Standing with JNU in times of Whataboutery!
As a public university, no other institution has earned as many adjectives in the history of India since the 1970s as JNU – swinging from extreme fondness to extreme hatred. Established in 1969 by an Act of Parliament, this university was founded to embody the visions of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – a university which “stands for humanism. For tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. If the Universities discharge their duties adequately, then it is well with the Nation and the People”.
These days if you are/were a student of JNU, one of India’s most prestigious universities, you would be caught up in a vicious cycle of hatred and conflict, as this institution has been turned into a battleground. This time the issue is of fee hike. This, per se, is not very unusual. Universities around the world have been centres of controversies and criticism. What is unusual in the case of JNU is the way it is systematically being destroyed by the establishment itself. The vilification of JNU has actually made it difficult for the university to find the public support, which otherwise it would have garnered. As a former student of JNU, I write to share why the case of JNU specially hinges on two points – vilification of JNU and fee hike; and how the former facilitates the latter. And the fallout is too massive to bear for the people from marginalized backgrounds, as this is one of the very few places for them to access affordable and quality higher education in India.
Imagine someone asking you why it took you 15 years to finish school? Or 3 years to complete your BA? Or 5.5 years to finish MBBS? In the face of unsubstantiated accusations – like every JNU student is 35-40 years old, these students don’t work but splurge public money as freeloaders, they are anti-social, anti-national etc – it feels belittling and trivial to point out that production of knowledge takes time, and that it has to be critical in order to work. This is the basic premise of every knowledge system.
It is bemusing to see the way JNU has been questioned by the political and social establishments of India. An iota of this kind of scrutiny by public and media vigilantism on government or public institutions, and we would have been a far better society! It seems that the problem for us is not as much the cost of higher education as our scorn for those who through their struggle have been able to make it to institutions of higher learning. And that applies particularly to the first-generation learner – Dalit, Adivasi, Woman, or one from a backward caste, or religious minority, or working class or LGBTQ community – to whom the portals of JNU have been open and welcoming.
As Gorakh Pandey says, “tamaam gola barood hone ke baad bhi ve is baat se darte hain ki, log ek din darna band kar denge” (Though they have all the ammunitions and force with them, they still fear, that one day people will stop being afraid of them) JNU has been one of the very few places in India which has transformed systemic oppression into giving voice to the marginalized, through higher education, to raise uncomfortable questions; and this is what makes the powerful tremble!
It is this that hurts them the most – not the money that is being spent on public institutions like JNU! So, the cost of the fees is a red herring. Remember, at a time when India was not self sufficient in food, and lacking in many basic civic amenities, we were able to open central institutions of learning like the IIT, IIM, IISc, JNU, EFLU, HCU, AIIMS, and countless state universities. And now, when we are supposedly one of the fastest growing economies in the world, we are told that we don’t have money to run these institutions? Should we not ask where the taxpayers’ money is going then? And where it should go if not for investment in the democratic, equal and quality lives of its citizens in the future?
For, there is a huge population still unable to access quality education in a situation where, along with economic disadvantages, there are caste, class, gender, language and a multitude of other aspects that have historically shaped who could study, and what. A committed and responsible state funding is a must to remove these barriers. The reality is that we are still nowhere near addressing all the questions of inequality, except economic disadvantage. So, to keep higher education economically viable is the first step that the State needs to take, and here we see that those who want India to take a giant leap of faith on the world stage are afraid of a one small step at home! In a state committed to the values of the Constitution, JNU would have been an institution that showed light to the republic, but the sheer hatred and venom spewed upon JNU reiterates the character of the State and its scant commitment to our Constitution.
Let us now talk about the non-economic part of the barrier and how it is an impediment to access learning for the majority. I would like to illustrate this with my personal experience. I belong to a lower income, backward caste family in a small city in Rajasthan. Due to my social location and economic background, I couldn’t continue my education after schooling. First, because of money and second due to a social expectation of earning money and not seeing myself as worthy of higher education. The condescending approach of almost everyone around me when they got to know that I still continued my education through correspondence while working full time – sometimes three jobs at a time – still rankles.
My family would spend thousands on weddings and then take years to repay this debt, sometimes paying interest rates as high as 30% per annum, but they didn’t have Rs 1,000 for my admission forms to universities. This pushed me into a cycle of debt as early as 17 years of age. I worked in odd jobs, which paid me peanuts. My whole income would still not cover 1/4th of the monthly interest, and I ran around for bank loans for years, but to no avail. I am not sharing this to score a point or win sympathy. When I see the wrong set of priorities in a cash-strapped family, I see politics there. When I see cases like Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya duping public banks, I see politics there. That’s how JNU teaches politics – to see in our own life experience how the system fails us, time and again. That’s why it’s emtirely “our business” to raise our voices against these scams. It took me 9 years to get out of this debt, and its JNU which was the light at the end of this long tunnel.
After JNU, I got two fully funded PhD scholarship to study Ethnomusicology at the University of London, UK and then in the University of California, Los Angeles, USA. And its JNU that made it possible. And it fills me not with pride but with utter sadness that for each dream that is fulfilled, there are a million aspiration unrealized. Accessible higher education is the only hope for many of us.
It is for this reason that the powerful and the status-quoist are desperate, their inability to contain the dream that JNU in particular and accessible higher education in general ignites in the hearts of millions that one day will also speak and ask about their rights – and when we ask, we will ask not just for books and jobs, but also for dignity and equality, and we will expose the historical injustices done to us!
So, the whataboutery confronting the rightful questions of JNU students is nothing but a diversion from the real issues. JNU’s detractors know this very well! That’s why they want to crush the students’ struggle. But alas,
You can cut all the flowers,
but you cannot keep spring from coming
And happy birthday to my alma mater! 50 springs of Study and Struggle! Hundreds more to come!