“The best ideas are born when minds are allowed to roam free and think critically,” M Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, in his inaugural address at the university’s convocation, held in early August after a gap of 46 years. “JNU is committed to this freedom of thought and critical thinking, with an emphasis on our fundamental responsibilities.” For many who have studied or taught at JNU, such platitudes would represent a cruel and bitter irony, given that they were said by a person who has left no stone unturned to destroy critical thinking and freedom of thought in the university in the last two years. A few moments after the vice chancellor delivered his address, Anoop Patel, a former student, refused to shake hands with the VC while receiving his degree. Patel later said he was protesting the VC’s instrumental role in destroying JNU’s “inclusive, democratic, progressive and secular credentials.”
The VC had barred the media from attending the convocation, perhaps in anticipation of such a protest—after all, in the past two years of his tenure, the university’s students have witnessed crackdowns on nearly every expression of free thought and critical thinking. For instance, in June last year, six students who were involved in protests calling upon the VC to formally take up the matter of the disappearance of the student Najeeb Ahmed with the police, including myself, were fined a hefty Rs 20,000. Last month, several students were fined for cooking pakoras in protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on unemployment in the country—that even selling pakoras is a job.
Simultaneously, over the last two years, a small coterie of the JNU faculty—including the presiding officer of the Internal Complaints Committee Vibha Tandon, the warden Buddha Singh, and the appeals committee member Krishnendra Meena—has been promoted to key administrative posts. Together, this JNU administration, comprising the VC and his coterie, have undertaken measures that fundamentally alter the nature of the university—from punishing dissent among both faculty and students with an elaborate penal regime, to introducing structural changes to the institute’s policies of social justice. The actions of the administration surely seek to destroy JNU as an educational institution. But the broader impact of this will not be the fall of JNU alone—it will make way for the dismantling of public education in India.
In recent years, several faculty members who have dissented against the VC’s policies have been arbitrarily removed from their positions in their departments or from the university’s decision-making bodies, such as the Academic Council. For students, the cost of free expression, dissent and critical thinking is much higher—literally. The current semester began with 29 students facing fines of a sum of nearly Rs 4 lakh for various allegedly fabricated disciplinary proceedings against them. To put this in context, the university charges only Rs 120 for its tuition fee for the semester. Whose coffers do these fines fill?
Many students have challenged the penalties in court, and in several cases, the court has set the fines aside. In one case, the court set aside the fine imposed on a student by accepting her plea that she was not present in the city on the day of the event for which she was being penalised by the administration. In another, the Delhi High Court waived off a fine of Rs 10,000 on a student, stating that the student belonged to the Below Poverty Line category. But these continuous defeats before the courts have not had any sobering effect on the administration.
This penal regime, however, is not arbitrary in its choice of targets—it appears reserved only for the ideological critics of the dispensation ruling at the centre and the opponents of the VC’s machinations in the university. Several of the VC’s new appointees have been accused of plagiarism, but the university has not taken any action against them. The selective targeting is most visibly demonstrated through the impunity that appears to be granted to students affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The administration has consistently failed to act on, or in some cases even acknowledge, the allegations against the ABVP. Instances of these cases abound—such as the assault on student Najeeb Ahmed and his subsequent disappearance, a recent attack on former JNU Students Union president Mohit Pandey, or the grave allegations of sexual harassment against a faculty member seen as close to the right-wing. Those from the ABVP, whom eyewitnesses accused of beating up and threatening Ahmed, were let off with a mere hostel transfer and a warning—a penalty that his family had criticised as “no punishment at all.”
During the last two years, the government has carried out a sustained propaganda against JNU. The narrative goes along these lines: students at JNU are not interested in academic pursuits, and spend years in the university engaging in dangerous anti-national activities or networking for a future career in politics. Based on this, several hirelings of the regime often ask the taxpayers whether they signed up for these activities when the government invested huge amounts of public money into the higher education sector. JNU has consistently ranked among the top universities according to the government’s own surveys, but this has not deterred it from continuing with this concocted narrative.
Over the decades, JNU has been a model for what a public university could stand for. With its low fee, subsidised accommodation and socially inclusive policies, JNU opened its doors to a large section of young people from marginalised backgrounds who could not have imagined pursuing their higher studies elsewhere. Since the present VC took over, his assaults have been aimed essentially at destroying this model.
