Higher Education

Towards a regime of unfreedom

Print edition : May 11, 2018

Kanhaiya Kumar, then the JNUSU president, speaking on nationalism at the university Campus as the historians Romila Thapar and Harbans Mukhia look on, in March 2016. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A demonstration by students of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences along with the Samayak Vidyarthi Andolan in Mumbai on March15. Photo: Prashant Waydande

New government measures seek to curb freethinking and expression of dissent in universities, and some of them are apparently aimed at keeping marginalised communities out of institutions of higher learning.

UNDER the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) dispensation, education in India has come under the severe threat of saffronisation, privatisation and homogenisation. Systematic attacks on the democratic ethos of pedagogy threaten to destabilise college and university campuses. The unprecedented viciousness with which the administration, the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) are harassing students and teachers is particularly worrying.

Over the past four years, the UGC ushered in some drastic policy changes. Last year, it substantially reduced the number of PhD and MPhil seats. In Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), for instance, an effective 84 per cent reduction brought down the number of seats to 194 from 1,000. Such massive seat cuts in research were opposed by many universities, including JNU, where the intake for the year in several centres was zero. The UGC also reduced the number of PhD and MPhil students a professor could supervise. The UGC notification also did away with JNU’s unique deprivation point system that awarded 12 extra marks to students coming from rural areas, especially female students. The move will impair the diverse and inclusive character of JNU.

Scholarship scheme

The Post Matric Scholarship (PMS) scheme was started by B.R. Ambedkar in his capacity as Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council in 1943 and extended to the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) after Independence. It is an open-ended scheme, which means the government is committed to providing whatever funds are required. But in the past three years, backlogs have mounted. A huge number of students of the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and the S.Ts have been forced to drop out at advanced stages of their higher education, according to P.S. Krishnan, a retired IAS officer who has been an outstanding champion of the deprived social groups. For the year 2015-16, the government did not release funds for 70 per cent of the requirements, while for 2016-17 no funds were released. These arrears added up to more than Rs.10,000 crore. Krishnan said: “The present impasse has arisen because the outlay of PMS is grossly under-budgeted and the principle of ‘open-endedness’ has been lost sight of. Against an amount of about Rs.15,000 crore required to meet the arrears of 2015-16 and 2016-17 and the dues of the 2017-18, only Rs.3,347.99 crore was provided in 2017-18. This gross under-budgeting will ensure that the huge arrears are carried forward and will handicap the progress of S.Cs and S.Ts towards equality in higher education,” he said. He has written several letters to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on the issue.

Abhay Xaxa of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights said the funds cut amounted to intellectual lynching and “fiscal discrimination”. A recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General showed misuse of the PMS scheme in various States. Xaxa believes that the government engineered the “scams” so as to have a pretext to stop the scholarship. In Punjab, from 2013 to 2017, 16 government institutions collected over Rs.5 crore, which should have rightfully gone to nearly 20,000 students, while 12 private institutions collected over Rs.3.3 crore, which should have been distributed among 17,000 students. According to government data, the number of PMS awardees fell from 40,574 in 2014-15 to 18,407 in 2017-18 in Gujarat. Over the last two years, more than 56 lakh students applied but did not get the PMS, Xaxa said.

The UGC recently issued an order stating that all faculty appointments would henceforth be department-wise and not institution-wise. It followed the Allahabad High Court directive that said that quotas should be calculated by taking each department as a unit rather than the entire university as a unit.

Xaxa cited the example of a university in Amarkantak, where 52 posts were advertised for faculty positions but not one of them was reserved for S.C./S.T. candidates. According to Kancha Ilaiah, this was a deliberate ploy. “[The government must be thinking that] elements like Ilaiah are writing books like Why I Am Not A Hindu and Buffalo Nationalism because of the universities. Let us take them away,” he said. He believed that the idea was to get rid of institutions and get Hindu theology back in vogue. In a People’s Tribunal on Attack on Educational Institutions in India held in New Delhi, the testimonies of 150 students and teachers from 50 institutions in 17 States were considered by a jury on the impact of privatisation and globalisation on educational institutions, distortion of history and syllabus and saffronisation of education, crackdowns on and criminalisation of dissent, expression and peaceful assembly in educational campuses, and discrimination and threats faced by students from Kashmir and the north-eastern States. The jury included Professor Romila Thapar, Justice A.P. Shah, Justice Hosbet Suresh, Prof. Vasantha Devi, Prof. K.M. Shrimali, Dr Uma Chakravarty, Prof. Ghanshyam Shah and Pamela Philipose. The tribunal was organised by the People’s Commission on Shrinking Democratic Space (PCSDS).

