JNU has failed larger cause in fee protests

Movements in JNU have failed to meaningfully engage with the issues of reservation, gender deprivation points, and accessible public education.

Written by Jitendra Suna

Amid protests against the JNU fees hike, photos of me trying to cross over a barricade, singing songs of liberation holding a nissan (small drum) as I was dragged by the Delhi Police, were widely shared.

My mother is a farm labourer and part-time vegetable hawker from Kalahandi. The family’s sole breadwinner, she always told me to “study so that you can understand what is right and wrong”. Experiences of humiliation and indignity were part of our everyday life-world. Separate seating in classrooms and castiest slurs were routine. The systematic exclusion caused many Dalit students to drop out, and drove several to the extremes of suicide.

Many Dalits, like me, carry the illusion that when they leave the village, they leave the violence and indignity behind. In 2012, in my last year of graduation, I went to Nagaloka in Nagpur, where I was introduced to Ambedkarite leaders like Savitribai Phule, Jyotirao Phule, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Periyar and others. I realised that the education system in India was not designed to change the existing social structure; rather to reinforce the caste hierarchies. The curricula, for example, exclude the above-mentioned revolutionaries.

Ambedkar argued in 1927 that the sole purpose of education is to “moralise and socialise people”. We expect education to reshape our lives with such values as liberty, equality and fraternity. However, due to the regeneration of exclusionary practices in independent India, the bahujan of this country are left without devices to understand, and thereby transform their lives.

The current regime is hell-bent on privatisation and commercialisation of the education system. This will inevitably strengthen the monopoly of Savarnas in education. It is also creating a State where the voice of the marginalised is suppressed. To silence me, the State has already sent police to my home. People raising their voice against the unjust moves of the current regime are branded ‘anti-national’, ‘Naxals’, ‘urban Naxals’, while people accused of rape, murder, extortion and mass killings are promoted in politics.

The current government-sponsored crackdown on public-funded educational institutions is part of a larger agenda to implement the Manu model. The agitation that started in JNU against fees hike has drawn national attention with the appropriation of the ‘Fee Must Fall’ movement that originated in South Africa. But, unlike the South African movement which led to reform of the education system as a whole, including free education to poor students, and to the de-colonisation of educational institutions through representation for black South Africans and diversification of the medium of instruction, the protest in JNU is reduced to the fees hike issue and is limited to one institution.

Movements in JNU have failed to meaningfully engage with the issues of reservation, gender deprivation points, and accessible public education. For instance, the poor record of ensuring reservation in faculty appointments speaks volumes about the ‘inclusive’ nature of JNU. In 2017, a Dalit professor said the JNU administration had denied him promotion because he was a Dalit.

The administration constituted an eight-member Abdul Nafey Committee, which said its findings “indicate the pattern of difference in the written and the viva voce marks across all social categories, which indicates discrimination”.

In 2016, Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder, in 2017 Muthu Krishnan’s institutional murder, in 2018 Payal Tadvi’s institutional murder and most recently Muslim student Fatima Lathif’s institutional murder in IIT Madras, have exposed how Brahmanical and Islamophobic our education system is.

The current JNU protest is neither concerned with affirmative action nor about the nature of enormous dominance the Savarnas have. Secondly, this protest has reduced the fees hike issue to an issue of only poor students, which in turn helps the BJP government bring poor students into its politics. Instead the debate should have been around the idea of public institutions.

Various social justice organisations, such as the UDSF (United Dalit Student Forum), BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association), the forum for visually challenged students and SIO (Student Islamic Organization) within the campus have raised questions of social justice, such as reservation policies in hostel admissions, non-implementation of reservation in teaching posts, gender deprivation points, dropout issues and discrimination against SCs, STs, and OBCs. These issues have neither been taken seriously in the ongoing protest nor have they been carried forward within or outside the campus… As Dalits, we demand free, quality, equal education for all. The model of education should be that of Switzerland, the UK, Canada, Italy, France, or the Nordic countries, wherein huge resources are devoted to educational initiatives and students are a responsibility of the State.

The post-colonial State-sponsored education in India was directed at violently homogenising India rather than creating an inclusive society. The current regime is determined to maintain the caste inequality. Nation-building cannot be successful while excluding its large majority of Dalit, Adivasi, OBCs, Muslims and other minorities. It will only distort, destabilise and destroy whatever little has left in the so-called nation and democracy.

The writer is a PhD research scholar at Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, JNU

The fortnightly column ‘Dalitality’ is curated by Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a recipient of the Rohith Vemula Memorial Scholar Award

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