Keeping India’s Universities for the Rich

New Delhi’s JNU was the scene of violence this month as masked men assaulted students protesting a fee hike. After years of attacks on affirmative action and education spending, the nationalist right is trying to shut off the universities to all but the wealthiest Indians.

Presidential Estate, New Delhi, India, September 2018. Rashid Jorvee / Wikimedia

The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Ever since 2016, the university has been a site of turbulence, with police crackdowns over one event or another. There have been arrests of students, violent protests, and media hysteria, creating an atmosphere of permanent crisis. The most recent battle began in October, as JNU imposed a fee hike.

It was proposed that students would now need to pay a service charge of ₹1,700 ($24) per month as part of their hostel (student hall) fee — a charge which did not previously exist. Rent for a single room has been increased from ₹20 ($0.28) per month to ₹600 ($9), rent for a double room from ₹10 ($0.14) to ₹300 ($4.21) and the security deposit from ₹5,500 ($78) to ₹12,000 ($169) — all in all, a near 300 percent fee hike.

Students soon responded. They stood outside the venues where the administration held closed-door meetings to discuss the fee hike, organized sit-ins, occupied the administrative block, and raised slogans on the streets of Delhi. But then the confrontation took a violent turn, as the police brutally beat up protesting students.

The irony hits hard: a crippling political impasse in a university globally recognized as a center of excellence. Consistently securing high rankings, JNU boasts a list of illustrious alumni — including Abhijit Banerjee, Nobel laureate for Economics in 2019. Yet high-quality teaching and research is not what makes JNU exceptional.

Rather, its uniqueness lies in it being one of the few universities in the world that has created and sustained a socially inclusive and diverse student body. This is vital because in a country with rigid social hierarchies and little redistribution of land or wealth, education is the only tool available to achieve social and economic mobility. Publicly funded universities such as JNU are invaluable for providing such opportunities for mobility.

Why Now?

Two trends have precipitated the crisis at JNU — government policies to privatize higher education in India and an ideological battle between the ruling establishment and progressive-left voices. It is hard to say if they can be reversed. First, because there is an ongoing and systematic reduction in the government funding of public education. In 2013–14, the Indian government’s expenditure on education stood at a meager 0.9 percent of GDP, a figure which had be 2018–19 been cut to 0.2 percent.

The government is now promoting small and autonomous educational institutions, in place of large federally governed institutions. Its draft New Education Policy (2019) encourages the creation of private universities that can independently determine their fees. In the existing universities, newer departments are asked to self-finance. The new policy proposes to constitute a private corporate board of governors for each institution, encouraging private investments in higher education from both India and abroad. In addition, these measures will fragment the large collectives of teachers’ unions that have so far negotiated with central bodies like the University Grants Commission.

This isn’t just affecting JNU — fee hikes are triggering protests and strikes across the country. In October 2019, students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai protested against a proposed fee hike for M. Tech courses. In December 2019, six students from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute began an indefinite hunger strike in Kolkata. That same month, students of another premier film institute, Film and Television Institute of India in Pune also went on an indefinite hunger strike to protest the 10 percent fee hike. The students at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi have been demanding a decrease in the existing course fee since December 2019.

Yet JNU is different from other institutions. It has a national voice — helped by its location in the national capital, raising uncomfortable questions before governments. This campus has produced leading voices in the Left and progressive politics and has been a source of consistent support to social movements across the country. JNU represents an idea of India which is socially progressive, culturally diverse, and politically liberal. Alumni across the board testify to this idea of India that they experienced at the university. Abhijit Banerjee, having won the Nobel last year, said at an event, “JNU was extraordinarily important for me … at JNU I encountered India. There is caste, poverty and it was not in the world I had lived in. So, JNU taught me what India was all about.”

The creation of this diverse space was made possible, for instance, by admission policies like the “Deprivation Points model” (a scheme of awarding marks to women candidates, to students educated in rural areas, and to those with poor socioeconomic status). Yet this was scrapped in 2017. Administrative decisions such as fee hikes are a further attempt to alter the composition and character of JNU.

JNU’s idea of India also stands in sharp contrast to the one held by the current regime led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This regime wants to mold university campuses in its ideology, and accordingly alter the educational system. At times, the animosities in this ideological battle fall to distasteful levels. In January 2020, the state branch of the BJP tweeted at JNU, “For too long, Leftists have been treated with kid gloves. No wonder this good for nothing breed has grown like a weed.”

