Guest Post by PARESH HATE
It has been more than a month that students in JNU have been protesting against the new IHA Hostel Manual. The fight had initially begun against the exorbitant fee hikes, introduction of curfew timings and dress codes, lack of reservations and deprivation points in the manual, and the undemocratic manner in which the manual was passed. At this juncture, the movement has become broader, and articulates its resistance to the National Education Policy and its defence of the idea of public university and what it stands for.
While there have been many attempts to characterize the students’ movement as anti-national and free-loading as usual by the right-wing media, it is clear that the political articulation of students has managed to transcend these limited dimensions offered by the discourse set by the public perception. Even the propagandists are this time at a loss as to how to demonise the movement. All they have been able to come up with is that the protests ‘disrupted traffic’ and that the protests are ‘political’. One is unable to understand how the latter is a jibe, when protests are obviously always political in nature, especially this one. The demonization of JNU is not simply about the social sciences, or left-oriented student politics, but also a manufacturing of consent toward the commercialization and a legitimizing of this government’s agenda to destroy public avenues of welfare. However, due to the developments that have taken place in the last few weeks, politics itself of the campus is churning, wherein what is emerging is a cultivated intersectional discourse that has resulted in the breathing of new life into the campus.
In a certain sense, the JNU incarnation of Fees Must Fall has truly been a mass movement. No one who is a participant in it can suggest that the Student’s Union or certain organizations hold any monopoly over the movement right now. In these few days, one can witness a politicization of hostels and hostel presidents wherein hostel presidents have been involved in important meetings, shaping student opinion and mobilizing students who are otherwise apolitical. Similarly, many centres across schools–including management, engineering and sciences–have come together to enforce school lockdowns, hold guerilla dhabas, actively resist anti-campaigning by teachers who are favored by the administration. This kind of politicization not only means more participation, but also a diffusion of responsibilities. Such developments highlight possibilities of political growth in the campus.
At the same time, political action is no longer confined in the binaries that activists usually create, of “scientific organizing” versus “adventurism” despite attempts to do so by some conservative elements in the movement. Students are taking responsibility and decisions about “vandalism”, blocking guards, locking buildings, reaching out to teachers and students on their own volition. This has proved to be a radical decentralization, allowing growth of many political actors. The protest site of Freedom Square, or the Administrative Block, is house to different ideological orientations. From various factions of Left thought, to Ambedkarite voices; from the queer rage of ‘fuck the police’, to appropriating the slogans of their Pakistani and South African student counterparts thereby forming cross-border solidarities, Freedom Square has seen it all. Neither has the discourse remained limited to the issue of fee hikes at the protest site; it has raised questions on other happenings that have been taking place simultaneously in the country.
When the Student’s Union fails to capture the moment for radical action, individual students have taken it upon themselves to do the essential. And yet, unlike many previous movements in JNU, Fees Must Fall is not at all directed by a few individuals marching against the tide of contrary opinion. Despite having articulated contradictions, it has aspired for the common maximum.
The movement against fee hike, rather than becoming class reductionist in its approach, has actually demonstrated the various kinds of social locations that are implicated in the movement. While some may want to characterize the movements in JNU as class reductionist, they will do well to remember that the other massive protest that happened on campus was for the implementation of OBC reservation, paying due cognisance to the Mandal Committee Recommendations. To understand this movement in a narrow sense of class-reductionism as some have done, will be the failure to see the many voices that shape and govern it. Of course, there is a resurgence of class-based and poverty-based discourses that have gone against privatization, showing the undying importance of such narratives and analyses. Yet, the concern for reservation in hostels and the numerous stories of first-generation learners from marginalized castes keeps making important interjections to demonstrate the logic of caste that rules over the South Asian society. Similarly, many interviews and stories of women students have shown why, irrespective of family background, fee hikes affect them so badly and the struggle for their self-reliance and independence is another chapter in this story. For many LGBTQIA+ students who come from abusive households or who are cut off from their parents or have strained relations with their households, fee hikes remain a question mark on their battle to move away from the destiny of family and is quite aptly captured by a graffiti painted in one of the school walls of social science buildings that says, “We’re queer; we’re here; and we cannot afford 60000 a year.” Moreover, for many disabled students, JNU remains a promise that they cannot otherwise actualise. The relative ease that they have in terms of access is one of the good things about JNU as an institution and such discussions are also found in the movement, if one is ready to listen.
