Don’t Let The Protests Alone Define Your Perception About India’s Best University

Posted by Mansi Singh in Campus Watch
April 22, 2017
This story is part of Campus Watch’s series #QuestionYourCollege where students from across the country are talking about how free their campuses are, based on curriculum, infrastructure, campus environment, etc. If you want to share issues that plague your campus, send us a 360 degree assessment, or tell us how your college is doing things right, write to us at campus@youthkiawaaz.com

Jawaharlal Nehru University was established in 1969 by an Act of Parliament, which states that “the university shall endeavour to promote the principles for which Jawaharlal Nehru worked during his lifetime – national integration, social justice, secularism, democratic way of life, international understanding and scientific approach to the problems of society.”

There are 14 schools offering a wide range of courses. Although academics remain the focal point on campus, there are many facets to studying at the JNU. One can expect to learn more outside the classroom than within it, to get acquainted with different viewpoints (looking at you, Marxian state theory) and eventually, become more aware of her place in the world.

Academic Reforms

This has been a controversial point on campus ever since the 142nd Academic Council, convened during the winter break in December 2016, adopted the UGC Gazette dated 9th May 2015. The gazette is problematic because of the following points-

  1. The introduction of an Entrance Test that would require 50% qualification marks.
  2. Increases Viva Voce weightage to 70% in Entrance Test (It has since been reduced to 20% vs. 80% for the written paper, as stated by the standing committee that was established to review the adoption of the Gazette).
  3. Limits the number of students that a Professor can take under her/his wing for MPhil and PhD.

The council has 135 members, many of whom were not attending due to winter break. Moreover, most of the professors who attended, have alleged that the minutes of the meeting were manipulated such that some issues were passed without discussion, and these issues will essentially change the character of JNU. For instance, giving weightage to viva voce necessarily exposes a candidate to discrimination, as concluded by the Abdul Nafey Committee. 

While the JNU administration maintains its stand that the UGC Gazette is binding on all universities and so must be followed, it is important to think of the exclusionary character of the Gazette and its imposition without a democratic adoption procedure. The administration could have worked out an acceptable weightage for written and viva, and not gone mechanically by the UGC rules.

It is crucial to note here that JNU has won the Visitor’s Award for Best University, 2017, while National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) has given the university a grade of 3.9 out of 4, the highest grade awarded to any educational institution in the country.

For the courses of MPhil and PhD, each centre allows its professors to decide how many students they can mentor that year. As the rankings and honours prove, this mode of admissions does not diminish the quality of research produced by the University. Bearing this in mind, one has to reflect upon the validity of UGC Gazette for JNU crucially.

The issue that relates to the cap of eight students per MPhil/PhD supervisor does not go well with JNU’s research-oriented character and is also inimical to the diversity in the university system. The students and faculty fear that the supervision cap will lead to a drastic reduction in the number of students admitted this year. Given the low enrollment in higher education, the effort should be to expand the faculty and not reduce the intake of the students.

Another disagreement is concerning modified system of faculty selection, which gives the VC the power to decide the experts who will conduct the interview. In the earlier system, the VC selected experts from a pool provided by the academic council through the centres. This time-tested system drew on the understanding that the departments know the best experts in their disciplines while allowing the VC to have the final say, to safeguard against any bias.

Teachers

The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) was established to deal with all problems connected with the academic life of the University. As a result, JNUTA is highly invested in campus politics and has come out to support the students time and again. Though it is a formal institution, it fully reflects the kind of support a student can expect from the teachers here. Some Professors restrict their interaction with students to visiting hours while the others are available even when out for an evening walk around the campus. However, all of them encourage students to approach them with ideas, questions, problems- even beyond the academic kind.

Your first semester here teaches you that you are going to be treated as an adult, and will be expected to act like one. And so, most exams do not have strict invigilators; classes can be rescheduled if it clashes with a seminar or a protest, and respect your freedom of thought and opinion inside and outside the class.

Not surprisingly, since the Anti-UGC Gazette Movement began, the teachers have extended support of all kinds- put their weight behind a writ petition filed by students, publicly opined their differences with the Gazette, and sought an audience with the President to present their stance.

Protest

JNU is known for its anti-establishment stance. When students study about the inequalities inherently present in our social structure and perpetuated by the State, it is only matter of course for the debates to spill out of the classrooms and onto the streets. As a result, protests are a way of life on campus.

For someone coming from a metropolitan city, it is an eye-opening experience – to listen to the immensely diverse experiences of students coming from different parts of the country like Kashmir or Manipur, to understand and incorporate the Dalit, queer and feminist perspectives in your understanding of the world, and to see for yourself how state curbs dissent.

It would not be incorrect to say that when the university witnessed state and media crackdown in 2016, many neutral, ‘apolitical’ students took to the streets to vehemently protest. Essentially, the suppression of student politics only managed to augment it.

