Tuesday, 7 July 2020

#StandwithJNU Taming the rebels

By Nilabh Krishna
Updated: December 12, 2019 11:55 am

Not so long ago, the idea of buying packaged drinking water was widely considered preposterous. It was believed that water and air were in abundance and one would never run out of them, let alone have to pay for them. Clearly, people were wrong. If the reports are to be believed, our country is exploring the market for air purifiers that is set to touch 39 million dollars by 2023. Delhi, known for its ever increasing pollution levels, already has an “oxygen bar”. But the question one is wondering is that will commodifying breathable air, one of the preconditions of life on earth, not make it more inaccessible? After all, not all people can afford to pay to breathe.

The proposal to hike the hostel fees at Jawaharlal Nehru University, if implemented, will make education unaffordable for students from economically poor backgrounds. Over 40 per cent of the students at JNU hail from families that have an income of less than Rs 12,000 per month. It is sad that some of them might have to drop out of this prestigious institute if the fee hike comes into force. The protests by the students thus have to be understood from their perspective as they are the ones who will be affected by the fee hike. People must extend moral support to them. The vice-chancellor of JNU, M. Jagadesh Kumar, should also sympathize with the students. It is quite unfortunate that he allegedly showed reluctance to meet the protesting students.

The crucial question here is whether education should be subsidized and made affordable for the poor or should it be the exclusive preserve of the affluent? The government cannot shirk its responsibility of providing quality education to those without the wherewithal to pay for it themselves. It is hard to understand that government is strapped for cash when it comes to students’ hostel fees but could cut corporate tax to the tune of Rs 1.45 lakh crore.

Also, students of JNU are not the only ones protesting a proposed hike in hostel fees. Several universities across India are facing similar problems. A few months back, there were massive protests by students of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad because of the raise in hostel and mess fees. The most common argument in favour of such hikes is that it will help improve infrastructural and educational standards. But if that were true then the government would not have been systematically targeting reputed universities that encourage critical thinking in their students.

It is strange that the State, which should be providing education to its citizens, is doing the opposite by discouraging meritorious, but poor students from taking admission in prestigious institutions by hiking the hostel fees. Is the government turning increasingly capitalist or is it trying to make way for corporates in the field of education?

Other government-funded institutions of higher education have also been raising their fees. What is the point of studying in government universities that are funded by tax payers’ money if they cannot take responsibility for educating the poor? Given the government’s apathy, who will the citizens turn to?

Explaining how the government is making its case for the privatisation of education, Akash Raha, alumnus of JNU and a Consultant to IIM, Indore, says “Today, the government keeps putting forth ruses of ‘liberal education’ and ‘autonomy’ in an attempt to defund public higher education in India. While there is an attempt to curb democratic autonomy within spaces of higher education in India, there is also an attempt to enforce economic autonomy sought by the forces of neoliberalism.

“For instance, the recommendations of the 1968 National Policy of Education suggested that educational spending be raised to 6 per cent of the total GDP; however, 50 years ever since, there is no political will to raise the educational spending. Instead, as seen in the case of JNU and other public universities, much of the funds remain unspent.

“Perhaps the reason for this lies in the neoliberal economic policies India has subscribed to. For instance, through the WTO-GATs agreement of 2015, wherein, India opened business to 160 member countries to establish universities in India as a commercial  venture. These glorified private and foreign universities will have to be created at the cost of public education system in India, since, to create a ‘level playing field’ for these commercial ventures the subsidies to the existing and prospective public education systems have to be dismantled.

“Explaining neoliberal policies and how systems such as education are privatized, Noam Chomsky says, “First defund it. Then, it won’t work. People will be angry, and they’ll want something else. It’s a standard technique for privatizing.”

“In such an education system that favours the one with most capital and sway in the society, what claims can citizens have to Right to Education?

“Public education in India is already deeply underrepresented by those coming from marginalized sections of the society – the Dalit, the Adivasis, the Muslims, and the poor amongst others. With no concrete reservation policies in the private educational institutions, what claims can the marginalized citizen make from the government that imposes neoliberal policies on education, and austerity measures in an already lopsided education system that pushes the marginal outside the periphery? In such a system how can a democracy protest for its rights when its government has relinquished its power to concede?””

Socio-economic divide

Governments at the Centre have always been at loggerheads with JNU: If in the past it was the Congress governments that were at the receiving end, now it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The university’s predominantly left-leaning politics has been a major reason for this. Another reason has been the presence of a politically-active and socially-conscious student community, which has constantly scrutinised the actions of the administration and various governments. At times this has been with bipartisan consent, as is the case now. Both the Left-led JNU Students’ Union and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) are protesting against the fee hike. Given this, the governments’ displeasure towards JNU, though not justified, is understandable.

