Ongoing Student Agitation at JNU

For more than two weeks now Jawaharlal Nehru Campus has been rocked by student protests with the students observing a total strike at the university. The proximate reason for their agitation is the promulgation of the new Hostel Manual, which besides imposing a huge increase in the hostel fee also introduces arbitrary conditions like curfew timings (time within which hostel inmates should be within the hostel), imposition of a dress code for hostel mess and an arbitrary structure of huge fines imposed for a variety of ‘proclaimed’ offenses. From a present fee of around Rs 3000 per month (of which the mess bill constitutes Rs 2500) with the entire fee hike coming in to force, the monthly hostel bill of an average student shall shoot up to Rs 9000 per month, and if the deputy dean of student welfare at JNU is to be believed, then there shall be a 10 percent increase in this fee bill every year.

The context of this fee hike becomes starkly clear against the harsher realities of the socioeconomic background of these students as acknowledged by the JNU administration itself. The 2017-18 annual report of JNU states that 40 percent of the students studying in the university belong to families with monthly family earning of Rs 12,000 or less. This ought to be without any prejudice to the fact that Rs 12,000 is way to less a demarcation for drawing any difference between the privileged and non-privileged. Nonetheless, these facts make it evident that the move by the university administration to hike the hostel fees does not pose an imagined threat to these students in future, but an immediate prospect of having to wind up their studies. In this sense, these students are fighting for their survival in higher education with their backs to the wall.

This hike in hostel fees is but a symptom of the malaise that has since long been nurtured in the higher education system in the country. Universities like JNU are some of the last outposts where students coming from the under-privileged sections of the society and the vast under-developed areas of the country can still hope to get quality higher education from which they would otherwise be excluded, were they to manage it with their own resources. There has been a consistent attempt by governments formed by the various ruling class parties at the Centre and in the states to privatize and commercialize higher education. However, being the most reactionary section of the ruling class, the present BJP led government is carrying out this mission with vengeance, with JNU, self-professedly, being a special target.

The present move by the administration to hike the hostel fees comes in the background of a series of attempts by the university administration to stifle and finish off any form of democratic functioning at JNU. Vigorous attempts have been made by the university administration led by Prof. Jagdish Kumar to try and insert the RSS supporters not only in various statutory bodies of the university, but also in the ranks of the faculty and the student body. This has been done with total impunity with utter disregard for rules, regulations and the statutory university ordinances.

After the RSS affiliated bodies like the ABVP failed to capture JNUSU despite brazen interference by the administration, the JNU administration has adopted the tactics of totally side-lining the democratically elected bodies like the Students Union and the JNUTA (JNU Teachers Association). The students were first denied participation in university bodies like the Academic Council, the Board of Studies of various Schools in the university and the IHA (Inter-hostel administration); later, since past two years, the administration has not even recognized the elected students’ union representatives of JNU students after the ABVP lost the elections miserably. In the last two years, not a single meeting has taken place between the university administration and representatives of JNUSU or JNUTA. As of date, there is not a single platform where the JNU students can air their grievances and seek their redress.

It seems that the university administration, backed by the present BJP government is unashamedly out to destroy anything and everything which has defined the unique identity of JNU. Within past one month, the administration has gated and restricted entry to Parthasarthy Rocks (named after the first vice-chancellor of JNU) – an area having rock formations that offer a panoramic view of the forested JNU campus. In quick succession, the deans of various schools restricted the timing of the reading rooms in various centres to within the normal working hours of the university, while earlier these were allowed to be used till late at night. It is important to remember that students coming from underprivileged backgrounds, who cannot afford the comfort of room coolers or heaters, find it convenient to use these reading rooms in order to be able to study in relative comfort.

Needless to say, that all these measures added to increasing frustration among the students and seem to have convinced them that this government is bent upon restricting their access to already receding opportunities for higher education for the unprivileged sections. It is in this background that the decision to massively hike the hostel fees proved to be the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back.

Resultantly, even as the JNU administration went about organizing the third convocation of the university on 11 November, 2019, much in a self-congratulatory manner, the students chose to give a befitting reply to the university’s administration by turning in huge numbers outside the convocation venue – the AICTE campus on Nelson Mandela Marg, demanding that the vice-chancellor come out to address their demands. Pitched battles were fought between the students and the police when the latter tried to forcibly disperse the students by resorting to use of water cannon and lathi charge. Even though the vice-chancellor, Prof Jagdish Kumar, remained true to his persona by refusing to talk to the students, the student union representatives forced the police authorities to arrange for them to meet the union Human Resources Development Minister, Mr Nishank Pokhriyal, who had been invited to the convocation as guest of honour. The Minister who was stranded at the venue for more than 3 hours, later left the venue under police protection. Even though the students stayed put at the protest site till late in the evening, the vice-chancellor failed to make an appearance. Meanwhile, the JNUTA organized a separate protest at the university between 4 pm to 8 pm in support of the students on 11 November, 2019.

In face of a situation where the university and the government authorities do not seem to be interested in even listening to the students’ demands, the present impasse seems poised for a long haul.