“Those who would destroy India must first destroy JNU―warts and all,” JNU alumnae and faculty at Cambridge University Priyamvada Gopal said on Twitter last week, as outrage began to build over the Delhi Police’s use of water cannons on students protesting against a fee hike.
The sentiment seems to echo among the university’s students, who have been vociferously opposing the fee hike proposed in the draft hostel manual by the varsity administration.
On Monday, the first day of the Winter Session, the students marched towards the Parliament, defying prohibitory orders and barricades put up by the Delhi Police. The police seem to be so unsure of their ability to contain any protests that they have blocked most roads around the campus, causing traffic snarls.
The current protests, which have been continuing for nearly three weeks, have consistently occupied headlines, after students began tweeting out photos of the presence of the CRPF ahead of a students’ march. Former students joined in to support the struggle, with many sharing personal stories of how the fee hike would have prevented them from continuing their studies.
Since 2014, protests have become commonplace at several publicly funded universities — Hyderabad University, Pondicherry University, Jadavpur University, Panjab University — where various incidents have led to student groups clashing with varsity administration.
But it’s JNU that has been the attention-grabber, thanks to the all-out efforts by the BJP government to paint it as “anti-national” since the sedition row in 2016.
Post the appointment of Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, a former IIT professor, as vice-chancellor in January 2016, the JNU administration has put in place many restrictions and changes that have not gone down well on the famously progressive, outspoken campus.
Why does one of India’s top universities constantly find itself at odds with the administration? What are these students fighting for? Here’s everything you need to know.
The focus on JNU doesn’t just come from it being located in the heart of the country’s capital, with a well-known history of active campus politics.
Former students’ union president N. Sai Balaji said JNU’s diversity of class, caste, gender, and region makes it a place of contradictions, seen as a threat by the current government.
It stands as a symbol, said Dipannita Ghosh, an English department student who has been participating in the ongoing protests. “I think it’s like if you can conquer JNU, then the rest is easier. The rest will get less publicity.”
Balaji pointed out that it’s not just the Left politics on campus that has angered the BJP government (even the right-wing ABVP has protested against the fee hike).
“Left, right, centre—we’ve all discussed and debated here. This aspect of democracy functioning in every part of your life is a threat to any fascist power. It’s not just questioning. It’s challenging the existing notions of hierarchies that we do on a day-to-day basis,” said Balaji.
Azhar Amim, a PhD scholar who’s been studying at JNU for five years and runs the We Are JNU Facebook page with another student, says the university had been active in mobilising people’s opinion in various social, economic and political issues. “Even before this regime, during Congress rule, it has always been critical of the government. There have always been lectures and protests organised.”
“The more people you have in the higher education system, especially in the humanities, then protests against a lot of the policies that the govt is bringing out are going to be more,” added Ghosh.
The current protest — a question of survival
The current protests revolve around a fee hike that is estimated to hit at least 40% of the university’s students. The fee hike issue has brought together students across political ideologies together because this is “the last frontier”, said Balaji.
“We can’t lose this. If we lose this, we won’t survive. It’s life and death for us,” he says. The former JNUSU president has been tweeting out videos and statements every day on how the administration’s policies affect the students.
On Wednesday, education secretary R. Subrahmanyam tweeted that the JNU Executive committee had announced “major roll-back in the hostel fee and other stipulations”. While many news reports ran with this, the teachers and the students’ union called this an “eyewash” measure.
“Hostel manual, they are saying they will rollback. But far bigger issue was the fee hike for us. Other issues we could protest, but the fee hike would actually make us leave. It’s a more immediate threat,” Ghosh said.
But there is also more to it.
“If we don’t speak up, there won’t be anything left tomorrow to speak up against,” Amim says.
JNU’s admission policy had been unique in awarding marks based on deprivation points to applicants to make up for disadvantages due to gender, geographical region etc, but this was removed from research programmes in 2016.
“They’ve planned it out and implemented it brick by brick. The deprivation point system in admissions was why students in Delhi sat with students from the remotest part of India and studied together, Ghosh added.
“Changes in the policies and entrance exam mean they want a certain kind urban, desensitised sort of student to make it here, who can pay these high fees and fund themselves because this govt does not believe it is its jobs to fund the country’s education and medical facilities etc,” she added.
Writing for The Wire in 2018, JNU professor Ayesha Kidwai had said that the removal of deprivation points had “resulted in the loss of an all India-character of JNU”.
It’s also a question of privatisation, says Amim. “We don’t have many institutions that are affordable and equitable for people who come from very poor and marginalised sections. When government can spend crores of taxpayer money on advertisements and statue buildings, why not on JNU?”
Azhar said JNU should be a model university, where a student who could access just Rs 3,000-4000 a month can easily study here.
It’s a point highlighted by many people last week, by sharing stories of studying at JNU.
Ghosh pointed out that one of first moves by the administration under the new VC was changing wardens, deans and other administrators of hostels and schools.
Many changes made/proposed by the administration at JNU have made it to the news: these include the shutting down of dhabas that operated on campus all night, attendance rules for students, mandatory biometric attendance for teaching staff, reviewing the position of emeritus professors like Romila Thapar, faculty selection process, removal of deprivation points from its admissions policy.
The decision on the supposed rollback of the fee hike was taken at the university’s Executive Council meeting.
“Executive council meetings have no representative of the elected union and the teacher’s union. Things are passed in undemocratic ways,” Amim said.
In 2017, a majority of 300 teachers who voted in a referendum, asked for the VC’s removal.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) had conducted a public inquiry in October 2017, which found Kumar guilty of damaging the interests of students aspiring for research, wasting public money and violating the Central Educational Institutions Act and Reservation Policy, harassing teachers and denying them their legitimate dues, assaulting democracy and promoting authoritarianism, undermining JNU’s anti-sexual harassment policy and displaying a callous attitude towards Najeeb Ahmed (a student who went missing from campus in 2016). JNUTA wrote to then HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar, asking for the VC’s removal.
Students have also complained that the administration routinely denies them permission to hold lectures and discussions, a feature that made the campus alive and vibrant even in the night.
The open spaces where students could sit and write, organise cultural nights have shrunk, and the new hostel rules had also proposed a curfew, which the administration later withdrew.
On Friday, students gathered at the ‘Freedom Square’ (a protest site near the administrative block) on campus to talk about where they come from, what their family situation is and what the university means to them.
“We’re not just fighting for 8,000 people, but for a new generation of this country who will get educated, who will take this country forward,” said Balaji.
Meanwhile, the vandalisation of a Vivekananda statue on campus flashed across TV news channels, leading right-wingers to decry the incident. But student groups said the incident was meant to distract and delegitimise the struggle.
JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh on Friday said, “Students with their future at stake due to the fee hike can never be perpetuators of any violence or undemocratic action. We condemn unequivocally the attempts to malign the JNU Student Movement through acts which do not represent the JNU Student Movement. The JNU Student community does not endorse any act of vandalism done in its name and whoever does it is doing it in his or her own name and should not use the name of the movement to justify such acts.”
Ghosh was among the students detained as the students broke barricades to march towards the Parliament on Monday.
HuffPost India has reached out to the JNU Vice Chancellor and Rector for comments and will update this story with their response.