For example, in the academic year 2017–18, the VC slashed the research seats for MPhil and PhD by a drastic 84 percent, arguing that it was essential to balance the student-teacher ratio in the university. In the past two years, JNU has also witnessed a series of politically motivated appointments in the faculty, which was made possible by recent changes in the process of appointment that vested greater powers in the VC than before. The admission policy, too, is being overhauled for the worse and the VC has scrapped provisions such as the unique deprivation points model, under which students coming from backward regions of the country and women were given additional marks in their entrance exams.
The new coterie that now rules JNU appears to have a special dislike for provisions of social justice and gender justice. Constitutionally mandated reservations for students belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and Person with Disability have been violated for the past two academic years. This is in complete sync with the RSS’s opposition to caste-based reservations, ensuring that education remains the exclusive preserve of the few—the rich, the privileged and the twice-born.
Moreover, the GSCASH, an elected body that was set up in accordance with the Vishaka Guidelines of the Supreme Court to look into complaints of sexual harassment, has been supplanted with an administration’s puppet body called the Internal Complaints Committee, in which five of the eight members are nominated by the administration. The administration has also made attempts to hike the hostel-mess fee, delink the integrated M.Phil and PhD programme, impose regimented models of education through provisions such as compulsory attendance, close down dhabas and, most disturbingly, monitor the public discussions and meetings in campus.
This forced disciplining of the JNU community and demonising of the institution is not simply to discredit the university—it facilitates a larger agenda of the regime at the centre to dismantle public education in the country and invite private players into the field of higher education. The central government has repeatedly revealed its inclination towards private education. In December 2015, the Modi government signed the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade and Services, which mandates a liberalisation of trade, even including services such as higher education. In addition, the government’s recent drive of granting “financial autonomy” to several universities, including JNU, would force universities to self-finance. Such policies convert education into a marketable and tradable commodity and effectively mandate educational institutions to raise their own money through measures such as private partnerships or charging higher fees. The implications of such moves are going to be disastrous for the students, especially those from marginalised backgrounds who cannot afford high fees. Simultaneously, the central government has also successively introduced budgetary cuts in education every year since Modi came to power.
In the most recent and most brazen example of the extent to which the government is encouraging private players to enter higher education, the Ministry of Human Resource Development awarded the “Institute of Eminence” tag to the non-existent Jio University. Clearly, the Modi government has made no bones about its belief that higher education is not a right, but a privilege of those who can afford it.
Going by the estimate of earnings that the Jio Institute has given to the government, when the university comes into being, it will charge an annual fee of Rs 10 lakh per student. Such institutes will be more like shopping malls than universities, and this is where the demonisation of JNU comes handy. It can manufacture public consent for the government’s drive to do away with the very idea of public education. For the Jio Institute model of public education to succeed, JNU’s heart and soul have to be destroyed, and its students and teachers taught a lesson.
The reasons for JNU’s academic excellence lie in its quest to become socially inclusive as a university. By opening its doors to students from marginalised backgrounds, JNU attempted to ensure that theorisation of and discourse on marginalisation was conducted by those who had experienced it first-hand. These same students have remained at the forefront of every agitation in defence of public education and to save the idea of JNU. By introducing socially and economically exclusive policies, the VC and the ruling regime appear, now, as if they seek to break their backs. The VC’s desire to install an army tank in campus seemed to reflect his mission—that he has been appointed not to administer JNU, but to conquer it.
Despite having been beaten and bruised, slammed with allegedly fabricated cases, imposed with lakhs in fines and subjected to a sustained demonisation campaign, the students and teachers of JNU have refused to bend and crawl. A certain legacy has kept their spirits afloat. The legacy of fighting the Emergency; of providing a safe space to hundreds of Sikhs inside the campus as the 1984 massacre continued; of facing sine die closure of the university in 1983; of always being at the barricades against the powers that be. JNU students were at the forefront of the mass protests against the rape of a young paramedic student on 16 December 2012, and the Occupy UGC protests in 2015. During the tenure of the present government, the students have once again shown extreme resilience in standing up to the assaults on democracy, which to them have now reached quite close home. The VC would have to work much harder to reach to this core and dismantle it.
At the same time, all progressive forces in society need to get their act together to decisively oust this anti-people government, or we will forever lose universities to prison-houses. JNU is only one of the battlegrounds of a larger fight unfolding across the country to save the ideas of social justice, democracy and free thinking.
Umar Khalid is associated with the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organisation and the United Against Hate campaign. He has completed his PhD from the Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.