It is a cold December afternoon. All the roads to the Press Club of India are choked with cars, an unusual sight in this part of Delhi. The traffic policemen managing the traffic say the Bhutanese head of the state is on an official visit to India. Meanwhile, snarling its way through the congestion, an old tourist bus pulls outside the club on Raisina Road. Dozens of students emerge from it. “The conference has started, please rush inside,” someone among the event managers requests them in a commanding voice.
Inside, the small open-air space is filled with chairs for reporters and participants. A large printed board behind the makeshift stage announces Young India Speaks, while several photographs and posters hang from thin threads on walls all around. The current JNUSU president welcomes everyone and announces the long list of official participants of the press conference. The president of TISS Students’ Union is here, as is the AMUSU president. Someone or the other is representing Pinjra Tod, FTII, Periyar-Ambedkar Study Circle, MANUU, Panjab University SU, SFS, BHU, Allahabad University, CYSS, and the list is long.
But wait, why have all these representatives assembled here on this particular day in the last week of December 2018? Is the date even important?
The answer to the former question is long, and yes, the date is all the more important.
“It all started with Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle ban and FTII row,” Sai Balaji, JNUSU president, reads aloud from his notes.
In summer 2015, a year after BJP formed the government at the center, FTII students went on an indefinite strike and boycott all the academic work, calling for an end to the “fascist” move of appointing Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman. The strike which lasted for at least four months, called for a transparent process for the selection of FTII body. The same month as the FTII protests started, IIT Madras banned Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle on its campus, calling it anti-Hindu. In response, IIT-B, IIT-D, JNU, Jadavpur University, all came up with their own versions of APSC.
In October and November of the same year, students sat on a sustained protest outside UGC offices near ITO in Delhi, against the October 7 decision of its statutory body to scrap all fellowships granted to MPhil and PhD students who had not cleared NET.
At that time, almost everyone thought that student protests against administrations and state policies are nothing new, and all this is part of the same trend.
Just one month into 2016, and JNU was all over the news. Suddenly all the prime time news shows and newspaper front pages were interested in student politics and campus culture. A larger debate on Nationalism itself ensued.
2015 and 2016 also saw the slow and steady rise of Pinjra Tod, “an autonomous collective effort to ensure secure, affordable, and discrimination-free accomodation for women students” at one end, and “a feminist movement against patriarchy and its age-old discriminatory culture” at the other end.
2017, similarly, saw many small and large protests by students against administrative policies, against fee hikes, against state policies on higher education, and in favour of academic freedom.
By the end of 2017, it was clear that the student-led protests in different campuses across India were converging on at least four broad points: they were against privatisation of higher education and demanded affordable and accessible education and more scholarships; they were against the administrations of individual colleges and universities and called for an end to government motivated appointments; they were against discriminatory rules and wanted regulations without any gender bias; they were against the crackdown on freedom of expression and aimed for greater academic freedom.
2018, then, saw all the more student protests. However, something else noteworthy happened in the year as well: students won a lot of victories. Even though by now, as we stand at the last day of 2018, it is clear that the administrations are not able to take the students for granted and almost any absurd rule the students protest against is either repealed or scraped, there is one particular issue where the students find themselves almost helpless, and it is the ‘privatisation’ of education, or anything related to funding higher education. This is probably so because the funding needs to be sanctioned at the highest echelons of power, and frankly, at the face of it, far from being interested in funding the higher education of Indian citizens, those in power actually ‘want’ the institutions to raise their own funds and the students to borrow more loans.
It is exactly at this moment that we return to the press conference of December 28 2018, titled Young India Speaks.
The participants of the press conference vowed to constitute Young India National Coordination Committee and travel throughout India in January 2019, before taking out a rally from Red Fort to Parliament on February 7. The committee is making four major demands: all the vacant governmental jobs to be filled which are estimated to be 24 lac; 10% of the budget to be kept for education; an end to discriminatory rules and effective anti-sexual harassment cells; and ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expressions on campuses.
From where these four major demands arise becomes clear if one takes a look at all that has been happening in the past three to four years, a culmination of which the campuses witnessed this year. With parliamentary elections just around the corner, then, the end of this year becomes a crucial moment in time.
For the conveners of Young India Speaks, it is a time when the present government can and most probably will listen to their demands. Even though some of the participants did overtly support an end to the BJP rule, most of them were concerned with their demands being met, irrespective of who is in power. The timing, then, is merely a pressure-point. Similarly, the signs of convergence of so many and varying political organisations, students’ unions, and students’ movements, were apparent for quite sometime now.
However, there is a flipside to the story. Many students allege that the coordination committee is a misappropriation of all the struggles fought by the students over all these years for what is essentially a political gimmick, a way to lend support to the parties opposing BJP in 2019 elections. Accordingly, no matter whether BJP wins or loses these elections, the coordination committee will have no purpose to serve and all the diverse students’ movements will have lost their purpose as well.
Even though it is impossible to say whether Young India will actually speak and whether the coordination committee will be able to pressurize the government to give in to its demands before elections, what is clear is that it is impossible to say what the year for the students of higher education in India will look like after elections. All the roads for now, it seems, lead to elections of 2019, and that includes fighting the last battle for an accessible higher education.