“The field that cannot feed even its tiller,
Burn down every stalk that stands on it.”
~Saadat Hasan Manto~
On the 7th of October, 2015, the University Grants Commission (UGC) – the central regulatory body for universities in India – in an almost bizarrely unforeseen move, wholly withdrew the decades-long “non-National Eligibility Test (NET) Fellowship” under the cited pretext of resource constraint and mismanagement of the fellowship grants program. This set of grants, albeit limited in capacity, was the lifeline of a distinctively large number of research students from various universities across the country, buttressing the financial weight of almost five (or more) years of material-heavy research. A day after the decision was made public on the 20th of October, three busloads of students from the coveted Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi turned up at the doorsteps of the UGC Head Office situated in ITO, with a downright design to collectively question the move. Purportedly, the immediate demand was not for anything elaborate, but merely a legitimate explanation or rationalisation for the withdrawal of the essential fellowship.
But, as claimed by the students, their simple request for an answer that held water found itself utterly lost in the bureaucratic maze of manufactured impossibilities – not possible to comment now, not possible to meet the concerned people, not possible to discuss this any further at this moment. This was evidently the sort of maze – like any other – that takes a fleeting moment to enter but an epoch to exit. The little quest soon metamorphosed into a full-fledged ‘occupation’ of the UGC premises that completed 30 days on the 21st day of November, 2015. With the original objective of occupying the internal premises of the UGC complex, the students had to settle for the external section of the compound, the part of the pavement that almost imbricates over the main road. Forcefully evicted, and barricaded out.
[Click on individual photographs to enlarge them and read the full photo-narration]
Located just outside the UGC building beside the ITO Metro Station, the site of occupation is guarded, round-the-clock, by a sizeable deployment of the city’s police force with prospects for calling in reinforcements. The blue-red Delhi Police bus is always there – almost like a bouncer outside a nightclub.
The immediate sight of the yellow police barricades adorned with the “main banner” is unmistakable and unmissable. This relatively humble physical core seems not the least intimidated by the towering structures of administrative and public buildings that surround it. Beyond these barricades, rest the hallowed precincts of the University Grants Commission (UGC).
Wall and street graffiti, like in most popular mass movements (especially, student-led movements), form a central part of the movement repertory. Magnanimously creative and disruptively symbolic, these larger-than-life drawings can serve as a powerful visual pull for even lay supporters, invoking a sensory appeal to the movement’s soul. Here we see a clasped hand forcing itself out of shackles.
The ‘main banner’ of the demonstrations, very downrightly, reflects the subjective soul of the protests. While the immediate demand is to “Restore-Increase-Expand” the non-NET Fellowship, the demonstrations are also very much about larger issues of privatisation of education and critical budget cuts. These are issues at the very heart of India’s developmental and social matrix.
The withdrawal of the non-NET fellowships, as argued by the students, is an uncompromising attack on the highest levels of India’s academic research domain. Cancellation of the financial grants, however meagre and insufficient they might have been, means that bright and dedicated students with a knack for rigorous research but not the funds to live through five long years of material-heavy fieldwork and writing, can forget their aspirations and sleep their lives away. It is indeed a question of salvaging Indian students from a dubious future where the only research coming out of our prime academic institutions would be the ones funded, directed, and used by global private companies/entities.
The original demand, misunderstood or misconstrued by many, wasn’t simply the restoration of the fellowships, but also increasing them in scope and capacity. Within the status quo, students received an average amount of Rs 5000/8000 for MPhil/PhD research, respectively. However, since UGC hadn’t stipulated a uniform disbursement policy, the exact amount varied across different universities, subject to the whims and perceptions of their respective administrations. Therefore, we apparently end up with a heavily sliced down and almost laughably meagre amount of Rs 3000/- per year in Delhi University!
The clutter at the protest site – either in a realistic or surrealistic way, looks like “meaningful mess”. These dented and broken barricades are remnants of the second or third night after the beginning of the occupation, when the students – frustrated by the nonchalance of the authorities and desperate for at least some explanation – tried to force themselves into the inner compound to meet the officials. They were pushed back, very magnificently, by a relentless rain of police batons. These somewhat sordid remnants form the background to a bunch of life-essentials – like a cooking stove, a boiling pot – necessary for a prolonged stay at the site.
The “#OccupyUGC” narrative is, within this protest paradigm, intrinsically tied to the almost complementary narrative of “WTO GO BACK”. Come this December, India will probably (very probably) become ratify the international economic instrument called the “General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)” . This WTO agreement, as students claim, is an affirmative intervention into India’s higher education setup, wherein state policies would begin to be driven by a certain WTO mandate. This shall apparently lead to a situation of extreme disenfranchisement amongst the economically weaker sections of the society. A very obvious lapse at realising the crucial Right to Education?
The site is embellished with both specific proclamations and creative abstractions like protest poetry. It is hard to feel bored on a walkthrough of the whole site.
Students and other participants routinely meet at the site, often informally, to chat about issues that concern or trouble them. These casual conversations form a crucial part of the movement trajectory, for it is here that some major decisions are taken, concessions arrived at, and reconciliations accomplished. Amidst the tumult of defiance and disobedience, these mattresses are the islands of necessary intellectualism.
