Lessons From a Hunger-Strike at Central University of South Bihar

Students may graduate with worthless degrees because the administration misrepresented its accreditation status. But the university is far from sympathetic about its students' plight.

While national news channels and the ‘mainstream’ print media were busy estimating IPL fortunes or predicting MCD election results, a few numbers eluded the ‘prime-time’ vision of the country’s audiences. Far from star-studded cricket stadiums where the ‘collective conscience’ of the nation is staged in choric frenzy, a certain Central University of South Bihar in Gaya became the scene of an attack on the lives and careers of nearly 100 students. No ‘Mann ki Baat’, while routinely singing paeans to yuva-shakti (youth power), would address the plight of these students who have been swindled by a central university into unrecognised and “illegal” courses for four years now. No local elections will be fought on the promise of taking their battles to the parliament or ensuring their rights of access to credible public education. No news-studio debates will be scripted as a mark of solidarity with these struggling souls or as a token glimpse into the state of public-funded higher education outside of the liberal citadels of metropolitan dissent. No independent inquiries will be set up to probe the informal networks of threat and intimidation that surround the everyday lives of these provincial students. No petitions will follow, no question-hour debates, no nation-wide agitation and no press conferences will ensure an afterlife to what unfolded in this university over the past five days.

Having been enrolled in degree-programmes which were later declared invalid by the accreditational authority for ‘violation of due procedures’, most of these 90 students (staying away from homes in hostels or PGs) have spent about Rs 4 to 5 lakh on courses which a centrally-funded university now fails to acknowledge as “recognised”. The first batch of students is scheduled to graduate in less than a month’s time and their final semester examinations are slated for the beginning of May 2017. But, after four years of their admission into the said undergraduate programmes and despite repeated appeals, petitions, negotiations and protests, the university authorities have not yet been able to produce a single piece of documentary evidence guaranteeing the authenticity of their degrees. The outgoing batch of students will receive their final-year marksheets in a month, while their scores might just remain paper adornments – holding little value for employers or postgraduate departments across the country.

What is the fuss about?

A brief recounting of the sequence of events that led to the current situation will be useful here. The Central Universities Act of 2009 announced the opening and incorporation of 15 new central government universities across the country. Guided by the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012) and subsequently-submitted findings of the Yash Pal Committee, the declared intention of the Act was to democratise higher education in geographically remote areas. As a result, most of these new universities were set up in relatively far-flung non-urban/semi-urban spaces with little institutional infrastructure of support. The Central University of Bihar was one among them, which subsequently went on to function out of two temporary campuses – one in Patna and the other in Gaya. The permanent campus is supposed to come up along the outskirts of Gaya, in the Tekari sub-division – and has been under construction for years now.

The new central universities, aimed at expanding access to higher education in areas where there were few opportunities otherwise, commenced postgraduate teaching in the humanities and sciences. However, owing to far higher fee structures, online modes of application and admission, lack of hostel/mess facilities, most of these universities naturally failed to attract students. Not only was the first central university in Bihar confined to its own local regional constituencies in terms of student composition, the annual enrolments in most postgraduate departments ranged between five and ten.

A poster at the site of the students’ protest. Courtesy: Yogesh Pratap Shekhar/The Wire Hindi

Looking at these dismal enrolment statistics and having realised how the declared policy-narrative of democratic access was militated by material-institutional priorities, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) started pressuring these central universities to open new ‘relevant’ courses and increase student-intake in order to justify funding. On the advice of the ministry, the University Grants Commission of India (UGC) floated an ‘Innovative Programme Scheme’ and asked universities to reframe/redesign curriculum and inaugurate locally relevant courses of study. Accordingly, the Central University of Bihar was asked (through correspondence with the UGC) to come up with new proposals for courses that might meet region-specific demands and therefore increase student numbers. Thus urged by the MHRD and the UGC, the university designed integrated dual-degree undergraduate programmes in education and law. These were to be called B.A B.Ed. and B.Sc B.Ed, B.A LLB and B.Sc LLB. The courses were immediately advertised and the departments opened in 2013, with a massive boost in student demand. Many applicants flocked to the university to enrol in these undergraduate courses, and the decision was hugely celebrated and welcomed by the then ministry. However, in all this hurry, the university did not care to seek approval for these ‘innovative’ B.Ed. courses from the statutory affiliating authority – National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE) – before admitting students. Seeking recognition from NCTE is a compulsory requirement for any education course in any college/university to be deemed legal.

The current state of affairs

After two successive batches of students were enrolled in the said B.Ed courses in 2013 and 2014, the matter was brought to the notice of NCTE. Immediately afterwards, the NCTE issued a public notice on its website declaring the said courses run by the Central University of Bihar as “illegal”. The university was suddenly caught on the wrong foot, and it tried clearing the air by petitioning the MHRD and UGC. While the university kept claiming that it was on the insistence of the Ministry and the UGC that the said courses were instituted, the latter clarified that it was the university’s responsibility to follow ‘due procedures’ in opening any programme.

In the middle of this passing-the-buck exercise, an NCTE team visited campus and agreed to grant approval to the contentious courses, but only from 2015 onwards. It was said that, as per the NCTE Act, there is no provision for a retrospective recognition of courses. The fate of 90 students enrolled (in 2013 and 2014) in these “illegal” courses has now become the missing piece of a legal-technical puzzle.

