JNU and the Ambedkarite idea of public education

The ongoing protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University must be understood in the context of Jotirao Phule and BR Ambedkar's transformative vision for public education in India. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
10 December, 2019

What is the idea of public education in India? To answer the question, it is imperative to first understand the very idea of the public. In India, the concept of the public is a deeply contentious subject because Indian society, by its nature, is oppressive and exclusionary. It is a society marked by segregation at birth, social discrimination and economic deprivation. This practice of exclusion and discrimination, a consequence of the entrenched caste system, persists widely even today, and any discussion of public education must accommodate the institutional injustices created by such a segregated society.

The ongoing students’ protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi are inseparable from both, the issues of caste discrimination in India, and how the privatisation of education and its resultant commercialisation would further alienate marginalised communities. Though it was triggered by the administration’s decision to stick by a fee-hike, the protest sought to protect something greater: the idea of a public university. To recognise the protest on these terms—of caste and commercialisation—it is crucial to revisit the roots of public education in India.

Historically, education and knowledge was the monopoly of twice-born communities, and particularly controlled by the Brahmins. In Brahminical philosophy, the structure of varnashrama dharma prescribes the rights and duties of different communities, based on the principles of graded inequalities ascribed to the various caste groups. This led to the systemic exclusion and denial of education to the Shudra community, which stands at the lowest level of the varna system; the Atishudras, comprising communities that fall outside the four-tier system; and women. The ancient Hindu code, Manusmriti, prescribes harsh penalties against anyone from these groups who defy the religious text to educate themselves or others.

Evidently, public education has institutionally been a monopoly of the Brahmin and upper-caste communities. Their exclusive domain over the right to knowledge has been considered a matter of prestige, power and economic position. This underwent a dramatic change—at least notionally if not in practice—with Independence and the adoption of the Constitution. The right to education for all was enshrined in the Constitution as one of the Directive Principles of State Policy—guidelines for state and central legislatures to take into account while framing laws—and was later interpreted as part of the fundamental right to life by the Supreme Court. Two people in particular played a critical role in transforming the vision of public education in India—Jotirao Phule and BR Ambedkar.

Phule and Ambedkar, both of whom had benefitted under Christian missionary schools in British India, brought the idea of education outside the Brahmin monopoly. The Christian schools provided basic education that was open to all, including the marginalised communities, which in turn enabled people such as Ambedkar, Jotirao and Savitribhai Phule to establish pioneering movements for education. Jotirao’s intervention on education in the nineteenth century opened the doors of access to knowledge to the women and oppressed castes of Maharashtra. His philosophy of education was a revolutionary weapon for the marginalised communities to fight the oppression and inequality perpetuated by Brahminism. In Shetkaryaca Asud, a critique of the British-Brahmin alliance in the bureaucracy, published in 1881, Jotirao famously wrote: “Without education, wisdom was lost; without wisdom, morals were lost; without morals, development was lost; without development, wealth was lost; without wealth, the Shudra were ruined; so much happened through lack of education.”

His idea of education was not exclusionary or sectarian. He demanded universal and compulsory education for all. In 1848, the Phules opened a school for girls and challenged the Brahminical knowledge structure. Seven years later, Jotirao wrote a Marathi play, Tritya Ratan, or Third Eye, about a farmer and his pregnant wife who are exploited by a Brahmin priest. The play ultimately proposed that the only way to escape such exploitation is education. In effect, he termed knowledge as the third eye necessary for the emancipation of the oppressed communities.

Jotirao persisted with his movement to educate the masses in his speeches as well. The book Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule records a deposition by him to the Education Commission, which was constituted under the British Raj in 1881 to look into the status of primary and secondary education. He wrote:

A taste for education among the higher and wealthy classes, such as the Brahmins and Purbhoos, especially those classes who live by the pen, has been created, and a gradual withdrawal of State aid may be possible so far as these classes are concerned; but in the middle and lower classes, among whom higher education has made no perceptible progress, such a withdrawal would be a great hardship. In the event of such withdrawal, boys will be obliged to have recourse to inefficient and sectarian schools much against their wish, and the cause of education cannot but suffer. Nor could any part of such education be entrusted to private agency. For a long time to come the entire educational machinery, both ministerial and executive, must be in the hands of Government. Both the higher and primary education require all the fostering care and attention which Government can bestow on it.

