Guest Post by Prerna Trehan
While walking through the lawns between the Library and the Chemistry Department , one is confronted with the sudden and scary sight of policemen brandishing canes.
One of the policemen says, threateningly : “Go inside, before we start shooting bombs” (of tear gas). Behind him two policemen leap at a bewildered group of boys raining lathis and choicest of abuses.
This scene could be right out of the woeful alleys of Palestine, Syria or even Kashmir. However, the events that it describes took place yesterday in Panjab University, nestled in India’s first planned city, Nehru’s vision of modernity-Chandigarh.
Terry Eagleton, ,the Marxist Literary critic wrote in The Guardian (Eaglton, 2010) about the “death of universities as centres of critique” during the 2010 students’ protests in the United Kingdom. The academia he believed, had lost its way and purpose, switching from challenging to servicing the status quo. As students in the UK took to streets against spending cuts and increased cap of tuition fees, the stage was set for a confrontation between two vital institutions of the State-the university and the government. Universities far from being just a collection of buildings imparting benign learning are conceived as centres of critical thinking. Cultures of protest are thus, not merely a corollary but intrinsic to the idea of university. The recent incidents of campuses falling under siege, being labelled as nests of anti-national activities or wasting the tax payers money, are examples of universities being looked at in instrumentalist terms- meant to be avenues of rote learning to procure employment.
Student activism is essential for the maintenance of not only robust educational environment but the democracy at large. While it is imperative for protests to stay peaceful, the action of students also points to their frustration and despair as their demands fall on deaf ears. When something as fundamental as the right of students to protest against a substantive fee hike is looked at through lens of suspicion with the deployment of police armed with water cannons and tear gas, it will not be an exaggeration to point to loss of democracy across campuses in India. “Development” has become the new mantra; however it rests on the ideas of inclusion and freedom for the concept to retain humanism, instead of becoming an apathetic mechanism of filling coffers of a few. From primary to tertiary education, schools and universities are the bed rock of this development as they hold the key to transforming our young, burgeoning demography into a debt or dividend.
As JNU reels under humungous cuts in research seats, markedly more in the field of Humanities than Sciences (with some schools such as Social Sciences and International Studies facing a cut upwards of 90% in MPhil/PhD seats), further up in the North-West Panjab University, once bastion of knowledge and research is facing a financial crisis, purely political in its genesis, the burden of which has been unceremoniously passed down to the incoming students.
The university with its noted alumni ranging from Nobel Laurete Hargobind Khurana to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and historian Romila Thapar, post partition finally found home in Chandigarh, a city which faces its own tug of war between Punjab and Haryana. The Pierre Jeanneret red sandstone buildings in PU may mirror the red brick walls of JNU, sans the political graffiti, but their campus atmosphere remained starkly at odds. In its contemporary phase, Panjab University’s politics was seen as limited and often indifferent to many larger issues such as intellectual freedom. The rise of Students for Society (SFS), a left- leaning party in the campus came as a breath of fresh air in an environment of student politics caught in the web of money and muscle power. The fee hike, ranging from Rs. 2000-82, 000 as put forth by the PU authorities on March 26 is being seen as the initial spark that led to “violent” student protests on the campus.
The students protest was planned and the PU administration informed of the grievances of the students. The ABVP undertook a protest march a day before the university “bandh” to lock the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Arun Kumar Grover’s office. The myopia of the BJP student body enjoying minute presence in Panjab University was apparent given their restricted demand as well as failure to adequately participate in the Joint Action Committee formed by a plethora of student parties including SFS, NSUI, SOI, PUSU etc.
According to an eyewitness, who would prefer to stay anonymous given the viciousness of authorities against students, the students in the morning peacefully shut down the library and the student centre from where they proceeded to the VC office, where the police was already present with its plethora of riot gear. There were sloganeering and speeches for nearly two hours but a lack of response from the administration agitated the students. The ensuing scuffle led to water cannons being used on students. The students retaliated by pelting stones, not at the police personnel but the water cannon van.
The response of the ‘police State’ at university was brutal and emphatic. Students were lathi-charged violently leading to a girl being hurt and fainting consequently. The indiscriminate use of tear gas bombs grievously injured, including a broken jaw of a student on whom one of the bombs landed. What followed was a scene right out of a war-zone with students being chased across the library lawns, into the department of chemistry labs and classrooms as well as hostels. Hostels number 3 and 4 became targets of the police repression, including some students claiming that the personnel at hostel number 3 forced students to remove clothes so as to ascertain their presence at the site of protest by checking for wet undergarments. The university Gurudwara witnessed another face off between the police and the students. Some of the fleeing protestors entered the shrine where the police with their arms were not allowed to enter given the religious concerns. While authorities claim after a prolonged wait, the students surrendered on their own, eyewitness claim they were pressurised by the Gurudwara committee to give themselves up.
