The JNU Protests Stand For More Than Just Outrage Over the Fee Hike

On November 18, hundreds of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University marched towards parliament to oppose the draft hostel manual approved by the university’s administration. The manual was approved without the popular consensus of the students and has been slammed as a draconian measure to make education ‘exclusive’ and ‘discriminatory’.

The proposed hike in JNU has spurred protests for the last three weeks. Those opposing the manual argue that a hike would make quality education at JNU unaffordable for more than 40% of the students who are currently pursuing higher education at the university.

Despite the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s partial rollback of fee hike that accommodates students who come from BPL families, students have been demanding a complete roll back of fee hike to quash the administration’s attempt to transform education at the central university into a commodity.

They have been vehemently stating that education is a right, not a privilege.

Social media had a stream of differing opinions on whether fee hike is justified or not. More so, prominent news anchors decided to carry out a personal vendetta against the university by not only belittling the fee hike, but by also accusing the campus for ‘exaggerating’ the issue when it has already been ‘addressed by the government’.

However, it is upsetting how the mainstream narrative has been dominated by opinions that called these students ‘freeloaders’ and their degrees useless. A highly regressive homophobic term ‘lesbian dance theory’ was also floated to supposedly describe how useless social sciences degrees are.

Also read: ‘Emergency in JNU’: Section 144 Imposed, Students Lathi-Charged, Detained

So, in a bid to shift from what the dominant narrative is currently focused upon, let’s try to see the agitation on November 18 not as a protest by a bunch of ‘frustrated-for-nothing’ students, but within the larger context.

First, the massive protest on Monday should not be looked at with surprise. The glaring absence of JNU’s Vice-Chancellor from the campus, lack of communication between the students’ union and the administration, repeated attempts to clamp down on protesting students – all these factors have pushed students to the point of launching such a large-scale protest.

Second, many people seem to view these protests as agitations by an angry, confused lot of students, who are allegedly “pawns of political parties”.

It is problematic that people see students as an apolitical category. It is not surprising that many are of the view that students in JNU only protest and thus are wasting taxpayers’ money.

Why can’t students be political? This question comes up whenever student protests are criticised by those who think that students should study and not agitate. They forget that our country has had a glorious history of student protests – like the one led by Jayprakash Narayan during the 1970s.

However, due to the subsequent de-politicisation of students, the relationship between politics and students is often frowned upon. India has a rich young demographic and it stands to win at every level if students become the watchdogs of democracy; their actions will shape the discourse of India as a democratic and welfarist state.

Also read: JNU Protests: State, Students and the State of Students

Third, students have spoken strongly about how education is a right, not a privilege. This opens the debate up to trying to break down whether education is a commodity or a public good.

On one hand, those who support the revised fee hike argue that those who can pay should pay – implying that subsidised education should be need-based. On the other hand is the argument against the commodification of education.

A debate such as this widens further when the question of the role of the state comes into the picture – should the state provide subsidised education or not?

It is disheartening to see ‘taxpayers’ concerns’ being used as a barb as it seems to be forgotten that education is a public good that serves societal interests. Anchors like Arnab Goswami also questioned the protest on the ground that there were several students who were seen wearing branded clothes. What they are missing is that the protests are not only against the idea of exclusive education but also oppose the view that education itself is a private interest meant to serve individual needs. It is against the notion that education is a privilege for those who can afford it.

By all means, it is an agitation for why a public good should be a right of all, and not a few. Looking at it as a matter of a divide between rich and poor is to deviate from the real cause. Public education is for all because the dividends from it serve all.

The developments in JNU over the past few weeks seems to have set a precedent for the government’s New Education Policy that will replace the existing University Grants Commission with a Higher Funding Authority (HEFA), which will lend loans to higher educational institutions.

The commodification of education means walking away from the idea that education serves a human goal, and not just the vested interests of a few. That’s why the privatisation of education must be resisted at every level.

Shubhra Aswal is a 20-year old political science grad who constantly questions politics, culture, life, and can be found having an existential crisis quite often.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty