Higher Education

Siege of JNU

Print edition : December 20, 2019

During a protest against the fee hike near the JNU campus on November 18. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

A member of the All India Students Association protesting against fee hike in New Delhi on November 29. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

The recent increase in hostel and mess charges in JNU and the unprecedented use of force against protesting students form part of the BJP-led Central government’s plan to make higher education unaffordable for the poor and to destroy the liberal ethos of society.

FOR the Sangh Parivar, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is a bastion of left intellectualism in the country. While the university and its students may not have any power compared with the might of the Hindu nationalist state led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is a beacon of resistance that is consistently anti-authoritarian in its praxis.

While the BJP has made no attempts to crush the armed left-wing extremists that command some following in the Indian hinterland, the party, since assuming power in 2014, has created bogeymen out of “urban naxals” and those it claims are anti-national. JNU students, who with their radical vocabulary in speeches and pamphlets call out the fascist Hindu Rashtra as such, are demonised as one of the prime enemies of the state. Through televised programmes, JNU students have been embedded in the minds of the middle-class voters of the BJP as obstacles in the path to a glorious Hindu Rashtra.

Terming the branding of JNU as a fountainhead of left ideology complete “nonsense”, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury told Frontline that it was nothing but propaganda. “If JNU nurtures only left ideology, then explain to me why the largest number of IAS, IPS and IFS officers are from JNU? Why is it that in this Ministry there are two former students of JNU holding two very important portfolios?” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar are both JNU alumni. There is no area of social activity in India where somebody from JNU cannot be found. Calling them nation builders, Yechury said that every single student who was socially conscious and emerged from JNU went on to become a builder of society.

The attack on JNU is not an isolated case, and other institutes, including the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, Hyderabad Central University, Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Delhi University, Panjab University in Chandigarh, Allahabad University, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, Aligarh Muslim University, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), have been under concerted attack since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014. JNU was being singled out for the political optics of the government because it represented the leading voice of upholding reason and rationality, Yechury said.

“It is clear that ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014, their principle target has been higher education and research because essentially for the fascistic project of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS] to succeed what is required is the destruction of reason. Irrationality must replace rationality. If the study of Indian history has to be replaced by the study of Indian mythology or Hindu mythology (Ramayana-Mahabharata is what they go on repeating), the study of Indian philosophy, of which we have a rich tradition, has to be confined to the study of Hindu theocracy, this transition is essential for them to establish their political authority or what they call the Hindutva Rashtra. This means that these institutions of higher education and research have to be first destroyed and then controlled from their point of view,” he explained.

The latest assault on JNU with the massive deployment of troops, intimidation and violence has been unprecedented. Local intelligence unit officials went to the families of students protesting the steep hike in hostel and mess fees and threatened them, according to students. Take the case of Jitendra Suna. He was a candidate for president of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) in the last elections and is one of the prominent voices in the protests against the fee hikes. He hails from the Dom caste of landless labourers in one of the most backward regions of the country, Kalahandi, Odisha. On November 23, two policemen from the Odisha Police barged into his home in Kalahandi and interrogated his family about his background, the number of members in the family and how he got into JNU. One of the policemen was visibly drunk, according to the students. “This is nothing but sheer intimidation of Jitendra’s family with an intent to pressure him and try to suppress his activism. This action is an attempt of the ruling BJP/RSS regime to intimidate and silence a resistance by the students from marginalised communities who are protesting against the fee hike, the violation of reservation policies and anti-student policies of the government,” the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association said in a statement.

There are several factors at play behind the decision to hike the hostel fees in JNU. First, it fits neatly into the neoliberal plan of the government to commercialise higher education. Second, it seeks to destroy the scientific temperament that is encouraged through education and replace it with a dogmatic Hindu-centred pedagogy. Lastly, it seeks to impose a Hindu cultural paradigm by destroying the liberal ethos of society.

But JNU students, faculty and alumni have risen up against this attack with a single-minded focus to save public funding of higher education. Despite the massive police presence and unprecedented use of force against the protesting students, the rallies organised by the JNU community saw huge participation.

JNU is not the only institution where fees are being hiked. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences was asked to hike its fees, and patient fees would be subsequently increased to recover the costs of providing services. The AIIMS Resident Doctors Association opposed the move, refusing to sacrifice quality education and health care on the altar of capitalism. The fee for MTech programmes in the IITs was to be increased by up to 10 times. The IITs at present charge Rs.30,000-Rs.50,000 a year for MTech and also give a stipend of Rs.12,400 to students. This fee was to be raised to Rs.2-3 lakh a year and the stipend was to be stopped. Protesting against the fee hike, the students in IIT BHU recently refused to accept degrees from Union Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, and IIT Bombay also protested against the move. Reportedly, owing to these protests, the fee hike in the IITs has been stalled for now and could possibly be reversed. Students in Dehradun were protesting against a massive fee hike in private Ayurvedic colleges of Uttarakhand. Maulana Azad National Urdu University also witnessed student protests against a hike in hostel fees.

In August, the fees for board examinations of the Central Board of Secondary Education were doubled for general category students and increased by 24 times for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (S.C./S.T.) students. The uproar in BHU over the appointment of Firoze Khan, 29, as a Sanskrit professor points to the extreme communalisation of campus life. At a time when there should be a move towards universal free education and the erasure of discrimination on campuses, under the current dispensation, there is a regressive turning back to profiteering and polarisation.

