, thereby destroying a culture of dialogue that JNU was known for.

Jagadesh Kumar was completely inaccessible to students. He did not recognise the democratically elected JNUSU, and ever since there was an impasse over the fee hike, he has been living outside the campus. Widely referred to as a stooge of the Bharatiya Janata Party dispensation at the Centre and appointed apparently to ruin the progressive ethos of JNU, Jagadesh Kumar refused to engage with the students even after the Minister for Human Resource Development (MHRD), Ramesh Pokhriyal, met representatives of the protesting students.

On November 4, in a sarcastic move, the students planned a march to Jagadesh Kumar’s former university campus at the Indian Institute of Technology in search of him. But the Delhi Police did not allow them to proceed. Later, the students marched to the Vasant Kunj police station and submitted a missing person complaint. But in an intimidating manner, a posse of the Central Reserve Police Force was deployed on the campus to guard the entrances to the university and Jagadesh Kumar’s residence.

The only other occasions when paramilitary forces were brought on the campus were during the Emergency and later in 1983. On the latter occasion, scores of students protesting on a hostel-related issue were arrested, including the would-be Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee.

The convocation on November 11 was attended by Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu and Pokhriyal. In his address, Venkaiah Naidu said: “It is a matter of pride that JNU has become synonymous with academic excellence in the country. Of course, at times it is in the news for the wrong reasons. I am also pleased to note that women constitute 51 per cent of the students because of the special admission policy for them, students hailing from distant places and those belonging to marginalised sections…. It is often said that educating a woman is equivalent to educating a family. Thus, institutions of higher learning have to play a very vital role in ensuring quality and equitable education to women.”

‘Brutally manhandled’

However, even as he showered platitudes on the university, Delhi Police personnel were manhandling those very students. Apeksha Priyadarshani, a student present at the protest, described their experience thus: “Today, women students, like myself, were not only brutally manhandled by male police personnel from the Delhi Police… we weren’t simply scarred physically from the punching on our chests to the twisting of our arms by male police personnel… we were molested by women police personnel… we were and scorned at… when some students broke down, they were mocked at…. One policeman came like a coward, hit me on the leg with his baton and moved away quickly. When I asked him to beat me up upfront, he ran away….”

For over two weeks before this, JNU students fought against a draconian hostel manual passed by the Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Students, Umesh Kadam. The most contentious issue in that was a proposal to hike the room rent from Rs.600 to Rs.1,000 a month. “This would mean that other than the mess bill, for hostel accommodation alone students would have had to pay Rs.6,000 a semester. This is nothing but a mechanism to make higher education ‘reserved’ for the privileged classes of society,” said Praveen Thallepalli of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA).

Many students await their National Means-Cum-Merit Scholarship, or fellowships such as Non-NET Fellowship, Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship (RGNF), and Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) to fund their education and even pay their mess bill. “On the one hand, the JNU administration doesn’t disburse JRF, RGNF, MANF and other fellowships on time every month. On the other hand, the administration sees it fit to enforce a 100 per cent increase in the mess bill from Rs.2,200-2,700 to Rs.4.000-5,000. Many students utilise the fellowships to not only fund their education but also to meet their daily requirements and support their families financially. Without regular disbursal of fellowships, students often have to borrow money to pay their mess bills. There has been a need to increase the fellowships as they are insufficient to meet existing costs. However, rather than strengthening the financial support to students, the administration has increased the fees,” said a member of the BAPSA.

The JNUSU said the present move was a brutal attack on not just current students but on all those aspiring for higher education. It added that the protest would intensity if the demands were not met soon.

The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) stood firmly with the students against the changes in the hostel manual and termed the steep increase in hostel charges as unacceptable. “It is the university’s responsibility to provide residential and mess facilities to students at reasonable cost, and hostels cannot be run on a self-financing principle as the new hostel manual proposes,” said Surajit Mazumdar and D.K. Lobiyal, representing the JNUTA, in a statement.

A survey conducted by Ali Javed, an MPhil student in the department of economics, on the socio-economic condition of students in the university analysed their capacity to absorb the financial shocks that would be created with the increase in hostel charges. He found that 42 per cent of the students came from families with an annual household income of less than Rs.1,44,000. This category of students in JNU already pay 26 per cent more than what they can afford. With the application of the new hostel manual, this increases to 38 per cent, that is, a 77 per cent increase from an earlier shortage in aid. Of the 463 students surveyed, 98 per cent overwhelmingly rejected the new hostel manual. Seventy-six per cent of the students said they would not be able to afford the new fees.

According to Amutha Jayadeep, a former JNUSU representative from the All India Students Federation, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad were also against the fee hike. While on paper they were with the struggling students and even participated in some of the protests, they were unable to speak against their parent political party, the BJP, which was instrumental in heralding these controversial changes.