As is evident, in addition to developing his own educational institutes, Jotirao proactively urged the government to provide free, public education.

Jotirao’s legacy can be seen in Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s intervention in Indian public dialogue radicalised the anti-caste discourse. In 1924, Ambedkar founded the Bahiskrit Hitakarini Sabha—the Group for the Wellbeing of the Excluded—to help oppressed communities mobilise and raise their grievances. The motto of the organisation was the now famous slogan, “Educate, Agitate, Organise.” Through the Sabha, he initiated educational activities such as opening hostels, libraries, and study circles for Dalit students. He also submitted a memorandum to the Bombay Legislative Council about the need for educational development of the depressed classes. In 1927, he became a member of the council himself.

Ambedkar fundamentally altered the education system in India. In 1927, during a debate in the council on the Bombay University Bill, Ambedkar argued, “The backward classes have come to realise that after all education is the greatest material benefit for which they can fight. We may forego material benefits … but we cannot forego our right and opportunity to reap the benefit of the highest education to the fullest extent.”

Ambedkar was unambiguous in his belief that education should be funded by the state so that it is accessible to all, and unequivocally opposed its commercialisation. The year he joined the council, during a debate on grants for public education, Ambedkar noted:

I find that out of the total expenditure which we incur on arts colleges, something like 36 per cent is financed from fees; out of the expenditure that we incur on high schools, something like 31 per cent is financed from fees; out of the expenditure that we incur on middle schools, something like 26 per cent is derived from fees. Now, Sir, I submit that this is commercialisation of education. Education is something which ought to be brought within the reach of every one. The Education Department is not a department which can be treated on the basis of quid pro quo. Education ought to be cheapened in all possible ways and to the greatest possible extent.

Ambedkar’s demands for public education also included special provisions for the depressed classes. He believed that it was a “mockery” to speak of compulsory education for all without providing special facilities to the depressed classes. This, he noted, was necessary for individuals of the depressed classes to be treated with respect, which would in turn enable them to develop self-confidence and remove their inferiority complex. In effect, Ambedkar treated the spread of higher education as the panacea for social troubles.

In 1945, Ambedkar wrote State and Minorities on behalf of the Scheduled Caste Federation, an organisation he founded a few years earlier. The federation had asked Ambedkar to write about legal safeguards necessary to protect the Scheduled Castes, but the final product was almost a constitution in itself. In the section titled, “Fundamental Rights of Citizens,” Ambedkar noted: “Whoever denies to any person … the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges of inns, educational institutions, road paths … shall be guilty of an offence.” In 1950, when the Indian constitution finally came into force, education was included in the Directive Principles, which are not judicially enforceable. But in 1992, the Supreme Court interpreted the right to education to be a part of the fundamental right to life and liberty, under Article 21 of the Constitution.

For Ambedkar, the constitution and the state were a document and an institution that served public good. Accordingly, he believed that education should be a fundamental constitutional right and it is the responsibility of the state to provide it free of cost. In a section from States and Minorities on the “special responsibilities for the betterment of the Scheduled Castes,” Ambedkar wrote, “Governments—Union and State—shall be required to assume financial responsibility for the higher education of the Scheduled Castes and shall be required to make adequate provisions in their budgets. Such Provisions shall form the first charge on the Education Budget of the Union and State Government.”

It is important to recognise the enormity of what Ambedkar proposed in States and Minorities, and achieved with the Constitution: by transforming education into a public good, he challenged the upper-caste control over education. Ambedkar’s idea of education is not limited to public funding—it goes beyond that. According to him, education is a value, a means for social transformation. In 1956, during a talk on the subject, “Prospect of Democracy in India,” he said:

If you give education [only to] those strata of Indian Society [that] has a vested interest in maintaining the Caste System for the advantage it gives them, then the Caste System will be strengthened. On the other hand, if you give education to the lowest strata of Indian Society which is interested in blowing up the Caste System, the Caste System will be blown up … To make rich richer and poor poorer is not the way to abolish poverty. The same is true of using education as a means to end the caste system. To give education to those who want to keep up the caste system is not to improve the prospect of democracy in India but to put our democracy in India in greater jeopardy.