On the government’s recent decision to grant autonomy to 60 institutions (including five Central universities, 21 State universities, 24 deemed universities, two private universities and eight autonomous colleges), the jury said: “The recent decision by the MHRD to grant autonomy to public institutions is an example of how the state is seeking to ensure that students from poor and backward communities are driven to the periphery and denied access to equal, quality and affordable education. In the name of autonomy, vocationalised and market-friendly courses are now being promoted. Consequently, we found that across the country, institutions that once had good representation of S.C., S.T. and OBC [Other Backward Classes] students are now in danger of losing their presence, precisely because these institutions have introduced fee structures that are completely unaffordable.... Today the government is abdicating its constitutional responsibility in funding education. Today we are witnessing not only the privatisation of higher education but also its corporatisation. This has impacted directly on the country’s literacy level, which is stagnating at 75 per cent. In the process, state universities have been reduced to examination boards.”

TISS case

Presenting the case of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to the jury, T. Gouminlal said that on March 21, all TISS campuses struck work to protest against the administration’s decision to charge tuition, mess and hostel fees from students eligible for the PMS. In 2015-16, TISS started charging fees from OBC students, after which the number of OBC students who availed themselves of the PMS fell sharply. In February, fees for food and hostel were increased, while the fee waiver for S.C./S.T. and OBC students was withdrawn. When mediation with the administration failed, the students called for a strike. A Right to Information (RTI) petition filed by Fahad Ahmad of TISS Mumbai showed that in 2018 OBC students accounted for only 17 per cent of the TISS student community against 27 per cent in 2015. This is in violation of the constitutional guarantee of 27 per cent reservation. With the withdrawal of fee waiver for S.C./S.T. students, the pattern was expected to repeat itself. The administration responded to the strike by serving show-cause notices on 15 students.

Prof. Hemant Shah from HK Arts College, Gujarat, spoke about the “Gujarat Model” and how it was being replicated all over the country. From 15 in 2001, the number of universities in Gujarat has risen to 50, thanks to the large-scale privatisation of education in the State. There was a mushrooming of private schools that charged fees from several thousand rupees to a few lakhs for class 1. The Gujarat Higher Education Council Bill, 2016, mandated 32 members for the council, most of whom would be government officials, Ministers and corporate representatives, while the council itself would be headed by the Chief Minister. “So the head of the Council, the CM [Chief Minister], would write to the head of the State, the CM, that is, Himself, over what policies to follow, etc,” Prof. Shah said, pointing out the absurdity of hierarchy that would make sure that there were no checks and balances. He spoke of the atmosphere of fear prevalent in educational institutions in the State. His column in the mainstream daily Sandesh was stopped at the behest of the then Home Minister, Amit Shah, and his lectures were cancelled because the authorities were unhappy with their content. Such attacks on constitutionally guaranteed rights of academics were common in Gujarat, he said.

Problems at NUJS

Aatika Singh of the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, spoke about the problems she faced while accessing the Central Sector Scholarship for S.C./S.T. students. Her scholarship would never reach on time, forcing her to do odd jobs, which resulted in low attendance, and she was debarred from appearing for semester exams. There was no student committee that one could turn to, or any other remedial instrument. She also faced casteist remarks, subtle and overt, from students as well as the former Vice Chancellor. The UGC twice refused to consider her financial condition as a plea against debarment. She said she was not the only one and there were several students who faced such discriminatory practices every year.


Jagadesh Kumar was a professor in Indian Institute of Technology Delhi before being promoted as Vice Chancellor of JNU. He wanted to replicate the IIT model in JNU, a counterproductive move that would negate years of successful pedagogy at JNU. The arbitrary and undemocratic imposition of rules alienated students and teachers. The overwhelming feeling within the JNU community was that Jagadesh Kumar was brought in to overhaul the university. The recent policy changes introduced by him were in keeping with the government’s overall strategy of keeping students from marginalised and rural backgrounds out of the education system.

