Students Occupy UGC to Defend the Right to Research in Universities Across India: Sucheta De
Guest Post by Sucheta De.
[ Videos by V. Arun, Om Prasad, Akhil Kumar, with Facebook Post Updates by Shehla Rashid and Akhil Kumar ]
#SaveNonNETfellowship: A movement for ensuring democratic, inclusive and pluralistic research in India
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
On the afternoon of 21st October, students from several universities in Delhi began ‘Occupying’ the Delhi premises of the head-office of University Grants Commission (UGC) – the government mandated body under the Ministry of Human Resources that is supposed to govern the functioning of universities across the country. The occupation continued through the night of the 21st, the day of the 22nd, and is still currently in process. The students occupying the UGC premises have decided, as of now, not to let the UGC function. Goons from the BJP aligned students organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) have now reached the UGC and are continuously harassing and abusing the student activists who are in ‘occupation’ of UGC. There is heavy police presence. There is a state of near siege at the UGC head quarters near ITO Chowk in Delhi.
Why did students feel compelled to take this step? This article is an attempt to understand these compulsions.
The immediate provocation for the student’s sense of outrage was the recommendation made by the UGC to cancel a whole set of fellowships given to students engaged in research at the M.Phil and Ph.D level. What are these fellowships, and what will their proposed cancellation amount to?
The University Grants Commission Non-National Eligibility Test (UGC Non-NET) Fellowship Scheme was started in 2008 to encourage research in universities in India. So far, it has proved to be a life-line for researchers who do not have access to other scholarships. It has encouraged students from very different socio-economic backgrounds to enter and continue research and higher education. Currently, the UGC Non NET Fellowship offers a stipend of Rupees 5,000 for M.Phil Students, and Rupees 8,000 for Ph.D students. In fact, what is required today is to increase the amount from the paltry sum of 5000 for M.Phil students and 8000 for Ph.D students and also extend the fellowship to all central and state universities in India. The demand to increase the stipend in keeping with rising inflation, so that research scholars can bear the cost of staying in higher education has been a demand of many student organizations.
The present BJP led government at the centre, deploys its favourite slogan – “#MakeInIndia” – with considerable fanfare to grant loan waivers and subsidies to giant corporate houses and to tamper with labour laws in order to ensure cheap and compliant labour for the extraction of super profits. It does not however think it at all necessary to recognize, or even acknowledge, the democratic process of knowledge production in India and by students in Indian universities !
What else can explain the UGC’s decision ?
The recent move by UGC to stop the non NET fellowship for M.Phil. and Ph.D. students not only exposes the lies and deceit of the hollow slogans of the Modi government, but if seen in context of other government decisions in recent years such as- imposition of semester system, programmes like FYUP and CBCS and also frequent fund cuts, points towards a systematic effort by the last as well as the current government to create a level playing field for Education to be sold off as a tradable service to the highest bidder. This would be in keeping with the likely outcome of the deliberations of the Tenth Ministerial Conference of WTO to be held from 15-18 December 2015 at Nairobi, Kenya, which will have massive repercussions for education, at a global scale.
In 2005, the Congress led UPA government had expressed its readiness to allow traders in education from all WTO compliant entities (across the world) by ‘OFFERING’ to establish colleges, universities and other technical or professional institutions in India as for-profit commercial ventures. However, perhaps keeping in view the strong adverse reaction such a move would have provoked, a ‘final commitment’ was not made at that time, leaving space for any future government to withdraw the ‘offer’.
As the December 2015 WTO Conference approaches, the present BJP government, despite all its ‘Nationalist’ claims, is openly demonstrating its keenness to submit to WTO diktats, thereby ensuring a complete ‘Sell Out’ of Higher Education ! The withdrawal of a whole tranche of research fellowships has become a policy goal the for current government, because this is the kind of signal (of creating a ‘level playing field’ for new entrants to the Education Bazaar) that it it needs to to send to the WTO. This is what will enable a new commercial sector of ‘for-profit’ educational institutions that can also can help meet the target of dismantling the infrastructure of public support to higher education and research in state and central universities across India.
On 20 October 2015, as soon as the news of a resolution being passed in UGC for withdrawal of fellowships was received, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) immediately called for a protest at UGC office on the following day afternoon i.e. 21 October 2015. A letter from rom the JNUSU to the UGC authorities protesting the recommendation to cut the NonNet Fellowships was despatched (and received by the UGC) on October 21st itself. Several left and progressive sections supported the call and on 21 October the UGC office was swarmed by hundreds of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi University (DU), Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi (JMI) and Ambedkar University, Delhi (AUD). The students were given assurances that ‘meetings’ with UGC officials would ‘continue’, but they were not given any direct response to their demand. Accordingly, the students decided to stay the night and ‘Occupy’ the UGC HQ Premises.
