The Grant Strategy: ‘Occupy UGC’ on the Lens

“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.

Discovery

[Click on individual photographs to enlarge them and read the full photo-narration]
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.  

Exploration

[Click on individual photographs to enlarge them and read the full photo-narration]
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.

Voyages

[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.

[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.

v-arun-illustration-toi-edited
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”.

All photographs and content ©ANGSHUMAN CHOUDHURY | eleventhcolumn.wordpress.com

If you wish to use the photographs or any other content for personal or commercial purposes, kindly contact the author on angshurkp@gmail.com.

*#OccupyUGC archives in major national news agencies:
Indian Express: http://indianexpress.com/?s=occupy+UGC
Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/topic/Occupyugc
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
The Statesman: http://www.thestatesman.com/news/delhi/occupy-ugc-protestors-mark-one-month-of-campaign/105621.html
-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

**http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Protesting-students-disfigure-Metro-station-brazen-it-out/articleshow/49574019.cms
***Independent agency/journal reports:
-http://thewire.in/2015/11/24/what-lies-behind-the-occupy-ugc-protest-16135/
-http://thewire.in/2015/10/28/the-occupy-ugc-agitation-is-about-saving-indian-education-14207/
-http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-occupy-ugc-students-to-protest-kolkata-lathicharge-on-students-2141760
-http://www.dailyo.in/politics/occupy-ugc-non-net-fellowship-jnu-du-student-protests-human-rights-gats-wto/story/1/7065.html
-http://kafila.org/2015/10/23/students-occupy-ugc-to-defend-the-right-to-research-in-universities-across-india-sucheta-de/
-http://thelogicalindian.com/news/occupy-ugc-protest-ugc-scraps-fellowship-for-non-net-students/
-https://www.popularresistance.org/what-lies-behind-the-occupy-ugc-protest/
-http://swarajyamag.com/politics/why-occupy-ugc-is-a-bad-idea/

4 thoughts on “The Grant Strategy: ‘Occupy UGC’ on the Lens

  1. I’d like to applaud you for your efforts at providing such an in- depth coverage of the UGC protests. Some pictures, like the ones with the policemen with the backdrop of #OccupyUGC, the picture with the red flags of protest, are simply brilliant. And, the narrative to all the pictures is detailed and provides an insight into the protests. I hadn’t followed this news, and was uncertain as to what the protests were all about. But, thanks to this Photo essay, I now know about the protests. Also, I really liked how you classified the essay into three segments, and how the entire narrative was built through it. You’ve worked really hard, writing all those captions with each picture, and that, in itself, is so extraordinary!
    Keep up the good work. I’ll be waiting for the next photo story. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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