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.
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.