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Last Updated : Nov 20, 2019 09:01 AM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Politics | The JNU protest illustrates the glaring socio-economic divide in India

Governments at the Centre have seldom been at ease with JNU because of its politically-active and socially-conscious student community.

A JNU student reacts as she is detained by police during a protest against a proposed fee hike, in New Delhi, November 18, 2019
A JNU student reacts as she is detained by police during a protest against a proposed fee hike, in New Delhi, November 18, 2019

On Monday, November 18, India’s capital New Delhi witnessed two unfortunate events. Protesting students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were met with brutal police action. A day later, on November 19, an FIR was registered against the protesters for rioting and damaging public property. As media personality and former MP Pritish Nandy put it, it’s foolish of a government to meet protesting students with its storm troopers.

The second event was that on the first day of the winter session of Parliament, Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was imposed in Delhi. That prohibitory orders were imposed in the world’s largest democracy to protect its ‘temple of democracy’ from a group of protesting students is a reflection of how its leaders conduct themselves.

At its core the JNU protest is a students’ demonstration which has now snowballed into a ‘face-off’ with authorities, and has turned into a complex socio-political hot potato. This has happened because of government/administrative apathy, media misrepresentation and the economic chasm that divides India.

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It is due to the university administration’s apathy that the protest has been on for more than three weeks. As we know now, the fee hike will directly affect about 40 per cent of the students currently studying in JNU, and yet the vice chancellor has not deemed it fit to meet and listen to their grievances. The protest makes it evident that the students no longer have faith in the university administration.

Governments at the Centre have seldom been at ease with JNU: If in the past it was the Congress governments that were at the receiving end, now it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The university’s predominantly left-leaning politics has been a major reason for this. Another reason has been the presence of a politically-active and socially-conscious student community, which has constantly scrutinised the actions of the administration and various governments. At times this has been with bipartisan consent, as is the case now. Both the Left-led JNU Students’ Union and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) are protesting against the fee hike.

Given this, the governments’ displeasure towards JNU, though not justified, is understandable.

However, how does one explain the way in which sections of the media have yet again chosen to cover the JNU protest? A news agency, which released a video showing police chasing and beating protesting students, chose to label it as a “clash” between students and the police!

While almost every media outlet reported the JNU protest and the partial rollback of fees, it is to be seen as to how many have taken time to explain the nature of the rollback and why it is too little or, as the students say, ‘cosmetic’ or ‘nothing but headline management’. How many have cared to highlight that while the partial fee hike rollback is aimed at students in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category and that the authorities are yet to decide on how to identify eligible students. How many have reported that the fee hike was one among the many reasons for the protests?

In this context, it must be remembered that it was almost four years ago, while reporting another protest in JNU, sections of the media used fake news and aired doctored protest videos to brand protesting students ‘anti-national’.

In the current case, rather than clearing the smog of misinformation and disinformation that was surrounding the protest, senior journalists took to social media skewing the debate and furthering myths about ‘never-ending PhDs’, or equating the protests to the ‘next thing after Bengal famine to hit Indian shores’ or portraying students as a bunch of freeloaders. This proved that facts are not always sacred, and that many of the journalists who strolled through the power corridors of Lutyens’ Delhi were far removed from the reality where for a majority of Indians spending Rs 6-7,000 a month on education is unthinkable.

A beef many people have with the protesting students is the low rents they pay for their hostel rooms — the lowest being Rs 10 per month. The questions are: How can the rent be so low? To have such cheap accommodation in South Delhi is unimaginable! Why should rents be subsidised for every student? Those who can pay, must pay, and so on. A positive takeaway from this is that it could lead to a discussion on the nature of current subsidies in the higher education sector. Another could be that through this episode the urban middle and upper-middle class will realise that beyond its city or town limits there is an India, an economically weak and underprivileged India, where life and realities are starkly different.

Post-Script: Just outside the JNU main gate is Budh Vihar, Munirka, where relatively affordable housing (by South Delhi standards) and eateries can be found. In JNU, of course, food and accommodation is subsidised. Near the faculty quarters and just outside JNU’s west gate there is a foot over bridge which connects the campus to Vasant Kunj — to three shopping malls, of which one is a luxury shopping mall where a leather belt or a shoe could put you behind by Rs 50,000. Thus, in a metaphorical manner, the JNU campus is the bridge between the two realities we see around us. The JNU protest and the surrounding controversy has showed that more than seven decades after Independence, the socio-economic chasm in India is as wide as ever.

@VijuCherian

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First Published on Nov 20, 2019 08:57 am
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