As the second wave of Covid-19 is engulfing lakhs of people, the JNU students are battling with the epidemic attack, the digital mode of education that is inherently exclusive in nature, and an administration antagonistic towards the students and the workers. Write Avantika Tewari and Sunil Tamminaina.
In the wake of the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) recent rejection to fervent pleas from the faculty and students to set up a covid care centre on campus, let us take a moment to review their nature of university intervention since the onset of the pandemic.
As the second wave of Covid-19 rages across the country engulfing lakhs of people, leaving many scrambling for oxygen and hospital beds, the JNU campus is also affected with as many as 74 reported number of active cases as per the last official number put out by the university administration. Even though it’s been more than a year into the pandemic now, the JNU administration has hardly put any mechanism for Covid control to effectively tackle the situation. It hasn’t set up any quarantine or isolation facilities, neither does a permanent testing facility exist on campus. This is in stark contrast to other educational institutes even in Delhi, for instance, Delhi University (DU)’s Laxmibai College has recently set up 100 bed isolation centres within its premises for covid patients. Most hostels in JNU are not even equipped with sanitiser dispensers, all the while frontline workers like mess staff and sanitation workers have been overstretched and without adequate protective equipment, often without due wages being paid to them.
Currently, as the virus rages on, members of the JNU community with Covid-19 symptoms are having to wait for more than 24 hours after getting a test before shifting to one of the Delhi Government’s isolation centres upon being tested positive. The administration’s only response seems to be asking students to vacate the campus as soon as any outbreak happens, conveniently shedding any responsibility to build a resilient support infrastructure on campus which can help mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic. Such an attitude from the current JNU administration is not very surprising, considering it’s long history of utter insensitivity to issues concerning the JNU community, many of which being the very administration’s creation. The delay in the conducting of tests and the absence of isolation wards for symptomatic people can cause further transmission of the virus on campus. In this regard the Students Union (JNUSU), recently suggested to the administration that it convert the Aravali Guest House on campus into a isolation facility. Students who have been tested positive have been taken to distant parts of the city in Faridabad, Sultanpuri where they are kept out of reach from their friends who could occasionally deliver them food. Reports have suggested that the facility lacks proper ventilation and access to nutritious food, while no efforts had been made by the JNU administration to anticipate and avert this situation.
Given the conditions imposed by the pandemic, and teaching-learning entirely being shifted to online mode, the student community along with the staff has been sequestered into a double-edged problem of being internally displaced from the education system through digital exclusion which falsely presumes a seamless transition from offline mode of education to online mode as well as being forced to enter a campus in order to assert their right to access to education, despite the lack of a robust healthcare system. The callousness of the administration is reflective in its logic of “waiting it out until it’s too late,” only to be preceded by policing of students. This double jeopardy needed to be resolved dialectically. There is a need for positive negation of the coronavirus, which means that we need to equip the community to build itself up in order to fend themselves and others from the risk of catching the virus.
At the onset of the crisis, the JNU administration had constituted a COVID Task Force, followed by a Phased Re-opening of the University Committee, and very recently, a COVID-19 Response Team. However, none of these committees have taken proactive steps at even doing the bare minimum of setting up a permanent testing facility on campus. The health centre on campus continues to remain without resources that are essential to tackle medical emergencies. Furthermore, the scheme of the lockdown announced in March 2020 can be seen spilling onto the current crisis as well, where the administration’s unidimensional response to the crisis has been to ask the students to vacate the campus rather than taking up steps at mitigating the crisis within. As if, life outside campus is any less perilous to the safety of people! While it may be important to decongest hostels, physically removing or forcefully evicting students from the campus is both an inhumane as well as inadequate response as it fails to ensure the wellbeing of all the stakeholders. Strategies for decongesting the hostel can’t be ad-hoc and exclusionary, students cannot be pressured into vacating hostels especially on the onset of the lockdown when rail travel is risky and trains are not functioning at their regular frequency. The administration’s policies thus, have to be reflective of the totality of the crisis and not myopically inward looking.
We have the devastating reality of the number of students who have been pushed towards taking their own lives due to the distress accruing to the pandemic, which has caused most Indian families a deep financial burden to bear additional costs of providing gadgets for remote learning. In failing to address and take into account the protesting students whose studies have been suspended due to online classes, they are being institutionally pushed to drop-out of the university, owing to its failure to accommodate those with lesser resources through the compounding crises imposed by the pandemic.
An Overeducated Precariat: Salaries/Scholarship/Stipend
The university saw a month-long strike by the underpaid sanitation workers who had not received their salaries despite being on the frontlines battling the coronavirus. In this way, the administration has not only failed the students but also other members of the community. No efforts were made towards reducing the fees or cancelling fees for the semester that observed online classes which were non-accessible to a lot of students owing to the existing socio-economic inequalities that make access to resources difficult for people. It is also no secret that the government’s New Education Policy is geared towards commodifying the remnants of public education in the country by aggressively pushing the university towards the e-market.
Additionally, there has been no committee to help recover the cost of medical treatment which has left students scrambling for resources. Many have resorted to making public appeals to garner funds that would help them with their medical expenses. At a time when most hospitals are overwhelmed with cases, the city has simultaneously seen an influx of black marketing where people are being pushed into paying ludicrous amounts to access oxygen cylinders, medicines and steroids for treatment. Given the meagre scale of wages that the university offers its precarious, contractual workers as well as research scholars, efforts should have been made in the direction of enhancing these. A health insurance cover could also have been mobilised by the administration, by way of creating an endowment fund to address the ongoing crisis. This is not totally unprecedented as we have seen only in the recent past, students of Ambedkar University Delhi protested and ensured that various stop-gap measures were put in place to facilitate classes through online mode getting the university to bear the cost of the surplus expenditure of providing tablets, data packs, offering fee waivers. Monthly data packs were allotted to students, and after many protests, students also got their scholarships doubled. This ensures that the students and staff were capacitated to support themselves and their families during a medical health emergency of catastrophic proportions.
