Take Your Blinkers Off: Class Does Shape India’s Student Politics At Premier Institutes

“The raison d’être of universities is to instill into students the ability to challenge dominant views and learn to coexist with differences.”
– Manash Bhattacharjee (EPW Archives)

The fascist forces in power now are in a relentless pursuit of eliminating all forms of dissent with the most barbaric of methods. No amount of power-play shall, however, intimidate India’s strong student communities built on values enshrined in the constitution. This was evident in the way students from various public universities engaged in strenuous efforts to resuscitate India’s higher education sector throughout this year.

Keeping aside the ongoing turmoil in BHU, most protests were an attempt to question the administration’s, and by extension the government’s, fascist policies. Perhaps, since the introduction of the Draft National Education Policy, an urgency was felt to take steps to impede (if not prevent completely) the imminent privatisation and hence commodification of the education sector.

Though the recent protests at JNU by JNUSU was triggered by the sudden hike in fee from an annual ₹32,000 (approx.) to ₹64,000 and a proposal for imposition of unfair on-campus restrictions, their fight is emblematic of the need to resist the troubling overhauls that we are seeing the world over.

The JNU example, like numerous times before, showed the need for a strong student body in all higher educational settings. It sent ripples throughout the country; it was not a war cry, but an imploration to their brethren in colleges across India to fight for the rights we all deserve.

Administrative bodies at the NITs and the IITs have constantly downplayed the importance of such entities in their campuses. Consequently, these institutes produce batches of remarkably apolitical professionals year after year. Student politics is deigned a complication that’s best left untouched at these institutes.

In Comrade Che Guevara’s immortal words, “The university cannot be an ivory tower far away from the society removed from the practical accomplishments of the Revolution.” But of course, revolution is tabooed. So is Comrade Che.

Apart from creating an unopinionated, apolitical generation of engineers, the absence of such offices sets the stage for major foul play in policy decisions.

A student at one of the days of protest against the JNU fee hike. (Stand with JNU/Facebook)

“What JNUSU is fighting against now, happened in NITC 2-3 years ago and the students didn’t protest it,” opines a NITC alumnus, currently pursuing their MA in Economics at JNU. A sudden hike in fees with no corresponding changes in infrastructure was unquestioningly accepted by the students at NITC.

Quite like the JNU population, a good number of NITians are also from marginalised and economically disadvantaged communities. But, there is no student body here strong enough to mobilise a resistance and even if a protest is somehow managed, an unrest here flounders before it takes on any real form.

At this juncture, it’s unfair not to mention that the Students Affairs Council, despite being reined in, has achieved what it can with its limited freedom. This is laudable, but not enough.

The members of this titular student body are nominated, apart from 2-3 posts which are filled through elections. The opposing candidates are often representatives of different states and almost never offer different ideological alternatives to choose from.

Moreover, this aggravates existent regional divisions. For this very reason, apart from the candidates’ cronies and a few coaxed first-year students, nobody takes part in the voting process or in any stage of electioneering. Because of the absence of an ideology to abide by, campaign promises are too random to be alluring to the voters.

After the elections, the candidates (even the winning ones) completely disappear from the scene and the baton is returned to the professors who make real decisions. True, some of the nominated representatives have been at the beck and call of the students they represent, but their powers are nowhere close to that of say, the JNUSU president.

There are no forums to discuss students’ rights or their violations. The yearly SAC General Body meeting, where the mic is supposedly handed over to the students is a farce. It is merely a stage where the administration gets together to justify their new policies and collectively reject opposition to it. A good example of this would be the GB convening to address the opposition to the installation of biometric attendance at women’s hostels.

In the absence of an efficient central monitoring authority or a strong students’ union, the faculty wield too much power and face limited accountability. This immense endowment has been utilised in good measure by professors. Instances of mental torture, moral policing, discrimination, forced surveillance and physical exploitation have become commonplace. There is no system in place to keep them in check.

Haphazardly formulated policies with zero regard for student welfare have made technical education at these institutes a living nightmare. Despite the unprecedented importance mental health has received in recent times, the authorities have only taken nominal measures to create an environment inducive to learning and personal growth. There are very few platforms available for students to redress their issues and most of these are in dire need of restructuring.

There is hardly any effort to alleviate student distress. It takes more than a yearly mental health seminar to ensure the well-being of students. With its limited powers, there isn’t much the Students Affairs Council can do to alter this state of things and that’s just on that one front.

Looking at the larger picture, there is a visible drive to de-politicise the already apolitical campus. The college has had to excuse itself from taking a political stand on major issues or declaring their solidarity for causes they believed in because of the absence of a collective identity. The absence of such an identity has also furthered the gap between students from different social backgrounds.

Class divisions are quite apparent and the apolitical nature of the campus has only helped nurture the divide. The system warrants discrimination to the extent that it’s hard for a student from an economically disadvantaged background to find their place in the campus social hierarchy (which shouldn’t even exist, to begin with).

The NITs and the IITs have time and again been accused of catering to the needs of only the upper-middle classes and above and for good reason. Like in any other public universities, a farmer’s son and a doctor’s son do share a room in NITs also, but they are rarely part of the same social circles. The students live constantly divorced from the realities of Indian society.

Countless media persons dubbing the JNU protests unnecessary were seen as quoting the IITs, IIMs and NITs as examples of ideal public universities. Their definition of idealism, probably derived from that of the state’s, relentlessly labelled the JNU protests ‘anti-national’ and ‘disruptive to normal life.’

A social media page named ‘I AM AN NITIAN’, a self-proclaimed mouthpiece on behalf of all NITians was quick to diss on the protests at JNU. Their post contended that the hike in fees was in keeping with the generally rising costs of living in the national capital and many NITians agreed. So that’s settled now. Education is indeed a privilege for those who can afford. Take it or leave it.

There have been numerous instances wherein opinionated interest groups were disallowed from inviting guest speakers to NITC because the administration disagreed with their political leaning. College clubs are cautioned against inviting pro-left speakers.

A talk on homosexuality was once named ‘unnecessary at a technical institute.’ The group was instead encouraged to conduct talks on technology. The message is loud and clear. Engineers should discuss science and leave politics to their social science brothers. The overall setting efficiently curbs dissent and eliminates students’ opinion from the equation altogether.

Apart from a rigorous curriculum and a race against time to complete it, there is no space for original thought or action in today’s ‘premier’ institutes. With the impressive placement records and the growing pile of accolades, it’s easy to overlook these ‘minor’ blips.

Education has been reduced by these ideal universities as mere paths to achievement of personal excellence and glory. The NITs and IITs have utterly failed the vision that once served as their foundations and have become facilitators of the brain drain.

Featured image source: Fee Hike Protest VB/Facebook.
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