When Mohammed Ali Chagla, a well-known jurist and Education Minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru government, presented his concept of a university in the Rajya Sabha in 1965, little did he know that decades later, it would be in the news for all the wrong reasons. He visualised it as a model institution with an atmosphere of free thinking.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is a premier teaching and research centre ranked number one by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council.
The government grant per student is one of the highest and many members of the faculty and research scholars have won prestigious national and international awards for their academic work. Still, none of this finds mention when the institution makes headlines.
The JNU students' protest, ostensibly over a hostel fee hike, is beyond any civil or democratic activism. If one compares the hostel fees of prominent central universities, JNU charges a pittance in room rents and mess charges. Even after revision, it remains the lowest. The room rent has been Rs 10 for the last 40 years. Tuition fee can be subsidised by the government, but living expenses are always based on the actual cost and all other central universities follow that norm. Besides, a majority of the students at JNU are beneficiaries of scholarship schemes.
Is the protest for a cause or is it a conspiracy? The agitation was called in the name of the fee hike; students accused the administration of taking a big step without consulting the students' union. Not many outside the institution are aware that the union does not have locus standi as its election was not as directed by the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations, mandatory for each state-funded university.
Associate deans were not allowed to interact with the elected hostel representatives over the hostel manual. An associate dean was held hostage for 36 hours in a classroom, harassed and heckled by students who demanded that she roll back the hike or resign.
A dean was not allowed by the agitating students to leave his premises, even with his deteriorating health. Sadly, the teacher's association of the university has not spoken of these incidents.
A handful of students are holding the university to ransom and vandalizing administrative offices on campus. The slogans on the walls reflect clearly the mindset that is running a vicious campaign to malign the university under the garb of fee hike protests. A statue of Swami Vivekananda was not only defiled by the agitating students but derogatory language was written all around it.
Democracy gives us freedom and liberty to not just assert our right to speak but also be responsible towards public property and abide by the rules. It wasn't long ago that the JNU was in the news for anti-national sloganeering and hailing terrorists like Afzal Guru. Many such incidents have happened with impunity on campus. Students in the past had also protested against the implementation of Vishakha guidelines while constituting the Internal Complaint Committee against sexual harassment. The Delhi High Court gave strict directions in 2017 against demonstrations or protests within 100 meters of the JNU administrative block. The students not only barged into the administrative building, they also vandalised the office of the Vice Chancellor in contempt of court. The mindset of defying guidelines mandatory for every state-funded university overshadows the hard-earned academic credentials of many faculty members and researchers.
The left-supported student organisations have been at the forefront of most of the agitations and disputes on campus. They have been instrumental in whipping up the present controversy. Marching to parliament on the first day of the session without any prior permission was a political gimmick to draw attention and to portray large scale student unrest. Interestingly, the pamphlet distributed for the march had no mention of the hostel fee hike. It has been reported that the police blame Left parties for instigating the students.
Student activism is very important in university culture as students get an opportunity to deliberate and discuss politics, culture and social challenges in a stimulating, free environment. However, misusing this autonomy will erode the sanctity of educational institutions.
(Dr. Geeta Bhatt is an academician and presently Director, Non-Collegiate Women's Education Board, University of Delhi.)
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