Left Unity students of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University celebrate their victory against a right-wing student organization in the 2018 student elections. Photo: Samim Asgor Ali
Left Unity students of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University celebrate their victory against a right-wing student organization in the 2018 student elections. Photo: Samim Asgor Ali

It has been more than three weeks since student protests began at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and they have far from subsided – in fact they are still gaining momentum. The demonstrations are raging against introduction of a new Hostel Manual, which among other objectionable regulations and impositions revises the subsidized, extremely affordable fees of the institution that used to enable JNU to attract the socioeconomically (so-called) most backward strata of Indian society.

The Hostel Manual also entails enforcement of stern conduct regulations, restricting student hours, mobility and even their dress, with harsh fines and other penalties. The dissent has reached the High Court, as well as the federal Human Resource Development Ministry. About a 100 students were detained, several bruised and a few seriously injured, in a police baton-charge upon the protesting throng.

To date, the left-wing Marxist-Maoist-inspired grassroots student movement at the campus has resisted the fee hike proposals, and effectively froze the university in time, consolidating it as an oasis of inclusivity and accessibility. Just like India’s premier and much-coveted tech institutes the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), JNU was an apical institution, viewed as the epitome of social learning by the visionary first prime minister J L Nehru. However, as the IIT fees burgeoned to six digits, JNU remained a humble abode of rightful educational pursuit. Now, the government is bent on destroying that.

“Leftists” are being accused of overreacting. However, this is no singular, isolated or salient phenomenon, limited to left-dominant campuses. The students of the Ayurvedic Medical College of Uttarkhand (an institution imparting training and teaching in traditional Indian medicine) are staging dharnas (sit-in protests) against proposed fee hikes. If anything, JNU is a premier institution that has consistently topped national university ratifications and rankings, leading with an “A++” accreditation grade, and yielding a consistent outpouring of civil servants, artistes, literati, noted academicians, elite intellectuals, humanities researchers, and other leading figures including politicians.

JNU counts among the most esteemed universities of Asia. The public university was envisaged as a neutral bastion of free thinking that exercises and implements the very values in its system, governance and campus administration, as were idealized in the disciplines that were taught therein. The public university has such international repute that when the Indian government cracked down on the alleged perpetrators of a so-called sedition incident on the campus in February 2016 – claiming that certain All India Student Federation (a left-wing student organization) students had raised anti-national slogans, leading scholars from Japan, Australia, Canada, and top universities of the United States to come out in support of the convicted students. Signatories on the Statement of Solidarity included Noam Chomsky and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Many were initially apprehensive that the rampant student politics and the systematically inculcated culture of demonstration-and-dissent would hamper the educational environment of the institution and disrupt students’ pursuit of knowledge. However, this could not be further from the truth, and over the years, the argument has proved to be unfounded. JNU students learn vital practical skills, implementing what they learn in the classroom right on the campus, of their own volition. For them, the practice of learning is intimately intertwined with their life on campus. Over the years, since its founding, JNU has produced countless crème-de-la-crème scholars, bureaucrats, political and social scientists, and economists.

For decades, JNU was a secure oasis of dissent – thriving under the patronage and full freedom granted by socialist, centrist and even neoliberal prime ministers. Amid the bustle of Delhi and burgeoning capitalism in India, JNU remained accessible to one and all – extremely affordable, high quality, and internally democratic

For decades, JNU was a secure oasis of dissent – thriving under the patronage and full freedom granted by socialist, centrist and even neoliberal prime ministers. Amid the bustle of Delhi and burgeoning capitalism in India, JNU remained accessible to one and all – extremely affordable, high quality, and internally democratic.

JNU was famous for its student politics – a full-fledged system that was democracy-in-motion. The grassroots student electoral machinery was an exemplary emulation of India’s democratic arrangement. Such was the importance ascribed to student politics in JNU that each election elicited eager nationwide anticipation and celebration. For decades, JNU thrived, enjoying the sanction to free exercise of its internal affairs in a democratic fashion even though the numerically dominant ideologies and the ideologies of the elected student bodies increasingly differed from that of the ruling parties, up until the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister.

Since the 2014 elections won by the Bharatiya Janata Party, things at JNU have gone downhill. The government filled the top-tier administration with hand-picked right-wing pro-BJP puppet academicians. As the Left Student Parties (student wings of communist parties of India) frequently and often overwhelmingly emerge victorious in the university student-body elections, and because the Student Union has a tradition of being so powerful and persuasive, clashes became a veritable daily norm.

Most of the faculty stood with the students in utmost solidarity, even lending ideological and moral support and substantiation. Police and goons of the right-wing student union the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) were allegedly misused by the administration to curtail violently the peaceful yet steadfast and persuasive protests of the students. As the elected student unions mobilized large swaths of discontented students against the administration’s repression, the imposition only grew in typical egoistic knee-jerk reactionism. A draconian 140-page manual was recently imposed on the university with one of the most relaxed, progressive and lenient hostel and campus conduct regulations in the world, which had an established track record for inter-student peace and amity, despite the all the campus politics going on all the time.

