The year so far has witnessed a spate of protests on different issues; all of which are seen as being inimical to the model of publicly funded higher education which was devised by our forefathers to give an inclusive character to our centrally funded institutes.
Moving past the Vishwavidyalaya metro station in Delhi, I heard spirited sloganeering which ceased for a moment until a voice rose above the crowd. Kawalpreet Kaur, a student activist and President of the All India Students Associations (AISA), is a known face at such protests, synonymous with every movement in Delhi University which dares to question the numerous diktats imposed by university administration or by the University Grants Commission (UGC). These government bodies have been crafting a reputation of being removed from the repercussions of their actions imposed from above. The past couple of months have seen academic work in Delhi University come to halt for there have been protests in various colleges of the University against the process of appointments to teaching positions being stalled. There have also been protests against the UGC’s decree which has announced autonomy for more than 60 higher educational institutions, a move which many in DU fear would set a bad precedent and shed the central universities such as JNU of their inclusive character by opening them up to the possibility of being gamed for larger profits.
Delhi University is not on the list of universities which has been granted autonomy; nevertheless, there were protests in DU as a show of solidarity, perhaps because it was a common cause which needed protests in unison, regardless of who was bearing the brunt of the consequences. However, DU’s own woes weren’t far behind. This year’s budget announcement included a new provision which stated that the centrally funded institutes would now be receiving loan-based funding from the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) instead of the grants system which was earlier in place. Moreover, the government’s proposal of implementing a 70:30 formula for financing the implementation of the 7th pay commission has also been extensively criticised.
As per the terms of this proposal, the centrally funded institutes will have to generate 30% of the requisite finances from their internal resources while 70% will be paid for by the government.The move hasn’t gone down well with the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) which sees it in the same light as the graded autonomy scheme and calls it a ruse meant to bring about the commercialisation of publicly funded education; consequently, leading to student fees being increased manifold. As a result, people from the deprived sections of society who don’t have the financial leverage to furnish a high rate of fees and are the biggest beneficiaries of publicly funded education, will over time be removed from the ambit of the centrally funded institutes simply because they won’t be able to pay the high student fees.
Student protests this year began against the hike in the fares of the Delhi Metro. The protest organized by AISA saw students paying heed to their call of ‘Occupy Vishwavidyalaya’ as demonstrations occurred outside the gate no.3 of the metro station. Where protests are often carried out not for the cause at hand but for the underlying political expediency, these protests organized by student activists are a novelty, for neither is there any political capital to gain, nor any sinister motives behind the call for action. One can see the activists leading these protests putting in the hard yards, blaring on without the provisions of a microphone or a loudspeaker, straining their vocal chords in a bid to make sure that the person standing farthest in the crowd is able to comprehend the cause everyone is protesting for; but most of all, braving what lies ahead which could be anything from the police clamping down on them to those from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum exercising force with impunity.
However, some are less than optimistic when questioned regarding the utility of such protests. Others choose to merely chide the organizers of such protests for having a single point agenda of blaming the powers for all their sorrows while discounting the logic of the authorities behind instituting a new move. “There seems to a perpetual antagonism against the authorities, be it the UGC or the current dispensation at the Centre,” says Digant, who’s in the second year of his graduation at Ramjas College.
“Take the new order on the reservation issue wherein the department is to be treated as a unit rather than the University. The argument made by the UGC behind bringing about this new move seems reasonable. Also, everyone seems to have forgotten the fact that they are merely acting on an order of the Allahabad High Court. Instead, everyone seems to have woken up to this conspiracy by the BJP to dilute the benefits of the reservation policy. Where’s the truth in that?” asks Sumukh.
Back in October, the UGC in an order had decided that the reservations for SC, ST and OBC teachers should be calculated department-wise and not based on the total posts in the university. The UGC was acting on an order from the Allahabad High Court from April last year. The court felt that reservations were being applied in a ‘blanket’ manner and preparing rosters by treating a department rather than the entire university as a unit would ensure that every department has some teachers belonging to the SC, ST or OBC communities. As of this month, the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) has concurred with the UGC’s proposal and the same will be implemented during upcoming recruitments.
The DUTA, however, has gone on to highlight the limitations of such a move when it comes to ensuring equitable representation of the marginalized communities in the teaching positions and had called for a candlelight march to the Vice Chancellor’s office on 27th April 2018. The view seems to be that such a move will limit the teachers belonging to the marginalized communities to secondary positions such as that of an associate professor.
There are those who feel that accepting everything that comes their way from the authorities is not a healthy practice. “We need to be aware of all the ramifications of these diktats, most of which are announced without any consultations with the stakeholders,” says a student who participated in the candlelight march to protest against the decision of preparing department-wise rosters, “not doing so and choosing to believe that everything is happening in our best interests would just amount to fatalism,” she quipped.
The fact that the participants of these protests choose to indulge in conjecturing theories which might implicate the NDA government in the larger scheme of things would then just be a clue about the nature of the discontent with the present government. “The discontent is very much there, it’s palpable and it’s of the government’s own making,” says Saptaparno Ghosh, a 3rd year student at the SGTB Khalsa College who has covered student politics extensively, “the government needs to allay the fears of this section of voters who choose to speculate about the government’s conspiracies and hidden agendas.”
For the ruling dispensation, these student protests could, in fact, be a marker for things to come for here is the core constituency which featured so prominently in the promises made by Prime Minister Modi in his campaigning trail in 2014; except, they’re choosing to wield slogans for change, again! The last four years have seen PM Modi so frequently invoke the demographic dividend that India stands to gain in the near and long-term future. However, choosing not to assuage the discontent of this young demographic might have a bearing on the BJP’s appeal amongst the youth and perhaps even in next year’s general elections.
A huge part of allaying these fears and anxieties would involve prompt action for only then does justice seem to be delivered. “The authorities need to put their ears to the ground and address the grievances of the stakeholders,” says Nishant, a 3rd-year student of Delhi University’s Cluster Innovation Centre, “if the authorities are going to pay heed to our demands, their actions need to be prompt!”
It is, in fact, the promptness which seems to be missing currently. Take the recent debate on the preparation of department-wise rosters in central universities. There have been protests for the same wherein the staff at DU have expressed their concerns ever since the proposal was first floated in October last year. This month, the MHRD even concurred with the proposal which triggered fresh protests. It was only after these protests intensified that the authorities took notice and filed a Special Leave Petitions (SLP) against the Allahabad High Court judgement.
What stands out though is the arduous road which leads to this long-awaited turnaround. Meanwhile, demonstrations against the inordinate delay in the process of appointments to teaching positions in the university are still going on despite the judgement of the High Court clearly instructing the University to fill all vacant positions within the stipulated time-frame.
Evidently, placating the sentiments of this young demographic would require more than just lofty promises for their disenchantment with the authorities can be resolved, only by a timely redressal of their grievances and nothing else.