By Swarnima Bhattacharya
An eyewash though it may be, Union Education Minister Smriti Irani announced on Thursday, that students will be given adequate representation in the “review committee” deliberating on the issue of the non-NET scholarships. Shehla Rashid, the JNUSU Vice President who has been at the vanguard of the #OccupyUGC movement, has welcomed not only the announcement, but also the fact that Smriti Irani was forced to come out and make a conciliatory statement, in the face of protestors marching up to the very doors of the MHRD.
While students pouring out on the streets in protest is a heartening sign of their participation in active opinion-making, what it indicates about State arbitration in matters of education, is something equally disquieting.
Less than a month into the Occupy UGC stir, the issues at hand have already found resonance in student campuses across Delhi, mobilising large groups of students from Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ambedkar and Jamia Milia Islamia. Students from Kolkata, Allahabad, Pune and Varanasi are also carrying out spirited protest in unison with their agitating counterparts in Delhi.
The M.Phil and Ph.D students, the chief beneficiaries of these grants, were only in the middle of demanding a raise on the existing fellowships, when, by cruel irony, the mysterious “review committee” decided to do away with the system altogether. The government had already made the unpopular decision of slashing the education budget for Central universities by 25% and State universities by 48%. This only opens up a variety of questions on the seriousness, or the lack thereof, attached with academic research. It also intensifies the debate around education poised to becoming a “service”, should India finalise its “offer” of opening up higher education to international trade, in the Doha round of WTO-GATS negotiations in December 2015.
It is noteworthy how the Occupy UGC stir follows closely on the heels of the FTII student’s strike, which raged on for a staggering 139 days. There, the students of the renowned film school were fighting for their right to be headed by an individual of sound credentials, and not just a mediocre figurehead, an effective henchman of the State. The protest spilled over from Pune and reached the streets of Delhi, with students clamouring for the removal of Gajendar Chauhan as the Chairman of the Governing Council of the Institute.
Last year, the streets of university campuses, as well as social media platforms rang with the slogan of “Hok Kolorob”. Let there be noise, they said. The agitation started in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, when their Vice Chancellor failed to respond adequately, and appropriately, to a woman student’s complaint of sexual harassment on campus. The war cry, and I say this without a whit of exaggeration, proliferated the internet, prime time television, the road outside Jantar Mantar and newspaper headlines, culminating in the arrest of two men accused of molesting the woman.
What the “kolorob” in Jadavpur unravelled was the deafening silence on the issue of women’s bodies (not) being treated right, within University campuses- an issue that is now been discussed piecemeal by the #PinjraTod campaign in Delhi. Women in Delhi University are organising Jan Sunwais (public hearings) on the issue of ridiculous regulations for girls’ hostels and PGs that resort to desperate, and often ludicrous, measures to keep women’s bodies under check.
I have carefully avoided reproaching THE government or A government, or any government for all that’s wrong with our higher education “system”. If the widespread geography and plethora of issues raised by all these protests proves anything, it is that the “system” as a whole is unsatisfactory. The “system” implicates not only the myopic policies of the government, but also the indolent heads of many of the aggrieved institutions and parents finding solace in caging their daughters in dreary college dorms.
As you watch various issues being raised and several battles being fought in the Delhi University campus, among other campuses, you see the assortment of campaign slogans snowballing into one. There are posters of different colours, some questioning the silence of Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi and Smriti Irani, others demanding the ouster of an effective VC, yet others proclaiming “I know why the caged bird sings”, and even more saying that students must be handed their basic rights. Well, that is at the core of all agitations taking the University streets by storm for the past year or so. The right to complain and be heard, right to access libraries after 6:00 pm instead of being locked up in dormitory rooms, right to pursue higher research, right to be taught and governed by people with the right credentials— basically, the right to be educated with dignity.