JNU conforms to the core tenet of the Nehruvian view of India – as a melting pot that has accommodated and absorbed every inbound culture and diaspora, who have left their distinct impact, and yet the former retains its identity. In Nehru’s view, the most Indian trait was inclusivity – the composite and dynamic nature of the brew in the cauldron. Diversity, harmony, reconciliation, amity, eclecticism and pluralism of identities, views and beliefs is India’s identity, view and belief. Most alumni of JNU call it the same – a melting pot. Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee echoed and affirmed the same idea in various interviews, and also said that JNU taught him all about what India is.

What made JNU so accessible was the maintenance of its affordability, at a time when Indian university fees steeply grew, and under the Modi regime, shot right through the roof, growing in sudden leaps. Its affordability, coupled with its egalitarian, democratic culture, was the reason that Kanhaiya Kumar, a boy hailing from an extremely impoverished family from an ignominious village in Bihar, the poorest and the least literate state of India, was elected as the head of the Student Union, and became one of the most recognizable political figures in India. His fame endured slander, and persisted beyond the culmination of his tenure.

However, there is more than meets the eye, or rather the video cameras – much more. The perniciously superficial and fleeting treatment of the fee-hike issue by the media, which seem unable to shake off their obsession with the Ram temple, fails to present the right subjects, let alone the complete picture. After days of protest, the government halfheartedly gave in. “JNU Executive Committee announces major roll-back in the hostel fee and other stipulations. Also proposes a scheme for economic assistance to the EWS students. Time to get back to classes,” Education Secretary R Subrahmanyam tweeted on the evening of November 13. The self-proclaimed announcement of yielding to the demands has many insidious facets, however. Notwithstanding the typical, subtle authoritarian tone and chiding, mild rebuking parental, patronizing undercurrent in the last sentence of his tweet, the so-called “major roll-back” is deemed a farce and eyewash by the students.

First, the reluctant roll-back entails partial restoration to the original fees only for BPL (Below Poverty Line) students. Fair enough, you think? Well, you might want to consider this criterion: Here is the catch – Below Poverty Line for the fee-liability is obsoletely defined as income below 27,000 rupees (US$376) per annum – a country where a typical rural monthly ration budget to manage two square meals a day is over $25. For comparison’s sake, the International Poverty Line defined by the World Bank in 2015 is $1.90 a day, putting it at about 50,000 rupees per annum at the current exchange rate. Even this threshold is often criticized by competent evaluators and renowned developmental economists as being artificially too low.

The fee hike is multifaceted: Room rents have bloated thirty-fold. The annual hostel charges have risen by more than five times. On top of that, the enforcement shall entail a new liability to pay the electricity, Wi-Fi, water and other miscellaneous charges.

Taking this one step further, the government is also undermining research itself. This is part of an overarching subconscious paradigm spanning master’s and doctorate programs that has been exhibited everywhere from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to the IITs, and the Hyderabad University to the JNU. Moreover, it is singling out and trivializing humanities as a discipline, portraying it as unproductive and non-beneficial to society and humanity. This naive notion hinges on ignoring the grassroots manifestations and implementations of the arts, and blatantly depicting academic research as a laid-back, cock-and-bull concoction pastime that contributes no real value to society, given how the current regime indiscriminately equates value to direct and superficial monetary value.

There is also an important social factor that needs to be underlined. Several women studying at JNU belong to families who only permit them there because the education is inexpensive. With the fee rise, conservative families are likely to pull them out.

The Modi regime is well trained in the art of misdirection and subtle, gradual mass incitation. It will leave no stone unturned in imposing its Hindu nationalist ideology, and paternalistic ethos enabled through crony capitalism. Portraying the struggling, hard-working students of JNU, who are forced to face strife on multiple fronts, as bellicose, thankless freeloaders, the regime is trying to seep inside the popular conscience the notion that public-sector entities are leaching off their tax rupees, in an ungrateful manner, turning the public opinion against them. The media, particularly the TV media, are playing a proactive role in bolstering this establishment with its sensationalist, insightful coverage and unabashedly superficial, selective and incomplete reportage. The student protest-leaders have said that the demonstrations shall continue unimpeded until the regressive and draconian Hostel Manual is retracted.

The culture of JNU must be preserved, and there can be no better exercise – a practical trial for the JNU students to put their ideas, ideologies, acquired learning and principles to test. Today’s adversity creates the leaders of tomorrow, and the students who endure this determinedly without bowing, shall emerge out of their courses with an iron will with their degrees, conditioned, well-versed and readied to take on any authoritarianism in the precarious times that lie ahead.

Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, columnist, writer, independent researcher, haiku poet, and verbal ability trainer. His writing has appeared in more than 150 outlets across 50+ countries. He is currently based out of Xavier School of Management (XLRI Jamshedpur).

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