There collides the pulsating ring of an argument made against the cold, abrasive wall of the police barrier.
The All India Students Association (AISA) – a major student party placed on the political left – is one of the prime facilitators of the demonstrations. Given the organisation’s strong grasp over JNU’s student political arena and legacy of many successful mobilisations, AISA emerged as a natural facilitator of the demonstrations.
Although the issues form the significant core of the demonstrations, the organisations involved matter as much. Every participating entity makes it a point to duly mention their names against placard slogans.
Another significant organisation facilitating the demonstrations is the Students Federation of India (SFI). Also placed on the left spectrum, SFI hasn’t seen many victories off late in the university battlefield.
This one, seemingly very jubilant, was reported to me as a regular participant in the demonstrations. Apparently, he never misses a meeting. For one, he did look rapt in attention.
Amongst all the people I met at the site, Mr. Elyas Bharti – an independent journalist and researcher – proved to be a constant and enlightening presence. Mr. Bharti hails from a village near Begu Sarai, Bihar and, as he claims, was the first Muslim student from his village to have pursued any form of higher educations. He says when he was a child, his mother taught him urdu. It seemed like he owed it all to his mother. Mr. Bharti is fiercely neutral in his political outlook and envisions a world of harmony and peaceful co-existence. He is just one of the several wanderers trying to make sense of this protest space.
The current central government recently announced major cuts in essential budgeting sectors – education being one of them. These austerisation has had an invariable impact on educational policy – fellowship cuts, administrative clean-ups, infrastructural lapses. Although the stated rationale for the cancellation of the non-NET fellowships was ‘misimplementation of grants’, the red herring is somewhat obvious this time round. Any qualitative degradation of India’s educational setup in the name of budget re-allocation is pure unacceptable to most of the movement actors.
Students clear up the protest site at the end of the day. Many contemporary mass movements emphasise and actively promulgate the idea of routinely clearing up all matter-out-of-place. Such clean-up drives have been the characteristic feature of many recent demonstrations – like the Umbrella Revolution protests in Hong Kong.
Very comprehensive in character and capacity, it is only for time and circumstances to tell where #OccupyUGC goes from here. In a country of many complexities, it is often hard to draw attention to the fundamentals – like education, health, sanitation, and security. The students sitting outside UGC carry a heavy bag of critical issues – most of which require urgent mass attention. They could either drop this bag out of one clumsy step, scattering all the little pieces around, or they could skilfully carry it around, sharing tokens of solidarity and acknowledgment – only to arrive at a pan-India movement that, in the least, manages to shake the country’s power corridors.
Flanked by the yellow Delhi Police barricades – most of them up and intact, but some burnt and broken – this was to become a vibrant protest camp populated not merely by a swarming and highly eclectic bunch of young students from several universities from across the city and country, but also a number of other personalities from varied social, political, cultural, and academic backgrounds. From critical public meetings characterised by nuanced discussions and deliberations to animated street plays on themes conceptually relevant to the protests’ core, this site has seen it all in this past one month. Like all ‘protest spaces’, this one too is no less than a microcosmic manifestation of the highly contested social contract in the country. In some very exhaustive ways, it appropriately encapsulates the dichotomous link between the State and its People.
The non-NET fellowships, provided by the Indian State since 2006 to a small fraction of students conducting M.Phil or Ph.D. research in central universities, were a significant instrument of state subsidy in the higher education sector. Advanced academic research is often very prolonged, cost-intensive, and material-heavy. A large number of students hailing from economically-weaker sections find themselves utterly incapable of financially sustaining five years of gruelling research. Needless to say, they often give up themselves or are discouraged by family members from pursuing higher education. Therefore, even a meagre State grant proved to be decisively helpful for many. This is precisely why the abrupt cancellation of the grants came as a rude slap in the faces of many.
About a week after the beginning of the occupation, the MHRD announced the establishment of a ‘Review Committee’ to reevaluate and reassess the decision to revoke the fellowship. However, the protesting students claimed that the daily outcomes of the committee were lacking in any real substance or reassessment, and merely served to buy more time or delay the entire conciliatory process till a point of collective exhaustion on the part of the dissenters. Entitlement to the fellowship, as per the status quo, is based on an assortment of economic and merit-based criteria. While the review committee, by virtue of a memorandum, agreed to expand these selection parameters to increase the number of beneficiaries, students argue that narrowness in selection would invariably persist given the vague wording of the memo (“…economic and other criteria”). Some even pointed out that the panel members were receiving a superfluous ‘participation stipend’ of Rs 5000/- for attending committee meetings – an amount similar to the yearly average grant at the M.Phil. level. The narrative was – they were siphoning off our five thousand rupees into their own pockets, right under our noses.
[Click on individual photographs to enlarge them and read the full photo-narration]
The twin narratives of “#OccupyUGC” and “WTO GO BACK” have been amplified in clear, daunting terms within the protest space. “We are occupying the UGC because we want the WTO to stay away”. It seems like the recent decisions made by the UGC directly reflect India’s gradual move towards full-fledged de-welfarisation and privatisation of the Indian higher education system. The movement participants routinely emphasise on how the one-point objective of the demonstrations is to simply stop India from signing the WTO-GATS Agreement when the member states meet in Nairobi between 15-18 December.