At least 66 students were picked up by the police and slapped with sedition charges under 124 A. However, the chief complainant, PU’s chief security officer asked the same to be dropped as the complaint had been “misinterpreted” as by ‘state,’ the officer meant the MHRD, UGC and Senate. While the officials left red-faced, will have to drop the sedition charges, it points to the larger menace of misunderstanding the government, its institutions to be co-terminus with the idea of State. This sort of understanding is further promoted by draconian, colonial laws like Section 124 A, where criticism of the government from a fundamental right has been converted into a litmus test for nationalism.
Universities are bulwarks of preserving a culture of questioning and liberality. By coming down with a heavy hand on institutions of higher education, the biggest loser at the end of the day will be none other than the very State the government wishes to deify. The student leaders and others arrested are yet to be released, and there are reports of them being brutally beaten up by police over night. Students have been booked under IPC 147, 148, 149, 332, 353 and 308, while the institutional violence committed upon them by failure to make provisions for education as a right for all, give their demands a patient listen or even be allowed to call upon the State, of which they are equal citizens, to deliver on its promises, continues unchallenged.
The reason for the quantum raise in fees is being legitimised in the name of tiding over the financial crunch the university is facing. In fact so much so, the budgetary crisis may be one of the vital reasons due to which Panjab University has seen a massive drop in national ranking, from 12th to 33rd position as per the recent National Institute Ranking Framework. On one of the most crucial parameters, “Teaching, learning and outcome” the university scored a measly 36.7, down from 56.18 last year, as no teachers have been hired in nearly two years. The paucity of finances has salaries of present faculty in the doldrums; thereby hiring new teachers seems almost utopian in Panjab University. In fact, the fee hike of 12.5% even if implemented may not be sufficient to cover the expenses for further recruitment. Hence, students are not paying for any improvement, but to be able to study in an already under-staffed, under-equipped university. While the university has assured concessions to EWS students, the question that SFS President, Daman Singh raises regarding commodification of education is a pertinent one. PU probably is one of the campuses in the country where one witnesses the most glaring of disparities. The social composition of the students includes those who may seem to have come right out of a bhangra-pop, Audi obsessed song, as well as many others, from some of the most backward regions of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana etc. The idea of quality education not being the exclusive of those who can afford the same, but to each and every citizen of the country is indelible to the vision of a just society reflected in the hallowed pages of our Constitution.
This leads to the larger question of what pushed the university into present fiscal throes. While the police and students had a violent face off, the politics behind the management of the university continues. The Panjab and Haryana High Court was forced to rebuke a belligerent University Grants Commission which was bent on passing the buck on to the Centre for the lack of funds. While other colleges and universities obtained an increase of up to 15% in grants, PU was left scavenging for resources as the university is not “fully funded by UGC.” Quoting from the minutes of a Senate meeting held in July, 2016 the conundrum Panjab University faces becomes apparent; “branding of Panjab University is sustained by doing expenses on behalf of Panjab University and those expenses require support. The UGC says full salary be given to all, maintain the student teacher ratio and if they do not maintain the student teacher ratio, their NIRF ranking would be zoomed down. When their NIRF ranking would zoom down, they would no longer a good Institution, why should UGC support them then. So it is a catch-22 situation.” This leads back to the earlier argument of fall in rankings and a proportionate fall in funds, creating a vicious cycle of debt and deficit, which could manifest into the shutting down of one of the premier, or formerly premier institutions of the country. The debt ridden university, functioning under an act of Punjab, a state itself laden with burden of agrarian crisis and crumbling pressure of Centre’s loans, seems like a tale doomed to have a tragic end.
The challenge that Panjab University and its students face is grave. In their protests, it is crucial that we the students as well as the parties on campus, rise above their political affiliation to come together to reclaim our institution. Moreover, what is glaring is the lack of participation on part of the faculty and academics at the university. While the fee hike may impact solely the students, the larger issue of maladministration and declining brand of Panjab University should be of concern to the teachers as well. The support of teachers during incidents at Ramjas College and JNU portray how the same not only aids in bolstering the claims being made but more importantly, boosts the morale of the student body that often finds it loosing will when cornered by administration and government. The lethargy of the staff and faculty can only be seen as their tacit consent to the actions of the administration. Terry Eagleton’s prophesy of loss of critical values of imagination, justice, welfare looms large in India. The health of the university is not merely the concern of the students, but the citizens at large. A candle light vigil late evening on the 11th of April marked the dawn of students’ activism on university campus. While staying non-violent, it is necessary for the students to take their politics into the sanitised, wide roads of the city. Sector 17, the heart Corbusier planned for City beautiful, may witness a process by civil society in support of the student agitation. The crisis is one that needs to be discussed, debated and intensely scrutinised. The journey from darkness to light is often accompanied by deep introspection and persistent action. While Jantar Mantar in Delhi was a space that allowed students to generate a spectacle to awaken a slumbering mass, Matka chowk in Chandigarh probably misses its days of being the epicentre of movements.
Prerna Trehan is a PhD research scholar at the Dept. of Political Science, Panjab Univeristy pursuing research on Music as a source of resistance and assertion.