Anti-neoliberalism: The undercurrent in JNU protests

Read the indented paragraphs chronologically to know about the key events of JNU protests. Read the whole text for context behind them.

Incident #3: A student leader, PhD student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), got arrested under charges of sedition for allowing anti-national slogans at a student event organized in commemoration of a dead convict, the legitimacy of whose indictment and subsequent conviction (capital punishment) by the then Indian government, UPA (coalition of secular, so-called left wing political parties), continues to be questioned within activist and academic circles. Soon after, student protests erupted while calls to shut the university down were made in the mainstream and social media.

That happens to be one point in the evolution of the story as it unfolds in India with continued protests by students and teach-ins by faculty at JNU, which is one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Inasmuch as this situation seems endogenous to India, it hardly is because the underlying sentiment expressed in the speeches by Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNU Student Union (JNUSU), Shehla Rashid, the vice president and others is that of anti-neoliberalism.

Incident #1: Late last year, the BJP (right-wing, anti-secular, fundamentalists) sought to enforce a rule that would slash funding of post-graduate fellowships (for Master’s and PhD students) without explanation of the reasoning behind it. The decision undertaken by the University Grants Commission (UGC), a statuary body of the Government of India tasked with the maintaining university education standards in the country, reflected a deep lack of concern for the financial conditions of students, particularly low-income students.While the decision was later overturned, the stipulations under which students could secure fellowships was modified to introduce eligibility restrictions leaving a number of students at a disadvantage, particularly low-income and minority students.

For many students disadvantaged by UGC’s decision, the answer was agitation and protest under the #occupyUCG movement. By breaking down of the university system, by siphoning the already meager funds and resources, the government seeks to to cultivate student dissatisfaction with public universities that creates spaces for private ones, owned and operated by foreign conglomerates competing on the Indian education market; a commodification of education as in the west. Something that is bound to hurt the most economically vulnerable sections of the Indian society, against whom discrimination is already in full assault mode.

Incident #2: In January this year, the suicide note of a PhD, this time from my city, rocked the campus of Hyderabad Central University (HCU) on accounts of discrimination against dalits (lower-caste Hindus). Rohit’s crime, in the eyes of HCU administration and the government, apart from being a dalit was his participation in protesting for screening a movie that was disagreeable to the higher caste Hindus on campus. One thing led to another, until his suspension under a false pretext and accusation of being anti-national and casteist materialized his suicide — because what is a 26 year old to do when his academic career, on which hinged his entire family’s future, is taken away?

The call made by JNU and its students, then, is one for Azaadi, for freedom to think for oneself and to express anguish and anger, against the systematic sale of the country on the global market. Freedom from the neoliberal ideals enthusiastically adopted by the ruling government that professes to have more nationalistic fervor than any other political party in the country; a fervor that proffers private companies power and privilege over indigenous population, displacing them from their own  lands and depriving them of their health and livelihood. The same nationalist sentimentality that hides neoliberalism in its belly, barricades and stifles the future of dalits like Rohit. The more nationalistic , anti-secular and anti-free speech that India seems to get, the more conducive it becomes for global market penetration.

Incident #5: In the wake of protests against Kanhaiya’s arrest and the witch-hunt by Delhi police to find and arrest other student leaders, the government and state-bought media orchestrate a smear campaign to paint JNU as anti-national breeding ground and falsely accused some students as foreign agents and affiliates of terrorist organizations. However, despite fabricating videos and conjuring false identities of students like Umar Khalid, the state propaganda failed miserably, drawing further attention to the embarrassing attempts by the government to suppress dissent in the country. Out on bail for now, Kanhaiya is back on JNU campus but two other students Umar and Anirban are still under judicial custody.

Yet, somehow, the blind remain blind. Events at JNU seemed to have provoked self-professed nationalists to burst onto the social media to fight their good fight for Modi ji, parroting the exact sentiments used by government officials like Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani to accord the status of anti-national to anyone who demonstrated even the slightest sympathies with the ideological stand of JNU students. The inability to make the connect between promotion of neoliberalism in India and the perverse use of nationalism by the government as an instrument to do so, will be the end of Indian consciousness. If nothing else, those buying into the nationalist rhetoric without expressing doubts about the convictions of their political leaders, will be the ones selling Indian sovereignty to global powers for cheap. In the end, it is the enlighnment of speeches and teach-in lectures coming out of JNU that will be remembered for its intellectual grit and capacity to relentlessly hold on to ideals on which the Indian constitution is predicated. One such speech was by Shehla Rashid soon after Kanhaiya’s arrest.

Incident #4: Responding to accusations that students are wasting tax payer money by protesting and not studying, Shehla Rashid, VP student union argued, “JNU students indeed are subsidized by tax payer money and that is precisely why they are more aware of their  responsibility and duty [to forewarn the country about the dirty tactics of government]. She questioned the subsidization of large banks, international companies and bankrupt financial organizations under the neoliberal regime, blaming the government of pimping out and systematically selling the country.


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