India’s move towards entering the GATS is, as the students argue, a decisive manifestation of its grander neoliberal motives. The agreement, if successful, would emulate the capitalist model of the retail sector into the educational setup, permitting large foreign universities to establish their ‘outlets’ in India. The government’s rationale draws along the line of modernising and globalising India’s higher education. The counter-narrative is interesting: rather than bettering our higher education system, the students claim, such a ‘globalised’ framework of profit-based service delivery would perpetuate the West’s ‘neo-imperialistic’ designs of draining cheap manpower from India, in return for limited or no returns. While they might reign supreme in the physical infrastructure, the high costs would immediately disenfranchise a sizeable portion of India’s young population from their inherent right to gain quality education. To think about it, what real meaning would a ‘modernised’ educational framework that is inaccessible to a large fraction of the country’s citizenry, hold?
A principal narrative within the demonstrations is that the Indian educational system is being gradually and increasingly rendered into a tradeable, commercial good. They do not and cannot envision a future where education is no more a commonly-shared, universally affordable public entitlement. With the growing number of private schools and colleges that charge exorbitant and competitively-set fees for admission and tuition, this process of intense commodification has already begun. We live in a world where most things come with a price-tag. But, as the demonstrators argue, the ‘price-tagging’ of an essential public good like education cannot benefit a socioeconomically diverse country like India.
This photograph was taken a day after the heinous Paris attacks on Friday, the Thirteenth. Despite the positive outcry on social media regarding the lopsided media coverage of the Paris attacks and Beirut bombings, the hard truth remains that a biased media is the direct product of biased public opinion. If not for Paris, the world would have hardly talked about Beirut.
Although Delhi Police is a constant, looming presence on the protest site, on days stipulated for public meetings by the demonstrators, this cop cover is increased and tightened manifold. Here we see a policeman stand guard before a public meeting.
Most protest spaces, even in democratic setups, are volatile arenas for the customary State-People tension. To intimidate, not to reconcile, is standard practice amongst State authorities; and to resist and persist, is for the People. This is a skirmish that is a sign of a democracy that might not be as well-oiled but is alive and creaking in a steady, perpetual way. In the least, such ‘spaces of confrontation’ serve as litmus tests for a government’s administrative credentials.
Why ‘occupy’? Some of the participants told me that the demonstrations drew inspiration from the Western protest culture of ‘occupation’, made virulently famous by the momentous “#OccupyWallStreet” movement that held to moral hostage America’s corporate power corridors for a long time (still does). Highly potent in its design and character, occupation is a relatively newer idea in India. The disruptive and continuous intrusion into the physical space of a building effortlessly translates into massive symbolic meaning. It is a form of protest that is explicit and powerful – precisely why the State invests considerably in keeping the agitators at bay. While the protestors aim towards creating physical conditions for limiting the free movement space for administrative officials, the State persistently tries to visibly overawe and subdue the spirits of the agitators by maintaing a tight cop cover. An occupation, moreover, provides a constant view of the power corridors that demonstrators are fighting against.
Police personnel read the agenda pamphlet distributed by the protest organisers.
The occupiers are in constant state surveillance. Rigorous or not, this is precisely the kind of state response that the agitators need to engage with every single day to realise their revolutionary aims.
Popular demonstrations, especially those involving the newer generations, often receive moral support from a large number of social minority groups fighting their own battles. As we see here, the Queer community has extended a vibrant token of solidarity to the university students.
When I met these women from the National Federation for Indian Women (NFIW), I wondered what could their motivation be for participating in these student-led protests? When asked, one of them told me that they do have great stakes in what the students are fighting for, because it concerns the future of her children and this country. They were being led by a convenor from the organisation.
As the sun falls on the protest site, the twilight of critical conversations emerges. The beginning of a public meeting.
One student occupier opens the discussion with a stirring speech meant to provide perspective to the ongoing struggle. Highlighting a critical aspect of rising costs of education in the country, she said, “While the 1991 liberalisation drive was termed as ‘reform’, it was hardly so. It only discouraged an entire generation of hitherto conservative Indian families who had just begun sending their daughters for higher education, from investing in their children’s future. When facing an acute financial crunch, a low-income Indian household would invariably prefer to send their sons (over their daughters) to institutes of higher education. Evidently, the poor is being gradually sidelined from the country’s mainstream educational setup.”
“There were only a handful of universities left in this country, where a poor man’s child could dare to study because of the state grants. But that is slipping out of our hands too. The government played a disgraceful joke on us when they formed a committee to expand the fellowships, and then used the same committee to cancel the grants altogether. So, we never had, and never will, have any hope from these committees. We only wish to ask one question to the current government, ‘Where are you diverting our slashed fellowship money to?’ Needless to say, this struggle shall continue till the time every single student in this country wholly realises her or his Right to Education. This struggle shall live on in every single person who has passed by our occupation site, talked to us for two minutes, or received a token from us.”
Impressed or not, the lathi seemed quite composed under the rapture of spoken words.
