Struggle against fee hike

Roots of the struggle against the fee hike in JNU

Print edition : January 31, 2020

A JNU students’ protest march against the fee hike from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on November 23, 2019. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

The JNU students’ protest against a recent massive hike in fees is part of a larger movement against the privatisation of higher education.

By the turn of the decade, the assault on the higher education system that started when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014 has become more and more brazen. Over the past year, many campuses, from Jamia Millia Islamia to Jadavpur University, have faced dastardly attacks aimed at breaking the backbone of the youth’s fierce resistance to the state. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) emerged as the symbol of all that the Sangh Parivar must destroy to crush the soul of liberal higher education in India.

The latest spate of violence inflicted on the JNU campus by goons of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was a tailpiece to the students’ movement against an unjust hostel manual and a massive fee hike. In the larger context of the political situation in the country, the students’ movement is also a fight for the preservation of public higher education.

Over the past few years, the policy of neoliberalism and Hindutva politics have steadily eroded the principle of affordable education. This trend is evident from rapid privatisation of universities, contractualisation of jobs, exponential hikes in student fees and de-secularisation of curricula. The justification made for the higher fees at JNU was that it was needed to pay salaries to the staff. In other words the burden of workers’ wages has been shifted to students.

In October last year, the announcement of a substantial hike in fees at JNU triggered a powerful students’ movement in the university. Regular sit-ins, mass rallies and university strikes were organised by the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) in which students cutting across caste, class, religious and political lines took part. Initially, even the ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, participated in the protests because a hike in fees affects students regardless of their affiliations. After many years, or perhaps for the first time, JNU students stood united on an issue. But in November, the ABVP withdrew its support to the strike, broke ranks with protesters and joined forces with the administration.

Around the same time, the pedestal of a yet-to-be unveiled statue of Swami Vivekananda, whom the Hindu right wing has appropriated and made one of its political icons, was defaced. Most of the university’s teachers and students’ groups condemned the defacement. The university administration blamed it on the JNUSU and marginalised students’ groups. The doors of the offices of the Vice Chancellor, rector and registrar were also spray-painted with messages calling for a rollback of the fee hike. The Delhi Police registered first information reports (FIRs) against unidentified persons for vandalism. JNU students pointed out that painting graffiti on the walls of the campus had always been a peaceful method of protest and it had never before invited criminal action against students. But the JNU administration’s way of dealing with student protests is to take disciplinary action against them; of late it has also been filing FIRs against them.

While a university operates within the ambits of civil society, the rules that govern it are slightly different from those that exist in the world outside its walls. JNU, like many other universities, has its own constitution and properly laid down guidelines on how to deal with students and their issues. There are committees and student welfare associations to deal with the various issues that come up. A university has a specific mandate to contribute to knowledge creation in society, for which an atmosphere conducive to freedom of thought and fearless expression is imperative. This is why universities try to sort out issues internally. But the current Vice Chancellor, M. Jagadesh Kumar, and his administration seem unaware of the very concept of a university and have been filing FIRs against students at the drop of a hat.

Meanwhile, the JNUSU under the leadership of Aishe Ghosh, who was grievously injured in the attack that occurred on the JNU campus on January 5, emerged as a potent force in the movement against the fee hike. The JNUSU has made allegations of administrative and financial mismanagement in JNU and demanded the Vice Chancellor’s resignation.

Student union’s charges

In a statement, the JNUSU said: “The recent movement over fee hike, the new hostel manual, and the subversion of statutory bodies has brought to the fore certain instances amounting to dishonesty and illegality on the part of the administration. The subversion of the statutory bodies such as the Inter-Hall Administration Committee and the Executive Council [E.C.] are well known. However, the administration’s lacunae in their narrative point to hitherto unknown gross mismanagement. The 25th November Circular released by the JNU Administration, which decided on a farcical partial rollback, through a questionable E.C. meeting through email conveniently hides the fact that the UGC [University Grants Commission] has released funds to the tune of Rs.6 crore. Furthermore, the rationale for the fee hike is still left unclear. In the Revised JNU Hostel Manual-Fact Sheet released by the JNU Administration, the JNU Administration reveals the rationale for the fee hike to be JNU’s [budget] deficit, which is currently about Rs.45 crore. The reason cited for the same is salaries of the contractual staff, which according to UGC regulations is to be met with internal receipts of the university. However, the letter dated 9 September 2019 makes no mention of any such regulation. What it does mention is that the university must employ contractual staff only after explicit permission for the same has been granted by the UGC, else the university must pay for the expenses incurred through its non-salary head. It is also notable that there have been no significant increases in the contractual staff in JNU hostels. Thus, the JNU Administration is trying to cover up its financial mismanagement through a fee hike upon students.”

