Attack on JNU is an Insistence on Upper Caste Dominance

The attack on JNU is not just about the imposition of a saffronised nationalism. It marks an opposition to inclusiveness, and a refusal to allow backward sections of society to move forward in pursuit of their dreams and aspirations.


The attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been framed largely in terms of nationalism. Yet, if one dissects the debate, it becomes clear that the attack is not just on the rights of individuals to arrive at their own understandings of their relationships to the nation and state. Crucially, this is also an attack on poor and marginalised youth, and the role of the state in providing affordable education.

Two of the arguments being bandied by politicians and the media to delegitimise the university are that students use taxpayer money to wage ‘anti-national’ politics, and that the JNU campus runs on huge subsidies from taxpayer money.

But before responding to these arguments, let’s ask: who are these JNU students anyway?

A mirror of India’s socioeconomic diversity

According to JNU’s 2014-15 annual report, the student strength was 8308, of which 4197 were male and 4111 female. Of the total number of students, 1201 belonged to the scheduled castes (SC), 643 belonged to the scheduled tribes (ST) and 2434 belonged to the other backward classes (OBCs). Students with disabilities numbered 219, foreign nationals numbered 331 and there were 3480 ‘other’ students. The percentage of students from the SC, ST and OBCs, and with disabilities was therefore approximately 54%.

Such a composition is no coincidence. In accordance with government rules, JNU has a 15% reservation for SC students, 7.5% for ST students, 27% for OBC students and 3% for persons with disabilities. There are reservations for faculty as well.

In addition, a unique feature of JNU’s admission policy is the awarding of ‘deprivation points’, up to a maximum of ten points, intended to provide better opportunities to the socially deprived. A factsheet on the JNU website says, “It is worth noting that JNU introduced this provision as early as 1995, even before the Government of India introduced the reservation policy for candidates belonging to backward classes.” These points are awarded to students from nearly 300 backward districts of the country, to Kashmiri migrants, to widows and wards of serving defense personnel and ex-servicemen who were killed or disabled in action. The university also offers merit-cum-means scholarships to students from low income backgrounds.

This is in line with JNU’s admission policy derived from the Jawaharlal Nehru University Act 1966 and statutes of the university. The policy requires that an adequate number of students from underprivileged sections of society be admitted and highlights the role of alumni in national construction and social change. It stresses the sustenance of the “all-India character of the university by having on its rolls a fair representation of students from different regions of the country especially the backward areas.”

Admissions are based on performance in the entrance examination, with admission figures for 2014-15 showing that a large number of students with rural and low income backgrounds joined the institute. Offers of admission were made to 2919 candidates, of which 2110 joined. Of the students who joined, 900 belonged to lower and middle income groups whose parents’ monthly income was less than 12,000 rupees, and 1210 were from the higher income group whose parents’ monthly income was over 12,000 rupees. The rural-urban composition of the students was 886 to 1224.

A reason why many universities look up to JNU is because of institutions within it such as the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment. Much time is spent by the students’ union to exert pressure on the university administration to deliver on its commitments, whether scholarships, reservations or hostels.

Hypocritical attacks on JNU

Biting arguments have been made about the grants that JNU receives, which at around 200 crore rupees per annum is actually less than what some other central universities receive. Contrast the grants to JNU with subsidies given to corporates. According to calculations by journalist P Sainath, government write-offs to corporates amounted to 5.32 lakh crore rupees in 2013-14, and to 36.5 trillion rupees over a nine year period from 2005-2014. On the other hand, social sector programmes, which are in many ways a lifeline for the poor in our country, are gasping for funds, especially after last year’s budgetary slashes. In a bizarre turn of circumstances, students are readily being called ‘anti-national’, but there is not as much as a murmur against corporates who are known to evade tax and stash black money abroad.

In a recent blog post on NDTV, Mohandas Pai, the CFO and former head of HR at Infosys, called for the separation of studies from politics. In doing so, Pai exhibited a blinkered view of education, in addition to professing ignorance about the entire discipline of the social sciences. He demanded that the government ask JNU’s largely left-leaning students to pay the full cost of education, since he thinks it is a waste of tax-payer money.

In essence, the protests by Pai and others against cheap and affordable education amounts to:

  • Absolving the state of its responsibility to provide universally accessible and affordable higher education to its citizens.
  • A nod to the exorbitant fees charged by the private sector, which has transformed education into a booming business.
  • An attack on students who suffer from socio-economic discrimination and who require intervention by the state, in terms of both subsidies and reservations, to stand a chance in life.