Currently serving her second consecutive term as the President of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), Ms. Nandita Narain has been a regular face at the recent wave of anti-administration demonstrations around Delhi University (and others). In her distinctively suave and succinct style, Ms. Narain gave a bleak commentary on our nation’s state-of-affairs, “Today, the country is divided into two camps – the English-speaking ‘educational elite’ that deems the country to be their personal property, and the socially disenfranchised lot that remains perennially subdued. We are still trapped in a feudal mindset, characterised by rampant casteism and social injustice. Thus, we are all carrying the burden of incomplete freedom. The situation has been made worse by external intervention. We are still economically tied to international money-lending organisations like the IMF, which have imposed strict austerity policies on our government, adversely affecting government schools and colleges. Today, the government is steadily and incrementally selling all of its schools to private holdings, out of its own incapacity to manage them. The degradation in our educational system hasn’t happened by itself, it has been deliberately accomplished.”
“The older generation of Indian capitalists and industrialists cooperated and agreed with us when we argued that there should be absolutely no dilution in the country’s educational framework. We did not want our students to merely end up in low-paying professional jobs, but rather emerge as individuals who could think critically and question. But today, we have no such credible backing. This has resulted in an educational system that is overtly skill-based, rather than knowledge-based. The emphasis has shifted to producing a professionally-skilled workforce, rather than an intellectually-endowed body of young citizens.” Ms. Narain also mentioned how her own university (Delhi University) has rapidly degraded over the past few years, due to the several regressive policy measures undertaken by the government – in the likes of the Semester System and the Choice-Based Curriculum. These changes have only watered down the entire academic setup by limiting the avenues for in-depth intellectual exploration by the students.
As one of the prime discursive figures in the citywide protests after the infamous 2012 Delhi bus gang-rape of a 23-year old woman, Ms. Kavita Krishnan is a renowned feminist and the current Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA). As a distinguished public speaker, Ms. Krishnan argued how “education has remained in the ICU for a long time in this country now”. It is at a highly critical stage. “Although #OccupyUGC is a movement that is very comprehensive in its character, we must all confront a unique, new reality in our country, wherein various wings and entities within the current government are collectively launching a scathing attack on the nation’s intellectual and thinking sets of people. The State is telling them in loud and clear words that it has no respect for them whatsoever – whether they stop writing or talking, or they move to Pakistan, it doesn’t care. The bullets that killed Professor Kalaburghi and Narendra Dabholkar hit their spirit of rationality and intellectualism, and now the gun is aimed at our entire educational system.” Ms. Krishnan also argued how this city reels under a common perception that the people who read, think and write do not move beyond their ivory towers or comfy armchairs – that they lack the capacity to initiate revolutions. “But, even then, in the days past, we successfully mobilised a large number of students to protest and resist. I am so happy that there has only been an intensification of that process, as a wider spectrum of stakeholders are now active in student movements.”
This ‘Double-Duvet Bed Cover’ casing now serves a slightly more socially-significant role by collecting monetary donations for #OccupyUGC.
“Save Higher Education, Remove the Government – Aligarh Muslim University”, says the placard. Quite evidently, the current BJP-led government is being held firmly responsible for the ongoing onslaught against a welfarised (however meagrely) educational system. This is unsurprising given that starkest alterations in our higher educational setup have surfaced only after the current government came to power last year – be it DU’s Four-Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP), the Choice-Based curriculum, or the fund cuts at the highest levels.
Women from NFIW and another cultural organisation listen to the speeches.
Anne Raja, the Convenor for the representatives from the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), clarified what stakes women have in the student-led struggle. “Regardless of age and gender, education is an unconditional right of every citizen. The current government has slashed budgetary allocations in so many crucial sectors, like education. I myself was educated in a government school. But even in the remote village I come from, all the rickety government-run schools are being slowly replaced by high-cost, private ones. Without providing quality education on its own terms, the government has imposed a minimum qualification of “Class 8 pass” for contesting Panchayat elections. But, there is no such academic criteria for those contesting elections to the state or national assemblies. All the state policies of the current government are against the interests of the common man. By ‘Acche Din’ (good days), did the government mean removal of university students from their classrooms onto the streets?”
“The people of a country are like gunpowder, while education is like a spark. When they come together, the high, mighty, and the powerful are reduced to smithereens,” pronounced the spokesperson of All India Women’s Cultural Organisation, whilst quoting Tolstoy. She also quoted an intriguing instance from our pre-nationalist past when Swami Vivekananda was approached by a ‘RSS-like organisation’ with a request for resources to protect cows. Vivekananda had apparently retorted back, arguing that service and protection of humanity comes before anything else. “No wonder you deem the cow as your mother, that we see a throng of people who think about protecting cows when their own countrymen are dying of hunger and famine.”
“Theatre is less about the language, but more about the space in which certain emotions are physically expressed”, proclaimed one student facilitators before the start of the day’s creative highlight. Masterfully performed in the Bengali language, “The Duel/Dwondo” by Badal Sarkar enthralled the audience thoroughly with just two cast members.
“The Duel” dwells on Michel Foucault’s commentary on power and knowledge – “power creates knowledge, which in turn, fosters newer forms of power”. The play featured two characters, one representing “Manob” (Man) and the other “Gyan” (Knowledge). Through a series of flamboyantly dialectic conversations, the play encapsulated the ‘eternal duel’ between Man and Knowledge. Pictured here is the latter.