Since 2015, the university kept assuring the affected students that it is doing its utmost to resolve the impasse through dialogues with the ministry and NCTE. All that needs to be done is an amendment in the NCTE Act (through an Ordinance) allowing for retrospective recognition of these specific courses. Incidentally, the current Vice-Chancellor of Central University of South Bihar, Professor Harish Chandra Singh Rathore, is himself a member of the NCTE and is quite devoted to the current ruling dispensation (for all the obvious reasons). Yet, nothing substantive has happened thus far.

Institutionalising an order of cruelty

What is really ironic is that these are all students of education, often led into the field by a mythical idealism of ‘vocation’ and unwittingly preparing to manoeuvre these cesspools of academic bureaucracy in times to come. Though years of classroom-training have taught them textbook-principles of pedagogy and the haloed social commitments of a ‘teacher’, they are now exposed to the ugly political entrails of a public university that drags its feet for years on the question of its students’ futures – and, on top of it, targets and victimises them into complete submission through a dedicated army of unconcerned teachers. Having routed their demands for a ‘valid degree’ through multiple channels – applications to the university administration, letters to the MHRD and UGC and NCTE, RTIs seeking information about the status of their appeals, petitions to the president, appeals to local political leaders and parliamentarians – these students decided to vent their desperation through a peaceful sit-in and an indefinite hunger-strike in the university premises from April 18 onwards.

As social media spaces occasionally threw up images of 14 hunger-striking students wasting out their bodies on university floors, the unfeeling attitude of the university administration struck their feeble energies with greater force than ever. For almost the whole of the first day, there was no medical assistance provided to the students while administrative functionaries went about launching verbal assaults to terrorise and disperse them. There were open threats meted out to students from other departments who joined the protestors in a show of solidarity. Teachers went about threatening to file FIRs against each of the ‘rogue’ students for attempting to disrupt classes by their peaceful sit-in. Some of their colleagues walked around silently moaning the failing health of the hunger-strikers, while also participating in administrative speculations about how to crush the protests. Personal insults were bandied along feudal codes of ‘indecency’, ‘misbehaviour’ and ‘indiscipline’. “Outsider” conspiracies were alleged and moral sermons of obedience were ritually chanted at regular intervals.

When on the third day of the hunger strike, five students were taken severely ill and electrolytes had to be administered, the registrar deigned to grace the protesting students from Patna. In her subsequent negotiations with students, she rained a barrage of allegations and flatly refused to entertain any of the demands raised. The students had been pleading, since August 2016, that an official representation (comprising their own representatives, teachers and administrative officials) be sent to the ministry requesting a meeting. They also wanted the university to issue a written assurance taking full responsibility, and warranting legal action on behalf of the students in case of its own failure to ensure recognition by a stipulated date. The registrar turned a deaf ear to all of this, and instead persisted with her personal attacks – at times threatening to forcefully sap out protestors’ energies, accusing hunger-strikers of putting up a “pretence” of physical distress, and then using the vice chancellor’s Whatsapp messages to warn students of punitive action.

The difficult terms of ‘responsibility’

When 82 hours of a hunger-strike could not elicit a minimal concern from administrative officials, the students marched off to the office of the Commissioner of Magadh Division. The latter pledged his support to the students, and condemned the university’s insensitivity over the matter. Jolted at this, the administration agreed to retract from its earlier stance of indifference. Close to midnight on April 21, the registrar signed a letter of appeal addressed to the students, owning up to institutional responsibility in getting the required NCTE sanctions by July 2017.

The letter from the registrar. Courtesy: Debaditya Bhattacharya

The deadline that the university has bought itself into, however, has its own devious implications. It is understood that the first batch of students, graduating in May, will be expected to return to their own hometowns and not be available for physical mobilisations in the university thereafter. Also, having become “outsiders” – the spectre that university spaces today are most wary of! – these erstwhile students may be barred from participating in any event of student unrest over the issue in times to come. In the university’s calculations, this halving of numbers and weakening of student opposition will dampen the collective spirit of resistance crucial for any organised pressure-tactic. Furthermore, logistically, the months of May, June and July are when entrance-exams and admission processes for all postgraduate programmes are slotted across universities.

Effectively, this is the most decisive moment for a newly-graduated student in terms of seeking and securing future prospects for academic pursuit or employment. In plainer terms, this is the time when a student is required to prove the validity of her/his degree as proof of future potential. The university’s cleverly-plotted deadline might exhaust these immediate chances of mobility for the currently outgoing batch.

The students however, having registered a moral victory over an unrelenting administration and provoked assurances from sources in the central ministry, called off the fast late that night.

Protest as media event

The hunger-strike – as a mode of protest – is marked by a lack of the materiality associated with an ‘event’. In symbolic terms, a hunger-strike is a withholding of the ‘event’ for the sake of a systemic transformation. It requires a tremendous amount of courage and a sovereign act of will – to convert the habits of the everyday into something radically other than self-care. In this, it is the only possible movement of the self into a community of pure affect. Not through spectacular acts of heroism, but in the continuum of utter uneventfulness. Interestingly, one of the Hindi news-channels that visited the university’s campus to report of the hunger-strike, lamented the lack of adequate “masala” in the students’ protest. There were still other journalists who promised to cover the story only in the case of any untoward “event” – meaning, some act of violence or a suicide attempt or the death of a student!

How long must we wait for Rohith Vemulas to make our university campuses news-worthy? How many deals must be sealed between governments and statutory institutions, for us to finally turn back at the generations that continue to suffer them? How many hunger-strikes do we need for vice chancellors and ministers to realise that the right to public-funded education is at the heart of every citizen’s right to live with dignity?

Debaditya Bhattacharya taught literature at the Central University of South Bihar, before moving to a Calcutta University college.

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