NEW DELHI : If statues could talk, I wonder what the nine-foot-tall, bronze Jawaharlal Nehru would say when the saffron-coloured cloth is finally removed from a life-sized Swami Vivekananda figure installed 50m opposite him in the administrative block of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Perhaps, why were you covered for so long? “Or maybe, what brings you here," offers Manish Kumar, 30, a PhD student who came to the varsity from Bihar’s Samastipur in 2011.

The yet-to-be-inaugurated statue of the 19th century Hindu reformer, who is often invoked in the branding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—was installed last year. Its placement is part of a list of issues that have plagued the varsity after M. Jagadesh Kumar became the vice-chancellor in early 2016.

“We need better libraries, financial help. Will statues help me complete my studies?" asks Qasim Masumi, 25, Manish’s friend and an MPhil student.

His anxiety is rooted in the university’s recent move to increase fees. The hike, set to come into effect from the next academic year, will almost double the annual hostel fee for students to 55,000-61,000, making JNU the country’s most expensive central university. Students have been protesting against the move, arguing it would push poor and marginalized people out of the varsity. “Most people I know will quit. I might have to, too. Loans are not an option for students in arts and social sciences," says Masumi, who is studying social sciences. Banks offer loans only for engineering and other professional courses.

Over the past four years, several protests at JNU, which has a reputation for being a hotbed of political activism, have spilled out of the university campus.

From the sedition row in 2016, which saw the arrest of then JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, to the case of student Najeeb Ahmed going missing from the university campus the same year, to the recent protests against the fee hike, the Citizen (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019 and the National Register of Citizens, the university has frequently been at loggerheads with the establishment inside and outside the varsity. Their relentless fight, however, has become a testament to their beliefs.

“The circumstances are such that there’s no other solution but to protest. Our walls that were covered with art and graffiti, which accommodated ideas of everyone, whether left, right or centre, were removed. We don’t have any army; we only have our voices to show our dissent. By raising the fee, they are telling us we don’t belong here. By creating CAA they are telling us that we don’t belong here. Throughout our lives, we were taught humans are equal, why are they creating barriers?" asks Manish, adding: “In my hometown I faced caste oppression but we never talked about it. When I came to JNU, there were open discussions about it. I finally felt I was not alone."

Not all students, however, are so vocal, interjects Masumi. The narrative of students being anti-nationals has been played up so much, especially in the media, that some students are now scared to raise their voices, he claims. “When I got admission here, my parents specifically told me not to get involved in politics. But it is not about politics; it is about what’s right and wrong," says Masumi, whose father is an event organizer in Patna and mother a homemaker.

Manish Kumar’s parents didn’t have any such demand when he joined the university in 2011. His dad has a fish shop, and his parents don’t even know “how big a deal it is" for him to study here.

The early visitors

Like Manish and Masumi, hundreds of students from different backgrounds and regions across the world come to JNU, with the hope that they will get a premier education at an affordable price.

Santosh Kumar, 33, for instance, who came from Bunapur, a remote village near Varanasi, made five attempts to crack the JNU entrance exam. “I was able to live my dream because I could afford the fee," says Santosh, who joined the economics school in July 2015.

His classmate Amita came to JNU to delay getting married. She used to help her family with farming in Haryana’s Mahendragarh district and finished her college studies in her spare time. “My parents let me study here because of the cheap fee," says Amita, 30, an MPhil student who dropped her last name when she was in Class X to remove the caste barrier. She’s just got a job in the Union labour ministry.

Like Manish and Masumi, Amita too would be the first-generation learner in the family and is on her way to complete her MPhil.

For Twinkle Siwach, 29, an Army child, admission in JNU marked the start for her “empowerment journey". “I became more vocal and self-aware here. My parents weren’t too happy with my admission since they wanted me to an engineer, but since I had some money saved from previous jobs, I paid the fees. It was only possible because it was affordable," says Siwach, a sociology student who is completing her PhD in how first information reports (FIRs), especially those by women, are read by the media and how it creates an opinion in public. She eventually wants to be a professor, as do Manish and Masumi. “JNU made space for so many people like me. If something goes wrong here, where will people go? Who will accommodate children who sleep in the tribal areas dreaming they will come to JNU one day, to become learners? That’s why we protest," says Siwach.

When the protests against CAA and NRC took place in central Delhi’s Mandi House area on 24 December, Siwach, Manish and Masumi were present. All three were detained.

Turning point

Rahim Yusuf was also one of them, protesting against the way police handled the peaceful protest against CAA and NRC at Jamia Millia Islamia on 15 December. “My acquaintance was shot just below his chest area. They hit me with lathis on my spine and calf muscles," says the 21-year-old who came to Jamia university to study psychology two years ago, “for personal growth and the importance it gave to education among the minority groups".

Yusuf, too, has been at the forefront of protests at his university. “My education is all I have. If we are not educated, how different are we from animals? Aur waqt ki nazakat dekhiye (And look at the sensitivity of the prevailing circumstances). How can I not protest?"

He admits the recent protests have demoralized him. “I want to study, become a clinical psychologist, but the current environment is so toxic that I have to raise my voice."

Some 160km away, Abdullah Parvez, a second-year English honours student at Aligarh Muslim University, too was protesting with his fellow classmates outside his campus against the same issues.

“The issue is not about one sect of people, it is for democracy," says Parvez, 22. “Look at the Hong Kong protests, the Black Lives Matter movement—students have always been at the forefront. It’s not like we like protesting. We are fighting for what is supposed to be ours, for something that was given to us on paper. We owe it to our society."

JNU’s Manish, who was released the same day he was detained as were his fellow classmates, says when the fight is over, we will all go back home. “But I don’t know when they will lift the veil."

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