Pictured here is ‘Man’ – inherently hesitant, confused, and interrogative. Routinely subdued by what the play presents as ‘manufactured knowledge’, Man is in a constant and often failing attempt to escape the boundaries of what he has learnt and been taught.
Sometimes, and quite often, Man found himself at the mercy of knowledge, forced to come down to earth and live a bounded life.
At other times, Man finds daunting courage to strangle the arrogance out of Knowledge’s throat.
The past tells us that Man has been routinely deceived by Knowledge, which often wears a mask and promises glory. But finally, he is led astray. Pictured here is a moment from the play, which contextually portrays an iconic Indian folktale – that of ‘Vikram and Betal’.
Despite the obvious language barrier (of not understanding Bengali), the audience seemed to be entirely beguiled by the performance.
A policeman watches, in rapt attention, the theatrics of an otherwise dull day.
Initially, the normative idea behind the play seemed abstract and out-of-place to me. Deeper introspection revealed a stellar link to #OccupyUGC: while Man, with his natural mix of reticence and defiance, represented the protestors, while Knowledge with its dogmatic convictions and Machiavellian shrewdness, reflected the State. Both are trapped in a vicious cycle of power and control – one that is incredibly difficult to escape.
Although the concerned Union Minister (Mrs. Smriti Irani) had pronounced, during her fifteen minutes of fame amidst the tempestuous throng of students during their first march to the MHRD on November 5, that the withdrawal had been put on hold at the moment, the students are cautious of stepping into the government’s strategic subterfuge of shrewdly forcing them to concede to the status quo (of limited grants based on narrow parameters) – they affirmatively demand a full “restoration, expansion, and increase” of the fellowship to include all students, completely independent of any economic or academic criteria. They vociferously argue against the government’s desire to create a certain ‘level-playing field’ in the educational sector, on grounds that in a variegated society like India’s, which is starkly divided across various parameters, a ‘level-playing field’ is only an illusive (un)reality. As of now, this is an understanding that seems firm and unconditional in its prospect and character.
The ongoing demonstrations, participated and facilitated by a large pool of youth bodies (both political and non-political) and individual student activists, are being centrally managed by a ‘Campaign Coordination Committee’. This nuclear unit, aimed at serving as a common platform for planning, decision-making, and PR, is comprised of both party representatives and individuals. While the existence of such a consolidated central unit signifies the students’ desire to maintain clarity of thought and prognostic homogeneity within the struggle, it is not a conclusive validation of absolute consensus regarding matter and method. A movement is rarely wholly unvarying in its form and character, making it crucial for sympathisers and even lay observers to pay heed to individual narratives and thought-processes. This internally diversity of popular movements can either spell death for them, or do good by promoting an idealistic model of inclusion and unbiased permissiveness for others to follow. What the students sitting outside UGC make of it, is for time to tell.
It is beyond doubt that #OccupyUGC has only grown in scope and capacity since it began on the 21st of October 2015. With time, it has co-opted several other action frames of wholesale injustice, exploitation, and selective development. The diagnostic spectrum has only widened, as the students now emphasise on their grander vision of restricting the current government’s neoliberal policies. In a country where more than 40% of the population lives under the accepted poverty line, and the rich-poor divide gets starker every day, a welfarised education system is indeed imperative for holistic and inclusive development. However, the students are concerned about the Indian State’s decisive aspirations to shift to a future where the government doesn’t meddle in the educational sector, and leaves it to the capitalist fickleness of corporate entities.
To zoom out, this decision is premised, as the students argue, on the ‘neo-imperialist’ designs of international regulatory bodies (like the WTO and IMF), which are mere conduits for First-World nations to gain access to a large pool of cheap human resource in their Third-World counterparts. As assessed by Kanhaiya Kumar, the President of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), “By accomplishing major fund cuts at the highest levels, our government only wishes to certify its commitment towards neoliberalism in front of leaders of the developed nations. By doing so, it is creating a certain image of itself, in preparation for the Nairobi GATS conference in mid-December. But if implemented, GATS would spell doom for our educational setup, which will be thrown open to the drives of global capitalism.” Thus, the broader discourse is not solely against the country’s government, but also the proliferating idea of ‘global governance’ that promises to de-contextualise social development.
This Photo-Tale is primarily a visual exploration of the #OccupyUGC ‘protest space’, which is only but limited to the pavements outside the UGC building, and has recurrently extended to other locales like the areas around the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) building. It is an attempt at demystifying urban student politics, and portraying the multivariate and content-rich repertoires of such forms of collective dissent. As was very evident from my tête-à-tête with the occupiers, #OccupyUGC is way more than just the impending and ever-intensifying demand to revoke the non-NET fellowships, and goes on to directly bring to home larger issues of ‘privatisation, commercialisation, and saffronisation’ of India’s higher education. Thus, on a secondary plane, this photo-tale aspires to explore and understand both the core and peripheral issues of the protests through a continuous, often non-chronological, visual narration of its trajectory.
[Click on individual photographs to enlarge them and read the full photo-narration]as
The Second March to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) | 18 November 2015.