The student body of JNU is represented by JNU Students Union (JNUSU), which has four main panellists besides representatives from each school. A highly active organisation, JNUSU has confronted the JNU administration on long-standing issues like insufficient hostel accommodation, privatisation of the university, and unfulfilled reservation quota of faculty members. It continues its struggle on current issues like the disappearance of Najeeb (October 2016), ABVP attack on students and faculty of Ramjas College (February 2017) and the undemocratic imposition of UGC Gazette (December 2016).

The vibrant protest culture on campus can take a democratic route- marches, signature campaigns, mobilisation through mess, class and hostel canvassing- or a radical one- gherao, hunger strikes, university strike, sit-ins. However, it consciously remains peaceful. General Body Meetings (GBMs) are organised to discuss and vote on every important issue about campus. It is a platform that allows students an opportunity to voice their opinion.

Pratim Ghosal (member, Democratic Students Front) says, “On their part, administration allows space for protest, with no prior permissions required to stage one. However, now cultural programs and public meetings that invite speakers from outside need to go through a lengthy and bureaucratic procedure to obtain permissions. With the events of last year unfolding as drastically as they did, the administration is now more hostile towards large-scale programs.”

Student Support

JNU focuses its attention more on producing research and promoting pedagogy than preparing students for commercial prospects. However, it does organise seminars and workshops that impart training in employable skills such as better communicative English, research software and statistics tools, etc.

As for financial aid, deserving students with economic needs can work towards the prize money from one of the seventeen awards or apply to one of the nineteen scholarships provided by the University. Beyond this, it facilitates field work on a merit basis.

Prashant Kumar, BA, Centre for Russian Studies, says, ‘Students from School of Languages can expect to find summer internships and jobs through the Placement Cell, as interpreters, research assistants for scholars from abroad, the UN and such.’ Students can find on-campus internships as research assistants under numerous research scholars as well.

Accessibility

Person With Disability (PWD) candidates get 3% reservation in admission and hostel facilities. The campus has ramps for wheelchair users. Scribes are provided for the visually impaired candidates to attend classes and write exams. The Central Library’s Helen Keller Unit provides screen reading, speech software and digital voice recorders to visually challenged scholars.

Apart from the infrastructure, the JNU Visually Challenged Students Forum (VCSF), established in 2006, provides the platform to address issues being faced by the visually-impaired students.

Pankaj Singh Khushwaha, ex-Convenor, VCSF JNU, says, ‘Laptops are the primary source of knowledge for the blind students, but the provision of such technical equipment is dependent on donation, as per JNU administration’s statement, and this must change. Other things like better ramps, lift announcements, immediate hostel allocation, etc. do not require excessive funds. The administration should provide us with utilisation reports of the funds allocated for this purpose. On our part, we raise awareness on memorial days such as White Cane Day (15th October), Braille Day (4th Jan).’

Inclusivity

Much has been written about JNU’s queer collective, Dhanak. JNU also has a Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), constituted in 1999, which looks at all cases related to sexual harassment. Over the past years, GSCASH’s work has enlarged in scope as the campus has expanded, and nature of complaints registered has increasingly diversified.

As with other institutions on campus, the functioning of GSCASH is democratic beyond its composition. It analyses issues related to gender through discussions, volunteer meetings, workshops that include faculty, staff, officers, security personnel, and workers and is about to implement wall journals. Also, there are regular sensitization programs organised for creating awareness.

Demands to increase the number of members from fifteen to thirty have been accommodated in the new rules, slated to be implemented from the next elections. GSCASH prioritises the safety and comfort of the harassed individual, ensuring absolute confidentiality of the case. This safe space accorded by the Committee allows more cases to be reported, which has unfortunately been twisted to label JNU as the university with the highest number of harassment cases.

The presence of such bodies on campus ensures that individuals with diverse sexual orientations feel safe enough to voice their opinions and assert their rights. For instance, JNU recognised the third gender on its admissions form, 2016-17 and also received applicants in the category. Now, the discourse has progressed to calls for laying infrastructure in place for non-binary individuals.

Shambhavi Sharma, a member of Dhanak, says, “While JNU campus is one of the safer spaces for an individual to comfortably own their sexuality, it is still a work in progress. Unique appearances still draw stares, uncomfortable questions about sexual activities of non-hetero individuals are still asked. However, it is these discussions that eventually lead to clarity and recognition on both sides.”

Beyond academics and protests, life on JNU campus allows you the space for any interests you wish to pursue – conferences and seminars, hostel nights, regional cultural programs, midnight debates over cups of chai, food festivals, dhabas, proximity to nature, nilgais and peacocks, an extensive library, Parsarthy Rocks, sports tournaments, casual badminton matches, chess clubs, moonlight walks – to name just a few. 

In conclusion, more often than not, being part of JNU is said to be life-altering.