Free education, especially for the underprivileged, is a basic privilege any government in power should provide
A perennial question asked by the layman, news anchors, and social media is: What is so special about JNU that makes it so different from other universities? The answer lies in JNU’s history and its motto: Fight to Read and Read to Change Society (Lado Padhne ke Liye aur Padho Samaaj Badalne ke Liye).
And this is not just a mere motto. It is actively practised by JNU students. Even while protesting, students of the university can be seen carrying books, notebooks and journals with them. The idea of creating JNU through the JNU Act by Parliament was to set up a university which was indeed fundamentally different from other existing universities at the time. Coincidentally, it was exactly 50 years ago that JNU came into existence.
The university has truly embraced the last man standing. JNU is a space where a son of a high ranking bureaucrat from a metropolitan city would study and live together in the hostel with a tribal man’s son or street vendor’s son from the marginalised section. JNU was idealised and later made into a space where all caste, class, creed and community barriers would be destroyed. An idea taken directly from the Indian Constitution that aims to promote peace, harmony and social cohesion among various sections of the society.
The university became a living example of that and generations of students have strived to maintain this uniqueness of JNU. The all-encompassing national character of JNU, where students from different socio-economic backgrounds come and make this university their home is second to none.
It is because of this character, a new student that enters JNU suddenly gets exposed to a lot of new and different ideas from all sides. It is here that a student is encouraged to question everything he/she is taught. And there is nothing which can’t be questioned, debated, argued or challenged in a rational way.
JNU not only ensures this but has actively made rules that promote the entry of marginalised students to the university by giving them extra merit points during the entrance examination. Similarly, the girl students were always given extra credit points to ensure their entry in higher education in large numbers. The result being that JNU has given the country a generation of fine academicians, scholars, bureaucrats, politicians and journalists from diverse and marginalised backgrounds.
The 2019 Economics Nobel winner Abhijit Banerjee is a JNU alumnus, who was sent to Tihar Jail as a student protestor against the Indira Gandhi regime. Two of the top Cabinet ministers in the Central government are from JNU — External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
The fundamental question that JNU students are raising today is why things as basic as education and health are not completely free for all in a country like India. Why the idea of paying for education and health services is so normalised by politicians, the media and corporates, and accepted by a large section of the society? The students are arguing that the state should pay for everyone’s education and health, irrespective of anyone’s income. If taxpayers’ money is not spent on free education and healthcare for all, then what else is it being collected for. That should ideally be the lowest common denominator for any government in power.
Abhay Dubey from the Centre for Study in Developing Societies points out: “From 2014-19, the Government of India’s own report suggests that it hasn’t been able to spend ₹4 lakh crore out of its designated Education Budget. Further, the education cess collected from taxpayers in the calendar year 2017-18 has also been left unused. So, the question arises that when the government is unable to spend its own designated money on education, what was the reason for fee hike? Was the idea was just to provoke the students and test the waters that how far the government can do what it wants to do”.
At present, the issue of JNU fee hike has spiralled out of the campus and has grown into a more fundamental issue of saving public funded higher educational institutions. The students of Delhi University, Jamia Millia, Hyderabad Central University students, and JNU Teachers Association, among others, have expressed solidarity over the JNU fee hike.
The JNUSU (JNU Students’ Union) now claims that the fight shouldn’t be just seen through a myopic prism of fee hike within one university but the larger issue at hand is the government’s intent to privatise higher education and make it inaccessible to a large number of students of the deprived sections of society through the proposed New Education Policy of the government.
Adding to this problem, a majority of the JNU students today feel overwhelmingly that a large section of the media has created a false image about them among the masses and have been running a dirty propaganda against them. The students complain that the mainstream broadcast media has been openly biased and anti JNU for long.
The students of JNU seem to be in no mood to relent until all their demands are met, at least the most immediate one about the complete roll back of the fee hike. The JNUSU is up in arms against the JNU administration. Many students boycotted the end-semester examinations (which started from December 12) as a mark of protest, despite the repeated warnings by JNU administration that any such hindrance in the normal conduct of examinations might lead to the expulsion of all such students from the university. As the mercury dips in the national capital, JNU remains on the boil.
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at School of International Studies, JNU
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