Students prepare placards for their march to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The aim was to submit a deposition with a charter of demands, preferably in person, to the Union Minister Ms. Smiti Irani.
Although the turnout was less than impressive, the participants present prepared and planned the march with uncompromising sincerity and revolutionary zest.
Members from the Tamil Nadu chapter of the All Indian Students’ Federation (AISF). As one of the major facilitators and site managers within the demonstrations, AISF boasts of a rich history of planning and executing successful mass protests and student agitations.
Members from AISF-Tamil Nadu meet Kanhaiya Kumar, the President of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU). These cross-country associations are gradually setting a firm foundation of a nationwide movement, transcending class, character, and language.
Roughed up by the police a day before the march day at a rally near Parliament Street, this one AISF member seemed absolutely unruffled and undeterred. For him, the cast on his arms was less of an embarrassing baggage, but a trophy of revolutionary bravado to be carried around with pride and dignity.
The march began with a ‘common call’ gathering of students. The bright red flags, reflecting the Leftist flavour of the demonstrations, were ubiquitous.
Anubhuti, one of the student facilitators, lays down the basic ground rules for the march – such as moving ahead in two distinct files, not wandering off, and holding banners according to designated roles.
These circular hand-held drums (called ‘daphli’) are a staple to most student demonstrations and rally. They are often the representative blow-horns for individual organisations participating in the protests or rallies. This particular one speaks of a student youth party active in the Delhi University circuit – Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (Revolutionary Youth Organisation).
The call gathering witnessed some intense sloganeering against a wide variety of entities – the government, the Prime Minister, the Union HRD Minister, UGC, and very often, against capitalism and commercialism. “Hum kal jeete the, aaj bhi jeetenge/”Tum kal haare the, aaj bhi haroge” (We won yesterday, we shall also win today/You lost yesterday, you will lose today) rang out particularly vividly and elaborately across the swarm of students.
The strength exuded by the call gathering grew rapidly with the pulsating ring of revolutionary cries like “Inquilabo!” (Revolution!) echoing in the still air. The weakness in participant numbers was sufficiently sufficed by the sheer vigour and conviction of the agitating lot.
Very unsurprisingly, the march day saw a rapid re-doubling of the police deployment, and creation of a ‘protected corridor’ along the designated route to the MHRD building. The marchers were accompanied by a troupé of police personnels and vehicles, who kept a constant watch on the students and the traffic at bay.
Marchers pass below a railway flyover on their way to the MHRD. What lay at the end of the tunnel was still a mystery for most participants.
At the tail-end of the march, this file of policemen and the slothfully-moving Delhi Police ‘Gypsy’ kept a watch on wanderers.
The march wasn’t a silent vigil, after all. It reveberated in loud and clear words, the popular dissent against the incumbent government and its, as perceived, ‘detrimental’ policies in the education sector. The non-negotiable demand to restore the fellowship was routinely and recurrently highlighted. The running narrative didn’t centre around a ‘request’ for reversal of the withdrawal, but an outright and unconditional ‘demand’.
“Fellowship hum lekar rahenge!” (We WILL take our fellowship back!)
“Kitni lambi lathi tumhari, dekh lia humne!” (We have seen how long your sticks are!)
“Kitni lambi jail tumhari, dekh lia humne!” (We have seen how long your jails are!)
The main banner, held up by the primary organisers, led the marchers through the wide roads and intricate round-abouts of Central Delhi.
The road from the UGC to the MHRD buildings represents the refurbished and widened parts of Delhi. With the newly extended metro line in the area, this part of the city is dotted by several high-end administrative and hotel properties. Marching through this corridor of grandiosity was symbolic and arousing in its own ways.
The State made sure it maintained a continuous surveillance of the marchers – the sort that is aimed at being methodical in formation and unnerving in character. But, the police presence was hardly an immediate deterrence for the marchers. Rigorous in their own way, the column of students marched with the kind of revolutionary sincerity that is highly infectious and effective in drawing attention.
As the marchers approached the vicinities of the MHRD building, the slogans intensified in strength and zest.
The students, however, were in for a nasty surprise. The accompanying contingent of Delhi Police personnel had strategically cornered them right into a formidable wall of barricades, reinforced by a cop chain. A few leagues ahead of this main barricading, a secondary rope-line was also put up. Clearly, the administration wasn’t even willing to see the faces of the protesting students, let alone acknowledge or read their deposition. It seemed like they were prepared to go all out on the students in case their level of defiance became unacceptable, duly validated by the water canon riot truck standing right behind the barricades.
What was utterly dismaying was the excessive form of the police blockade – the imposition of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in the area. This section legally sanctions the local District Magistrate, Sub-District Magistrate or an immediate subordinate to prohibit the assembly of more than 10 people. To be used in exceptional situations of public disorder, Section 144 is routinely overused, often arbitrarily, by the administration to suppress even the slightest forms of demonstrative rallying. This poorly-worded Delhi Police banner, moreover, credits the Assistant Commissioner of Police (of New Delhi sub-district) with the imposition of the order. Whether this a permissible authorisation, or a bypassing the actual legal statute is something to ponder over.
