Social Justice in the Times of JNU Protests

Without understanding the demographic significance of public institutions like JNU, the criticism against the university gets typically translated into empty rhetoric.

For last 40 odd years, Jawaharlal Nehru University has been more than an educational institution for its students, staff and teachers. Notwithstanding the notoriety it has recently attained in the public imagination, it is a place largely known for its rigorous scholarship, eminent faculty, versatile alumni, and most importantly, for its vibrant democratic environment.

Unlike other prominent educational institutions of the country, JNU has particularly played an important role in the lives of students coming from socially and economically marginalised groups such as SCs, STs and OBCs. For the past many years, the institution has provided them lively and exceptional exposure to the world of academia, and also to the world outside it.

All this was possible due to the existence of progressive admission policy and affordable educational conditions provided by the university. Otherwise, students belonging to socially and economically marginalised groups wouldn’t have even dared to join JNU, and migrate to a big metropolis like Delhi.

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Today, JNU is proud to have nurtured many students from Dalit, tribal and other backward groups, who have distinctly carved their names in the world of academia, bureaucracy, activism and politics. The mainstream media and a section of social media have been repugnantly criticising the present JNU movement against the fee hike.

Without understanding the demographic significance of public institutions like JNU, the criticism against JNU gets typically translated into empty rhetoric. It is mostly directed towards trivialising the demands of JNU students who have been protesting against the fee hike. The ongoing movement has been viewed as a matter to be made fun of. Discussions invoking taxpayers’ money and supposed concerns against the JNU movement continuously reflect the overwhelming ignorance and insensitivity towards the idea of social justice.

Discussions invoking taxpayers’ money and supposed concerns against the JNU movement continuously reflect the overwhelming ignorance and insensitivity towards the idea of social justice.

These people need to be categorically told that very few public educational institutions like JNU have been very sensitive in addressing the grievances of the most marginalised students. After all, the purpose of any public institution is to uplift the weakest section of the society and bring them into the mainstream. If public institutions are not meant to cater to the aspirations of the poor and the marginalised, then the idea of democracy and social justice doesn’t have any significant meaning beyond rhetoric.

In the current scenario, the fee hike promulgated by the administration is part of series of draconian reforms undertaken by the BJP led government at the Centre. In order to deliberately push JNU into a further stage of vulnerability, these reforms have been introduced to destroy the unique, inclusive and egalitarian character of JNU.

The series of changes initiated by the current JNU administration would surely and eventually make a deep impact on the legacy and the future of the institution. Also, if the fee hike and several draconian reforms initiated by JNU are not opposed, education would again become a preserve of a selected few (upper caste elites).

Also read: ‘Question of 40% of JNU’s Future’: Day After Protests, Students Say Agitation Far From Over

The success of JNU as a vibrant academic space was possible primarily because of its heterogeneous demography of the student population. The combination of brilliant teachers, diversity among the students, and vibrancy in democratic environment collectively helped to strengthen JNU as a leading academic hub of south Asia.

Unlike many private institutions that have proliferated in recent times, JNU caters to every possible social groups, ranged from a privileged section of the population to subaltern communities living in the remote hinterlands of the country. Having myself taught in both public and private educational institutions, my little experience tells me that social diversity is most important asset of any educational institution.

It is misconstruing to believe that the strength of any good educational institution rests only on bookish scholarship, suave skills and academic sophistication. On the contrary, it is the critical element of diversity within the community of students and faculty that plays a decisive role in making of promising educational institution. It would consequently bring new questions to the fore, enrich the scholarship, and help to foreground new seeds of change.

Therefore, institutions like JNU played a very crucial role in shaping the lives of Dalit and marginalised students which is often quite rare for a public education institution in India – given the prejudice they predominantly carry against the marginalised communities. Subsequently, Dalit students have contributed a lot in deepening JNU’s engagement with the contemporary scholarship, and thereby paved way for interesting conversations.

Like any other institution, this place also has many flaws. Despite its progressive orientation, JNU has been a place where caste questions have evoked uncomfortable responses for long time. It was only after relentless efforts taken by the Bahujan and Ambedkarite student groups within the university, particularly since the 1990s, questions pertaining to caste were subjected to intense scrutiny.

On the other hand, there have been quite a few allegations of elitism and caste bias in the past against the faculty. These allegations only reflects the omnipotent presence of caste in India that has ability to penetrate every possible barrier that it encounters. JNU is no exception here.

Despite these allegations, JNU has been by far one of the most sensitive and responsible institutions in dealing with the issues of caste discrimination. JNU’s democratic environment has been instrumental in addressing the concerns of its members without facing penalisation.

Also read: JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University

Extensive engagement of Dalit and marginalised students and faculty led to a much needed intellectual churning in the campus. ‘Jai Bhim’, a powerful slogan of the anti-caste movement and a popular catchphrase in JNU today, was introduced by the Ambedkarite students of the university few decades ago. Animated discussions on caste and class, Ambedkar and Marx, Mandal agitations, OBC reservations movement of 2006 etc, have instrumentally shaped and enriched the character of the university in the last two decades. These discussions have propelled them to intellectually address and incorporate questions pertaining to social marginalisation and deprivation of resources, effected by the institution of caste.

This change within JNU was possible not only due to the predominance of democratic environment in JNU but also due to the overwhelmingly diverse social and economic demography of the student population.

Thus, the proposed fee hike by JNU will exclude majority from contributing to knowledge and ideas, and further set a dangerous precedent for future. The decision to partially rollback by the fee hike by the university administration is just an eyewash to deceive the concerns of students. The series or reforms directed against JNU had already set a tone for a much needed discussion on social justice and education.

Prabodhan Pol currently teaches history at Manipal Centre for Humanities – MAHE, Manipal, Karnataka.