Opposing inclusiveness

A word for those who are labelling JNU students ‘anti-national’:

Over 75,000 applications were received during the 2014-15 academic year. Of the students who sought and got admission, many are civil services aspirants and use the study facilities provided by the university to crack the examination. It would be safe to say that a significant percentage of the Indian bureaucracy is made up of former JNU students. Other students go on to become eminent academics, researchers and journalists, with many even joining the development sector and political parties. JNU has also granted recognition and accreditation to a number of defense institutions, such as as the National Defence Academy, Pune, and Army Cadet College, Dehradun.

Is the BJP claiming that all of these are ‘anti-national,’ including some ABVP activists who are enrolled in JNU? Is the library also ‘anti-national’, considering the crude hacking of the JNU library webpage?

The attack on JNU is therefore not just about the imposition of a saffronised nationalism.

The antagonism towards students of the university reveals in its supporters an insistence on merit and the preservation of upper caste dominance. It also marks an opposition to inclusiveness, and a refusal to allow backward sections of society to move forward in pursuit of their dreams and aspirations.

 Urvashi Sarkar is a freelance journalist and works in the development sector. She is a JNU alumnus and has reported on the university.

  • http://socioproctology.blogspot.co.uk/ windwheel

    The author says that many JNU students come from deprived backgrounds. Do they go to JNU so as to end up being shot or hanged or becoming more deprived yet living as hunted Revolutionaries in some forest fastness? If so, JNU is not fit for purpose. It should be teaching combat skills.
    If not, JNU students need to understand what sort of political gestures will help them make their way in the world. For a rural Dalit, ‘beef and pork’ parties are not the way. Anglophone Brahmins who eat beef or Ashraf Muslims who eat Pork are sending a signal which is advantageous to them- it shows they are flexible and won’t make a fuss about anything for recondite religious reasons.
    Rural Dalits gain no similar ‘signalling’ advantage- more especially if they do so in the name of Bodhisattva Dr. Ambedkar who held that it was Lord Buddha, not the Brahmins, who introduced the prohibition on beef and valorised vegetarianism in the first place.

    Similarly, Indian Muslims know that they can better get ahead if they celebrate- not Afzal Guru- but people like Capt. Shahnawaz Khan or, indeed, the young Kashmiri Muslim (whose name I have unforgivably forgotten) who sacrificed his own life by misleading the invading Pak forces at Baramula so that the people of Srinagar- regardless of Religion- were spared looting, rape and murder.
    Ram Vilas Paswan could get an advantage by parading an ‘Osama’ lookalike at his election rallies a dozen years ago. India has changed. Indian Muslims are not stupid. They are also better patriots then those more comfortably placed.

    JNU becomes more fit for purpose when it takes deprived students. But JNU becomes less so if it exploits them or expends them as cannon fodder.
    The alma mater has a duty, not to kill or harm, but to make more autonomous and prosperous those of the deprived who clutch at her skirts. Senile Professors and exploded Research Programs ought not to get their hands on students from deprived backgrounds.
    In America, there is a TV program called ‘the Simpsons’. It features and Indian shop-keeper called Apu. Why is Apu a shop keeper not a Computer Programmer? It is because some senile Professor caught hold of this deprived student and made him do a worthless PhD in a field of Computing already known to be useless.
    Apu was still able to make a life for himself because he was so hard working that he was able to earn enough money to marry Manjula just by running a small ‘Kwik-e-Mart’. Thankfully, he attended a College where shouting slogans against White People or ‘Capitalism’ or ‘Zionism’ was not de rigueur. Also, he was Hindu, not Muslim- otherwise he’d have been deported after 9/11 or if Trump becomes President.
    People like me make fun- affectionate fun-of the JNU ‘jhollawallah’ but have reason to be grateful to it. My sister attended JNU and got into the I.F.S because her sojourn there somewhat blunted her snobbishness and endowed her with a modicum of ‘Bharatiya sanskriti’. Previously, at St. Stephens and then later doing her Masters in England, she had been a little too crass in her dismissal of ‘behenji’ types. JNU civilised her.
    Exposure to JNU purely Gesture Political, bleeding-heart Leftism is salutary for arrogant Anglophones who, however, have been rejected by the Corporates as too fat and stupid, and thus must settle for the IFS or else perform a pathetic hegira towards T.A status at some Community College State side.

  • Mamata

    Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya are both Brahmins.

    • R Maganti

      Correction, Kumar is a Bhumihar not a Brahmin.

      • Mamata

        “The term Bhumihar Brahmin was adopted by the community in the late-19th century to emphasize their claim of belonging to the priestly Brahmin class.” Basically he is an Upper Caste