Wafa Abdul Razak
In the right wing vocabulary, Jawaharlal Nehru University has managed to procure second place after Pakistan, whatever its undertones may be. India’s premier institute is once again in the news. This time, the polemic is about a movement which day-by-day is getting larger in terms of participation and longer in terms of duration. A hostel manual was passed arbitrarily without consulting any of the members of the elected student body which represents the 8000+ students of the university. This decision has direct impact on the students. The proposed fee hike incremented rent, brought in new service charges, electricity and other utility charges. With a 300 percent increase in the fees, it will force 40 percent of JNU students to discontinue their studies.
Day in and day out, people from all walks of life are eager to criticize the movement, supposedly out of their concern for taxpayers’ money. The taxpayer discourse has become so strong that it denies any legitimacy to the movement, by drawing lines along the capitalist nation state and its contempt for social science and research as a ‘waste’ of time and resources. This is also a testament to the failure of India’s claim to being a welfare state, that its own exalted taxpayers do not have even a fraction of an idea about what public education actually is and why it is necessary. Why does an average Indian citizen have zero conception of free and accessible higher education? The worries of these concerned taxpayers are not merely directed at their money feeding “anti-national freeloaders” but also at the “fact” that JNU students are protesting for a room rent hike from 10 rupees to 300 rupees, which itself is a misinformation. From an approximate 28,000 rupees per annum hostel fees, the new hostel manual intends to increment it to approximately 58000 rupees. It must be cleared for these taxpayers that it is not a matter of Rs. 10 or 100 or 300, rather why the government has no money to fund education on a national level.
Unlike any other previous movements from JNU, this movement has seen a participation of unprecedented numbers. Reports mention over a 2000 strong students’ participation; if so, roughly it would imply that approximately 23 percent of the total student population in JNU is out protesting. This is a whopping number, though unsurprising, given the nature of the issue. But we must raise a major ethical question, why does only this particular protest have a huge participation, unlike any other protest for social justice? Do JNU students bother to get out on the streets only if it is something which affects them directly? We must question ourselves on the grounds of our selective resistances. Clearly, Social justice cannot just be ensured only if the fees goes down, but when there is similar participation in movements for reservations, for deprivation points, for transparency in marking schemes in viva exams and others.
It has been more than a month since the university is under a lockdown. This indefinite lockdown is obviously taking its toll on the academic worries of its students. The JNU administration wants students to return to classes, as is reflected through their repeated appeals/cautions to the students in daily emails. But we, the protesting students are even more concerned about academic losses that we may be incurring through this lockdown. Even then, we are aware that if we do not sustain at least minimal losses for a short while, future students from our communities will not be able to even reach the gates of this university ever. The guilt/punishment of this conflict that every student in JNU is going through right now should be meted out to the JNU administration that has closed down all forms of dialogue with its students, led by an unbelievably arrogant and shameless Vice Chancellor. Students from socially and economically marginalized communities –particularly Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim and OBC students—are especially in a dilemma: should they accept possible academic loss due to the lockdown, even though they bear huge responsibilities from their communities that look up to them for social mobility? Or should they continue protests, against the assured exclusiveness of JNU if this fee hike were implemented?
The proposed fee hike is not something that is out of character from those who are in power. It is part of the larger Brahmanical project of this government and its stooges who are clearly irritated by the presence of students from marginalised sections. There is a systematic and planned attack on public education because the Brahmin-Baniya state fears the repercussions they will face if the marginalized sections of society educate, agitate and organize themselves. After scuttling reservations, institutionally murdering our fellow students, cutting down seats, neglecting the Abdul Nafey committee recommendations, removing deprivation points, the proposed fee hike is only next in line for this larger project of ‘purifying’ India’s education spaces. Further, what does the JNU administrations actually intend while passing diktats that the fee will be halved only for the BPL category? The BPL in itself is a category that is shady, undefined and obsolete at present.
