This 26 year-old university student cries easily. We meet Sumit in a story front-paged in The Indian Express: “He cried that day in 2015 when he travelled from his hometown Hisar to Delhi and found his name on the admission list of JNU’s MA programme; again, when he couldn’t understand what was taught in his first class; then, when his professor told him, ‘you have come to JNU, you are in safe hands’. And now, sitting in his professor’s room, Sumit cries again as he talks about JNU’s decision to implement the UGC cap on MPhil/PhD seats” (IE, ‘Deprivation points go, so do some JNU dreams: ‘All I wanted was a PhD, then to teach in Hisar’’, April 12, the second of a three-part series).
The son of a helper to a vegetable vendor in Hisar, Sumit did everything to get to JNU — picked up plates at weddings, gave out tokens to patients at a hospital — all to fulfil his dream of getting a PhD and returning to teach at his Haryana hometown. But his dream lies shattered with the UGC cap on MPhil and PhD seats. JNU had a unique system of deprivation points that gave weightage to students from disadvantaged social backgrounds and regions. The university faculty in JNU consciously fostered a climate that encouraged and supported these students to accomplish their potential. This effort had many fractures. The recent suicide of Dalit student, J. Muthukrishnan, was a sobering jolt, reminding us that even the best of our institutions of higher learning remain threatening and hostile to students not reared with privilege.
Ever since a storm broke out around JNU in early 2016, amidst allegations that slogans against the nation were raised by left-leaning students, questions of both the limits to freedom of student dissent, and of whether the state should fund liberal arts higher education, have been raised. A number of official steps have been taken since that erode the independence, the pluralism, the equity and the public-ness of these institutions. Amidst these bitter contestations, it is worthy to recall that one of the greatest but least acknowledged contributions of universities like JNU to India’s public life has been that these citadels of higher learning admitted and nurtured students from deprived backgrounds. But that is set to change. The Delhi High Court struck down its system of deprivation points as “legally impermissible”.
A vivid reminder of what a consciously equitable centre of higher learning can accomplish emerges from Kanhaiya Kumar’s recent memoir From Bihar to Tihar. His story could have been that of millions of young people. He describes his indigent childhood in an impoverished village in Begusarai. His father, a small farmer and daily wage labourer with poor health, had not passed class 10. His mother had passed her Class 10 exam and became the family’s main bread-earner as a helper in a government infant-care centre, at a monthly salary of Rs 3,000.
He was born into a high caste and therefore, spared caste discrimination. But his village school had neither a toilet, nor a library. A bright student, his parents decided to invest a significant fraction of their small income in sending him to a private school. He recalls that in his school, richer children wore clean clothes and shoes, mufflers and full trousers. “Poor kids like me wore shorts, that is, ‘half pant’, to school, because we could get two half pants from the fabric needed for one full pant”. He became ashamed of his family’s poverty and began to lose confidence. His academic performance slipped, but he slowly pulled himself up.
After passing high school, he persuaded his parents to spare for him Rs 500 a month, and left his village with a small suitcase and a gas cylinder to seek his fortune in Patna. He describes his first encounter with a city, disoriented and excited. He shared an unventilated room in a cheap lodge. He joined a maths coaching class to prepare for an engineering entrance exam. But in a year, he ran out of money, and decided instead to train in repairing air conditioners and fridges, thinking he would find a job in Dubai. He learned, meanwhile, to be a “Patna boy”, travelling without tickets on trains, hanging out at roadside stalls, drinking tea and arguing But he gave up his idea of eventually working in Dubai and decided to pursue the UPSC. He passed his intermediate examination in the second division without cheating, from a college that did not teach. He then joined a college in which, indeed, there were classes, and struggled to complete his bachelor’s degree.
For his master’s degree, he decided to try his luck in Delhi, armed with little more than “the big, hungry dream to go to the country’s capital and study, teach, become something in life”. His early struggles in Delhi again mirrored those of thousands of young men and women arriving there. “They live on a very tight budget, spending carefully from their parents’ hard-earned money. They eat little, walk everywhere and wear the same clothes over and over again”. His UPSC dreams were dumped when the government suddenly changed the examination pattern. He was advised to apply to JNU. This decision, he said, was to “completely change” his life.
His description of his years in JNU, growing from a student raised in poverty in a village in Bihar, is almost idyllic. He speaks of his joy in encountering a place of education without discrimination, where women and men mixed freely, where students came from every corner, where every language in the country could be heard, where teachers were friendly and supportive, and where “politics was everywhere”. It is this university that nurtured and developed this young man and enabled him to become the confident, eloquent and progressive student leader that the country now knows.
But in his last Facebook post before his suicide, JNU’s Dalit student, Muthukrishnan, wrote, “When Equality is denied everything is denied”. Recent years have seen the massive expansion, and the equally massive privatisation of higher education in India. It is estimated that between half and two-thirds of all students in India today could be of the first generation to ever enter higher education. JNU is among the few public institutions that have actively welcomed such students, undertaking an inestimable public duty.
The problem we face in India today is not that too much but too little public money is being spent on institutions of higher education. Of the little that is spent, far less is spent in institutions that encourage independent thinking and include young people raised in poverty and social discrimination. In seven decades, we have done far too little for the large masses of India’s young people, who enter adulthood without education and hope. What little we have done also stands in imminent danger of demolition. JNU doctoral student Umar Khalid lamented in a Facebook post: “Our universities are being turned into graveyards for the oppressed.” They are on the verge of closing their barely opened doors to young people who do not enjoy the privileges of geography and history, of wealth, educated parents, gender, caste and childhoods in cities. Unequal India will then become even more intolerably unequal.