JNU: The Emotional Cost of Protesting

Young students wearing anti-pollution masks while being chased by the police on the streets of Delhi in an attempt to secure affordable higher education for themselves and future generations of students.

This is what dystopia looks like. These are times straight out of an Orwellian nightmare, and it looks like they are here to stay – whether we want to admit it or not.

As if living in dilapidated hostels infested with bedbugs is not enough, we, the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, never get to meet our Vice-Chancellor to air our grievances much like past batches did before with their respective, more approachable Vice-Chancellors.

Our schools have been under lockdown for almost a month in protest against the new hostel manual draft issued and discussed using undemocratic methods. We have been sitting outside our schools in batches, some of us braving Delhi winter nights, vigilantly guarding our right to affordable education.

This is time we would have otherwise invested in more “productive” endeavours. Our assignments have been gathering dust on our tables because we have been refraining from submissions. A strong sense of uncertainty lingers across the university, lined with Silk floss trees, as we wake up every morning not knowing which way our day will go.

A Silk floss tree on campus. Photo: Meghna Roy

Our beloved professor often points out that as young scholars in 2019, we have many more subjects to research than her generation of sociologists did some 40 years ago. These are distressing times when everything seems to be falling apart – governments, ecological balance, the education system, the integrity of the media; you name it.

To the observant eye, there is chaos everywhere.

Living far from my home in Kolkata, I try to call my parents every day. For the past few weeks, on the good days, I’ve spoken to them about the mental exhaustion and frustration the ongoing struggle has brought with it.

On bad days, I never end up calling.  

Running from the police is something most of us had never encountered until we were out on the streets fighting for the principle of public education.

It was terrifying to realise that if you do not run, you will be beaten up and detained. Watching our peers getting caught by the police and being brutally beaten as our seniors urged us to keep running is indelible in our collective memory of this struggle.

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

We had been peacefully protesting through music and art, asking for the administration to initiate a dialogue. This is when the street lights were switched off and we were pushed, groped and baton-charged by the police.

Our relentless bold slogans were soon replaced by helpless whimpers and pleas.

This is when we learn to appreciate our freedom – not only is it hard-earned, but also extremely precious. We are so accustomed to capitalism and the neoliberal norm of private education that the very idea of a university whose fees are affordable to all sounds shocking to many – as can be seen on social media.

As it stands today, the student community faces many more challenges that just the physical hurdle of not being allowed to walk freely in a demonstration. 

Besides constantly explaining the need for a public university like JNU to friends and family, we have to keep arguing derogatory remarks on social media, and combat fake news about us and the institution on a daily basis. This movement has laid bare the depravity of our ‘civil society’, which clearly has so much animosity for the poor that it constantly feel the need to malign a set of students who are determined to ensure equality and diversity – at least on campus.

The JNU I joined last year was not its best version it has been in all its years of existence. It was far from perfect.

However, it was certainly more diverse than all the other campuses I have so far spent time in. It sounds almost idyllic how the dream of erasing social inequalities has been realised in this institution for decades, so much so that upward social mobility has actually materialised here time and again.

A year ago, I used to crib about the deplorable hostel conditions, often discussing with my peers how the administration could charge us more to improve the situation. I was naive. 

Today, I orient all my energy to mobilise the citizens of Delhi to support us in a forthcoming march to parliament.

Despite all that I have lost in terms of my mental health during this movement, I have gained emotional insight into social stratification – a subject well beyond the confines of coursework.

For this, I will forever be grateful to JNU.

Meghna Roy is a student at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Featured image credit: Meghna Roy