The JNU uprising has profound implications for India’s student community

Voicing out.
Voicing out.
Image: REUTERS/Danish SiddiquI
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Geeta Kumari, a PhD scholar at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), is distraught.

The 26-year-old from Panipat in the north Indian state of Haryana is anxious that her dream of becoming the first in her family to complete a doctorate may not come true. The varsity’s recent move to hike the cost of studying at the institution five-fold has put this scholar of modern history in a financial predicament.

“Some of us (students) come from the poorest of poor families,” Kumari told Quartz. “We can’t afford private institutions. Even if we take loans, we won’t be able to repay given the lack of jobs. In a country like India, education is all we have. Now that’s also being snatched away from us.”

Kumari is not alone. Some 40% of JNU students may be hit by the increase in hostel, mess, and security fees announced on Nov. 12. Under the new hostel fee structure, students have to pay a newly introduced service charge of Rs1,700 ($23.73) per month. Rent for a single room has been increased from Rs20 per month to Rs600, and for a double-sharing room from Rs10 to Rs300.

On Nov. 26, following continuous protests, the students got some reprieve.

A high-level committee set up by the university administration gave a 75% concession on some facilities for students coming from families below the poverty line (minimum level of income required to meet the basic needs). It also recommended a 50% concession on services and utility charges for all hostellers.

Why then are the protesters still holding marches and protesting outside the ministry of human resource development (HRD) in New Delhi, all braving police heavy-handedness?

A JNU protest in New Delhi on Nov. 18.
A JNU protest in New Delhi on Nov. 18.
Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

What is it about JNU that puts it at loggerheads with the establishment frequently? Most importantly, what does all this mean for India’s institutions of higher learning?

After all, these students have found vocal support from those of institutions across the country, including the Indian Institutes of Technology in Mumbai and Gandhinagar, and central institutions like Kolkata’s Jadavpur University.

“This isn’t just our fight. We are fighting for the future of even those who are trying to shut our voices. Our children and coming generations must have access to affordable higher education, otherwise, we won’t be able to grow as a society,” said Kumari.

Unbowed and unbroken

Ever since its establishment in 1974, JNU has earned a reputation for being a bastion of left-wing intellectuals and thoughts and a hotbed of political activism.

“From 1974 till 2008 and 2012 to 2017, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has won the post of president 22 times,” a study conducted by Economic and Political Weekly in 2018 (pdf) observed. The All India Students’ Association (AISA), the student outfit of the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) follows with 11 mandates, while candidates from independent socialist platforms have won eight times.”

The study further noted that candidates representing parties that dominate the government at the centre have always lost the post of president, except in the 1991 and 2000 elections.

However, professors assert that there is a platform for students across the ideological spectrum.

“While JNU has produced some of the most prominent left intellectuals in the country, it has also produced many right-wing intellectuals and others who have gone on to become the ruling elites of the country,” says Jayati Ghosh, professor at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at JNU.

Atul Sood, a professor and former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA), agrees. “We have a long list of students excelling in every field who continue to hold relevant positions in the country irrespective of their ideologies.”

Sood’s claims have merit. Many in prime minister Narendra Modi’s rightwing government identify JNU as their alma mater. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman did her masters in economics here in 1984; foreign affairs minister S Jaishankar is a former student. So is Amitabh Kant, CEO of the government thinktank, Niti Aayog.

Yet, the campus’s anti-establishment identity has stuck.

Its rebellious character goes back as far as 1977, when the then JNU Students Union president and current leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitaram Yechury, led a march to former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s residence. With the powerful Gandhi standing next to him, Yechury read out the reasons why she should step down as the university’s chancellor—she was holding the post even after she was defeated in the 1977 Indian general elections. 

The incident led to Gandhi’s resignation from the post the very next day.

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.