Given the dynamic and compounding pressures, it is only natural that the student community found itself without answers. The JNU campus saw a left front resurrecting in discourse but oftentimes slipping in formulating political programs that are needed to address the political lacuna. For instance, admittedly there has been more outrage with regard to the control measures that the administration has put in place – anticipating surveillance and securitisation of students – who are anyway persecuted for dissent. However, it is inadequate to reduce the culture of resistance and opposition to spontaneous outbursts and launching counter-attacks on a particularly perverse administration which has failed to meet minimum requirements for the students. The curbing of the “freedom” of students within the university under the severity of a pandemic can not be simplistically seen in opposition to the administration and in isolation from the totality of the pandemic. Some restraint could have been exercised by the student community which perhaps self-defeatingly insisted on keeping the central library — a building with closed room spaces and a fertile territory for virus spread — open even with a rise in confirmed infections. Instead of gathering in the library, one could push the administration towards giving digitising an open-source library which accords to all students free access to all international journals.
Students Politics at the time of a Pandemic
This brings us to the question of how organized student politics respond to such a grave situation for the student community, during a pandemic. What role should an elected Students’ Union (JNUSU) consisting of left student organisations, play? What are some strategies that can further emancipatory politics that can be adopted in the face of a callous administration with the full backing of their ideological masters in the upper echelons of power? In good faith and as members of the community of JNU, we wish to put forth our thoughts. The task of the union, at any time, is to lead and make people come together across political ideologies through the materiality of labour. It is not only the “job” of the student union to work within its own party members to devise stop-gap measures and also implement everything by itself but at the same time, the student union like all structures is not above the ideology of the university, and is not an inherently “progressive” body. No matter the party or organisation in power, the larger student community must proactively participate in critiquing and advising the union, just as the union must make itself open to criticisms and suggestions. Over the years, neoliberalism has co-opted (not explicitly but by embedding itself in the social unconscious) and subjectivated our attitudes and responses to crises by framing our opposition in the most radically benign terms. Rendering our protest radical only in appearance but with little strength in content. But, without the presence of an affirmative political project of emancipation, political strategies seem to condense itself into shallow movementalism – as reflected in repetitive and almost ritualistic marches from Ganga dhaba to Chandrabhaga hostel on campus, becoming the singular response to most of the issues.
For instance, while everyone knows the socio-economic inequalities in society exacerbate and manifest in the digital gap that internally differentiates students who are able to access these classes and those that can’t, what is our political intervention to circumvent and mitigate the problem? While our discourse and rhetoric against the administration is sharp and often correct, we are still tailing behind the administration rather than cohesively studying the problems of our times and coming up with sustained plans to counter and mitigate the effects of the crises. It is in fact, knowing the nature of the fascist regime and capitalist state form that the people entrusted the left student’s union with the task of reconstruction of the university. While “exposing” the administration’s criminal laxity is important, a Students Union’s public announcements cannot be limited to just that, or giving a count of the number of initiatives it took in a “limited capacity”. We need to start building off of the blueprint and develop community defense that rivals and undermines the reactionary upsurge, which we know is totally incapable of mitigating the pandemic and socio-economic crisis.While we must continue to pressurise the administration to do more, it is also important to not be totally reliant on their idea of justice and build our own sphere of freedoms.
An Embryonic Dual Power
Despite the grim reality, we draw inspiration from the strength of local, student-run bodies such as the mess and hostel committees in some hostels which have, in spite of the administration and often, also independent of the Student Union directed their energy into putting in place mechanisms to mitigate the crisis. Although this remains a minority response and does not reflect the broader trend of a universal and generalised precarity and helpless, few women’s hostels for example, the hostel presidents have been meticulously ensuring that the hostel wings are internally separated to hold COVID patients who are awaiting test results, providing them both the space to isolate as well as offering them the care that they need to recover by ensuring that their bathroom is disinfected, they get food on a timely basis in disposable plates along with fruits that would boost their immunity. Students have volunteered, set up committees for providing food, management of sanitation, and providing minimal medical help and equipment like thermometers, oximeters in these facilities. Since there are no permanent testing facilities within JNU, the delay in the test results has strained many other hostels who have collapsed under the weight of the surge in cases. Quarantine facilities set up by students as stated above can be expanded to every hostel and used for accommodating people awaiting their test results. It is only with a positively enforcing environment and suitable support system created by building sustained solidarities, adequate health infrastructure and mutual cooperation that people would get the confidence to come up voluntarily for testing.
In the coming times, perhaps the student community would want to think of setting up sanitation committees run by students, or community run security to take turns and ensure social distancing norms are followed within the campus. This will be testament to true student-worker unity, sharing the burden of labour while creating embryonic dual power structures that don’t make students totally dependent on the whims and mercy of the administration. While the administration stubbornly undermines the power of workers in decision-making and governance of the university; negates the concerns of students, denies any representation for the community – the JNU community has only each other to fall back on. It is only by building solidarities through materiality of labour that the administration can be pushed back and made to relent from its dominant modes of post-facto securitarian interventions which are detrimental to the university and its people!
 If there is anything that the School of Open Learning, Delhi University’s experience can teach us, is that the administration has reserved for the most vulnerable section of students in society, the worst. However, there is no space to discuss that in greater detail. The work of Maya John could be referred to for more on the subject.