Central universities have become vibrant sites of protest largely because they mirror the social conflict of larger Indian society. It is precisely why student outbursts are likely to punctuate the peace that authorities seek to impose on university campuses.

To begin with, the social conflict involves the relatively disempowered groups challenging the hegemony of upper castes. It has the peasants, regardless of their caste, and Adivasis rising against the state’s attempts to dispossess them of their resources. It has the religious minorities simmering at the immunity their tormentors seem to enjoy, and women seeking to establish gender equality.

This has goaded the state into suppressing expressions of discontent, either by frightening agitators through threats of booking them for sedition or tagging them as anti-national. Thus, universities are bristling because sections of society are too.

Institutes of higher education have been rarely insulated from social turmoil. Students protested against the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed in 1975. Before it, students went underground in the hope of ushering in a Red revolution. Then, in 1990, students spearheaded the agitation against the Central government’s decision to introduce reservations for Other Backward Classes in jobs.

What we are witnessing today in Central universities is, in some senses, the reverse of what happened during the anti-reservation stir. Through it upper caste-upper class students sought to preserve their interests. Today, it is students from relatively marginalised groups – in terms of caste or class – asserting their rights and challenging the hegemony of upper castes.

Campus composition

Caste has always lurked on India’s campuses. In 2016, the issue of caste discrimination and conflict occupies centre stage.

This couldn’t have happened if the social composition of our central universities had not undergone a dramatic change over the last 10 years. In 2006, the Union government extended reservations for Other Backward Classes in institutes of higher education it substantially funded. The Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, extended 27% reservations for OBCs. Added to the existing 22.5% quota for SCs and STs, this brought up education reservations in such institutions to 49.5%.

This decision reduced the overwhelming majority upper caste students once enjoyed here.

At best, upper caste students now constitute 50% of a central university’s total student strength, unless quota rules are clandestinely subverted, as is alleged to be done on some campuses. In reality, however, upper caste students are in minority on some campuses. This is largely because students from Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes also get admission through the general category.

The change in the social composition of central universities has created a space in student politics for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes students. These students have either experienced caste discrimination and economic deprivations directly, or indirectly through the narratives of their parents. A section of them fit the descriptor of first-generation learner.

It is because of them that campuses today resonate with the vocabulary of equality, opposition to social discrimination, and empathy for the victims of the State. These were ideas universities embraced since Independence. From 2006, however, the students have demanded that universities act upon, or execute, the very ideas they trumpet.

This can be illustrated through the example of Hyderabad Central University. Its Dalit students were disparaged and discriminated against even before 2006. This was brought out evocatively in a chapter in University of Hyderabad alumnus, N Sukumar’s book –Beyond Inclusion: The Practice of Equal Access in Indian Higher Education where Sukumar’s details his personal experience. There were protests then too, suicides as well.

But the number of non-upper castes students was just not enough to give their protests critical mass. This started to change a year or two after 2006. In 2008-2009, SC, ST and OBC students numbered 1,418, or 41.4%, of HCU’s total student strength of 3,426. Four years later, in 2013-2014, 3,038 out of HCU’s 5,159 students, or 58.9%, belonged to the reserved category. Reservations, and opposition to it, have led to solidarity among students belonging to the three disparate categories.

This is why Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula and his friends could confront the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which objected to their protests against the hanging of Yakub Memon, whom the Supreme Court convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of Bombay. This is also why Vemula’s suicide prompted HCU students to rally against the authorities. Earlier, as Sukumar shows, the suicide of Dalit students barely registered on the university’s radar, let alone the country’s.

Diverse backgrounds

The change in the social composition of Jawaharlal Nehru University is also an important factor why it has become a simmering cauldron. In 2013-2014, SC, ST and OBC students comprised 47.4% of JNU’s total student strength of 7,677. The next year, they comprised 51.4% of JNU’s students. In reality, their presence was greater than the percentages reflect. For instance, in 2013-2014, 249 SC, ST and OBC students were also selected on merit through the general category.

In addition, the Jawaharlal Nehru University admission policy gives preferential points to applicants who belong to economically backward districts, and to women. Thus, it is more likely for an OBC female student from a backward district to enter JNU than an OBC male student from a metro. Likewise, an upper caste student from a backward district gets preferential treatment over his or her counterpart from a metro. This is why you are more likely to meet a Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU and not in, say, St Stephen’s College.

It also explains the felicity with which the JNU student union president can stitch Marx with Ambedkar, Phule with Lenin. Acute experience of impoverishment does make an upper caste sensitive to the deprivations arising because of the caste system, though, obviously, ideological indoctrination also plays a role. Similarly, the travails of lower castes do make their students sensitive to human rights violations in, say, Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or in places to which they do not belong.

