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Penalising Progressive Student Activism

The punitive action taken against students fighting for genuine causes (against sexual harassment and for workers' rights) in institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Kashi Vidyapeeth highlights the high-handedness of the respective administrations. Far from implementing measures that have been raised as demands by the students, the administrations are bent upon punishing students for participating in protests.

Penalising ProgressiveStudent Activism

The punitive action taken against students fighting for genuine causes (against sexual harassment and for workers’ rights) ininstitutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Kashi Vidyapeeth highlights the high-handedness of the respectiveadministrations. Far from implementing measures that have been raised as demands by the students, the administrations are bentupon punishing students for participating in protests.

KAVITA KRISHNAN

T
he spectacle of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) leaders on an Ujjain campus publicly man-handling a professor is the dominant image of student politics of our time – an image that the media likes to project with horrified fascination. It is this spectacle that most university authorities evoke when they seek to purge a campus of student leaders. The Indian middle class loves to lament that the days of selfless student politics are over; and that if only student politics could revive some of its social commitment, it could hold out some hope for national politics too.

What, then, is the attitude of university authorities when faced with models of student activism that do, in fact, display public spirit and express an youthful urge to tackle social injustices? Do they applaud and nurture such instances? Or do they brand each and every student movement as a disruption of discipline and “law and order”, requiring punitive purges?

I

A closer look at two recent cases of such wholesale purges of student leaders – at Kashi Vidyapeeth in Varanasi and at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi – provokes disturbing questions about the way in which university authorities define “law and order”. Both instances relate to student agitations that took place in February this year.

Kashi Vidyapeeth Incidents

On February 21 in Kashi Vidyapeeth, a student in the first year of her Masters programme in music was subjected to sexual harassment by a teacher who was known to have similarly harassed other students. Female students on the campus complained to the vice chancellor (VC) and to the campus women’s cell. The “women’s cell” at Vidyapeeth is not constituted according to Supreme Court guidelines; it has no independent members from outside the campus, but instead consists of three appointees of the VC. The head of this cell also happens to be the warden of the women’s hostel. On receiving the complaint, this head, far from initiating an enquiry, pressurised the complainant in withdrawing her complaint, threatening otherwise to ruin her career. Women students held several protests, demanding action against the offending teacher, and also an enquiry into the role of the existing women’s cell and the constitution of a fresh complaints cell based on the Supreme Court directives regarding sexual harassment at the workplace. Receiving no response, they announced a relay hunger strike and dharna to begin on February 26. The VC then debarred the accused teacher from the campus, but refused to consider reconstituting the women’s cell. At this point, a large number of students (mostly women but including some men too) marched to the VC’s office. Here, the VC himself slapped one of the leading organisers of the protest (Sarita, an activist of the All-India Students’ Association who is also a former vice-president of the students’ union) and snatched her mobile. He also snatched and smashed cameras belonging to media persons. This was followed by severe lathicharge on the protestors as well as media people.

The women students along with media persons gheraoed the thana and succeeded in getting an FIR filed against the VC and the proctor; the proctor and the teacher accused of sexual harassment were both arrested. The vice chancellor publicly apologised for the violence on the students and set up an enquiry committee into the incident. It was assumed that the students stood vindicated. However, it turned out that the enquiry committee’s brief was not to enquire into the incident of sexual harassment, nor into the role of the women’s

Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007

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Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007

cell in threatening and pressurising the complainant, nor into the lathicharge – the enquiry was instituted purely to turn the protesting students into culprits.

During the summer break, several students who had completed their graduation were informed that they were debarred from giving entrance exams to postgraduate courses. No reason was given for this action; even the enquiry is yet to come up with any report. Students filed a Right to Information (RTI) affidavit but are yet to receive any explanation as to what process was followed to penalise them. Eventually the students were summoned and told that if they gave an undertaking that they would never contest elections nor participate in any movement, they might be allowed to appear in the entrance exams. Those who complied were allowed to appear in the exams. Those who did not included some of the leading organisers – Sarita (who was debarred from appearing in her MA Hindi entrance), Shikha (debarred from giving the entrance to a journalism course) and Lakshman (a student of journalism whose 1st year result has been withheld). Further, the scholarship that Sarita received from the UP government as a student from the backward classes was also withheld.

Jawaharlal Nehru UniversityIncidents

In JNU in November it came to light that some 15 construction labourers on the campus were laid off work because they had demanded Rs 70 as opposed to the Rs 65 per day that they had been getting. Shocked by the fact that this wage was far less than the minimum wage (then Rs 127.40 in Delhi), the students’ union and several other students had taken up a campaign to ensure minimum wages. Despite the fact that JNU’s own rules and regulations state that JNU authorities are responsible for ensuring payment of minimum wage to workers – including workers employed on construction sites – as well as for ensuring maintenance of muster rolls, displaying of wage rates on display boards at work sites, JNU authorities consistently shrugged off their responsibility as principal employers. In November and December, students took the initiative of running a community kitchen for laid off workers on campus – an initiative in which the teaching community too took a lot of interest.

Subsequently, several times, students themselves had to ensure payment of minimum wages through their physical presence and intervention. The JNU authorities tried to claim that they have no legal responsibility to ensure minimum wages. Section 2 (g) (iv) of the Contract Labour Act 1970 defines the principal employer as “in any other establishment, any person responsible for the supervision and control of the establishment”. In a university, clearly, this person would be the university authority, presumably the VC. The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) would itself be merely a contractor, a service provider engaged by the university which further engages other contractors for works. The principal employer is expected to monitor whether minimum wages and amenities are being provided to workers; if the contractor fails to do so, the principal employer must provide the same at the cost of the contractor. But this was never done in JNU. It was left to students, month after month, to respond to frantic calls from workers and rush to monitor the process of wage payments, and to pressurise the contractors to disburse payments at minimum wage rates.

