What JNU violence tells us about today’s India | Opinion
The violence on Sunday night at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is a blot for any democratic society. For hours, goons from outside ran riot in the campus, violently beating up students and teachers, both men and women. Even as the violence was underway, a mob gathered at the main gate of the university, inciting violence against JNU students and heckling and even beating up journalists and civil society activists. All this happened even as the police was present.
Yesterday’s attack has taken the intimidation being meted out to JNU to a completely different level. This cycle started three years ago, when the police arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the then JNUSU president and two others, under charges of sedition. A chargesheet is yet to be filed in the case. Since then, JNU has faced constant vilification, intimidation and intermittent violence. Yesterday’s is only the biggest, but not the first attack. While the so-called nationalists have tried to portray JNU as a hub of “anti-nationals”, the JNU administration has been continuously pushing students and teachers against the wall while undermining all democratic forums inside the university.
The latest in this series is the fee hike announced last year, which has triggered massive protests both inside and outside the campus, so much so that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) had to constitute a committee to talk to the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU). The Vice-Chancellor has not been talking to the students for a very long time now. The JNU administration’s statement on yesterday’s incidents is a cynical attempt to portray the anti-fee hike protesters as the villains behind the violence, which is completely against the version of most students and teachers.
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During the entire course of agitation against the fee hike, JNU’s detractors have been ridiculing and dismissing the protest by portraying the fact that JNU students are used to doles from the state, even though many of them can afford to pay higher fees.
While there can hardly be any engagement with the vilification and the violence and intimidation being meted out to the university, the argument for differential fee structure - charging those who can pay a higher fees - in higher educational institutions deserves to be countered.
Like all other investments, spending on higher education hinges on a cost-benefit analysis by a young student and his family. While the costs are clear - fees and other related expenses - there is a significant amount of asymmetry in information about the benefits of studying in an elite university.
A Bihari middle class family would not know that getting into JNU can also be a launchpad for an Ivy League PhD programme. They would not know that years of exposure to research and debates can make a good journalist out of you. The economic and cultural elite and their children know these benefits much better than the non-elite while making this decision.
Given this information deficit, the non-elite are always more willing to settle for “safer” but less rewarding options in education. They would want their children to become a school teacher or bank probationer officer, rather than go for an MA or PhD. This tendency to settle for less rewarding options would increase manifold if the fees in these elite institutions become significantly higher, as the costs would increase.
This is the biggest reason why differential fee structure in elite universities ought to be opposed. Low-fees, yet resource rich public universities allow India’s non-elite to live and compete with their peers from very privileged background on same terms. Both of them learn from each other in this process. The non-elite learn about new opportunities and break new knowledge frontiers. The elite learn from the experience of backwardness, discrimination and deprivation of their non-privileged classmates. The teachers learn about dealing with a class which has students from some of India’s most elite families and first generation learners at the same time. This is the biggest pedagogic challenge in a society like India.
Institutions such as JNU and Delhi University are elite spaces. But they are also the biggest facilitators of promoting equality in the next generation of social elite in the country. This is essential for deepening democracy and furthering justice. It would be a travesty if all this were frittered away for a few hundred crore rupees in fiscal savings.
It needs to be underlined that even the fee hike, which has been unleashed in JNU, cannot recover an overwhelming share of the spending on running the university. For that to happen, the fees will have to go into tens of lakhs.
One need not always agree with everything JNU students say and demand. But they should always have the right to say these things as long as they are democratic and non-violent, which JNU has always been.
Yesterday’s treatment of JNU students is proof that we are living in an age where ideological differences in places of learning will be crushed with brute force, and the state at best will remain a bystander. A society which condones violence against its universities is only condoning the destruction of its future.