In recent years, JNU’s been in the spotlight more frequently than ever, given that the central government is now headed by Narendra Modi. The Indian prime minister is viewed as somewhat of a Hindu nationalist strongman and enjoys tremendous popularity. The university is thus constantly berated in the media and by Modi’s ardent followers.

Recent controversies

In 2016, JNU’s student activism came under scrutiny after a group of protesters, whose identities are yet obscure, allegedly raised anti-national slogans on the campus. This happened at an event to mark the third death anniversary of parliament attack convict, Afzal Guru, on Feb. 9 that year.

The then-student union leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, and seven students from the former state of Jammu & Kashmir were detained over the incident.

On Jan. 14 this year, police framed charges against Kanhaiya Kumar and others, over the incident. Other students including CPI leader D Raja’s daughter Aprajita were caught in the turmoil of the controversy. However, the police did not find any direct evidence of their involvement.

“The label of ‘anti-national’ was used by the ruling party and propagated by the media without any basis, with the sole purpose of maligning the university, its faculty, and students,” said professor Ghosh.

More recent agitations at JNU have targeted vice-chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar, who was appointed in January 2016 and is seen as the central government’s pawn by sections of the students and faculty. They have cited several issues, including the penalties imposed on students whose role was established in the sedition row by an inquiry committee.

They have also accused Kumar of inaction over the case of a student, Najeeb Ahmad, going missing from the university campus. Ahmad was allegedly involved in a brawl with members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student outfit affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Ahmad has not been traced yet.

“There have been continuous attacks on the academic functioning of the institution, led sadly by the VC and his appointed administration. Every statute and norm of the university has been blatantly flouted, requiring students and faculty to take to the courts for even the most standard matters, and the administration has even gone against court orders on occasions,” Ghosh says.


Not everyone, though, is convinced. In multiple threads of tweets, Anurag Singh, an IIM Lucknow alumnus, questioned the entire premise on which the students have been protesting against the fee hikes. One of his first points was that doctoral scholars aren’t subjected to written exams by the university but only interviews. This, he implied, made the whole process suspect.

Sood says these are based on half-baked knowledge.

“Starting with the allegation of 100% viva. This was something that has been brought by the current regime (under VC Kumar). We never supported it,” Sood clarifies. “About arts students completing their course in five years, and students from science taking less time, that depends upon the nature of the discipline itself. Use of equipment and subject selection are among a few things that one needs to consider. (Anurag Singh’s) data has been carefully crafted to show one side of the story.”

When countered with the information that the “viva” mode of student selection was wholly new and that his assertion on Twitter was wrong, Singh didn’t give a clear answer.

Others have accused the students of misbehaving with media personnel and faculty.

“Students did not do anything out of their limits. After several failed attempts of reaching out to the VC, they were forced to protest. For months, they have been writing applications, trying to set up a meeting, but nobody is listening to them,” Sood countered.

The JNU administration, justifying the need to revamp the fee structure, points out that the recent hike is the first in nearly two decades and cites the university’s deficit of Rs45 crore.

Students are unmoved, though. “The entrance exam in the offline mode used to cost Rs3 crore, but the vice-chancellor insisted on changing it to online, which cost around Rs9-12 crore. There is excess burden on the university’s funds,” said N Sai Balaji, national president of the All India Students Association and a former president of the JNU students’ union. “The expenditure on security has also increased…Funds have been spent on statues and unnecessary events.” 

The students allege that the administration has all the data on why students are demanding a complete rollback of the hike, and why free education is necessary for all. “Still, they have asked us to submit suggestions, what new should we say?” Balaji asked.

Not just JNU

JNU may be hogging the limelight, but it isn’t alone.

Quartz had in January 2016 reported on the waves of campus mutinies over several issues, including the cost of education, against the Modi regime ever since it took power first in May 2014. There have been several other uprisings since then.

Here are some of the other recent instances:

AIIMS: AIIMS Resident Doctors Association (RDA) on Nov. 26 strongly opposed a government’s proposal to review the tuition fees for the students and the user charges for various diagnostic procedures like blood tests, X-rays and OPD charges for its patients.

“We need educated and skilled citizens to fulfil our long-cherished dream of becoming a developed nation. This dream can be fulfilled only if both the central and state governments make quality education affordable and health care accessible to all citizens,” AIIMS RDA said in a statement.

IIMC: Students at the premier journalism school Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Delhi, protested on Dec. 3 against fee hikes and “unruly” hostel and mess charges.

IITs: The students of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) across the country are planning to revive their protests against the 900% hike in the tuition fee effected in September. The agitation started last month after the IIT council decided to end the monthly stipend provided to M.Tech students and raised the tuition fee to Rs 2 lakh from Rs20,000-50,000.

The government has decided that students of M.Tech studying in IIT, who so far had to pay only about two-thirds of the fee that B.Tech students had to pay, will now have to pay an equal amount.

TISS: Students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) campuses (including Mumbai and Hyderabad) have also been waging a battle on the issue of fellowship and fee hike. The protests started in July this year after the institute hiked the hostel accommodation fee to Rs56,000 per semester from Rs8,500 for the open category.

National Law School: In July, the National Law School in Bengaluru and Odisha also witnessed the mass protests by the students over administrative issues including an increase in fee.

The cost of higher studies in India has been constantly rising, making it difficult for the poor and marginalised to pursue it without financial pressure.

For instance, National Law Universities (NLUs) are state-funded institutions located in 19 states across India and have courses like BA LLB (Hons) for five years, and the average fee for the course ranges between Rs1.30 lakh and Rs2.02 lakh per annum. And this does not include hostel fees, which costs around Rs90,000 per year.

Engineering education, too, has become more expensive. In 2016, the IIT Council, the highest decision-making body of the institutes, increased the annual fees of B.Tech programmes from Rs60,000 to Rs2 lakh.

Even after paying these hefty fees, the quality of India’s higher education is questionable.

The country’s student-teacher ratio in higher education is 24:1, according to the government’s own statistics, much higher than Sweden’s 12:1, Britain’s 16:1, Russia’s 10:1 and Canada’s 9:1.

“This not only results in overburdening a small group of teachers but also adversely affects the quality of academic research taken up by them,” the Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme (EQUIP) published in July this year observed.

And this is what the protesting students at JNU are demanding—affordable, good quality education for all. Yet, the movement is drawing criticism.

“Mainstream media appears to be obsessed with presenting JNU in a bad light—probably because it produces not only critical thought but thinking citizens, both of which are anathema to those who wish to propagate a particular approach to Indian society,” says professor Ghosh.

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