Derecognizing the Union

The recent crisis occurred in an already polarized atmosphere, amid the breakdown of trust between the students and the JNU administration. In the last few years, the present and former office bearers of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) have been suspended, along with scores of other students. Activist students have been frequently slapped with notices, fines, punishments, and even police cases. The JNU administration has derecognized the newly elected JNUSU and kept it out of all meetings.

This was the context in which the fee hike crisis began. On October 28, 2019, the JNU administration announced that it had amended the hostel manual and increased the charges levied on students. It also changed the rules related to hostel allotment, alongside introducing student dress codes and timings to enter and leave the hostel premises. The decision itself, as well as the manner of its implementation, created a strong sense of outrage among students. The JNU administration argued that fees have not been raised in nineteen years. The University Registrar has said that JNU has a deficit of over ₹45 crores ($6.3 million); the university has been spending a massive amount on water, electricity, and service charges.

Not just the JNU administration but some media interests such as the Republic TV have sanctimoniously and self-righteously condemned subsidizing education at JNU as a “waste of taxpayers’ money.” In television debates, JNU students have been referred to as parasites with an illegitimate sense of entitlement.

The JNUSU, on the other hand, cites the university’s annual reports to suggest that more than 40 percent of JNU students come from lower-income groups (family income of less than ₹12,000 ($167) a month). Such students would not be able to afford the proposed fees. The students also question the government’s concern for taxpayers’ money in the light of its decision to waive millions in corporate taxes — or to spend $350 million on constructing the tallest statue in the world.

A New Form of Togetherness

Dismantling publicly funded higher education in India will not be an easy task, and even less so at JNU. This is not because JNU has a strong left political tradition, as is often claimed, but because of a unique solidarity and friendship between the students’ association and teachers’ association — one that is rarely seen anywhere in the world.

The camaraderie shows. Alongside the students, the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) has actively opposed the fee hike. Soon after it was proposed, all the five provosts of the university, in charge of the eighteen hostels, either resigned or signed statements rejecting the new hostel manual. In November 2019, the JNUSU along with the teachers’ associations from all the central universities in New Delhi, marched on the streets of Delhi to protest the government’s education policy.

The JNUTA also organized a march demanding the report on the fee hike by the government-appointed high-powered committee be made public. The JNUTA submitted letters to the Parliament highlighting the ongoing crisis in the university and called for a speedy and just resolution. In January 2020, the JNUSU and JNUTA gave joint calls for a citizens’ march.

Thousands of individuals, several notable alumni, hundreds of organizations, lawyers who fought the cases pro bono, and university communities across the globe, have come out in solidarity with JNU teachers and students. The widespread mobilization questioning the increasing cost of higher education has energized a mode of collective action that has developed in the last decade: a large mobilization creating a temporary platform that brings together various ideological and identity-based groups.

It is worth mentioning that in this last decade, opposition political parties seem to have retreated from their role of challenging the government. The opposition that one would expect in the Parliament is, instead, seen on the streets. The largest party in the opposition, the Congress, has lent its support to the anti-fee hike movement but lacks the power or numbers to mount significant pressure. The parliamentary left — the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M) — leaders have actively supported the anti–fee hike movement, but are electorally insignificant, having been reduced to 3 seats out of 543 seats in parliament in the 2019 elections.

For this reason, the mobilization against the fee hike is nonparty in character, without any one group or organization to lead it. Yet while the mobilization is decentralized, it has not thereby lost an emphasis on its central demands or its unity. It is ideologically diverse: various factions of the Left, Ambedkarite groups (followers of B.R. Ambedkar: Indian jurist, economist, politician, and radical social reformer), feminists, and queer groups have come together and given calls for a strike or a march. It has also brought many first-time protesters onto the streets. It is a collective action in pursuit of universal goals, without sacrificing identity-based activism.

The mobilization against the fee hike and the larger student movement in India have a message for those who were despairing about the fractionalization and splintering of progressive politics. It is this: the presence of identity-based groups has not undermined broad civic solidarities. It has not irretrievably fragmented and atomized progressive politics in India and prevented the formation of a united opposition. The young people in India know how to stand with each other and stand with JNU. This spirit was well captured by a placard held by a queer activist at an anti–fee hike demonstration, reading: “We’re here, We’re Queer. We cannot pay 60,000/ a year.”