Rohith’s travails were not unique; an OBC student had to go to court against even a ‘progressive’ university. A first-person account
Gautam Sharma | February 20, 2016
When I sat down to write about my struggle of getting an admission in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one thing clearly struck my mind: in this country the rules, regulations and laws are interpreted in such a negligent and covert manner that they could entail many possibilities of manipulation by public servants and administrators. One such manipulation of the law was played on me.
When I joined JNU in 2010 for BA Hons. (Russian), I was totally unaware of the systemic exploitation and discrimination embedded in modern university structures. Five years later, I completed my masters here. I wanted to study further, so I gave the MPhil entrance exam the same year and cleared it as well. The joy, however, was short-lived as the university had raised the minimum eligibility criterion in the programme: from 50 percent in the previous academic year (2014-15) to 55 percent for 2015-16. Therefore, I was denied admission as I had secured only 50 percent marks in my masters programme. And thereon began my struggle.
After being told about this new development I tried exploring other avenues. Incidentally, I got to know that Delhi University (DU) and University Grants Commission (UGC) relax the criterion for students belonging to other backward classes (OBC), but at JNU, an OBC candidate is surprisingly kept at par with a general candidate while scheduled caste and scheduled tribe (SC/ST) candidates require only passing marks to apply in any programme. This was a grave anomaly; I took the matter to the vice chancellor. The VC took cognizance of my case but said that any relaxation for an OBC student has to be first approved by the academic council of the university – which would take time. The only avenue left with me at this juncture was to move the court of law to seek justice. It was not an easy decision for me as my family’s economic condition was not so good to bear the expenses.
During proceedings in the Delhi high court, the JNU administration and its counsel blatantly misled the court by producing a faulty marksheet which showed that after a re-evaluation, my grades were reduced from 50 to 49 percent (the fabrication was evident as the grades were later reverted by the administration). Using this, JNU’s counsel argued that even if the administration was to make relaxations for OBC candidates by going back to adopt their earlier set minimum eligibility criterion of 50 percent, I would still not qualify – an obvious tactic deployed by the administration to jeopardise my chances. The court thus on August 14, 2015 – the last date for admissions – passed an interim order, refusing to grant me admission. It, however, proposed that this was an important question which may arise year after year and needed to be adjudicated.
I ran from pillar to post to get my grades corrected which were actually unchanged after re-evaluation. This delayed the entire legal process by more than two months. I appealed against the interim order in the division bench of the high court which after further deliberations and hearings, reverted the entire matter to be expeditiously disposed by a single bench.
Soon, a long legal battle along with a political struggle inside the university campus ensued. The JNU counsel kept on providing spurious arguments in the court and tried hard to delay and scuttle the whole process. Even after a series of sustained protests by the students’ union and various political groups, the university administration remained adamant and insensitive to acknowledge this irregularity in the admission process. The entrenched brahminical hierarchies in society and within the university power structures ensured that the legally mandated reservations were not implemented properly. All sorts of mechanisms and tactics were adopted for the same. Finally, the university was forced to form a standing committee on admissions to look into the matter. Since most of the members of the committee belonged to the upper caste, they could not come out of their subjective caste biases and they took a unilateral decision to continue with the same old regulation. But after a series of protests of the student union they called the committee’s meeting for three more times but their reluctance to provide relaxation continued.
In the past too JNU has not stood by its founding principles and the administration along with some in the teaching community have been depriving constitutional mandates for students from deprived groups. In 2010 a progressive student group AISA, took up the fight against the administration in its wrongful interpretation of cut-off marks in the entrance exam for the OBC candidates. In yet another case of entrenched bias, it has been found through RTIs that there is a systemic discrimination in marking students in the viva-voce exam on the basis of caste, language and their regional backgrounds. The marks for viva-voce are extremely high which gives enough space for these biases to operate. The representation of SC, ST, OBC, Minority and PH faculty is unequal with respect to the total strength of the faculty teaching at JNU.
The court’s final judgment of January 19, 2016, stated that JNU had deviated from its founding principles of ensuring that “an adequate number of students from underprivileged and socially handicapped sections of the society are admitted to the university”, and declared the arbitrary increase in the eligibility criterion as unconstitutional. It stated that “in these circumstances, the policy of JNU, whereby the OBC candidates are put at par with the general category candidates, in respect of minimum eligibility marks required to be obtained, vis-a-vis the base-degree, is declared unconstitutional and contrary to Article 14 of the constitution”. It instructed JNU to admit me for the academic year 2015-16; however I can join the course only in the next academic year.
Given that the eligibility criterion for this programme was 50 percent since its inception in JNU, reasons for the sudden increase in the cut-off need a thorough analysis. The answer to me lies in the fact that from 2010, after proper implementation of OBC reservations in the university, there had been an increase in the number of students from traditionally marginalised backward classes and communities. The increase in the minimum eligibility criterion was thus a newer institutional mechanism to curb the entry of students from such groups. This hasty and arbitrary move had no rational connection with the objective JNU was to achieve – “better standards”, as stated by the university’s counsel in the court.
A university is avowed to be a place which is ideally free from all kinds of prejudices and biases that breed in our mainstream society. But when a university itself becomes a site for perpetuation and accentuation of inequalities, such a moment requires serious introspection on part of all those who dream of an oppression-free society and one that provides equal opportunities to all.
In the wake of a spate of suicides by university students across the country, there is an urgent need to acknowledge that an increase in representation of marginalised sections in the university system has to be supplemented with sensitisation of institutes towards the needs of these vulnerable sections. An equal representation by the marginalised sections in universities also needs to be ensured so that those with alternative values and worldviews are not sidelined by those who have hegemony from a long time.
(The column appears in the February 16-29, 2016 issue)
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