The students who gathered there included students keen on pursuing research in near future and also several hundreds of students already pursuing research and hence in no danger of having their existing fellowship ended and students not yet pursuing research and who may or may not pursue research. They had gathered with a common agenda and a common slogan that was amply clear in their posters and the graffiti that they painted at night inside the UGC office
It is extremely shameful and condemnable that the UGC chairperson Ved Prakash refused to meet the student delegation and the students were harassed. Undeterred, they entered the UGC premises by evening, refusing to leave the premises till their demand of reverting this decision was accepted. The slogans of #SaveNonNETfellowship trended not just on social media but echoed in and around UGC office.
The number of students began to gradually increase as the evening approached the night time. #OccupyUGC till demands are met was the next decision of the gathered students. The entire night was spent chanting slogans singing protest songs and painting.
They continued to remain there despite having faced assaults that led students getting injured. AISA leader and former JNUSU Vice president Anant Prakash Nayaran was hit on the head and had to be rushed to the emergency. The police stationed in the UGC took their sheer insensitivity to the level that they disallowed protesting women students from even using restroom to relieve themselves!! However, nothing stopped the students from continuing to gather. In fact, as the night passed and sun arose, more students begin to join.
It is important here to also highlight the role of the ABVP (student wing of RSS) that is in full majority in Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) and also has a presence in JNUSU in the form of Jt. Secretary of JNUSU and a few councillors. Not only did ABVP remain absent from any attempts at mobilization and from the site of protest, but as the night of 21 October approached, they began a deceitful and slanderous campaign to weaken the student movement. On the midnight of 22 October, they brought out a protest poster calling students to gather outside UGC on 26 October (when students were already occupying the UGC office). The very next morning, they did a quick u-turn and suddenly began to claim that their representatives had met the HRD Minister Smriti Irani who had accepted their demands.
They publicized a ‘letter’ from them, dated 21 October, that they said they had submitted to the MHRD office The copy of this letter that they made public only carried a ‘received’ stamp (dated 21 October 2015).
If the minister had indeed accepted their demands following from a meeting that the ABVP had with her on the 21st of October, than what was the necessity of their giving a call for a protest in the early hours of 22 October and also, why is their a continuing reluctance on their part to show an official notification from the Ministry stating that their demand had been met?
A copy of a memorandum with a ‘received’ stamp from those it has been submitted to proves nothing. Neither that a demand has been accepted, nor that it has been rejected. When the ABVP’s lies were busted, they begin another yet slander campaign claiming that all positions in the UGC were occupied by “communists”.
Has ABVP forgotten that the the UGC comes directly under the MHRD which is run by a BJP minister who is known to openly take orders from, and report to, the extreme right wing RSS? Does the ABVP not know of RSS appointees to the UGC such as Inder Mohan Kapahy (a founding member of NDTF, the front organisation of RSS active amongst university teachers)? Can they produce any dissenting note authored by Mr. Kapahy, say in the wake of the 7th October meeting of the UGC during which the decision to stop the UGC Non NET Fellowship was taken? Does the ABVP not know of BJP’s stand on WTO?
As students forget about holidays and festivities and unite to defend their rights and to safeguard democratized and quality research production in India, all the ABVP can think of doing are attempts at slander and efforts to sabotage and betray the students’ mobilization.
Even as I write this – after two days of occupy struggle at UGC, a few goons from ABVP have appeared at UGC. They are hurling vile sexist abuses at us, the protesters who are inside the UGC Building Campus and are even throwing stones at us from the outside. The police is present, watching The claims of the right-wing goons about their respect / samman for ma (mother) and bah (sites) is quite evident in the frequency with which they invoke these two words (mother and sister) in the prefixes to the abuses that they hurl at us. These are the people who will protect ‘Indian Culture’ in university campuses. They are doing a very fine job of executing what they profess here at the UGC headquarters. Apart from showing their deep respect to mothers and sisters by hurling abuses about mothers and sisters, the only purpose of their late night visit seems to be to threaten and intimidate the peaceful student protesters in the building.
We, the students who are committed to defending Universities as spaces for higher research accessible to all will not allow ourselves to be made into playthings by the UGC authorities, the RSS compliant mandarins of the Ministry of Human Resources Development or for that matter by the ABVP goons and their masters. Democratic and open access to research in higher education is far too important an issue for us to allow this to happen.