Ultimately, however, it is not enough to question this administrative move by simply narrativizing many marginalities that exist in this space. For example, many students who come from rich families have extremely financially abusive parents who would not invest in their children’s choice of academic pursuits. For them, financial independence is equally as important as for anyone else. Too many individuals and their future are at stake here. Therefore, what must be done, and is quite successfully being done by JNU students, is to raise the issue of public universities as such, and why they are important in a society that is premised on inequality and disproportionality of resources and meaningful choices. After all, the university is the space for many kinds of articulations of freedom.
The JNU incarnation of Fees Must Fall has slowly and steadily, but quite brilliantly, turned the table where the media and the government has paid attention. This is also clear from recent protests at IIT, IIMC, DU, TISS and other places. By focusing on the very idea of public institutions and their dismantling by the current regime, students have shifted the onus onto the government and right-wing media to justify why they exclusively talk of JNU and continuously ignore the many protests happening across the country in many universities. When JNU gets so much primetime coverage that media houses have a dedicated JNU correspondent, how come the massive protests by Delhi University Teachers’ Association are not garnering the same attention?
To talk of the public university, then, is to talk of the last bastions of welfare in ever-growing unbridled capitalism that our nation has made its own. And yet, despite the elitism and privilege that university as an institution reeks of, it is to talk of the cultivation of capacities and possibilities for equalizing the field; it is to demand the reaching out to intellectual resources for imagining a new world in the shell of the old when anti-intellectualism runs amok. But beyond the critical task that universities perform as some of the few remnants of an ideological opposition to neoliberalism and fascism, to talk of the public university–or any public institution for that matter–is to talk of the collective work of looking after each other. In this time and age, the dismantling of public institutions is nothing but the criminalization of care, to stop showing concern for our fellow individuals. And that is precisely what fascism does to any of us: to ignore what happens to our neighbour while we can be comfortable. This is what JNU students have shown their might against. They have shown that fighting for public institutions and public services is to invest not just in a present that we want to preserve, but also the future that we all feel so passionately for – a future where structural issues do not have to be dealt with through individual solutions and we still have a critical public that speaks truth to power. The university is, by definition, a space for everyone. It is universally welcoming. For that idea, the students are willing to take the fight as far as it will go. Privatization goes against the basic ethos of a university, especially a university like JNU. The forces that want to erode its core will do well to remember that student movements have quelled mightier demons.
JNU students, alongside many others across the country, are on the verge of creating a national movement aimed at student issues. And if the many desires of individuals at the protest sites are taken seriously, perhaps a larger solidarity between other sections of society who are at the receiving end of privatization is also possible. This is not merely an imagined community of students and others across universities; there are already concrete steps to form alliances not only between teachers and students but also contractual workers in JNU and other safai karamcharis and staff members. Beyond this, there are active dialogues happening between different universities to create a larger movement that creates pressure on the government.
JNU Fees Must Fall has given rise to more stories of friendships and comradery, even romances. It has given space for more slogans and diverse conversations that are otherwise brushed under the carpet in progressive spaces. Hopefully, these horizons will be expanded more and more. Recently, there was a large General Body Meeting in the university that once again unanimously decided to continue resisting by suspending all academic activities until the complete rollback of the IHA Hostel Manual.
Students are ready to continue their fight. Not an inch back.
Paresh Hate is a queer activist and a member of Hasratein: a queer collective, New Delhi. They are currently pursuing their PhD in Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, JNU.