Panjab University has been struggling with a financial crisis, considering that it hasn’t been receiving its due grants for the past one year. To deal with this financial crisis, the Vice Chancellor had proposed a tuition hike of up to 1100% for freshers. The fees for some major courses such as the MBA has been increased from ₹9,400 to ₹1,00,000, and for MA (Journalism) from ₹5,920 to ₹30,000. The VC has offered various solutions ranging from – ‘students can take loans’, ‘part-time work will be available on campus’, ‘providing fee concessions to students from economically weaker sections’. None of these would help as the fee has been hiked by the 250 – 500% whereas only 75% concession is expected to be provided. Moreover, his explanation for the fee hike has been that since the salaries of teachers are increasing, so should the fee.
Students of the University have been protesting against the hike. All the active political parties in the University are also taking various measures – students of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) have been sitting on a chain hunger strike. Students for Society have also been constantly organising protests in the university. Panjab University Students’ Union, Student Organisation of India, Pal Pehalwan Students Organisation, All India Students’ Association, Ambedkar Students Association, and other parties have also come together in support of the protests. In one of the recent protests held on April 6, the police responded with brutality by using lathi charge and water cannons to disperse the students who were protesting.
All parties are still protesting even though students are paying the price for being politically active. On April 10, the president of Panjab University Students Council, Nishant Kaushal, along with other workers of the PUSU, were taken into preventive custody. A university bandh and protest was called for by all the parties excluding the ABVP on April 11, 2017, with the demands of rolling back the fee hike, banning police on campus and other issues. The Students for Society, prior to the strike, had demanded a discussion for an appropriate solution for resolving the financial crisis without resorting to violence.
As a student of the university, I felt it was my duty and freedom to be on the campus and speak up against privatisation of education. The problem with being a first-year student is that you have various misconceptions about how campus spaces work. You look at your college as a place wherein you’ll get to raise issues you care about and have unbridled space to communicate and discuss them. I felt the same way about my campus until I witnessed what happened yesterday, on April 11.
The protest started outside the VC’s office around 11 am where all the political party members gathered and raised slogans and demanded to meet the Vice Chancellor. However, the VC decided to stay in and handle the matter with police intervention. The police started lathi charge on the students, during which two female students got injured and had to be taken to the hospital. They even tried to use water cannons to immediately stop the protests.
The students refused to step back even after they were attacked with tear gas bombs by the police. I have never heard of tear gas bombs being used on students before. Students retaliated with stone pelting, which is why the mainstream media focused on the ‘burning issue’ of students being violent when in reality it was an act of self-defense.
If this wasn’t enough, more than 50 students were chased by the police and were arrested from the local Gurudwara. The arrested students have been charged with sedition and other criminal offences. I wonder, how protesting and raising slogans for our rights is seditious.
The police had surrounded the VC’s office, not allowing any student within a 500m radius of the office. Opposing this, the students had formed a chain not allowing the police van to move forward when from the other side another police van came loaded with tear gas shells and started to lathi-charge and drop tear gas bombs on the students. Following this, some students went to take shelter in the nearby boys’ hostel which was also surrounded by the police later, not allowing the students to get out and continue with the protest. All of this continued until ‘peace’ was established by locking the students inside the hostel, putting them in jails, unleashing water cannons, tear gas shells and lathis on them. 250-500% fee hike is a huge jump and needs to be discussed with all stakeholders in the University.
The students, protesting for the new batches against the privatisation of education, have called for a discussion with a panel or the VC numerous times. However, this is how the VC chose to respond to them. At this point, a lot of questions come to mind. How will the students ever question the authority if their preferred mode of answering is through lathis and tear gas? If the police, in the name of protecting the environment, starts resorting to such ‘gundagardi’, who will the students look up to for protection?
Ever since the Ramjas incident, I have seen many people complain about the increasing number of student protests in our country. It’s important to shed light on the fact that from Hyderabad Central University to Panjab University, students are struggling because the authorities have stopped listening. They have turned a blind eye to our concerns and refuse to communicate with us to understand our needs and hence, we have no other option but to approach the media and protest as vehemently as possible. What’s happening in Panjab University is particularly scary because if the authorities won’t discuss the matter with us through the official channel and refuse even to let us protest, what are we expected to do?