The domain of research for long has remained the tool to ensure socio-cultural and economic reproduction. There was a time when only those with tremendous economic and socio-cultural capital could afford to spend their youth carrying out research while others from non-elite sections struggled to earn their livelihoods and ensure their survival. Just think of a 25 year old Indian male or female coming from an under-privileged background who has somehow managed to complete a post-graduate degree despite severe economic constraints.
Given the division of gender roles that operates in a patriarchal society like ours, in all likelihood the pressure on the male student would be to not even think of pursuing research but focus on finding a job in order to sustain the family. At the same time, the pressure on the female student is to marry, immediately, with parents and other elders telling her that any further delay in marriage will significantly hamper the prospects of finding a ‘desirable’ groom’. For the vast majority of young men and women the pressures to enter the job market are so huge that most would not be in a position to consider the option of research and further study without the incentive of a fellowship. As it is, for youth hailing from unprivileged, oppressed and marginalised sections, pursuing research is a much discouraged and moreover near impossible to pursue option.
The UGC Non NET fellowship, as it stands at present, is meagre, and actually needs to be enhanced if it is to really meet the needs of the students it is supposed to help. Instead of thinking in that direction, the UGC has actually recommended scrapping it altogether. There is something really perverse in this desire to willfully trample the hopes and expectations of millions of young people in India. It is a slap on their face – telling them – don’t even think about pursuing a desire for intellectual enrichment. Do not ask basic and fundamental questions. Kill your curiosities and desires to enter and engage with an intellectually vibrant life.
It should be noted that research involves not merely a perusal and memorization or comprehension of what has been already discovered and theorized but sincere efforts to add to, modify or replace the existing body of knowledge. Anyone who has pursued research will tell you how undertaking quality research is an extremely expensive pursuit. The expenses range from buying numerous books, to procuring Xeroxes worth thousands, to having to gain membership and travel to near and distant libraries, to procuring expensive chemicals or lab apparatus or other devices, to traveling the length and breadth of the country in order to gather primary data (which involves incurring costs in the form of travel, stay and sustenance during the field work period), to procuring expensive software packages for undertaking analysis and the expenses incurred during the process of printing and submission. And these are only approximate assessments of the costs involved! Added to this is the cost of ‘postponing’ or deferring one’s entry into the job market in order to complete one’s quest as a researcher.
Can one even imagine that a common youth from a deprived background or even from an average middle class background would be able to pursue research in the absence of public funding guaranteed by institutions? Can we be silent or vocal supporters of a system of knowledge production that blatantly privileges some sections and excludes others? The democratization of the process of knowledge production is essential not just to enable all youths, irrespective of their background to pursue research, but also to ensure that the ‘ruling ideas’ dominating our course books and academic and socio-political discourses are not the ideas of just the monolithic majoritarian ruling establishment! For our knowledge systems to be contextual, sensitive to the specific problems confronting our society and nation and reflective of our plurality, the process of their production must necessarily be inclusive. Thus, the cost of research endeavour must be borne by the state from the funds that citizens pay as taxes. The government must realise that the number of years a student spends to pursue M.Phil. or Ph.D. are not just years spent in persuasion of a degree but years spent in the production knowledge.
Even in the past two days alone students have shown they are not willing to relent on this question. Today not only in the national capital but as far as even Arunachal Pradesh, voices of protest are growing louder. At the UGC office, the effigies of the Prime Minister leading this neo-liberal attack and his stooge in UGC, the UGC chairperson Ved Prakash, were burnt. The students have decided to continue with their protest and continue occupy UGC even tomorrow and not let any official work happen till their demands are met.
It is noteworthy that in times when the leading corporates in the country are busy making fun of students’ struggle against sale of education, the student and youth are showing their mettle and proving what they are made of. At this juncture of our struggle, I extend my appreciation for common students across universities who have come together to fight for a more egalitarian higher education. Our fight for a democratic, secular, scientific and inclusive education will continue.
Join the movement to #SaveNonNETfellowship and gather in UGC to #OccupyUGC till our demands are met!
Students United Shall Always be Victorious.
Sucheta De is the National President of the All India Students Association (AISA)
POST SCRIPT : Even as this is being edited. The Police finally cracked down on us. The ABVP goons outside are untouched. We have been taken to Bhalswa Police Station at the Outskirts of Delhi. Here are two status updates from two comrades, Shehla Rashid and Akhil Kumar who have been taken in by the police.