The JNU students also obtained through the RTI, documents dating to June-July 2006 that show JNU authorities, including the registrar to have signed on contracts for mess and hygiene workers that allow for wages clearly beneath the prevailing minimum wage. In the wake of the students’ movement on this issue, the administration has recently issued circulars stating minimum wages for mess workers, but there is still no administrative mechanism in place to monitor, enforce or guarantee it. Also there is no proof whether the statutory PF, ESI deductions from each labourer’s minimum wage is being deposited in individual worker’s accounts.

Statements of JNU authorities in the media were a tacit admission that minimum wages occupy a backseat in their concerns. In the Indian Express dated February 27, 2007, the rector Rajendra Prasad is quoted as saying, “We want to carry out infrastructure development on the campus…The worst part is the fear such protests instil in contractors. We assured them that our students won’t create any problems. We now have to assure them that there will be no problems before they agree to take up work…We are trying to rope in contractors but they are now quoting more money since we have asked them to pay (minimum) wages.” These statements let the cat out of the bag: that prior to the students’ agitation, the JNU administration had not made any gesture towards implementing minimum wage laws, and that their main concern was to assure contractors that they would not be troubled by students’ protests, rather than to assure workers that their due wage would be paid!

On February 19, when students’ posters on the subject of minimum wages were torn off from the administrative building at the direction of the registrar, students began to protest. They were told that the posters in full public view would “give the university a bad name” since they would be seen by dignitaries who were due to visit that day. After several hours an impasse developed. Students “gheraoed” the registrar’s car demanding that he convene a meeting to discuss the issue of minimum wages. This impasse continued for several hours after which the students eventually broke it and began a hunger strike. The council of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) adopted a resolution expressing regret for the gherao of the registrar reiterating the students’ concern for workers’ rights on campus. Subsequently nine students including JNUSU office bearers, as well as all ‘karamchari’ association office bearers, were suspended. Following a long agitation, suspensions were eventually withdrawn, with each of the suspended students submitting letters endorsing the JNUSU’s resolution of regret (a resolution that was also upheld by the university general body meeting (UGBM) of the students).

In the middle of the summer vacations, seven students were rusticated for periods varying from one to two years and also declared out-of-bounds of the campus; one who is a terminal student was debarred from JNU for life, and three JNUSU office bearers have been fined Rs 2,000 each. It took several weeks of relay hunger strike by hundreds of students, and finally a 13-day long hunger strike to force the JNU administration to agree to “reconsider” the punishments by August 14. Another landmark achievement of this agitation was the agreement to set up a committee with representatives from all sections of JNU (including students) to ensure minimum wage payments and workers’ rights on the campus.

II

In both Kashi Vidyapeeth as well as JNU, it is notable that the students “outlawed” for being disruptive and unruly were, in fact, struggling to ensure that their campus

Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007 complies with the law: in Vidyapeeth’s case, the 1997 Supreme Court directive (Vishaka judgment) on sexual harassment at the workplace; in JNU’s case, the Contract Labour Act and minimum wage laws. In both cases, it is the university authorities who are most certainly culpable for non-compliance with these laws.

We can get an inkling of what lies behind such crackdowns from the text of a speech made to bankers at Chandigarh by the VC of JNU, B B Bhattacharya several months before the agitation. He had said that in his view, “politics should be kept away from institutions of higher learning… university is a place for students to study, not a place for politicians to fight their political battles…the concentration of students with strong leftist bias within the campus had also made the situation on the campus already tense.” This speech contrasted the “group of students” with “leftist bias” with “the hundreds of students and teachers who are quietly and laboriously working towards achieving excellence…” (from a speech delivered by B B Bhattacharya to bankers at the centre for research in rural and industrial development (CRRID) Chandigarh, reported in ‘“Politics” Has No Role in Universities’, Tribune News Service, October 25, 2006). This speech was made on the eve of JNU students’ union elections – an exemplary democratic institution where students conduct the entire election process on their own. It was made soon after a successful agitation by the students’ union which had won an increase in scholarship amounts for deprived students on the campus. Apparently, even when no gherao takes place, the very presence of leftist student groups and strong unions is undesirable according to the JNU VC. And in pitting political activism against “excellence”, he is only echoing the wisdom held by other influential advocates of neoliberal policies.

A World Bank task force on higher education in developing countries, February 2000, of which the present PM Manmohan Singh was a member said in its report that “Political activism means that students are spending a large proportion of their time on politics rather than education. There are situations…where levels of activism can rise to the point where high-quality education becomes impossible. In situations… where academic pursuits have been taken hostage, activism may need to be restricted.” More recently, Planning Commission vice-chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia declared that “unionisation in higher education personnel is a major impediment. When you talk to students’ unions, I am not sure that they are arguing for the kinds of things that are oriented towards educational reform. They are certainly interested in keeping fees low” (‘Walk the Talk’, Indian Express, December 4, 2006).

The crackdowns in Kashi Vidyapeeth and JNU are symptoms of a larger agenda

– the agenda of “restricting” and pruning student activism. It is interesting that the agitations against OBC quotas, which defended elitism in the name of “excellence”, hardly ever invited the wrath of authorities. Movements against sexual harassment, struggles for workers’ rights, and even agitations against fee hikes or for scholarships have authorities worried because they are expressions of social conscience and democracy.

EPW

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Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007

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