By Bathula Suresh Babu:
On March 13, 2017, a Dalit research scholar, Muthukrishnan, committed suicide in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Hardly a day later, however, on March 15, 2017, the university administration sent a notification by the University Grants Commission (UGC) (dated March 6, 2017) to the chairperson of the Centre for Study of Discrimination and Exclusion (CSDE) at the School of Social Sciences, JNU.
The notification informed them that financial support to the CSDE would be discontinued after the end of the XIIth Plan. The decision to discontinue the financial support had been taken at the level of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (Government of India), by order no. D.O. No F.1-1/2017(CU) Vol.XVI dated February, 2017. Strangely, the notice ends with the proclamation: “No communication whatsoever will be entertained or solicited by the UGC.”
The notification comes at a time when universities are grappling with issues of caste-based discrimination. The universities are witnessing sustained struggles by students hailing from deprived sections. Against this backdrop, the notification seems devastating for the hundreds of aspiring students who are fighting for equality in university spaces and trying to understand the structures of discrimination and exclusion.
It must be noted that the CSDE at JNU happens to be the only centre which states exclusively that its objective is to conceptualise discrimination and exclusion along lines of caste, tribe and religion. Furthermore, it offers academic programmes focussing on discrimination and exclusion of the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and minorities in Indian society. It also engages in detailed and critical analyses of socio-economic data generated by government agencies. Finally, the CSDE studies policies and programmes for inclusion, besides also documenting, collating and generating information and facts on the conditions, processes, experiences and outcomes of discrimination and exclusion of members of these groups.
The UGC notice seems all the more baffling when one looks at the factors that went into the making of the CSDE. The CSDE’s website aptly states: “It is widely acknowledged that discrimination occurs in public institutions, legal systems, universities and health services, as well as social institutions like the household. For these reasons the thrust of the research done is on how discrimination and social exclusion keep individuals and marginalised social groups outside power centres. More specifically, the research interest of the Centre is on the study of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Minorities, keeping in mind intersectionalities such as class, gender, region and so on”.
In the aftermath of Rohit Vemula’s suicide, one could have expected that the issues of discrimination and exclusion would attract the government’s attention. While the government has taken notice of these issues, its actions have been absolutely repressive. The past two years have witnessed increasing confrontations between student communities and university administrations, most of which are blindly following the government’s directives and ignoring the plight of the students.
In particular, students belonging to the Dalit community and other backward castes have frequently been at the receiving end of repressive measures like scholarship cuts and shrinking spaces of representation in students’ unions across the country. The centres like CSDE, which are dedicated to studying issues issues of discrimination and exclusion, are bearing the brunt of financial cuts or even the cancellation of funding. These actions show that the government in collaboration with the university administrations is trying to silence the voices of students from these already-oppressed communities.
What is strange about the UGC notification is its very language and the manner in which it states its objective. It only states that no further communication would be entertained regarding the matter. However, it gives no reason why the financial support to the CSDE is being stopped, in the first place, especially at a time like this.
From the IITs to AIIMS to HCU to JNU, cases of discrimination and exclusion of students hailing from the Dalit community and lower castes are increasing. In addition, there have been tragic incidents like the suicides of Rohith Vemula and Muthukrishnan. The government and university administrations should therefore address the concerns of the agitating students (especially those hailing from the deprived sections of society), instead of closing up university spaces and barring them from these spaces.
This notification will have a serious bearing upon the attempts to democratise the academic spaces. This democratisation has been demanded and is indeed essential for students emerging from the bottom of the social pyramid. Students like Rohith Vemula and Muthukrishnan therefore need a lot of courage and have to endure several hardships to enter institutions like JNU or HCU.
However, the journey thereafter becomes all the more challenging when these students have to cope up with cultural, linguistic and financial barriers. A university should provide a homely atmosphere for its students. It should not resort to repressive measures like fund cuts, scholarship cuts, and closing down of schools. Otherwise, educational institutions around India will keep witnessing tragic incidents.
The government is hell-bent on preventing researches on structures of oppression, discrimination and exclusion in educational institutions. Ironically, it is also institutionalising courses on Sanskrit and ancient Indian languages in order to understand ancient Indian culture in a better manner.
One can only expect that the government takes note of the distress and concern in the student community and withdraws the UGC notice as soon as possible.
The author is a doctoral scholar at the School of Economics in the University of Hyderabad. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation specializing in fieldwork-based political and electoral studies.