By Manik Sharma Nov. 12, 2019
It’s odd that the ongoing student protests against fee hikes in JNU are being viewed by most as an excuse for the students to sponge off the privileged taxpayer’s money. Especially in a country where qualifying for a tax slab is in itself a privilege that most would be happy to have.
TS Eliot once wrote, “It is in fact a part of the function of education to help us escape, not from our own time — for we are bound by that — but from the intellectual and emotional limitations of our time.” To make Eliot’s quote more comprehensive for a developing, statistically poor country like India, one might add “structural limitations” to the latter half of that statement.
The lives of most children in India are dictated by their means as opposed to their minds. Access to good education remains, in essence, a financial transaction, which millions in this country still cannot afford. It is therefore odd and rather unfortunate that the ongoing student protests against fee hikes in JNU are being viewed by most as an excuse for the students to sponge off the privileged taxpayer’s money. Especially in a country where qualifying for a tax slab is in itself a privilege that most would be happy to have.
On November 11, protesting students of JNU clashed with the police on campus. Firstly, this gives observers the unfortunate opportunity to view the university in an unflattering light, where it is supposedly full of rebellious, dissenting students, too politically charged for their own good (despite the fact that JNU continues to top rankings for universities in the country). Naturally, the bystander’s opinion of JNU is marred by prejudice borne out of a bigger political narrative. Not too long ago, politicians were making ludicrous claims about finding condoms or empty booze bottles at the university that, one way or the other, found a way to occupy airwaves on prime-time television news. Not considered during the coverage was the fact that this is the place that gave us the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar, communist leader Sitaram Yechury, veteran environmental journalist P Sainath, and our very own defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Then there is the second, perhaps more debilitating problem, which isn’t even specifically a JNU thing but predominantly a flaw in the way Indians perceive education or even basic human rights. As I scrolled past news flashes on the web to know more about the ongoing protests, I saw a crude and crass pattern emerge, especially over Twitter. A number of people reacted not to the abhorrent suppression of the protest by the police (the same police force that itself had taken to the streets in protest last week) but to the revelations that the fees being hiked were startlingly meagre to begin with. The 300 percent fee hike has increased a room’s rent from ₹20 to ₹600 per month.
The instantaneous rejection of JNU is not only ignorant and biased but it is also worryingly elitist. Education, should be elite only in terms of what it offers, not in its methods of access.
While a lot of us pay that margin through the Uber and Ola surge in the week, to the majority of India, that sum isn’t a pittance. This instantaneous rejection of JNU is not only ignorant and biased but it is also worryingly classist and elitist. Education, after all, should be elite only in terms of what it offers, not in its methods of access.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must first admit that I have, wherever I studied, paid a more than decent fee that I’m certain my parents, at some point, contemplated the merit of. That is a privilege in this country that not everyone can afford. Also, I have taken the JNU entrance exam thrice, failing on each occasion. That has not impeded my understanding of what the university offers: Quality higher education to the weakest of weak. I find it repulsive that Indians would believe that quality higher education or fields like art, research, history, or prospective courses like PhDs and doctorates are either pointless or must only be pursued in exchange for a hefty price. Why must a beggar’s son or daughter not aspire to a PhD, or a degree in psychology or literature? Why must they be consigned to the pedantic road to financial heroism, like becoming dancing stars or civil servicemen?
Education is a fundamental right, but the understanding of its fundamentals has become flawed over years. A degree in Humanities is considered obscene compared to the directly lucrative return on investment in Engineering or MBA, as long as you discount the human cost of the exercise. I know because I am a lapsed engineer. These choices are tethered to the market, the former to society. I have more faith in the existence of the latter than the predictability of the former.
Add to that the fact that the eye-wateringly low numbers that people are seemingly appalled by do not similarly shock people when shared in the context of poverty, health, education or jobs in the country. For example in 2015, India redrew the criteria for its poverty line at ₹32 and ₹47 a day for the rural and urban poor, respectively. Could anything in the vicinity of that number of pay for an education of any sort, let alone a graduation degree? The percentage of poor that fall into this category still stands at 21 per cent. Education to them is notional. It is reassuring to me that there exists a place that offers quality higher education to this section, at paltry (for us) sums of ₹20 for a room.
For years I have seen rich Indians pay their way to Ivy League educations, only for them to return and further colonise culture, art, and political discourse. It happens because we have come to assume that education is circular, that it must only embellish privilege with yet more naked, greedy privilege. Which is why we gawk at JNU’s fees with envy, instead of criticising the worth of what we paid for instead. The truth of the matter is that JNU’s fee structure shouldn’t be an exception but the norm. Education is not the fruit that must be bickered over for price. It’s the tree, that needs to be there for everyone, through sun and shade.