She said the administration was trying to divide the students and workers by stating that if the students did not pay the increased fees then the contractual workers would not get their salaries. “The truth is that over a period of time, they have gotten rid of the permanent staff and contractualised most of the workforce,” said Amutha.

The larger agenda of the administration was to change the demography of the student population, she said. “JNU is a microcosm of India; you will find a student from even the remotest parts of the country such as Kalahandi [in Odisha] thanks to the system of deprivation points. But the past few years have seen the murder of the reservation policy in JNU, and this change in fee structure will make it impossible for the poor and marginalised students to come to JNU,” she said.

Other contentious issues in the hostel manual include the implementation of a dress code for women and regulatory timings for hostel entry.

Two days after the police action on the students, R. Subrahmanyam, Education Secretary in the MHRD, tweeted that the JNU Executive Committee had announced a major rollback of the fee hike and proposed a scheme for economic assistance to students from economically weaker sections [EWS]. But JNU students called it an eyewash and stated that 95 per cent of the fee hike remained. “The JNU administration has only reduced a portion of the room rent, thereby making a reduction of Rs.1,200-Rs.2,400. The portion of service charge and the policy of students paying for the salaries of mess workers, hostel staff, hostel maintenance and other charges, which the administration conservatively estimated to be Rs.1,700 along with electricity and water, remain. The curfew timings, that is, 11 p.m. restriction, closure of 24×7 library reading rooms, the dress code and serious punishments like rustication and withdrawal of degree still stay. More importantly, the principle of 10 per cent fee hike every year remains,” said Amutha.

Said Apeksha: “EWS category excludes the S.C./S.T. [Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe] categories, and that is the reservation we are demanding. Our demand is that since the Inter Hostel Administration [IHA] meeting was conducted in an arbitrary manner, it should be reconvened and representatives from the Union need to be present. We will not move an inch until this manual is completely rolled back.”

The deadlock over the new rules began on October 28 when the IHA meeting did not allow the representatives of the JNUSU, who are members of the IHA committee, to attend it. Elected hostel presidents, who are members of the committee, were informed of the meeting 10 minutes before it began and when they reached the venue 10 minutes after the meeting began, they were told that the meeting was already over.

A week earlier, the JNUSU had sent representations to the Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Students expressing their concerns and opinions. However, none of those received a reply. Even after the meeting, the JNUSU and the hostel presidents made attempts to reach out to the administration to initiate a dialogue but all these failed.

After the declaration of the results in September of JNUSU elections by the JNU Election Committee, as mandated by the Delhi High Court, the JNU administration has stalled the inclusion of the JNUSU in meetings concerning student welfare. Protesting students received show-cause notices from the Proctor’s office or hefty fines were imposed on them for showing dissent. The students organised campaigns to persuade hostel wardens and provosts in charge of hostel clusters to reject the draft hostel manual or resign. Of the five provosts, three rejected the manual and two resigned.

In its defence, the JNU administration said the revision of rates by the IHA committee was done after more than a decade. The room rents were not revised in the past three decades, it said.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) condemned the attack on students and stated that JNU was a model of public education where students from deprived backgrounds could access higher education thanks to the low fee structure and subsidised food in hostels. “The current administration, acting as mere agents who carry out the political agenda of the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government, have unleashed different projects to overturn this structure. Introducing self-financing courses was one of the initial such steps. And now with making hostel a place where students of economically deprived sections cannot afford to be in residence will further intensify the exclusionary model,” the party said.

Commercialisation of education

The Students Federation of India said that in recent years, there was an active attempt by the BJP-backed JNU administration to turn the university into a laboratory for its neoliberal reforms and make education nothing less than a product in the market. “The draft hostel manual is the latest and one of the most regressive steps they have taken towards this. Other provisions are aimed to put different curfews on the students and imprison them into surveillance,” it added.

Twelve different political organisations on the campus came together on the hostel fee issue and stated that the hike was a direct result of the directions received from the University Grants Commission and consequently the MHRD. “The HEFA [Higher Education Financing Agency] loans, Institute of Eminence Scheme and the proposed New Education Policy are a package for destroying public universities like JNU,” said a student. The organisations pledged to build unity against the exclusionary draft hostel manual and the policies on higher education in general and to save the model of JNU from the onslaught spearheaded by the JNU administration and the BJP government.

Saket Moon said that the JNUSU would continue its attempt for dialogue with the administration. “On campus we will continue to convince the administration to talk to us and also take the struggle outside by exposing the nature of this government and its larger mandate of privatising education,” he said.

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Author: Shirley