Therefore, Ambedkar’s idea of public education comprised two aspects; that is should be funded by the state; and that it should challenge the domination by upper-caste communities in order to become a means for social transformation by creating critical consciousness. It allows for a deeper public engagement on the emancipatory discourse, which he believed was a pillar of a democracy. Phule and Ambedkar both considered knowledge gained through education as a means of gaining power over every field of life. This is only possible through public-funded universities.

Yet, in India, the idea of public has evolved through the lens of the elite upper-caste and upper-class sections of society. The upper-caste presence in educational institutions is disproportionately higher than of the oppressed communities despite social justice being at the forefront of Indian policy, at least normatively. In the over seventy years of Indian democracy, the Congress ruled for more than fifty years, and Gandhian discourse, which pays little attention to concerns of caste exclusion, dominated this period. Similarly, the Marxist discourse and its focus on class has always been prevalent in mainstream academia, but as a result, the scope of public engagement and debate—albeit vibrant—has largely neglected questions of caste.

Several factors have also contributed to a rise in private education in the last three decades. First and foremost was the introduction of privatisation in the 1990s, following the liberalisation of the Indian economy, which created avenues for the emergence of commercialised education that ignored social justice. Around the same time, the Mandal Commission proposed 27-percent reservation for the Other Backward Classes in government-funded educational institutions, prompting the private industry to set up schools that would not be subject to the policy.

In 2000, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government formed a two-member committee to propose a policy framework for educational reforms, as a part of the Prime Minister’s Council of Trade and Advisory—it comprised the industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Kumarmangalam Birla. The committee identified low government spending on education as a key concern and proposed three methods to “overcome some of the problems in financing education.” The first measure was “to recover the public cost of higher education” and reallocate funds to primary education; the second, to “develop a credit market for education”; and finally, “to decentralise the management of public education and encourage the expansion of private and community supported schools.”

Under the Narendra Modi regime, both public education as an institution, and students and faculty from oppressed communities, have repeatedly come under attack. It started in May 2015, with the derecognition of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Soon after, the suicide of the scholar Rohith Vemula in January 2016 due to institutional caste discrimination by the Hyderabad Central University triggered protests by Dalit groups across the country. Later that year, the central government announced the establishment of the Higher Education Financing Agency, a government initiative to “finance civil and lab infrastructure projects through a 10-year loan,” which would be repaid through “internal accruals,” including fees. It is not difficult to see that introducing fee hikes, and effectively depriving those without the means to pay for it, is a natural consequence of the initiative. The list is long and continuous, but two aspects have remained consistent—the attempted systemic, Brahminical exclusion of the oppressed communities from the domain of education, and the increasing commercialisation of public universities.

JNU has been the central battleground of this war on public education. The administration placed in power by the BJP government, with the vice chancellor Jagadesh Kumar at its helm, has sought to control the university’s intellectual spaces and any scope for critical thought and debate by its students. While the most infamous instance of the administration and government’s targeting of JNU followed the students’ protests against the execution of Afzal Guru, in February 2016, the university has witnessed continuous turmoil and persecution of everyday academic activity ever since.

This has included admission-policy changes, such as removing the deprivation-points model, reducing the number of seats per programme, and introducing a new method of evaluating applicants. All these policies had one aspect in common: they significantly affected the number of candidates from marginalised communities who were able to gain admission into the university. In addition, the administration has also introduced other changes that seek to control the daily lives of the students, such as implementing everyday attendance, enforcing a dress code, imposing restrictions on hostel timings, declining permission for public seminars and conferences, and imposing restriction on public places in the university.

The latest policy change by the administration, which spurred the ongoing protests, was a new Inter-Hall Administration manual for the university’s hostels, which became controversial for a revised fee structure that proposed massive fee hikes. Why is JNU targeted? It is one of the leading public-funded universities in India which receives high academic credentials every year, and has consistently topped institutional rankings. In fact, JNU has often been a role model for other Indian universities, particularly in the social sciences discipline. Yet, the present government is spending more than fifty percent of its total budget on NITs, IITs, and IIMs. The social-sciences subjects are gradually being sidelined across universities.

In addition to its academic merit, JNU provides premier education at a subsidised cost to its students, ensuring access to knowledge to those with minimal resources. Eligible students from economically weak sections are also entitled to receive a monthly means-cum-merit, or MCM, fellowship of Rs 2,000 per month. According to the university’s 2017–18 annual report, JNU admitted a total of 1,566 students that year. Of these, 623, or 40 percent, came from lower- and middle-income groups, whose parents earned less than Rs 12,000 per month. In terms of social categories, the statistics revealed that in addition to the students from SCs, STs, OBCs and persons with disabilities who gained admission through the reserved categories, a total of 227 students from these communities also joined the university as unreserved candidates. Indeed, it is rare to find a university like JNU in India, where students from deprived sections can afford to study. The implementation of the new Inter-Hall Administration manual would be yet another administrative decision that will disproportionately disadvantage students from poor and marginalised communities.

The experiences of JNU’s Dalit students demonstrate how the university benefitted them, and provide a normative framework for the future of India’s public universities. “Earlier, MCM fellowship was Rs 1,500, and I still had to wait for months that could bear my mess bill,” Prakash, a student pursuing an integrated master’s in Spanish programme, told me. “During semester registrations, generally we run from one person to other to collect money,” he said and added that his education became possible only because of JNU’s minimum fee-structure.

Amarapali joined the university in 2016 as a bachelor’s of arts student in Chinese Studies, and is currently continuing her masters in the same subject. For her, the empowering aspects of JNU are not related to its fee structure or the MCM fellowship, but the political environment that it creates and opens up for its students. “As I lived in a Dalit ghetto, groomed in an Ambedkarite Buddhist family, I am fully aware about the caste and patriarchal humiliation,” she told me. “In JNU, there is strong resistance to such behaviour, girls do not face restriction on dress code, no time restriction, we can freely talk and discuss sitting in dhaba. When I hear and participate in rallies and marches, chanting the ‘Jai Bhim’ slogans, it gives me so much courage.”

Kurukshetra, who joined the master’s of arts programme in 2011, said he had aspired to join JNU, but he did not believe he could have done it without the deprivation-point system and the reservation for persons with disabilities. He has since completed his MPhil as well and is currently pursuing his PhD. “Getting MCM scholarship per month of Rs 1,500, along with escort allowance of Rs 1,500 every month during my master’s, I could manage to continue my study,” he told me. Kurukshetra also differentiated the support for students with disabilities at JNU from other universities. “In Delhi University, I took admission for MPhil, the faculty was cooperative, although I did not complete the course. The hostel provost said, ‘You should stay with your family, if you stay in the hostel, you will deteriorate mentally.’”

“In my nine years of experience in JNU, I could dare to state that the political environment is vibrant, there is space for everybody,” Kurukshetra said. “Being a person from Dalit community, I could witness the emergence of Dalit voices, the powerful articulation, in the emergence of BAPSA”—the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association—“I could see the changing discourse of JNU politics. Today, nobody can deny our presence.” He added, “In my observation, none of the Indian universities or institutes provides such facilities. Every citizen needs to rethink about public education and the severe attack on public funding for education. Persons like me can aspire and afford because of the public funding, which creates scope for democratic engagement.”

Other students spoke of the university’s inclusive nature as well. “There are various way to assert our identity, one may not be vocal. In my view public university like JNU gives us space to develop our consciousness critically, be it caste, class, and gender,” an MPhil student who requested not to be identified told me. “JNU is progressive. It is easy to associate myself with Ambedkarite politics here.”

“It would have been difficult for me to pursue Master’s, MPhil and continuing PhD without the public-funded education system that JNU offers,” Jintendra Suna, one of the most powerful student voices to emerge from JNU told me. Suna, who contested as BAPSA’s presidential candidate for the students union elections this year, said, “I could manage myself because of the MCM fellowship, the deprivation point helped me to get through JNU.”

As the students’ accounts illustrate, the Ambedkarite idea of public is inclusive and democratic. Two popular slogans that have echoed throughout the ongoing protest movement in JNU reflect this idea: “Shiksha par jo kharcha ho, budget ka dasba hissa ho”— expenditure on education must be ten percent of the total budget—and “Hum shiksha ka adhikar mangte, nahi kissi se bhik mangte—We demand the right to education, we do not beg. The government’s attack on public education raises serious questions that are not limited to only JNU, but significant for Indian society at large. Caste discrimination, class inequality and gender discrimination is rampant in the society and its education system. The solution is developing critical emancipatory discourse through democracy which treats education as a means for a radical transformation, as a free public-funded public good that can make society egalitarian and equitable.