Over the past few years, students from universities across the country have risen against their administrations to protest curfews, exorbitant fee hikes and discriminatory university rules. While administrative responses have varied from outright violence to intimidation and negotiation; what has remained the same is a complete lack of political will to recognise the larger imagination behind these demands.
At the core of these movements lies the assertion that higher education is not a privilege but a right and it’s the university’s responsibility to create a facilitative environment for the most disadvantaged and historically marginalised.
These demands are often distorted by the administration and mainstream media in order to divide the student body and so it becomes extremely important to state and restate the political logic behind them. Removal of curfew isn’t just a demand made for individual mobility, it goes much deeper than that. Since institutions of higher education pledge their allegiance to the constitution and not to the patriarchal norms of society, universities are duty-bound to treat each and every student equally.
A student’s academic and social life doesn’t begin or end in the classroom. A whole system of exposure prepares a student to take on the world after they graduate, thus when some are gated they are categorically denied the opportunity to explore themselves beyond the classroom.
Many students, especially female ones who might not have financial or familial support, often find themselves vulnerable when they are gated in since they can’t explore employment opportunities that could help them pay their college fee. The binary between the outside as a dangerous place and the inside as a safer space is a false one. And one that’s often created in order to contain and regulate the bodies and minds of women students.
We are well aware that the majority of the sexual violence that women face occurs within intimate relationships and within enclosed spaces. It is also well known that public spaces become less hostile when a diverse set of people access them. Administrations that build up the image of hostels as safe havens completely ignore the caste and class dynamics within the hostel space, ignoring the fact that these dynamics tend to be extremely alienating for some.
We need to challenge biases both within institutions and outside the institutions and create mechanisms like elected internal complaint committees (ICCs) and anti-discrimination committees that equip students to challenge the discriminations and harassments that they face.
It’s also essential to place the demand for curfew removal in a larger context. Higher education isn’t something that is being pursued only by elite sections of society, but currently due to a number of factors – with UGC funding cuts, the slashing of scholarships, a lack of permanent faculty, the creation of self-financing courses and fee hikes in the name of institutional autonomy – a graded system of education is being created where the best education comes with a higher price tag.
This isn’t specific to any particular institution but points to a larger vision of education that the government has. In its attempt to create select institutions that can compete globally, the government is sacrificing the goal of quality education for all. Thus the fight for removal of curfew needs to go hand in hand with the fight for more scholarships, complete adherence to reservation policies, regulation of college fees and rent control in areas that have a large student population.
It is also essential to call out institutions like Delhi University’s Lady ShriRam College for Women and Miranda House, that portray themselves as progressive and student-friendly institutions but use their prestige and reputation to clamp down on protesting students. It is from these very institutions that we hear “you want social change but aren’t willing to pay for it” (an LSR administrator said this after proposing to raise annual hostel fees by Rs 36,000 in order to implement OBC reservations in hostel allocations) or “Hostel is a privilege and you should leave if you don’t agree with our hostel rules” (a response by a Miranda House administrator during the recent Pinjra Tod anti-curfew protests).
As students we are rendered vulnerable by all structures of power – police, administration, family etc. Those who collectivise and raise their voices against unjust institutional practices are constantly targeted by administrations; be it by debarring students (Benaras Hindu University), expelling students from hostels as done in the central university of Rajasthan, getting goons to come beat up students (Panjabi University in Patiala) or by simply reducing their marks in internal assessments which is a universal practice across the country.
Despite all of this, the fact that students in universities in rural, urban and semi-urban areas are vocally claiming their rights goes to show that neither university administrations nor the government can continue to function in the authoritative and dismissive ways that they are used to. The struggle is long and at each point we have to check our own individual privileges but it is only through this struggle that those who dictate and design educational policies and spaces will be forced to confront the reality that education is in fact a right and not a privilege.
Paroma Ray is a member of the Pinjra Tod Collective.