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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 113

The JNU Fracas - Reading in between the Lines

By Pitamber Kaushik

The Jawaharlal Nehru University, the premier Humanities institution of India, counts among the most esteemed universities of Asia. The public University was envisioned as a neutral bastion of freethinking, 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 – claiming that certain Left-Student Association students had raised anti-national slogans, leading scholars from Japan, Australia, Canada, and top universities of the United States of America came 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 student’s pursuit of knowledge. However, this could not be further from the truth, and over the years, the argument is unfounded. JNU students learn vital practical skills, implementing what they learn in the classroom, right on the campus, of their volition. For them, the practice of learning is intimately intertwined with their very life on campus. Over the years, since its founding, it has yielded countless scholars, bureaucrats, political and social scientists, economists and even politicians.

For decades, JNU was a secure oasis of dissent – thriving under the patronage and full freedom-grant of socialist, centrist and even neoliberal prime ministers. Amidst the bustle of Delhi and bourgeoning 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 the elaborate national counterpart that is famous for its detail. Such was the importance ascribed to Student Politics in JNU, that each election elicited eager national anticipation, await 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. Since the 2014 elections, things in JNU went downhill. The government flushed the top-tier administration with handpicked Right-Wing pro-BJP puppet Academicians.

As the Left Student Parties – Student wings of the Communist Parties of India, frequently and often overwhelmingly emerge victorious in the University Student Body Elections, and because the Student Body 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 were allegedly misused by the administration to violently curtail the peaceful yet steadfast and persuasive protests of the students.

As the elected Student unions mobilized large swathes of discontent students against the administration's repression, the imposition only grew in typical egoistic kneejerk reactionism. A draconian 140-page manual was 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 – India is a melting pot of cultures, that have 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 affirmed the same and also said that JNU taught him all about what India is.

What made JNU so accessible is the maintenance of its affordability, at a time when Indian University fees steeply grew, and under the Modi regime, shot right out of the roof, growing in sudden leaps. For its affordability, coupled with its egalitarian, democratic culture, was the reason that 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 Students Union, and became one of the most recognizable political figures in India.

However, there is more than meets the eye, or rather the video cameras – much more. The perniciously superficial and fleeting treatment of the issue by the media, who seems unable to shake off its obsession with the Ram temples, fails to present the right subjects let alone complete, picture.

Following days of protest, the government half-heartedly 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 the 13th of November. 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 its tweet, the so-called "major roll-back" is deemed a farce and eyewash by the students.

Firstly, 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 per annum. 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 per annum, at the current exchange rate.

Even this threshold is often criticised by competent evaluators and renowned developmental economists, as being artificially too low.

Secondly, besides the 300% hostel fee hike, reservation in hostel allotment has been repealed. No special provision of concession for reservation-category students has been delineated.

Thirdly, the student community were not participants in this decision-making, despite the ongoing norm of their intimate involvement in every decision made for them. A decisive ruling directed at them, having a direct bearing upon them, was made without eliciting their deliberation. Students cannot help but perceive it as a unilateral imposition and a threat to their collective self-sovereignty.

The lack of representation poses jeopardy to the very founding values of the institution – a part of a series of targeted attempts to undermine the secular-socialist-progressive philosophy.

Fourthly, there are insidious but pressing issues that have been consistently neglected by the administration and the media alike for years – primarily the continual 10% annual hike. Motley expenses charged include service charges, electricity, WiFi, Water and numerous other charges, which add up to a very sizeable exertion upon the students, and do not get reflected in any of the media reports, and consequently the popular perception.

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 retract them, depriving them of a fortunate educational prospect, owing to the regressive yet prevalent mindset of investing in women's education being wasteful. Rural, agrarian families who still dwell in destitution, would rather have their children share the plough on their tilth than pay for their sustenance at an institution hundreds of kilometers away. The alienation of the rural poor from the IITs can become the norm of the JNU if the government is let to have its way.

JNU has always resisted privatisation, while the Modi regime – which ideologically and pragmatically assumes a stance against all that Nehru stood for, even occasionally verbally reaffirming the fact, is hellbent upon it. The regime has explicitly and unrelentingly acknowledged its disdain and opposition towards everything public.

As a JNU Alumnus fastidiously noted in a First post article - "Aside from the proposed fee hike that is part of the recent IHA manual (of course, passed undemocratically and without any consideration for due process), the administration intends to increase the room rent, service charges, water and electricity bills, and mess security deposits. The estimate suggests that there is a 70 per cent hostel fee hike where the annual charges will amount to a minimum of Rs 56,500. Nowhere does it mention anything about SC/ST reservations or deprivation points in the hostel allotment. It does, however, include directions for reducing hostel entry timings to 11.30 pm and suggestions to wear 'decent clothes' in the mess hall."

The current regime is well-trained in the art of misdirection and subtle, gradual mass incitation. It will leave no stone unturned in imposing its Hindu martial nationalist ideology, and paternalistic ethos enabled through crony capitalism. Portraying the struggling, hardworking 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 money- taxpayer's rupees, in an ungrateful manner, turning the public opinion against them.

The Media, particularly the TV media, is 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 The author is a columnist, journalist, writer and amateur researcher, having previously written in over 40 newspapers and outlets in 20 countries, across all six continents of the world.

- Asian Tribune -

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