From the methodical and largish arrangement of police force, it seemed like the administration was prepared for a bigger marching contingent of students. After the initial skirmish along the first roped barricade, the situation settled down into passive listlessness for the police constables.
The terminological extension of “#OccupyUGC” to “#OccupyMHRD” was almost inevitable. This is perhaps an outcome of the kind of narrative of detachment that UGC has repeatedly sold to the students whenever asked to answer questions. UGC routinely skirts interrogations from the agitators, citing that they are under the direct command of the MHRD. Although, such internally feudal relationships are common in the Indian administrative setup, they play a major role in eroding the State’s accountability.
Unable and probably unwilling to force the iron barricades down, the students settled down into a sit-in at the blockade site.
The blockade did not hinder the constant, undying din of revolutionary slogans against the government, with specific emphasis on the MHRD and the Union HRD Minister.
Some seemed to bear an uncanny, ritualistic resemblance to a certain Latin American revolutionary hero. For one, he did have a look in his eyes, the sorts that immediately enraptures.
A student organiser spells out the course of action for the evening, intimating to the protestors their collective decision to stay put in front of the barricades till they are not given an chance to submit their deposition to an MHRD official in-person. However, as declared by her in succinct terms, the absolute priority was to demand a personal meeting with Ms. Smriti Irani who had spent a few minutes with the students during their first march to the ministry. In an unrelenting speech, she reiterated how the excessive police cover was anticipated as the administration regularly sends their forces after university students, at least twice a month or so, “for mere target practice with their lathis”.
The sit-in wasn’t merely a blank show of solidarity, but a full-fledged public meeting with substantive speeches and information dissemination. The highly heedful crowd attended the meeting with all earnestness.
Some others, however, looked bluntly disheartened at the abrupt barricading. As fatigued outliers, this lot did not seem to pitch too much hope on successfully dealing with the negligent State authorities.
Deafened by the clamour of wrought-iron barricades, lathis, and megaphones, movement actors/participants often tend to lose the context and meaning of their struggle. However, staying aware of the ‘substance’ of the movement is more effective than arbitrary counter-action. That evening, the most impressive arrangement wasn’t that of the monumental State force put forward to trounce the university students, but rather the tranquil attentiveness of the protestors to the speeches in the face of numerous police batons and a water canon truck.
Very noticeably, attention spans did vary across the audience, though.
Kanhaiya Kumar, the President of JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) tells the story of how the occupation started. Purportedly, the busload of students who appeared in front of UGC on 21st of October did not think they would have to ‘occupy’ the premises. But, as he argues, the administration’s stellar incompetence at handling the issue or even effectively running the offices, was a reflexive call to the students to occupy the premises. He emphasised on how the State is unhesitant in applying ruthless force against unarmed university students just to avoid critical discussions. “I haven’t gotten a PhD yet, but I have definitely procured a PhD in ‘verbal abusing’, courtesy the Delhi Police’s attitude towards us”, Mr. Kumar proclaimed.
The deployment of a large contingent of police force not only serves the immediate purpose of direct intimidation, but also vilifies the agitators in the eyes of the media and masses. Through systematic police action, the State often tries to portray demonstrators as a ‘law-and-order problem’.
The sit-in was graced by the stirring speeches made by various individuals from different backgrounds and regions. Currently serving as the head of a civil society collective for women in Haryana, she ragingly cited instances from his her own state when the government was disciplined by girl students demanding their rights. This, she argued, must be emulated here in Delhi.
Someone at the sit-in mentioned how issues of equitable access to quality education affects the families of policemen as much as those of other lower-middle class or middle class households. Needless to say, one of their siblings could be directly affected by what the students are concerned about.
A long-time resident of JNU, he recited a soul-stirring piece of poetry.
“Time is the best killer!” proclaimed one police inspector, very casually, to his juniors. He was referring to how, if given enough time, any agitation could be suppressed. But, after more than thirty days of unrelenting occupation, his hypothesis seems to have started faltering.
There is a certain cross-cultural charm about facing aggressive State force with the calmest rigour of defiance. All across the world, what intimidates the State the most isn’t symmetric show of strength by protestors, but a sense of enviable calm on their faces when facing batons, water canons, or tear gas. Remaining composed and gathered can be highly effective in a suavely moralistic way.
The sit-in witnessed a series of performance-based sloganeering.
The speakers fervently talked about a plethora of issues, including how governments all across the world, from Asia to Latin America, routinely use brute force to quell democratic dissent. While the intentions and opinions of the highest officials (regarding agitators) in the establishment are often clear, those of the “agents of state force” (like policemen) are often more discreet and vague.
Some others were pretty conspicuous with their emotions, despite the physical discretion.
Beyond the yellow police barricades, lay an elusive world of state-sponsored opulence and power. This impenetrability of the power-corridors can decisively corrode the quality of the prevalent social contract in the country. Policymaking in a starkly diverse and politically conscious country like India cannot happen behind closed doors and barricades, lest the State is making a conscious effort at losing every credibility that it has in front of its own people. Citizens often ask for a government that is accessible and answerable, not barricaded and hidden away behind a police line. | Pictured here is an ‘Ambassador’ – the iconic official car of the Indian government that went out of production some time back, but still serves as the chariot for many high-level government officials. With time, this white, sturdy vehicle has come to directly embody the administrative nobility.
