Friday, June 14, 2024

Justice for Jishnu ; Reclaiming of Public Education

Opinion – Abhilash Padachery


If yesterday it was Rajani S Anand and Faasila, today it is Jishnu who has been institutionally murdered by an education system which is centered on private capital. Protesting voices and uprisings had happened then as it is happening now. But when will it be that we realize that these protests fail to ask some fundamental questions? Is it just this one private institution that is the problem, or rather, isn’t it the educational system, and the state that controls it, the central problem?

To proceed, we might also need to ask fundamental questions on how education itself is understood. “education for emancipation”- is a common slogan raised by many of the mainstream student organisations in Kerala campuses, in one form or other. While the slogan is inarguably significant, history shows us that it rarely translates into practice. Josef Stalin was of the view that education is a conscious activity undertaken by an existing society to raise and cultivate its young and growing up to its societal standards. It would be a paradoxical activity to lay claim to slogans for emancipatory education while at the same time be in line with, and not oppose state policies. The fact of a system already in place cannot simply be brushed aside while analyzing or trying to understand the problems of the educational sector. The education the state wants to implement, is, of course, one that would cultivate the new generation of the society to integrate into, to accept unquestioningly, and be a seamless part of, the existing system- which happens to be one with neo-liberal policies driven by private capital. All the doctors, all the engineers, and even the all science and humanities graduates are products manufactured by that efficient system. At the centre of it all, dictating these developments, are the new economic policies. From private colleges and schools, to autonomous self-financing colleges and- a more recent development- private universities, and also even the changes like the DPEP and the Credit and Semester System, they all follow the line of the neo-liberal policies. But precisely when it comes to these central issues, these organizations tend to maintain a distance, nor have they taken much effort to bring these into the mainstream discourse.

These policies are carried forward as directed by the WTO and the IMF in 1986. If we were to look into the history of policies carried out in the educational sector in India, you would find that barring the Kothari Commission Report of 1964 – which had demanded a democratization of the higher education, and had stressed the importance of student politics- few has taken any progressive step on the issue. It went very downhill afterwards, as is evident from the Ambani-Birla report, or the Kanthi Biswas report, all of which spoke of a step by step government retreat from public education, and advised to outlaw student politics. Taking this policy to heart, the education, which was up until then a part of the services sector, was pushed by the state into the market sector, and therefore into a logic of market arithmetic. And this logic is what drives the closing down of the public institutions and government schools citing losses in balance sheets. The government is closing down Government schools on one hand, while at the same time handing out permits for aided and unaided ones- which is why it’s not a surprising statistic that it is the aided sector that has more schools than government one. Education as a whole gets commodified as it is put open to private investment. Exactly how feasible it would be to speak of attaining social justice in institutions where this market logic forms the base, is not hard to imagine.



It was in 1991 that the discourse on privatized colleges hit Kerala. The A K Antony led UDF government who had been in power then, opened the floodgates with a change in policy that allowed private colleges in the cooperative sector. The SFI and DYFI took to the streets in protests across the state, fighting with the slogan- “Private colleges will not be allowed in the cooperative sector”. It was a part of these continuing protests, that in 1994 November 25, five comrades were shot dead by the Police in Koothuparambu, for waving a black flag at the Co-operation minister of the time. This was one of the most violent and bloody repressions the state had ever unleashed upon students, in its history. Even after the murder of protestors, the government in power went forward with their policy, with the opening of the Pariyaram Medical College. But even as the left front under E K Nayanar came into power in the following term, SFI, interestingly, backtracked on the slogan it had raised earlier. Between 1996 and 2001, the left government gave NOC clearance to twenty-one private engineering colleges. The governments that followed were handing out clearances without even evaluating the basic infrastructure and facilities in these institutions- so much so, that they even came under criticism from the court. Like frogs that leap out after the first couple of monsoon showers, the student organizations took to the streets under orders from their mother parties. But besides their short sighted parliamentary ambitions, these organizations never talked or spread awareness on how privatized education is the result of a globalized, neoliberal economic policy.


It is interesting, though not very surprising, to note that with the increasing number of private education institutions, there is a proportional rise in education loans. With the suicide of the Dalit student Rajani, when she was denied a loan, the slogan deviated from the original version to variants of “ensure social justice”. So if then, the struggles were to ensure people get loans, now, when the unfair, cumbersome und un-repayable loans lead to student suicides, the protests turn course towards the banks. The fundamental issues always tend to be hidden beneath it, while only the peripheral issues are focused on or dealt with. Student organizations that do this, engaging superficially with the matter at hand, are very much also to be blamed in limiting education to a very privileged few who can afford to pay for it.

The incident in Nehru College is not an isolated one. Similar incidents have happened in institutions both within Kerala and outside it, only that this one managed to reach the public and grab their attention. It is high time that the society recognizes that Jishnu’s death was an institutional murder, by a state that implements capital oriented economic policies. The huge but important task before us is to retake public education. The protests happening should not die off like the ones that preceded it, for its failure would mean failing to stop future institutional murders like Jishnu’s. We should rise up in rage and rebellion and pelt stones, if need be, not just against the private institutions and managements, but also against the state policies that make education the privilege of the rich.


Translated by Ananthu Rajagopal-Asha. Original article was published in Malayalam. 


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