Students from a socially diverse background bring their consciousness and experiences to the campus. Thus, for instance, HCU students have hosted beef-pork festivals, as have JNU’s. The diverse social composition of JNU is the factor Pramod Ranjan, consulting editor of the Forward Press, cites to explain the celebration of Mahishashur – the buffalo demon Durga slayed – in JNU.

In a piece Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU In the Crosshairs, which was published in countercurrents.org, Ranjan wrote:

“From within the Hindu religion – which was the mainstay of the Sangh’s politics – rose dissenting voices that proclaimed that they would not worship the goddess who massacred tribals, backwards and Dalits.”

To bolster his argument, Ranjan quoted the proponents of the Mahishashur movement in JNU:

“You may have presented our heroes as villains in your scriptures but we will dig them out from non-brahmanical texts and re-anoint them.”

Such cultural contestations predate the advent of the Modi government. However, the earlier United Progressive Alliance regime looked upon it benignly, perhaps believing in the dictum that “students can only be students” – contrarian and deviant.

For the Sangh Parivar, traditionally upper caste in ethos and orientation, such discourses represent a subliminal challenge to its worldview – and, therefore, need to be countered robustly. This is why the Sangh Parivar’s organ, Panchjanya, featured a cover story – JNU: Darar ka gadh (JNU, the den of divisiveness) – lashing out against the prestigious educational institute.

We have had the Union government justifying the suspension of Vemula and his friends, and supporting HCU authorities even though, if for nothing else, they should have been penalised for letting the campus slip into disarray. We have had bigwigs from the Bharatiya Janata Party decry JNU students as anti-national and the Delhi Police dutifully file cases of sedition against some of them.

Indeed, the conflict on India’s campuses has been tackled ideologically as also in a brazenly partisan manner. Take Richa Singh, who heads the student union of Allahabad University, which, as a central institution, also introduced OBC reservations. In 2013-2014, SC, ST and OBC students constituted 54.2% of Allahabad University. Female students accounted for 31.6% of the student population.

But Allahabad is neither Hyderabad nor Delhi in its political culture. Here OBCs gravitate to Samajwadi Chatra Sabha, a student wing of the Samajwadi Party, and upper castes tend to rally behind the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Singh secured the support of the Samajwadi Chatra Sabha whose candidate was disqualified, and won the election.

Singh symbolises the rise of independent women’s voices. She objected to BJP MP Mahant Adityanath visiting the campus on the grounds that he was communal and anti-women. In turn, when Singh invited journalist Siddharth Varadarajan for a talk, the protests by the ABVP led to the event being hosted outside the campus.

In an interview to the Hindustan Times, Singh described her politics thus:

“I raised issues of students who are not affiliated to parties and interested in academic work, of women who face a range of issues here, and Dalits whose voice is barely audible in the Brahman-Thakur-OBC dominant politics of universities.”

Her assertions and activism have provoked Allahabad University to examine the validity of her admission – an attempt by the university to please the bosses in Delhi, besides frightening her into submission.

The Modi government’s use of state power to ideologically intervene in the social ferment on campuses, which mirror the conflict in society, is precisely why the contagion of protest will afflict other central universities. As Singh, in an interview to Outlook magazine, warned, “Allahabad is the next Hyderabad.”

Social churn

This isn’t because of the action-reaction dynamics that drive university campuses around the world. It is rather on account of the unrest in universities being inextricably linked to the churning in society.

Obviously, this churning doesn’t seem to have impacted higher education institutes in the private sector, which could well become the bulwark against the protest acquiring greater depth. Between 2001 and 2010, higher education may have more than doubled its institutions, from 254 to 544, but, as sociologist Satish Deshpande has shown, this growth has been largely in the private sector, which accounted for 63.2% of this surge.

Upper caste-middle class students who, before 2006, dominated central universities have fuelled this phenomenal growth. Today, they need an excellent academic record to make the cut there so they make a beeline for private institutes, which charge exorbitant fees, instead.

It is perhaps unlikely that these students will have empathy for the protesting students of central universities. After all, students forced to go to private institutes blame the reservation policy for their failure to enter state-subsidised institutions. This is also why television anchorpersons, mostly upper caste-middle class, make vacuous arguments in which they question the right to protest of students who partake of subsidised education.

The other feature of unrest on university campuses is the absence of Mahatma Gandhi in the speeches of students. They have invoked Ambedkar and Marx, not him. Perhaps Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship – of upper castes willingly reforming themselves to liberate those lower to them in the Hindu hierarchy – sounds hollow and patronising to lower caste students who are opposed to the very idea of Brahminical Hinduism.

The absence of Gandhi in campus politics is arguably the most eloquent testament to the link between 2006 – when reservations in central institutes of higher education were extended to Other Backward Classes – and the ongoing unrest on central universities campuses.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

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