Today was indeed a crucial day for the students – in not only undertaking a daunting walk through the Highs of Delhi, but also reaffirming their resolve to understand and achieve their aims. Many talked about how the heavy iron barricades would come crashing down like straws if student unity is fully realised. The yearning for radical change is a heady shot, that can momentarily blind movement actors, leading to a lack of clarity within the demonstrative space. The State has a large pool of resources at its disposal to strategise against agitators. Without ideological cohesiveness and clarity of thought, producing an effective counter-strategy becomes difficult. If thinking big does good, thinking clear even better.
Head-on confrontations with the State is an absolute inevitability for popular agitations. Even in the seemingly ‘most democratic’ setups, the administration is quick to push back peaceful protestors by brute force. At the end of the day, it is a dialectic display of power and strategies. While the State can use a variety of resources to intimidate the students, non-violent resistance often manages to make its point. It is, however, wrong to believe that a demonstration can be entirely non-violent. A protest paradigm, because of its flexibility and openness, consists of a variety of actor types. Some may behave in an irrational fit of rage, and use physical force against State officials. Such fringe acts of violent disruption often becomes the wholesale premise for brutal police action. Clearly, along with solid substance, the #OccupyUGC demands a clear and coherent manner-and-method. December 9th would be a good day to test this.
[With reference to what happened at the end of the sit-in, the following was narrated to me by one of the student facilitators present at the site: “No one from inside the ministry came to meet us, despite repeated promises by the police officials. As dusk fell, it was announced that the male protestors would be detained. Hearing this, all the female agitators formed a human chain around their male comrades. The police eventually lost its cool, and forcefully detained several students – both male and female. Some were ruthlessly dragged across the road, and beaten up. One female protestor got hurt between her legs. While the female students were released eventually, the men were taken to the nearby Parliament Street police station, and later dropped off at the site of occupation.]
The narration is divided into three thematic sub-categories: Discovery / Exploration / Voyages – discovering the many faces of the protest site; exploring its subjective depths and character; and voyaging along the tightly-controlled avenues of the extended protest space to other symbolic areas of the city (and beyond).
Despite the highly nuclear placement of this protest site – bang in the middle of the city, that too in one of it’s cardinal localities – in addition to the centrality of the issues at stake, the demonstrations have received limited and somewhat morphed attention in the ‘mainstream’ media (as understood to be inclusive of the major national dailies and broadcasters). Although several national media houses have covered the protests*, most (barring a few, like the Indian Express) have provided nothing more than a factually heavy, linear commentary on the protests – not going beyond the immediate demands and happenings of the demonstrations. At the initial stages, some** even projected the movement as a work of ‘vandalism’ visible as graffiti on the walls outside the UGC compound and the nearby metro station complex. An yet others made amusing comic strips on this instance of absurdly prejudiced media coverage, not-so-rare in this country.
Source: “Youth Ki Awaaz” [http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2015/11/times-of-india-report-on-occupyugc-illustration/]
After traversing through centuries of isolated conversations and great interpersonal distance, we today stand in a massively contracted world that is both fluid and malleable, in terms of information dissemination and opinion outflow – thanks to the ‘free’ internet. Individual accounts and feeds from the participants have drawn large cyber crowds on social media platforms, most notably Facebook. The protests have also been picked up and contextually analysed by some independent online journals and entities over the course of the past thirty days***. This photo-essay is a modest contribution to this swelling stock of independent stories that are a part of an alternative repertory of non-partisan journalistic coverage.
Needless to say, we are all part of the same social embroidery that is woven onto a conflicting political fabric. At diametric corners of this volatile setting lies the governing unit and the governed. Unhindered continuity of this mutual arrangement can be ensured only through a relationship of acknowledgment and understanding – between and within both entities. Every little ‘issue’ affects us in some way or the other – noticeably or elusively, tangentially or wholly. Therefore, isolated action in a world that is so tightly bound yet socially volatile makes little sense. In a society rift with agents of vested-interests, persistent collective determination to stop injustice and inequality from becoming the norm gives us hope for a world that could successfully redeem us from a total social and moral apocalypse.
The quotes and accounts published as a part of the photo-narrative have largely been sourced first-hand by myself, having visited the protest site several times in the second half of the past one month period, starting on the 7th of November. During my visits, I have conversed with various primary and secondary actors in the protests and witnessed some of the on-site events put up by the students. Whether the demonstrations snowball into a pan-India movement based on widespread and pervasive mobilisation, or melt away like wax under the heat of vision-less aggression, it is irrefutably an eclectic experience to bear serious witness to the form and character of not just the protest but also the symbolic space of what the spirited students are calling “#OccupyUGC”.
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*#OccupyUGC archives in major national news agencies:
–The Hindu: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/yogendra-yadav-supports-occupy-ugc/article7820434.ece | http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/occupy-ugc-garners-support-in-hyderabad/article7894363.ece
-NDTV: http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/occupy-ugc-protest-students-march-to-education-ministry-demand-dissolving-of-panel-1240563 | http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/occupy-ugc-yogendra-yadav-to-spend-night-at-protest-venue-1239756
***Independent agency/journal reports: