Delhi: Emerging student protests epicentre

EducationWorld February 2020 | Education News

The country’s show-piece Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU, estb.1969) sited on a 1,000 acre campus in the heart of New Delhi which has 7,369 postgraduate students mentored by 614 faculty and offers 148 study programmes, is limping back to normalcy. For the past three months since a steep hike in hostel fees — albeit on a rock-bottom base unchanged for decades — was decreed on October 28, this top-ranked public university heavily subsidised by Central government (annual budget: Rs.200 crore), has become the theatre of violent clashes between the leftist JNU Students Union (JNUSU) and ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), a pan-India students organisation affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre and especially with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu majoritarian cultural mentor organisation of BJP.

Weeks of protests and counter-protests on JNU’s scenic campus culminated on January 5 when a posse of 30-40 masked men mysteriously entered the campus at night and ran amok targeting JNU Students Union (JNUSU) leaders and office-bearers. JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh suffered head injuries and several union members were beaten up. JNUSU alleges that the perpetrators of the violence and destruction of property were ABVP members and/or co-conspirators who were let into the campus by the anti-JNUSU management and ABVP members while the Delhi police controlled by the (BJP) Central government, turned a blind eye to the campus mayhem responding to emergency calls after three hours. With many students fleeing the campus and JNUSU demanding the resignation of vice chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar (a controversial BJP appointee) the campus was in effective lockdown in January.

Passing an order on a petition filed by JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh and other office-bearers, challenging a fee hike in the new hostel prices manual of JNU on January 24, Justice Rajiv Shakdher of the Delhi high court opined that government is obliged to fund education. “Government has to fund public education. The burden of paying the salaries of workers is not on students. Someone has to find the funds.” The single judge decreed that provisions contained in the old manual will prevail with students required to pay pre-revision tuition and hostel fees pending final judgment of the petition by a larger bench of the court. The JNU administration didn’t challenge the interim order.

The trigger of student protests which has resulted in unprecedented violence, turmoil and disruption of JNU’s academic calendar was a decision taken on October 28 by the Inter-Hall Administration (IHA) to steeply increase hostel fees. Even though it is the duly elected students’ representative body, JNUSU was not invited or party to the decision.

For the breakdown of student-management communication at JNU, students’ union spokespersons squarely blame vice chancellor Jagadesh Kumar, a former professor of electrical engineering at IIT Delhi, who was appointed vice chancellor in January 2016 by the BJP/NDA government. Immediately after his appointment as VC, he constituted a committee to examine room rents and utility service charges in JNU’s 18 hostels to bridge a recurring annual deficit of Rs.10 crore.

Although the committee discussed the matter over three years and the issue was also debated in the hostels and by IHA in which there was general agreement that a revision of board and lodging charges was necessary after 19 years, the critical October 28 meeting proposed a steep 300 percent increase in the monthly room rent (from Rs.10 to Rs.200 for double room and from Rs.20 to Rs.600 (single)) without JNUSU concurrence. Moreover, additional service charges of Rs.1,700 per year for maintenance, mess workers, sanitation, power and water consumption were introduced to bridge a reported deficit of over Rs.45 crore in the university budget. The refund able security fee was also doubled from Rs.5,500 to Rs.12,000.

Even though the Delhi high court has restored the status quo ante until the issue of raising the rock-bottom tuition/hostel fees are adjudicated, JNUSU activists are convinced that vice chancellor Jagadesh Kumar was appointed by the Modi government to break Left-liberal dominance of JNU and help ABVP to win the next students union election scheduled for September this year. “The VC must resign, his removal is the immediate demand we are asking. Until the VC isn’t removed there won’t be fair and free enquiry on campus (into the January 5 mayhem),” Aishe Ghosh, president of JNUSU said in an interview with Caravan magazine (January 9).

Even as the issue of fair pricing of JNU’s rock-bottom tuition and hostel fees await the Delhi high court’s verdict, the anti-fees increase protests of JNU have coalesced with the larger issue of student protests against the BJP/NDA legislated Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, the proposed National Register of Citizens and the BJP’s all-too-evident anti-Muslim rhetoric. For a combination of circumstances, JNU is emerging as the epicentre of a national anti-BJP students’ movement which is likely to prove a major headache for the BJP/NDA government at the Centre which is floundering in a sea of troubles.

 Autar Nehru (Delhi)

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