In the dark, rainy London, where I've come for a global research network meeting, the sun sets around 4 pm. Hardly anyone is worrying about India here, but Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) roils have made news.
Even the BBC reported water cannons were used against students protesting fee hikes. Those who know I am from JNU ask me what's going on. Is the state using its power to crush legitimate democratic demonstrations?
Two sides to the story
What is highlighted in the media is the fee hike of 150 per cent. Not the fact that the proposed fees were still just Rs 300 for a double-occupancy room and Rs 600 for a single room per month. Even adding annual establishment and other charges, JNU rates would be Rs 7,200 and Rs 9,700 for double and single occupancy respectively. Lower than comparable government-funded institutions such as Delhi University, Jamia Millia or Ambedkar University. Government funded "minority" colleges such as St Stephen's charge as much as Rs 60,000 per annum. Of course, JNU authorities have already partially rolled back the hikes.
Moving from overseas perceptions to those in India, JNU remains constantly in the news, usually for the wrong reasons. The Indian media is more balanced, documenting both sides of the story, but it remains sympathetic to the students. Among the larger public, however, the image of agitating JNU students as states-ponsored freebooters and "anti-nations" is quite prevalent. No wonder, all over the country, there is outrage over these protests, with calls for the closing down of the university. To that extent, in this fight between authorities and students, the former seem to have scored some sort of narrative advantage, if not a victory.
But does that solve the problem?
Not at all.
Winning the narrative war is not as important as saving the university from further damage. Students need to get off the streets and return to their classrooms. Teaching and research need to resume. At least a working relationship between the JNU administration and the demonstrating students is required so that the university returns to being a university, not a battleground of opposing forces and factions. It is crucial, therefore, to get to the root of the present round of disturbances.
I would suggest that the fight between students and JNU administration is really not about fee hikes at all. True, that was the pretext for the massive mobilisation. Even the pro-government BJP-affiliate Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) joined the fight against the hike. The cause is so populist that it has united sworn ideological enemies. Unfortunately, what the 'azadi' - some would call it the 'tukde-tukde' — movement failed to do, the fee hike has succeeded in accomplishing. Sit-ins, occupations, ghareos, non-cooperation and whatever else it takes, all with a view to crash the university down. Also to catapult JNU and the student movement into national and global limelight.
An unnecessary strike
The students scored a huge tactical victory in targeting the JNU convocation, which was addressed by vice-president of India, Venkaiah Naidu, with the minister for Human Resource Development (HRM), Ramesh Pokhriyal, also present. Though the administration tried to cordon off and sanitise the venue, which was not inside JNU but at the adjacent All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) auditorium, the students succeeded in gheraoing Pokhriyal. The latter was detained for several hours. The earlier attempts to use JNU as a platform against the Modi sarkar failed. But this one has had more traction, even partial success.
Coming back to the fee hike, it is not only justified but necessary. In fact, it is long overdue. But saying so, let alone implementing it, makes the administration seem anti-student and anti-poor. Other matters such as caste and reservations are also thrown in to muddy the waters. An issue like this has, regrettably, managed to focalise and channelise pent up student anger. The other, at times, less necessary punitive measures against student or even faculty interests, have made even legitimate moves take on the appearance of draconian measures.
A way forward
What is to be done to deescalate the tension? Negotiate if necessary, but get the students back to the classes. Avoid non-essential or needlessly antagonistic steps which may give rise to unrest or feed discontent. The facts behind the cost of higher education must be put out into the public domain so that both prospective students and parents, in addition to tax-paying citizens, know that the present structure is not sustainable. A principled stance on fees is necessary, even if an immediate hike isn't opportune.
But even more importantly, JNU should set its priorities right. The object is not to win a political or ideological battle with the so-called Leftists. Instead, we need to centre-stage and highlight academic excellence as the primary objective of a university. In order to do this, there is no need to stamp out dissent. Or bring in moral policing. Or try to punish a section of the teachers. Or fix appointments. Or even appear to do so.
Containing 'Leftism', cutting the support base of state-funded 'anti-nationals', cleaning up the campus culture, and all the subsidiary goals and objectives, will naturally follow from re-emphasising academics and de-emphasising politics. Rather than making JNU a battleground of Left versus Right, it is much better to make it dialogic space where a certain openness to contrarian, even anti-establishment thinking in a politically awakened space, can flourish alongside excellence in teaching and research.