The protests over the proposed fee hike are a testament to the growing socio- economic divide in India. Viju Cherian, Editor at moneycontrol.com explains this divide very aptly. He says “At its core the JNU protest is a students’ demonstration which has now snowballed into a ‘face-off’ with authorities, and has turned into a complex socio-political hot potato. This has happened because of government/ administrative apathy, media misrepresentation and the economic chasm that divides India. A beef many people have with the protesting students is the low rents they pay for their hostel rooms — the lowest being Rs 10 per month. The questions are: How can the rent be so low? To have such cheap accommodation in South Delhi is unimaginable! Why should rents be subsidised for every student? Those who can pay, must pay, and so on. A positive takeaway from this is that it could lead to a discussion on the nature of current subsidies in the higher education sector. Another could be that through this episode the urban middle and upper-middle class will realise that beyond its city or town limits there is an India, an economically weak and underprivileged India, where life and realities are starkly different. Just outside the JNU main gate is Budh Vihar, Munirka, where relatively affordable housing (by South Delhi standards) and eateries can be found. In JNU, of course, food and accommodation is subsidised. Near the faculty quarters and just outside JNU’s west gate there is a foot over bridge which connects the campus to Vasant Kunj — to three shopping malls, of which one is a luxury shopping mall where a leather belt or a shoe could put you behind by Rs 50,000. Thus, in a metaphorical manner, the JNU campus is the bridge between the two realities we see around us. The JNU protest and the surrounding controversy has showed that more than seven decades after Independence, the socio-economic chasm in India is as wide as ever.”


Revised JNU Hostel Manual: Fact Sheet


Need for Revision of Hostel Manual

The JNU Hostel Manual was not revised for about a decade and the last revision was undertaken in 2005. Its revision was long overdue. The Office of Inter-Hall-Administration (IHA) of JNU started the process of revising and updating the hostel manual way back in 2016. A Committee (Annexure -I) was set up to converse with all stakeholders to do the same. After thorough discussions spanning almost two long years among the students, the Wardens and the Provosts, the Committee (Annexure-II) prepared a draft and submitted to the Dean of Students in 2018. The Dean referred the Committee report to the Committee of Provosts for further discussions on the draft.

After finalization of the draft hostel manual, the office of Dean of Students uploaded the said draft on the JNU website on 3rd October 2019 and called for feedback from the student community. After receiving the feedback, an IHA meeting (Annexure-III) was convened to consider the draft report and the students’ feedback on 28TH October, 2019.

A large number of students assembled at the venue of the meeting at the Convention Center of Jawaharlal Nehru University and demanded participation of recently elected, but yet to be notified, office bearers of JNUSU (Annexure-IV). Since the matter of JNUSU election was subjudice (Annexure-V & VI), the Dean’ office could not have invited the student leaders as per the law. This led to a state of pandemonium, as the Dean of Students (DoS) was gheraoed and taken hostage by students. The students went to the extent of obstructing an ambulance carrying the DoS, whose BP had gone up alarmingly and required immediate medical attention, to the hospital.

Subsequently, the IHA meeting was adjourned (Annexure-VII) and then reconvened at a different venue. The draft hostel manual was deliberated in greater details and then approved. After about two weeks, the recommendations of the IHA meeting (Annexure VIII) on the revised hostel manual was put up as an agenda item in the 283rd EC Meeting, where after due deliberations on the students’ feedback and the draft recommendation of IHA Committee, the Council Members unanimously approved it. (Annexure-IX, X and XI).

 

The Student Agitation

Some student organisations openly opposed the draft Hostel Manual and started agitation. The agitation of the students against the revised hostel manual started on 28th October, 2019 and has continued since. While JNU is known for democratic modes of protests, the current agitation has crossed all limits of democratic opposition and civilized behaviour. The Dean of Students was gheraoed, verbally abused and prevented from going to the hospital after falling sick to an extent that he and his family, including children, were held hostage for more than 07 hours on 28th January (Annexure-XII). On 6th of November, 2019 (Annexure-XIII) when Provosts of Five Khands went to hostels to hold dialogue with hostel Presidents, a large crowd of protesters entered the venue, humiliated the Provosts and forced them to sign pre-drafted resignation letters and reject the revised hostel manual (Annexure- XIV). The situation turned worse, as the ADOS-1 went to her classroom in SIS to conduct examinations and suddenly found herself gheraoed by a group of students. The agitators from across various schools thronged into the venue of the examination and confined her for about thirty hours and traumatised her by beating dhaplis, shouting slogans and verbally abusing her.

 

Occupation and Vandalization of Administration Building

The student agitation at the Administration Building practically made day to day functioning of the officials impossible. The students began protesting at the administration block from 3rd November 2019 onwards. This was clearly in violation of University Rules and the direction of Hon’ble High Court of Delhi. Appeals and notes of caution by the administration (Annexure-XV, XVI, XVII, XVII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXIV & XXV) had no effect on the agitators. Students Gheraoed the administration buildings on 8th November 2019 and since then have not allowed the top officials to go to their offices. They have been occupying the Administration building from inside after breaking open the main door and disfigured the walls and the floors, despite their awareness that such vandalism is against the law. More significantly they damaged the installed CCTVs to prevent any recording of their illegal activities. A limited number of guards deployed at the admin building were not in a position to prevent vandalism by a large crown of students. In fact, a lady guard was seriously injured and taken to the Health Center. More despicable vandalism was reflected in writing of objectionable graffities at the Vivekanand Statue.

 

Manhandling of IHA Officials

On 30th October 2019, merely two days after Gheraoed of Dean of Students, the agitators put a lock on the Dean Office to prevent him and IHA staff from entering the office and threatened the Dean and his wife with severe consequences on Facebook & Twitter. On 1st of November a senior warden was forced to sign the student GBM Resolution related to hostel manual and Gheraoed him over night. Another warden was forced to resign by blackmailing him. His four years old child was snatched away from the mother and the warden was threatened that the child will be returned only if he signs the resignation letter.

Another warden’s daughter was thoroughly traumatised by offensive slogan shouting by the students and fainted. The students then went to Rector II’s house at night, vandalized his electric and PNG appliances and shouted objectionable slogans. All these events between 1st and 3rd November disturbed the peace in the campus beyond imagination. The administration in an attempt to restore normalcy made an announcement that the Provost of Khands would meet the hostel presidents in their respective Khands to hold dialogues and listen to their concerns. As the Provosts began to hold discussions, large crowd of students barged into the  venues and held them hostage until they signed the pre-drafted resignation letter under duress.

 

Unreasonable Demands by the Students

The student protesters are indulged in a mass misinformation campaign that the draft hostel manual was prepared undemocratically. In reality this draft was prepared after a systematic consultation process that went on for about two years before the officially notified Committee completed its report and submitted it to the Dean of Students in 2018.

It was processed through the Senior Wardens and the Provost Committee before the draft recommendations were submitted for consideration by the IHA Committee. Significantly, the final draft recommendations were uploaded on the JNU website on 3rd October 2019 calling for feedback of the student community and indeed the Dean office received substantial numbers of feedbacks. Despite the disruption of the IHA meeting convened at the convention centre on 28th October, the IHA meeting was reconvened at an alternate place and was chaired by the Associate Dean of Students, because the protestors had continued to gherao the ailing Dean of Students.

Finally, the draft hostel manual, alongwith the student’s feedback, was discussed and deliberated in the EC meeting on 13th November, 2019. It needs emphasis that even the EC meeting was disrupted by some JNUTA members and the student protesters and thus the meeting had to be convened in an alternate place. Needless to say, all necessary steps were taken as per the rules and procedures of the University.

The students also demanded that the elected members of Student Union election of 2019 should be recognised and invited to participate in IHA meetings. First, JNUSU election of 2019 was not conducted as per LCR. Second, the Hight Court has given clear direction that the LCR must be followed in the election process. Third, the issue is subjudice and that the sealed envelope containing the final results handed over by the EC is still with the DOS and that the Election Committee of JNU never approached the DOS (Annexure-IV) for the envelope for declaring the results as per judgement of Hon’ble High Court of Delhi (Annexure-V). Thus, this demand cannot be met.

 

Rationale of the Rise in the Hostel Charges

  1. Currently, JNU is having a deficit of more than 45 Crores of Rupees. It is largely because of the huge electricity and water charges and the salary of contractual staff. The UGC no longer allows payments of salaries of contractual employees of the hostel from the salary head of the budget. The number of such employees in the hostels is over 450. The UGC has given clear instructions (Annexure-XXVI ) to JNU that all shortfalls in the non-salary expenditures should be met by using the internal receipts generated by the University. Thus, there is no alternative for the IHA than to collect service charges from the students.
  2. As per the preliminary estimates, the revised hostel charges, including three times meals, for each general student is approximately Rs. 4500 per month. Out of this Rs. 2300 is for food charges per month. On the remaining amount of Rs. 2200, BPL category students have to pay only 50%. Therefore, a BPL category student has to pay approximately Rs. 2300 + Rs.1100 = Rs. 3400. These charges include food, service and utility charges. (Annexure-XI)
  3. This is to underline that there is a misinformation campaign which says that there is a massive hostel fee hike in JNU. In reality service charges are being levied, which have been zero so far. For sustainability of the University budget which has run into huge deficit, it is necessary to levy the service charges in the hostel.
  4. There is also a propaganda that large number of poor students will be adversely affected by the revised hostel charges. It may be noted that out of around 6000 students who are residing in the hostels, 5371 students receive financial assistance in the forms of fellowships and scholarships (Annexure-XXVII)
  5. It is not true that the revised hostel charges in JNU are more than similar charges in other Central Universities. It needs to be underlined that JNU does not charge developmental fees, unlike other Universities. Moreover, the admission fee in JNU has been minimal for decades and no revision has taken place for more than four decades. For example, while the Central University of Hyderabad charges admission fee of Rs. 10,000/ per annum, JNU charges around Rs. 300/ per annum. (Annexure-XXVIII)

Role of media

The country has once again been on the boil due to the ongoing protests by the JNU students over the proposed fee hike.. We have had highly emotive reportage on the incident and all the subsequent action that has followed. At the time of writing this, the issue remains open to heated debate between all stakeholders. But it does raise one important question on the role of media in all this.

The issue isn’t about the protests by the students of JNU but how it was reported and by who, for it has an impact on people’s opinion and reaction. In a country as large as India, which happens to be a cauldron of socio-cultural-religious diversity, there is possibility of dissension and conflict from time-to-time, and democracy remains the best platform to discuss and debate all contentious issues and come up with acceptable solutions through consensus. So, when the media – the fourth pillar of democracy – reports an incident like what happened in JNUSU protests, it is not the issue itself but the manner of reporting that becomes critical. Reading about an incident can have a very different impact than watching a highly charged and emotional coverage on TV, which can trigger a reaction among people leading to a serious law and order problem.

This can be seen clearly in the JNU coverage and one can witness that media is shifting its role from mere ‘reporting’ from a neutral perspective to offering a verdict on incidents as they happen. Explaining this trend in the ongoing issue Viju Cherian writes “While almost every media outlet reported the JNU protest and the partial rollback of fees, it is to be seen as to how many have taken time to explain the nature of the rollback and why it is too little or, as the students say, ‘cosmetic’ or ‘nothing but headline management’. How many have cared to highlight that while the partial fee hike rollback is aimed at students in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category and that the authorities are yet to decide on how to identify eligible students. How many have reported that the fee hike was one among the many reasons for the protests?

In this context, it must be remembered that it was almost four years ago, while reporting another protest in JNU, sections of the media used fake news and aired doctored protest videos to brand protesting students ‘anti-national’.

In the current case, rather than clearing the smog of misinformation and disinformation that was surrounding the protest, senior journalists took to social media skewing the debate and furthering myths about ‘never-ending PhDs’, or equating the protests to the ‘next thing after Bengal famine to hit Indian shores’ or portraying students as a bunch of freeloaders. This proved that facts are not always sacred, and that many of the journalists who strolled through the power corridors of Lutyens’ Delhi were far removed from the reality where for a majority of Indians spending Rs 6-7,000 a month on education is unthinkable.

The ones most impacted from the coverage of JNU controversy have been the students of the university. They have been vociferous in demanding their right and freedom to protest, as has been the tradition at JNU since inception. The students have also been protesting the trial by media that has made them all seem like anti-nationals. The international media has been widely covering the JNU story and they don’t paint a rosy picture for India. They have widely written on rising intolerance to views that are contrary to the ruling party’s. These have all dented the image of the country internationally and it is time media should do some serious introspection.

 

Last but not least

In any part of the world, universities are the place where the voices from within are listened for the course correction of the nation. Universities have historically been the space where anti-segregation movements, women’s rights movements, indigenous rights movements and closer to home, the Independence movement, have taken shape. Universities have been the crucible in which nations have been mobilised in their quest to change the structures of unfair societies and states. Imagine the trajectory of these movements if the right to protest and dissent was not accorded to university students.

Students (and faculty) on the JNU campus across party-lines contribute to change by asking critical questions that are important for nation-building. The university is literally the universe for raising these very questions and expressing these dissenting ideas and opinions, regardless of how different and difficult they are.

The crackdown on dissenting opinions has deteriorated to the point where police entered campus to try and intimidate the dissenting voices. It become obvious just how the sanctity of academic institutions has been degraded when we remember that during the Independence movement, student activists took solace within universities since the police were not allowed to enter the autonomous space (a rule that exists even today). By calling for a shutdown of the university, by declaring its diverse and critically thinking students as anti-national, it is evident that those who enjoy the status quo are avoiding the very real questions being raised within the bastion.

 

By Nilabh Krishna

 

 

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