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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 51 New Delhi December 7, 2019

First-generation Learners at JNU are Beacons of Hope for their Communities

Sunday 8 December 2019


by Binoy Viswam

Campuses all over the world have been breeding grounds of ideas and activism. How can one forget the student activism in Paris that frightened the French ruling class in the 1960s? During the Vietnam war, campuses in the US were centres of the anti-war movement. Students in Latin America have waged heroic struggles against fascist dictatorships.

One needs to look at recent developments in the JNU from this perspective. The JNU signifies ideas, values and commitments that are fundamental to the idea of India. That is why the happenings in the JNU are of relevance beyond its campus. Many campuses in India, not just the JNU, have become centres of study and struggle. These include the FTII and IITs.

Commercialisation and communalisation are the twin threats to the Indian education system today. Neo liberal globalisation has created such challenges. This threat has become more acute with the RSS-backed BJP in office at the Centre, and in several States. The imprint of the Sangh Parivar is prominent in syllabi from the school level to universities—and in the administration of universities as well.

The entry of students from backward sections to institutions of higher learning did not happen in one day. It was the outcome of years of struggle to make education a right—not a privilege. Such struggles opened the gates of institutions like the JNU for the daughters and sons of the weaker sections across India. Reservation in education, an outcome of these struggles, was a progressive step.

Today, most of the students who enter campuses like the JNU belong to socially and educationally backward families. In many cases, these first-generation learners become beacons of hope for their communities. In the JNU, 71 per cent of students avail various scholarships sponsored by agencies like the UGC, CSIR, DBT and the university itself. Such a shift in social composition of students is a matter of pride for the country.

The Sangh Parivar’s ideology makes it biased against the poor and lower castes. Today’s Ekalavyas compete with children from wealthy and upper-caste families. How can the Sangh Parivar tolerate this? Its agenda on access to education, which was hidden for long, has come to the fore since the Sangh captured political power. Their strategy is to oust students from poor, backward and minority families from the campuses. It tried to ignite ultra nationalism to counter the popularity of Kanhaiya Kumar and spewed venom on all who did not agree with its ideology.

The winds of hatred sponsored by the Sangh have created havoc in universities like Allahabad, Jadavpur, BHU and Aligarh. Now, a new onslaught is in the offing. It seems to be more planned and brutal. As expected, the JNU has been made the testing ground of this brutality. The proposed rise in hostel fees, to the tune of 300 per cent, is aimed at forcing many poor students to drop out of the university.

The JNUSU, the representative body of the students, is not being allowed to function. A few days ago, this writer visited the campus to express solidarity with the students and was greeted by a notice from the registrar urging him not go near the administrative block as Section 144 had been imposed there.

After the sit-in strike, when the students came out for a peaceful march, the government responded in a cruel manner. As night fell, the police switched off streetlights and mercilessly beat up students without sparing even the differently-abled students. Such attacks bare the government’s nervousness about a vibrant campus. This campus has produced not only Left-minded leaders and academics but also eminent intellectuals like Abhijit Banerjee and leaders like Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

The JNU and other campuses are expected to remember what Jawaharlal Nehru once said about universities: ‘’A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth.” The government has diametrically opposite views about universities. Hence, this is a struggle between ideologies. On one side are the students and their comrades who are committed to a search of knowledge and protecting diversity and scientific temper. And on the other side is a government armed with a majoritarian ideology mortgaged to markets and profits.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author is a Rajya Sabha MP belonging to the Communist Party of India. Earlier he was a Minister of Environment and Forests in the LDF Government of Kerala.

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