The recent student unrest at Panjab University, triggered by a sudden and phenomenal increase in student fees, has thrust the University — generally known for its beautiful campus — into national and international attention. There are two different but connected layers of issues related to the crisis that need to be unravelled for an informed understanding of the present impasse.
One relates to macro issues of neo-liberal restructuring of higher education and the increasing centralisation of education, especially higher education, in India. The other relates to the micro issue of how the unrest was handled, or rather mishandled, by the University and Chandigarh administration. It is this micro issue that has attracted media attention and rightly so due to the violence involved in the suppression of student protest. We need to understand the macro issues that lie behind this violent conflict.
The neo-liberal project entered India with the launch of the so-called economic reforms initiated in July 1991. These neo-liberal economic reforms introduced as a condition for receiving the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to tide over the severe balance-of-payment crisis revolve around the central issue of giving primacy to market in decision making. The role of the state is relegated merely to facilitate the entry of market by introducing legal and institutional changes necessary for the unhindered operation of the market. It is important to understand that in the policy framework of IMF and World Bank, the market is not merely an economic instrument. It is also symbolic of an ideology of individualism and private interest in opposition to a perspective that values collective efforts and publicly shared endeavours.
Of the many implications of the neo-liberal economic reforms, the key one of relevance here is abandoning education as a public good and promoting it as a commodity to be sold, bought and consumed. This paradigm shift from education as a public good to a private good does not happen at one stroke but as a gradual process of different turns and twists in which parts of a publicly-funded university are privatised bit by bit along with opening of fully privatised institutions as competitors to the publicly-funded university. The aspect highlighting the pressure towards partial privatisation of publicly funded universities is the gradual withdrawal of the state from funding the universities. That pressure has hit the Panjab University in a dramatic fashion now.
Alongside is the macro pressure that has a bearing on the current situation. This is the long-term trend in India towards increasing centralisation of education, particularly of higher education. The most startling manifestation of this trend occurred during the authoritarian regime of Emergency (1975-77), imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In 1976, “education” (which was an item number 11 in the State List in India's Constitution) taken out and included as an item 25 in the Concurrent List via the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution. Although an item in the Concurrent List, as the nomenclature suggests, is supposed to represent shared power between the Centre and the states. In reality, it amounts to increased power of the Centre because under Article 254 of the Constitution in a situation of conflict between the Centre and a state on a matter in the Concurrent List, the overriding power vests with the Centre. No post-Emergency government at the Centre has undone this damage inflicted during the Emergency. The central bureaucracy which in some matters wields more effectual power than political leadership, has a vested interest in keeping the power to itself. The process of centralisation has proceeded much further with the opening of central universities in different states. It is a severely flawed project. The relatively generous funding provided to the central universities cannibalises the surrounding state universities in quantity and quality in staff and student recruitment, and eventually results in lowering the average quality of higher education in the state. If the current BJP government at the Centre by putting squeeze on funding Panjab University is aiming to increase the pressure for its central takeover, it is following the flawed model of centralisation of education even more vigorously than the previous UPA government.
This highlights the moral responsibility of Punjab government to pro-actively fund its share to Punjab University to defeat both the flawed projects of neo-liberal privatisation and centralisation of education. This should be a part of the overall planning to raise the standard of education in all state-funded universities, colleges and schools in the region. The vast majority of students from less well-of backgrounds depends upon state-funded educational institutions. For social equity and to create appropriate human resources for sustainable development in the region, state-funded education is of prime importance. The so-called East Asian miracle — the development of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and pre-China-controlled Hong Kong — is due to the focussed investment by the state in education in these countries.
On the micro issue of management of student protest, it seems to be a monumental misjudgement on the part of the University and Chandigarh administration to believe that such student protests can be suppressed by unleashing police repression on leading student activists. It reveals a lack of historical knowledge of the political culture of student movements in Punjab which has produced legendary student leaders such as Darshan Singh Baggi in the 1960s and Prithipal Singh Randhawa in the 1970s, and on the PU campus itself Anupam Gupta in the 1970s and Ashwani Handa in the 1980s.
Finally, the protesting students must view the lower-level police officials who come from poor and middle class family backgrounds as their allies and not as antagonists. They must learn from the success of Chilean students who forced their government to roll back the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation and increased fees in university education. A protest movement is more likely to succeed if it wins sympathies also from those who are supposed to be used as instruments to suppress it. They must build on the massive solidarity demonstrated by wide-ranging sections of society with their demands that many stakeholders are involved in the future of this premier institution of the region.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK.
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