The thrust towards privatisation the previous governments initiated became full-fledged under the Modi government. As on November 1, of the 940 universities in the country, more than one-third, or 340, are private universities, only 50 are Central and 404 are State; 126 are deemed-to-be universities. Earlier, the government launched the scheme of Institutions of Eminence. It selected greenfield universities to be set up by the corporates Reliance and Bharti for the tag, while keeping out well-established institutions such as the IITs, Delhi University or Jadavpur University. “There are a lot of private players setting up universities that teach the same courses as JNU or DU but with much higher fees. If the future of higher education in India has to be firmly established in promoting critical thinking in highly expensive spaces controlled by corporates, then it necessitates the demonisation of public-funded institutions. This fulfils not only the privatisation agenda of the government but also the ideological motive, where the public discourse will be controlled by pro-government private spaces,” said an educationist on condition of anonymity.

It is also to push students from marginalised backgrounds, who throng public-funded institutions, to drop out of higher education, making it a privilege of the elite. It is no secret that thanks to the reservation policy in education, several first-generation learners are able to make it to places such as JNU. Even Delhi University is relatively more expensive for students from below poverty line (BPL) families because of its limited hostel capacity. The emergence of private universities will make it even more difficult for people from marginalised backgrounds to access education, the only avenue for them to extract themselves from debilitating poverty and vulnerability.

Unspent funds

Besides, the perception that subsidising students is a waste of taxpayers’ money is completely misplaced. In 2017, in a much criticised move, the government gave autonomy to about 60 universities and colleges. As per a report the Comptroller and Auditor General tabled in Parliament that year, all the money collected as education cess since its imposition in 2006-07, amounting to Rs.83,497 crore, had remained unspent. Reportedly, only 7.73 per cent of the taxpayers’ money collected under the research and development cess in two decades had been utilised until then. The government was, in fact, forcing universities to generate their own funds through self-financed courses. The government’s aim to withdraw from public funding of educational institutions was clear.

“The privatisation and commercialisation of education has led to the spread of a public perception that ‘subsidies’ are out of place and a so-called ‘reasonable return on investment’ must be ensured. Whereas earlier governments were forced to debate these issues publicly and face failed attempts to pass reform Bills in Parliament, with the decline of even these democratic practices under the present regime, the practice of resorting to executive orders to implement policies without public debate has become the new ‘normal’,” said a statement issued by former presidents of the JNUSU.

D. Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum, who was president of the JNUSU in 1979, stressed the value of a JNU education. “If you go to a lot of regional universities in the provinces, you will find JNU students teaching there now as professors. And the kind of quality they bring to that university is indicative of the consciousness inculcated in JNU. Students like this come to Delhi and they could have settled here in cushy jobs, and so on, but they have chosen to go back to their parent States and teach there and bring up the standards. All this I think hurts this government,” he told Frontline. There is an emphasis on privatisation and the monetisation of public education to bring about self financing in the New Education Policy (NEP), he added. “There is a market trend in that direction, but this is now a government-directed trend. That’s behind all these recent fee increases. The struggle which is happening now may be centred around JNU today, but we will see much wider protests across the country against the NEP. This is just a precursor to that,” he said. Several provisions of the NEP deem to push the entire education system from preschool to the university level towards commercialisation.

In fact, the privatisation of campuses is going on hand in hand with their communalisation. As in the bureaucracy and democratic institutions of the country, in JNU too, there are attempts to appoint teachers with a right-wing ideology. Saurabh Kumar Sharma, an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activist in JNU, was recently appointed as an assistant professor in the School of Computer and Systems Sciences. In 2016, as joint secretary of the JNUSU, he alleged that anti-national slogans were being raised on the campus, and his statements strengthened the case against Kanhaiya Kumar. Later, Sharma’s PhD was fast-tracked and awarded to him soon after his viva voce took place. This created a furore among the students, and there were allegations of nepotism. According to informed sources, the job criteria were changed to enable his appointment.

Allegedly, other ABVP activists were appointed as assistant professors in areas where they had no expertise: Anshu Joshi, who holds a PhD in disarmament studies, was appointed an assistant professor in Latin American studies, and Sneha Bhagat, who did her PhD on Malaysia, was appointed as an assistant professor in Canadian studies.

Meanwhile, a high-level committee appointed by the JNU administration recommended a 75 per cent rollback of the increases in the utility and service charges for BPL students and a 50 per cent rollback on the increases for all other students. The students called the recommendation “unacceptable and outrageous”. “The administration of this university never tires of taking ludicrous steps and insulting the student community through its circulars and press releases. The press release on the night of November 25 by the so-called high-level committee established by the self-styled ‘Competent Authority’ is another outrageous fraud by this incompetent VC [Vice Chancellor] and his partners in crime of the so-called HLC. In its deluded estimation, what it thinks is a concession on the fee hike is a document unacceptable in its entirety,” said the JNUSU. They told the High Power Committee appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to look into the issue of the fee hike to take note of “yet another illegal procedural manoeuvre by the JNU administration. Our demands are just and reasonable and any action by the HPC facilitating them can be the only condition for a return to normalcy as all parties wish for.”

Despite all this government’s criticism of JNU, the university has consistently ranked no.1 or no.2 in government surveys of higher educational institutions, so the value of JNU cannot be underestimated, said Raghunandan. As a public-funded university, it had a wide representation of different communities, and a lot of it was because of the JNU admissions policy based on the deprivation points system, which was formulated and fought for by the JNU students themselves. As per this system, the more deprived a candidate was, the more points he/she got. S.C., S.T. and Other Backward Classes, the physically handicapped, women, transgenders, Kashmiri migrants, agricultural workers and students from rural areas, all received deprivation points. Contrary to the media-promoted image of JNU as anti-national, there were deprivation points for the widows and wards of serving and ex-service defence personnel killed or disabled in action or in peacetime with death or disability attributable to military service.

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