Death Knell for Education:
Public Universities in India Under Siege
by Shubham Kaushik
Illustrative photo by Nilanjana Roy
Hundreds of students are camped outside a police station, chanting rousing slogans, when all hell breaks loose. There are screams in the air. The police are grabbing people at random, brutally pushing them into police vans. A group of students is being chased through the streets by police personnel, who are armed with truncheons and protective shields. Mobile phones are grabbed and crushed. A peaceful gathering disperses into violent commotion. It's not the setting of a dystopian TV show. It's a scene from a crisp February 2017 evening in the University of Delhi (DU).
Fast forward a year later, and the University is preparing for another protest, this time organized by the Teachers' Association. The 'March for Education' saw thousands from the University marching in the heart of the capital city. This followed on the heels of months of protests by the students and teachers of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, and protests in other public funded universities across the country.

While student activism and movements are not a new phenomenon in the country, the frequency of large-scale protests and unrest has noticeably increased in the past few years. In the first four months of 2018, at least five state or central publicly funded universities in the country saw, often simultaneous, protests by students. Why are some of the best institutions of higher learning in India in constant turmoil?

Immediate Triggers: Shrinking and Delegitimizing Public Universities

The policy and administrative decisions that led to protests are different for different universities. In DU, unrest has been building up against the possibility of "autonomous" status being granted to colleges. In March 2018, the Human Resource and Development Ministry granted full autonomy to 62 higher education institutions around the country. Although not yet on that list, it's only a matter of time before the death knell sounds for DU as well.

Lest the word "autonomy" be interpreted in a positive light, it's important to read the fine print. "It asks institutions to fund their own study programmes, establish their own variable emoluments and incentive structures for faculty and office staff, devise their own service conditions for faculty and staff, and recommends collaboration with other high-ranked institutions, both national and foreign. But it does not insist on any qualitative or quantitative inputs that will ensure equity, access, and quality in the education provided," writes Ghosh for the Economic and Political Weekly.

An obvious source of funding for these institutions will be fee hikes for students. Currently, public funding means that education in these universities is relatively affordable, and that the institutions are also responsible for ensuring accessibility to education through constitutionally-mandated provisions. Autonomy will directly affect both the affordability and the accessibility of public education. This will have dire consequences for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of population — Dalits, students from other backward classes, women, and people with disabilities. Affordable education, which is the starting point of ensuring any sort of social equity and leveling decades of discrimination, will be out of the hands of the people who need it the most.

JNU, recognized as one of the best and most inclusive places of higher learning in India, especially for social sciences and humanities, is one of 62 institutions which have been granted autonomy. This is in addition to "gross procedural violations" in the functioning of the university by arbitrary decisions made by the newly-appointed Vice Chancellor. Some of these include implementing a mandatory attendance policy, removing a democratically-elected committee that addressed sexual harassment and gender sensitization, undermining the Academic Council, and removing heads of departments who weren't complicit with the administration's hasty changes. JNU has been in a state of constant turmoil after the events of February 2016, when a peaceful event led to violent protests due to accusations of "anti-national" activities on campus.

General reduction in the allocation of funds to public education in every subsequent budget has hit bodies like the University Grants Commission, which is responsible for disbursing funds to the public universities. This has led to fee hikes in many state and central universities, and withdrawal of support to programmes that saw research on social exclusion. In the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, students are currently fighting the institute's decision to stop aid to students from marginalized communities.

Looking at the protests in the different universities as separate instances reveals a multitude of scattered reasons — fee hikes, absolving student unions, undermining academic regulations of the universities, and others. While these problems are serious enough, far more can be revealed about deeper, more sinister issues in the country if these protests are seen as collective outrage against what can be considered a systematic attack on public funded higher education in India.

The recent policy changes that triggered most of the protests in public universities are definitely backed by the government's subscription to the neoliberal agenda. "The crux of the matter is that this is not sudden," says Saikat Ghosh, "this is a result of policies since the liberalization [of India], especially since the Doha round of the World Trade Organization where the government offered higher education as a tradable entity." Ghosh, who teaches at the University of Delhi, seems to be in the middle of all the action related to recent student protests. He's an activist with the left-leaning Delhi University Teachers' Association (DUTA) and answered his phone for an interview in the middle of a convention that was debating a possible future move where affirmative action programmes would be removed from public education in India.

While the offer to bring education to the table at the WTO has been around since 2005, it didn't become binding till the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, signed the agreement in Nairobi in December 2017.

More Than Just a Neoliberal Agenda

Is India's post-liberalization policy and the pressure of giving into the global diktats of neoliberal logic the only thing driving the recent policy changes? A closer reading of the New Education Policy (2016), and considering the brutal crackdown on student protests reveals something far more sinister — a culturalist agenda that's seeping into the policies of the current government.

After winning the general elections in 2014 by a landslide, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance formed the largest majority government in India since 1984. The BJP is a right-wing party with close ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist association. Historically, the BJP has shown a commitment to the 'Hindutva' ideology, which, among many things, believes in the concept of cultural nationalism and tends to portray Muslims, Christians and other minority religious communities as outsiders in India. This right-wing Hindu nationalism supported and pushed by the BJP has also found its way into the education policies of the government.