The Vice Chancellor was accused of tampering with faculty selection committees and rules in order to ensure partisan appointments of deans and chairs. According to the JNU Students Union (JNUSU), Prof. Pradipta Chowdhury was appointed Dean of School of Social Sciences, superseding several senior professors. Seven chairpersons and a dean were removed for not complying with the compulsory attendance rule and subjected to inquiries. Dhir Sarangi was removed as Chairperson of the Centre for French and Francophone Studies and replaced by Rajiv Saxena. Amit Prakash of the the Centre for Law and Governance would be replaced by Amita Singh. Sucheta Mahajan will be replaced by Umesh Ashok Kadam in Historical Studies Centre. Pradip Kumar Datta will be replaced by Sanjay Kumar Bhardwaj in Comparative Politics and Political Thought. Pauthang Haokip will be replaced by Rizwanur Rahman in Linguistics. Udaya Kumar will be replaced by Dhananjay Singh in English Studies. Kavita Singh will be replaced by Mazhar Asif in Arts & Aesthetics.

The JNU Teachers’ Association alleged repeated violations of decision-making procedures such as vivas-over-skype, interference with panels of experts for selection processes, targeting of individual faculty members, arbitrary denial of promotions and non-renewal of wardenships, decimation of reservations and deprivation points that destroyed socially inclusive admission policies, scrapping of Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment, a bid to dismantle integrated B.A.-M.A. and integrated MPhil-PhD, and unilateral cancellation of Academic Council meetings.

The manner in which the complaint of sexual harassment against Prof. Atul Johri was handled by the administration and the police brought further shame on the university. Eight students had complained of sexual harassment by the professor. But only after sustained protests and a demand by 54 JNU professors for separate first information reports (FIR) against Johri for each case did the police finally arrest him. He was granted bail in less than a couple of hours. According to women students, Johri often made sexually coloured remarks, openly demanded sex and commented on the figures of girls and nursed grudges against girls who objected. In a statement, the students said: “There is a financial nexus between the professor and the administration. No instrument has been purchased for years, but still crores of rupees have been spent.” A student’s email to the professor, marked to other students, went viral on social media. It said: “I am leaving your so-called prestigious lab, just because you are a characterless person and have no manners when it comes to talking to girls.”

Arbitrary moves

In the past few months, Academic Council meetings had become meaningless as non-agenda items were passed as decisions. A casual remark by the Vice Chancellor on compulsory attendance during a discussion of the imposition of Cumulative Grade Points Average (CGPA) criteria for B.A. and M.A. students in the School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies was portrayed as a decision of the Academic Council. Without any reason being provided, attendance was made compulsory for MPhil and PhD students as well. More than 2,500 students signed a memorandum asking for the decision to be revoked. The administration responded by opening a proctorial inquiry against the four office bearers of the JNUSU—Geeta Kumari (president), Simone Zoya Khan (vice president), Duggirala Srikrishna (general secretary) and Shubhanshu Singh (joint secretary). Two FIRs were registered against them and other students on fabricated charges. In the Delhi High Court, Registrar Pramod Kumar sought punishment for them for contempt of last year’s court order prohibiting protests within a 100-metre radius of the administrative building Justice V. Kameswar Rao directed the JNUSU to not restrain the Vice Chancellor, while allowing demonstrations one kilometre away.

The ruthless manner in which the administration has been going after students, registering FIRs against them, opening proctorial inquiries and imposing huge monetary fines, speaks of an unbecoming vindictiveness.

When the students and teachers protested against the attendance rule, a circular was issued by Assistant Registrar Sajjan Kumar, stating that fellowships, hostel and medical and other facilities would stand withdrawn if students did not meet the minimum prescribed attendance. They would also not be allowed to register for the next semester. All these policy changes can make it difficult for students from rural areas to pursue higher education and can lead to mass dropouts.

On March 23, when thousands of JNU students marched to Parliament, they were met with a violent police force that lathi-charged them brutally. Thirty-five students were injured and 23 were detained, against whom FIRs were filed. Female protesters alleged they were molested and a video of a girl’s clothes being torn went viral on social media. Women journalists were also manhandled. Two complaints were filed, both by journalists, for molestation and assault, and two constables were suspended for snatching a photojournalist’s camera. After months of impasse, the Vice Chancellor granted an audience to Geeta Kumari and Simone Zoya Khan, but it is said that he abruptly left the meeting.

In the light of a sustained clampdown on intellectual freedoms and a push for an authoritarian right-wing agenda, the PCSDS said that it was time for a larger public conversation and confrontation with respect to the broad agenda of the government “to wipe out spaces that cherish differing opinions and attempt an authoritarian control over Indian intellectual life”.