UNION HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal was trapped inside the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) campus for around three hours Monday, after the main gate was blocked by JNU students protesting against a hike in hostel fee. Pokhriyal had been invited as guest of honour to JNU’s third convocation ceremony.
Alleging that the Vice-Chancellor had refused to meet them, the students, led by the JNU Students’ Union, raised the slogan: ‘No convocation without affordable education.’ The main point of protest is the introduction of service charges — for maintenance, mess workers, cook and sanitation — which were so far not included in the hostel fee. Under the new hostel charges, students have to pay an approximate service charge of Rs 1,700 per month. Rent for a single room has been increased from Rs 20 per month to Rs 600 per month, and for a double-sharing room from Rs 10 per month to Rs 300 per month. Students will also have to pay utility charges, which they did not have to so far. The JNU Executive Council is supposed to give the final nod to the new hostel charges on November 13.
During the course of the protest outside the venue, which began shortly before noon, police tried several means to move students away from the gate, including the use of a water cannon which was deployed around 1:30 pm.
As more than 500 students assembled at the West Gate of the university campus, closest to AICTE, in the morning, they found that the gate was barricaded. “There were five layers of barricades, so we re-routed and moved towards the main North gate. The barricading there was light — they had either just started putting them up or had kept it light to allow some movement. We broke through that and marched towards the venue,” said Paro Tomar, a Master’s student.
Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu was the chief guest of the event.
“The police team controlled the situation and the Vice-President was safely escorted outside the campus at 11:40 am,” said DCP Devender Arya.
In the afternoon, the four JNUSU office-bearers met with the HRD minister. “Police themselves facilitated the meeting, saying that we would meet the vice-chancellor, but he was nowhere to be found. Instead, we met with the minister for around 15-20 minutes, most of which time we spent explaining the problems to him. We also submitted a memorandum. He said he would organise a meeting with the vice-chancellor, with us as a part of it, but gave us nothing in writing,” claimed JNUSU vice-president Saket Moon.
According to a senior ministry official, students will meet the Deans on November 15. However, the official admitted that the JNU administration should have engaged the students better. “We are looking at options to defuse the situation,” the officer told The Indian Express.
The 11-point memorandum essentially demanded that the draft Inter-Hall Administration (IHA) manual be withdrawn and that a fresh IHA meeting, including various stakeholders of the university, be called.
“The (Rs 1,700) figure is approximate because we are being expected to pay the wages of sanitation workers, mess workers and cooks. The university will no longer be paying those wages, but expects us to do so. If their wages increase, our fee will also increase,” claimed Moon.
A press release issued by the JNU Registrar late Monday stated that “students in the married research scholars’ hostel (Subansir Hostel) and the Yamuna Hostel pay the electricity and water charges as per actual consumption as is done in other universities in the country”.
“However, the students in the rest of 16 hostels do not pay the electricity charges, water charges and other service charges (sanitation, maintenance, cook, mess helper, etc). Therefore JNU is incurring an expenditure of more than Rs 10 crore per annum for payment towards above charges which has become unsustainable,” the release states.
Dean of Students Umesh Kadam had earlier told The Indian Express that the fee had not been increased in 19 years, and therefore needed revision.
In the last few years, however, there have been attempts by the administration to increase the hostel fee, which have been resisted by the student community.
As tuition fee, JNU students currently pay less than Rs 300 per month — around Rs 283 for MPhil/ PhD students, the highest of the lot. MA and BA students pay around the same amount.
While there has been no increase in tuition fee for many years, the administration had increased the price of JNU application forms from Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000 two years ago, but had to roll it back due to protests.
On Monday, the protest at the gate continued till late in the evening, with students demanding that Vice-Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar come to the gate for a dialogue with the students.
Even as the convocation ceremony ended at around 1 pm, the HRD minister, vice-chancellor, chancellor, other administrators, guests and recipients of degrees were unable to leave the campus. As an effort to disperse them from the site, one water cannon truck was deployed at 1:30 pm, but the students continued to remain at the site.
In the meantime, some of those who received their degrees began protesting inside the AICTE campus as well. “These dignitaries holed themselves inside the campus guest house. Around 50 of us began protesting outside the guest house, demanding that they speak to the students at the gate. There is no point in conducting a convocation like this; how can they treat students like that,” said Mithilesh Kumari, who had received her PhD in Hindi.
As the standoff continued, police and CRPF personnel pushed themselves between the protesters and the gate and began physically pushing the students away around 3:30 pm. This tussle continued for around 45 minutes before the students were pushed far enough for four cars to leave the gate — carrying the HRD minister and vice-chancellor.
The other guests gradually left the venue afterwards.