On 27 December 2016, the administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, suspended nine students and withdrew their hostel facilities. The administration alleged that the students had disrupted a meeting that the university’s academic council had held the previous day. The suspended students including four students belonging to communities classified as Other Backward Classes (OBC), three belonging to those classified as Scheduled Caste, one to a Scheduled Tribe community, and one Muslim student. Three days after the suspension, the students held a press conference at the JNU Students Union’s (JNUSU) building and stated that the suspension was a “blatant violation of procedural norms and discriminatory witch-hunting of students belonging to marginalised and oppressed communities.”
The students—Mritunjay Singh Yadav, Bhupali Magare, Rahul Sonpimple, Prashant Kumar, Shakeel Anjum, Mulayam Singh, Dileep Yadav, Deelip Kumar and Dawa Sherpa—were protesting a decision taken by Jagadesh Kumar, the vice chancellor of the university to adopt the University Grants Commission (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.PHIL/PH.D Degrees) Regulations, 2016. The UGC issued the regulations, which prescribe admission criteria for certain graduate-degree programmes on 5 May 2016. By adopting the notification, the vice chancellor of JNU sought to revise the admission procedure for the MPhil and PhD programmes from one in which a viva voce comprised thirty percent of an applicant’s score, to one based almost entirely on a viva. According to Dawa Sherpa, one of the suspended students and member of the Democratic Students Union, the reduction of the weightage given to the viva component of the selection process was a long-standing demand of almost every student organisation on the campus and several teachers. Bhupali Magare, another suspended student also said that, through the verbal examination, “Brahminical faculties discriminate against students from oppressed groups.” Magare is the president of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA)—an Ambedkarite student political organisation formed in November 2014.
The vice chancellor had decided to adopt the UGC regulations despite a university-constituted committee’s report in November 2016, that advised against it. The report stated that the admission process was discriminatory towards those belonging to marginalised communities. It recommended the reduction of viva marks required for admission. My conversations with students from JNU appeared to confirm the committee’s findings—several recounted instances of perceived discrimination during the viva process. I also found that a section of the university did not support the demand for a reduction of the viva component—faculty members of several schools and centres within the university, too, were opposed to it. Moreover, documents that I accessed while reporting this story suggest that the administration flouted all procedural norms in exercising its decision, despite protests by the students and teachers who are members of its academic council. The manner in which the university administration adopted the UGC regulations indicated its apathy towards the demand for social justice raised by its students.
The significance of this demand was reflected in the accounts of discrimination that several students narrated to me. Anubhuti, a third-year PhD student at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe community, told me that in 2011 when she applied to the programme she scored 54 out of 70—the second highest score on the entrance test according to her—in the written test, but was given only eight out of 30 in the viva. “I felt that my viva had gone really well and I was shocked that I was given only so little. When I confronted the heads of the centre at the time, they told me that if I were given a higher score then I would qualify for the programme in the general category itself.” She said that this is a phenomenon across all schools and centres within the university. Students from marginalised sections that have high test scores are graded lower on the viva. “If I was given a higher score, I would have qualified and the reserved category seat could have been made available to another student, but clearly they did not want to cut down the number of seats for ‘meritorious students,’” she said.
Another student, who asked not to be named, described a similar experience. He told me that after receiving an MA from Hyderabad Central University, he applied for the MPhil programme at the Centre for Political Studies twice, but did not get through. “I cracked the written round twice, but in the viva round I received a very strange response from the examiners. They seemed to be mocking my proposal and spent more time asking me personal questions about where I grew up and went to school.” He finally did not make it into the programme and continued his MPhil in HCU, after which he received direct admission into the PhD programme at JNU.