JNU has been in the news over the past few weeks for all the wrong as well as the right reasons. Last week, JNU students marched to Parliament and they were manhandled and assaulted brutally by Delhi policemen, who only recently were clamouring for their own safety, demanding dignity for their uniform and holding placards saying policemen are human beings too. But when it comes to dealing with unarmed, peaceful protesters, the beast in the men in uniform comes out, it would seem. Were students somewhat less than human beings?
The current JNU protests, which revolve around the question of fee hike, have been reported extensively in the media, but largely contemptuously and in patronising tones. The largely negative media coverage and ruling party trolls on social media did everything in their power to delegitimise the protests and questioning the students’ motives.
A television anchor on Aaj Tak channel took to Twitter to say sarcastically that while 21-22-years-old youths were joining the Indian Army to defend the country’s borders, students of JNU were busy protesting fee hike. Such simplistic comments could be found all across social media.
Indeed, the editor of a powerful news agency also took to Twitter to scoff at JNU students from poor families learning Russian or getting themselves enrolled in the Centre for African Studies. The underlying message was unmistakable. Shouldn’t the poor, children of farmers, have remained at home to till the land and help their families, she seemed to be asking. Indeed, what business do the poor have to learn foreign languages?
These patriots are clearly unaware of the revolution ushered in by JNU, which has enabled the children of the poor and the marginalised to better their lives and get higher education that would have remained a pipe dream but for JNU. They are clearly ignorant that the ‘Jawans’, even after the 7th Pay Commission’s recommendations, draw on an average a salary of around Rs 25,000 a month. The average salary of a paramilitary constable is approximately Rs 23,000.
A study published by Azim Premji University last year under the title ‘State of Working India’, claimed that only 1.6 per cent of Indians earned a salary of Rs 50,000 per month or more, while a staggering 57 per cent of Indians earned less than Rs 10,000 per month.
How difficult is it to understand then that given the rising cost of living, it is getting more and more difficult for the vast majority of Indians to afford a decent higher education for their children, leave alone send them to the national capital to pursue a degree which can transform their lives? It might get them a modest job but even that modest job for them is like climbing the Everest.
Several memes are also floating in social media on the protests. The memes display a certain subliminal hatred for JNU in particular and subsidised higher education in general. Part of it appears to be inspired by the doctored videos of the 2016 vintage which purportedly showed a group of JNU students shouting anti-national slogans. The fact that even after four years, police have failed to identify the alleged culprits or even file a charge sheet somehow do not seem to matter.
But then the memes are also inspired by neoliberal ideology, which demeans and even negates the very idea of social welfare and legitimises the ‘survival of the fittest’ in market economy and commercialisation and commodification of everything. While doing so, however, they forget that market economy and the capitalist system too can work only on a level playing field.
In an unequal society with growing economic inequality, where the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, the ‘fittest’ are fattened by state patronage and political connections. It is an irony that media, heavily subsidised by the state, should complain about subsidised higher education. But we do live in strange times.
Since 2014, social welfare schemes meant for the poorer sections have been under attack from the social media arm of the BJP. To justify the failure of the government to control prices of basic commodities and regular fuel price hikes, the propaganda machinery of the BJP has created a negative discourse around the important issue of ‘inflation’ by targeting alleged freeloaders, who are described as a burden on taxpayers. The fact that even the poor pay taxes when they buy salt or bread is overlooked.
The social media is also guilty of drawing a false parallel between private and public universities. The argument is that when students in private universities are forced to take student loans and pay lakhs of Rupees for their education, why should students in JNU be allowed to get away by paying only Rupees 10 for a hostel room? How can they be allowed to pay only a few hundred Rupees for tuition every semester?
There is no appreciation for the fact that students in JNU get admission after they clear an all India entrance test, unlike students in private universities. Public funding for institutions of higher learning and providing facilities for good faculty, housing, library and labs is an obligation of the state, not a favour done by it.
Fact-checking website Alt News reported how fake and random images and videos with inflammatory and false captions were being used by BJP supporters to malign and delegitimise protests in JNU.
This propaganda against JNU is propaganda against the idea of public education, which in turn is propaganda to support and legitimise privatisation and commercialisation of education through the New Education Policy.
Education should be seen as a human right and not as a privilege available at a price. The idea of providing higher education to only those who can afford it is an idea which is astounding in its stupidity and needs to be treated with the contempt that it deserves.
The JNU model actually needs to be replicated across the country. Just as the government, even after conceding the necessity, has failed to put up institutions like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, it has failed to replicate JNU in the central universities it has set up. A comparison between the two will help JNU-sceptics see the issue much more clearly.
(The writer is a Ph.D student at JNU)