We have had two major confrontations with the Delhi police which comes under the control of the Ministry of home affairs. Tussles with the Delhi police are always intense because they morally and physically drains all of us. And as social science students, for us, the police is not merely an institution that is bestowed to maintain peace. The tussle with the police becomes a real-life application of all the theories we have learnt: theories of state, violence, power, legitimacy etc. We have even made repeated efforts to make the Delhi Police conscious about the gravity of our issue, through slogans such as “Police ke bachche kahan padhenge? Sasti shiksha sabka adhikaar, Delhi police ke bachche ke liye hum ladenge!” (Where will the children of Delhi police study? Free education is a right for everyone, we will fight for the children of Delhi police!). There have been photos of Delhi policemen reading the parchas distributed by protesters they detained; this shows that we ourselves are in a moral conflict. To recognise the police as not merely the agent of the modern nation state with its long history of violence but also as a human being in need of welfare benefits. However, when the same policemen assailed us mercilessly, manhandled women students, assaulted visually and physically challenged students, we are convinced of the brutality of the state machinery; for which we will never forgive them.
As a protesting student, the toll this whole situation has taken on our mental health is painfully significant. On one side, we fear the repercussions that the implementation of this fee hike will have on us and our communities at large. On the other side, after a long day of protest, sit-in and scuffle with state machineries, we are welcomed with hordes of trolls and memes, twitter trends, hashtags and news channels that relentlessly try to defame a movement that has raised serious concerns. Then there is the obvious anxieties of middle class parents, who frequently call their children and ask them to stay away from “trouble”, to return to their homes if classes are not being held, and that they will somehow pay the fees if incremented, thereby denying any political subjectivity to their children.
Amidst all this pressure and pessimism from all sides, the number of protesting students has not only remained constant since day one, but has also increased. It becomes almost a celebration every night, when students occupy the admin block, join in for a night of movie screening, sing revolutionary songs, hold talks on public education or simply gather for conversations. The movement has also managed to gain support and solidarity from students, teachers and workers from across the country and from outside.
This is also a time for solidarity, critically questioning and looking out for each other. When marching towards the Parliament for the long march on the 18thof November, a passer-by near AIIMS from the traffic opposite us screamed at us to “Go back to Pakistan.” While it took me a few seconds to recover from the thought of the possibility that this was triggered by the mere sight of me, a visibly Muslim woman; students behind me had already retaliated to him in their best capacity. The occupation of the administration block by the protesting students was initially meant to only halt administrative work, as it was understood by a few days into the protest that merely the suspension of all academic activities will not budge the present JNU administration, with its history of indifference to students, unless it directly affects their work. Even after occupying the admin block and freezing all administrative activities, the students’ demand of a dialogue with the VC was denied.
At this tipping point, students took to a controversial and creative form of protest, namely graffiti or wall art. Overnight, the ‘pink palace’ (a nickname for the admin block), one of the most exclusive spaces in the university that is infamous for giving show-cause notices to its students, was turned into a public gallery or a museum of sorts. Years of frustration with the administration and the whole system of governance in the country can be easily gauged from the writings on the wall. Our engagements with Foucault and other social theories turned us critical towards the security cameras that were installed every half a metre within and outside the admin block premises: all the security cameras were blackened or broken! The graffiti on the walls are in all possible languages; there are quotations from many thinkers, poets, and struggles. It also turned out to be a space where students’ themselves contested with each other. For instance the writings, “Free Kashmir”, “Fuck the police” (a slogan which is associated with the queer movement across the world), “Khilafat 2.0” were all blackened by the next day. While on one hand this erasing of certain writings clearly stem from the insecurity that JNU students have from mainstream media channels after the anti-JNU stance post- 9th February 2016, it is also an indication that some slogans are censured by the JNU student body. This censure is unfortunate, especially because many people watching JNU closely are eager to brand all graffiti writing as acts of vandalism, which is essentially the state’s language of penalizing its citizens. In the face of censure of JNU students from outside, why are the students themselves censuring certain slogans from the site of their protests?
At this juncture of around 40 days into the protest demanding free and inclusive public education, we are tired and exhausted, but resilient. We are physically drained and bruised, but morally stronger. And eventually, it will be this moral resistance that the incompetent JNU administration and government finds it impossible to break.
Wafa Razak is a student of MA Sociology at JNU