Jawaharlal Nehru University, named after India’s first Prime Minister, is back in the news. This comes as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the history of this iconic public-funded educational institution, known for its open and progressive ethos and illustrious alumnae, and the increasingly turbulent relationship between the vast majority of its students and teachers on one hand and the government’s education establishment on the other.
The immediate trigger for the most recent clash between the students and the JNU administration was over the new hostel manual that proposed sweeping changes to existing rules and the huge hike in fees which students say would keep out young deserving people from the most marginalised communities in the country who normally could have never dreamt of world-class higher education.
Nearly 40 per cent of the students on the campus are reportedly from below poverty line (BPL) families. On Wednesday, the JNU administration announced a partial rollback in the fee hike and assistance for students from economically weaker sections and doing away with some of the proposed restrictions such as curfew timings, dress codes, etc. The protesting students are not convinced that this is enough, and the rollback has not quelled the protests at the time of writing. Unnamed human resources development ministry officials have been quoted in the media saying that the university will soon elaborate on who are covered in the said (BPL) category. There is also a great deal of concern about people who may not be technically BPL, but are from lower middle class families and for whom any extra cost could mean foregoing higher education in a world-class institution like the JNU. Students allege that key decisions are being taken without consulting them. But behind every clash, be it between individuals or in the context of an institution, there are always two reasons — the immediate and the long-simmering.
The tug of war between the students and the JNU administration in hyper-polarised India is between two conflicting ways of looking at education and pivots around two critical questions about affordable and high-quality education for the poor, including higher education, and about the purpose of education.
Should higher education only be a means to a job or is it also about fostering a questioning spirit and about human development? The visceral and frequently venomous reactions to the recent protests by JNU students by a large number of Indians, including many in the social media, make it clear that the real issues are located elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, the clash over hike in fees and new hostel manual has become an occasion for many to express their resentment about JNU as an institution, what it stands for, its students and its philosophy. Take the ongoing verbal slugfest in the social media about the desirability or otherwise of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) studies over social sciences. This is a familiar trope and pops up each time JNU jumps to national headlines. Those who are vitriolic in their animosity towards JNU typically locate the source of troubles in the institution within the vocal social sciences community and argue that if only the STEM crowd outnumbered the humanities crowd, all would be well. Some go as far as to advocate shutting down the university to weed out “anti-nationals”.
Then, there is the other old trope about taxpayers and JNU students, who are smeared as “freeloaders” because they can study for very nominal fees. Curiously, in a country where less than 10 per cent of people pay taxes, a similar wrath is not visible against those who dodge taxes. Nor are there similar displays of angst against subsidised meals for legislators, and building of statues everywhere with taxpayers’ money. Those championing the cause of STEM the loudest today are also silent when it comes to the stream of unscientific statements from people in positions of power.
JNU is often in the eye of the storm because it fosters an ethos where people are encouraged to ask uncomfortable questions. JNU’s rigorous entrance tests and the quality of discourse within its premises also ensure that most students are equipped to come up with coherent responses if they are questioned.
The same is the story for many other educational institutions like Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, etc.
As Happymon Jacob, a professor at JNU, recently tweeted: “It’s not hard to understand why social sciences are suspect in the eyes of the establishment. Social sciences tend to, by and large, make students challenge the established wisdom, think out of the box and simply ask a lot of questions. Questions make some people uncomfortable... Not all challenges are wise, not all out-of-the-box thinking is great, and not all questions are wonderful. But that is not the point. We must engage in them, nevertheless. That’s the point of social science education.” Or as Swara Bhaskar, award-winning Bollywood actor who studied at JNU, put it in a recent magazine article: “JNU changes lives by freeing its residents of the limitations they come from. It provides a safe space for people from diverse and different backgrounds to have an equal access to resources. JNU taught me that the India I knew was not the only India that existed. JNU is special because it changes lives by recognising that education is not, and should not be, a privilege of the few, but rather a birthright of everyone.”
The animus against JNU stems from the fact that it is seen by many as an institution that breeds activists. But activism is not the monopoly of social science students anywhere in the world. A growing number of medical students in the United States, for example, take courses in social activism.
It is no secret that the religious and political organisations committed to a robustly, and exclusively, Hindu version of India — “Hindutva” — are not fond of JNU. The key issues at stake, however, go beyond any one institution. It goes to the heart of a critical question.
Should the poor be priced out of world class higher education? And the even more critical question: What is education? Is it just a means to get a job, doing things mechanically even if efficiently, preserving the status quo? Or is education also about empowerment, when the poorest of the poor feel confident, through education, to ask uncomfortable questions of the system?