In a historic action, students of various Universities occupied the premises of the University Grants Commission in protest against the UGC’s move to scrap all non-NET fellowships for research scholars. The protests continue even after the students were evicted from the UGC premises and severely caned by police, several students were severely injured while dozens were taken to police custody. The Modi Government, rather than speak to protesting students, have instead chosen to rain batons on defenceless students.
Ironically, it was a Committee appointed to address the students’ demand to increase the paltry fellowship in keeping with steep inflation rising costs of higher education and living which announced the scrapping of the fellowship, effectively excluding the vast majority of scholars from pursuing research.
The massive wave of protests – intensifying in Delhi and spreading now to Universities all over the country and supported by teachers’ unions and intellectuals – by students comes in the wake of other significant protests by students and intellectuals. First, there was the successful resistance by the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras against an attempt at muzzling dissent, followed by the ongoing FTII students' protests against attempts to impose a saffronized and ill-qualified management. Then, there has been an upsurge of dissent and protest by writers and intellectuals against the Government’s patronage for forces involved in intimidation and murders of minorities and dissenting voices. The Occupy UGC protests are another powerful chapter in these growing voices of protest against the Modi Government's destructive attitude towards creative arts, research and institutions of education.
The move to scrap the fellowships and restrict fellowships only to those scholars who clear the National Eligibility Test (NET) was correctly diagnosed by students as a move tailored to fit the Modi Government's plans to accept the WTO grouping of higher education under GATS as a "tradable service". The UPA Government had already made an "offer" to this effect in 2005 and in the WTO Ministerial talks due in December, the Modi Government plans to seal this "offer" and accept "binding commitments" to make India's higher education a tradable service. It is well known that if India indeed accepts these "binding commitments" under WTO-GATS, the Indian Government would be "bound" to cut subsidies in public-funded higher education, since such subsidies would be seen by WTO as a violation of its "commitments" to provide a "non-discriminatory" "level playing field" for domestic and international traders in education. Scrapping or restricting the non-NET fellowships in higher education is a move very much in keeping with the plans to comply with the WTO-GATS "binding commitments."
The students of Delhi University, JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, and Ambedkar University have shown remarkable resilience and farsightedness, braving both cane-charges and detention by the police and abusive violence by the RSS-BJP student wing ABVP.
The attempts by the ABVP and the Modi Government's HRD Ministry to spread disinformation and break students' unity have also been recognised and rejected.
The HRD Ministry tried to diffuse the protests by "assuring" that the fellowships would not be scrapped. But the students rightly recognised that the statement implied only that students already receiving fellowships would continue to do so - but in future, students would only get fellowships based on 'merit' or 'economic' criteria. Moreover the HRD Ministry made this 'assurance' by a tweet, without any discussion with protesting students. Rather they did so only after talks with ABVP leaders - as though the whole issue could be settled within the cozy confines of the 'Sangh family.'
Rejecting such 'assurances', the Occupy UGC movement continues to fight for the rights of existing as well as future research scholars and higher education itself. Students have joined the protests at the UGC from Aligarh Muslim University, Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Punjab University Chandigarh and MD University Rohtak. Also protests are being organized in various Universities of the country like Central University Gujarat, Allahabad University, NEHU Shillong, University of Hyderabad, EFLU Hyderabad and Aligarh Muslim University and in Kolkata. Students from across the country are also planning to come to Delhi and join the Occupy UGC Protests .
The protesting students in India can take heart and inspiration from the spirited countrywide shutdown of universities achieved by the ongoing struggles of South African students against fee hikes and privatisation/outsourcing of University services. The resonances between the struggles of Indian and South African students against policies of privatisation is a significant counterpoint to the dominant State-led narrative on the ongoing third India-Africa Summit in Delhi.
More power to the students whose protests are striving to defend not only their rights but the inclusive and democratic character of higher education and the country's autonomy.