The New Education Policy (2016) pushes for education systems that directly link education to industry while "situating India within the predictable culturalist rhetoric of the Hindu Right," according to Professor G Arunima. Navdeep Mathur writes of his own run-in with Hindu nationalist politicians in an essay that labels policies of the current government as 'saffron*-branded neoliberalism'. He notes the demands made by those associated with the RSS for a complete overhaul of the education system in order to achieve their aim of a 'Hindu' nation. He explains, "This transformation would include the rewriting of textbooks in order to reflect the racial supremacy of Hindus, patriotism, Indian tradition, social consciousness, and spirituality tied to building a 'strong and vibrant India'. Members of the RSS have been appointed to high academic leadership positions even while lacking academic competence and credibility, nominating party loyalists to head academic institutions, and co-opting appointees of the previous regime."

Some of these changes can already be seen. In 2016, Modi appointed a committee to rewrite history textbooks. Reuters reported-after interviews with the scholars on the committee-that their aims were to change the multicultural narrative of the Indian history into one that supports the dominance of Hinduism. "Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi's government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people — a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus," says the report.

The Threat of Public Universities

In pursuit of their culturalist agenda, the BJP is currently in a face-off with possibly the most important demographic for the future of any country — the educated student youth.

India has a long history of student activism, starting from its freedom struggle. The public universities across the country have maintained this culture of a political student body — most of these institutions have active student unions, often democratically elected by the students, which engage with the administration, and with other wider issues plaguing the student community. Some would even consider this political atmosphere a result of the public education — affordable and accessible to all, ensuring diversity in the classroom, and providing a democratic space where critical thought and dissent are encouraged. It's hard to imagine the same atmosphere in a place of learning with exorbitant fees where the poor and marginalized are either left out all together, or are too busy worrying about finances and future employment prospects to be able to critically engage with their education and the society.

Naturally, this educated student youth is critical of all conventional wisdom and authorities, and for good reason. Dissent and debate has ensured that the democratic character of the country remains intact, and agitation in universities is the reason public universities are accessible and provide opportunities for upward social movement to marginalized groups. University spaces are especially critical of the 'saffron-branded neoliberalism' of the current government, which makes these universities a threat in the pursuit of the government's agenda.

"Central universities and state universities have vibrant student movements that are leading to recognition of the problem. And it's only public universities that have these movements. Private universities don't have student movements. So, it's important for the government to curb these movements. It's the most democratically vibrant universities that are being attacked," explains Saikat Ghosh. It's not hard to take stock of the facts and see how the government's perception of universities like JNU and DU as threats is affecting its education policies. The most aggressive changes that have affected these universities, which Ghosh terms as 'repressive monetary surveillance', were undertaken after massive student unrest in early 2016 and 2017 against the state's brutal crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech in these institutions.

In 2016, JNU protests saw three students being arrested on charges of sedition, charges which haven't been proved till date and were allegedly made on the basis of doctored videos. In 2017, DU erupted in protests when members of the student wing of the RSS tried to stop an academic conference where the so-called "anti-national" student leaders from JNU were invited as speakers. In both instances, members of the BJP and RSS were quick to slap labels like "bastions of sedition" and "anti-nationals" on the protesting students, and the police responded brutally. University campuses, long heralded as sacred spaces of learning, turned into battlegrounds rife with violence — intellectual and physical.

A Well-Thought Out, Systematic Attack?

One or two instances can be dismissed as coincidence but the state of public funded higher education in India is reeling under what can only be seen as a systematic attack at the hands of its own government. It's also not just policies, as Saikat Ghosh points out. "There's a rhetoric being spread that higher education is a wasteful expenditure for the government … There's an effort to discredit higher education and research as a public good," he says. The space for public universities is already shrinking due to the global neoliberal logic, and whatever space is left, the government in India wants this to be made available to the "elite" — the upper-caste Hindu men.

And when education is no longer a right but rather a paid privilege for a few, and when education becomes a tool for a cultural propaganda of the government, there are serious questions to be asked about the state of India's democracy and the destiny of the nation.

In this besieged area, students and the faculty of the public universities are putting up a relentless fight. They protest not just for their own issues but also in solidarity with their fellow students. They brave the sun, the police, and threats of academic punishments to fight for the right to education for everyone, and for an education that doesn't just aim to turn its subjects into docile workers for the economy. Yutsha Dahal, a student at JNU, who has spent the past few months juggling academic submissions with active participation in the movement, explains her choice quite simply — "There is no other choice than to participate, unless you're living in a bubble of privilege."

This beleaguered yet determined outlook is befitting of the demographic that was crucial in getting India its freedom, and is the reason why there's still hope for the public education and democracy of India.
About the author: Shubham chanced upon her interest in media and journalism through her work with an independent student newspaper in the University of Delhi, India. Always more comfortable with words on paper than words in speech, through journalism, she found a way to combine her love for writing and researching with her strong stances on social issues. Shubham identifies as queer and is a feminist. In the future, she hopes to work on researching the intersections of popular culture and politics, and to write a book featuring all the strong women who have taught her everything important in life.

Shubham Kaushik
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