The union also alleged that the Vice Chancellor had allowed and promoted “a coterie of like-minded persons” to take up administrative posts even though “strong reasons” against such appointments were shown to the administration. It alleged that there was corruption and nepotism in the faculty recruitment process at the School of Computer and System Sciences (SC&SS). According to the JNUSU, SC&SS Dean T.V. Vijay Kumar, who was appointed in July 2019, was complicit in corruption and favouritism in the admission to 19 to 20 posts at the centre and in the procedures for the allotment of supervisors. In a written statement, the union said: “However, what is even more atrocious is that Kumar was made the dean when he had pending inquires against him of the serious charge of sexual harassment. When it was brought to the attention of the current administration multiple times, the administration initiated a communications blackout and refused to tender any explanations for the same. It is also true that Kumar has received three promotions (from Assistant Professor, Stage 2 to Stage 3, to Associate Professor, and to Professor) within the short span of October 2016 to September 2017, during a time when the complaint had been filed and under enquiry. The JNU VC’s attempts at the dissolution of GSCASH [Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment], and its replacement with the ICC [Internal Complaints Committee], followed by attempts to shield people in positions of power, like Atul Johri, from a free and fair enquiry, has only made clear the administration’s attempts to trample on gender justice on campus.”

The month of November saw several protests by the students. On November 13, the Executive Committee announced a rollback of the increase in hostel fees and some other stipulations and proposed a scheme for economic assistance to students from economically weaker sections. But JNU students termed 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 [and for] hostel maintenance and other charges, which the administration conservatively estimated to be Rs.1,700 [per month] along with electricity and water [charges], 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 Jayadeep, a former JNUSU representative from the All India Students Federation.

Committee’s report

Later, as JNU teachers and students marched towards Parliament to demand a rollback of the fees, defying the imposition of Section 144, the police lathi-charged them. Hundreds were detained, and FIRs were filed against many. Soon after, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) was forced to constitute a three-member high-power committee to recommend measures to restore the normal functioning of the university. The committee, led by former UGC chairman V.S. Chauhan, submitted its report to the government and said that the UGC would fund the immediate shortfall and that any increase in the fee structure in future should happen only with proper consultation with students’ representatives. It recommended a complete rollback of the fee hike and asked the administration to consult the students. The then Higher Education Secretary, R. Subrahmanyam, said that the Ministry would “examine the report before taking action on it”.

While the MHRD suggested that examinations should be held three weeks after the fee hike issue was resolved, the JNU administration released a circular saying that they would be held immediately. According to the JNUSU, despite a clear assurance from the MHRD that the UGC would continue to finance the costs of utilities and services, the administration was adamantly disregarding it.

Only after the High Court ordered that a dialogue be held with the students to resolve the situation did the Vice Chancellor meet presidents of hostels. He reiterated the need for standardising a fee model in the university where students had to pay in excess of Rs.5,000 a month, which is precisely what the students had been protesting against. The hostel presidents unanimously rejected the Vice Chancellor’s proposal and urged him to call a meeting with representatives from the JNUSU. At this point, the Vice Chancellor and other officials walked out of the meeting. The administration then released a press statement in which it emphasised the need to impose charges for utilities and services. The JNUSU said that if the Vice Chancellor continued to stick to his agenda in the midst of negotiations, it showed that the administration had a clear design, which had political backing.

Even after months of conflict and standoff, the university administration refused to budge and, instead, declared that the registration for the winter semester under the new fee structure would be held between January 1 and 5. The JNUSU continued to demand a rollback of the new fee structure while the ABVP supported the administration and encouraged students to register.

Students who had the money or had received funds from their scholarships registered, but many who were incapable of paying the increased amount could not. In the middle of the registration process, some students disconnected the Wi-Fi. The administration immediately filed a police case. The server was restored the next day, and even as students began to register, ABVP students beat up and injured the leaders of the protest movement with sticks. Despite this, students opposing the registration protest did not hit back or register any complaint. On January 5, the last day of the registration process, ABVP students heckled some students walking near the Vivekananda statue even though these students were not part of any protest. Students who were part of the protest and other students who objected to girls being harassed together chased the ABVP students away, and there was a mild scuffle between the two groups. The ABVP students on campus realised they were outnumbered and so called for more people from outside before launching a full-blown attack, said students that Frontline spoke to.

A campus that was known for its democratic spirit where students could engage in heated debates without the situation leading to physical fights—even during the height of the Emergency or when Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested in a midnight raid in February 2016—has descended into terror and chaos.

Despite video footage of the violence that took place on January 5, the Delhi Police have not brought to book any of the perpetrators and have instead registered two FIRs against Aishe Ghosh, who was brutally injured. But she said that her struggle against the proposed fee hike would continue even if an FIR was filed against her for each day of the protest.

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