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JNU fee hike pushes security guard-turned-student over the edge

Shriya Mohan | Updated on November 21, 2019 Published on November 21, 2019

One for all: JNU students are fighting to keep tuition costs low to make education more accessible   -  REUTERS

Holding on: Ramjal Meena moved his family back to Rajasthan after losing his job; his kids now go to a village school   -  COURTESY: SAGAR KUMAR

The proposed fee hike has piled the odds against Ramjal Meena, a security guard-turned-student who became a symbol of the institution’s inclusiveness

In July this year, Ramjal Meena tasted fame for the first time in his life. A security guard at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Meena had cracked the entrance examination for the undergraduate honours programme at the university’s School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies. Reporters thronged the campus for a quote from the man who had broken the glass ceiling.

For months on end, Meena, 33, had painstakingly prepared for the examination and managed to fulfil his dream of studying Russian. It was a euphoric moment. This can happen only in JNU, everyone gushed.

JNU, one of India’s largest public universities, is now a hotbed of student rebellion; the administration’s proposal for a fee hike has met with strong resistance from the pupils, and their agitation has spilled over into Delhi’s streets. But it is those like Meena who find themselves in the eye of the storm.

Meena, who is from Rajasthan’s Bhejera village in Karauli district, grew up in a family of daily wagers. A bright student at school, he became a first-generation learner in his family and went on to do his bachelor’s in humanities. He had enrolled for a postgraduate degree in political science at Rajasthan University, but had to drop out after a year as his family was weighed down by debt. After a failed attempt at enlisting in the army, he joined G4S, a security firm, as a guard in 2004. Ten years later, he was deployed at JNU. By then he was married with three kids.

“I had always dreamt of studying in a place like this,” Meena says. He loved the infectious energy of the campus — a place where you felt like an equal, where you gathered the courage to dream and where others fought to help you realise them. When Meena decided to attempt the entrance examination (he had always been fascinated with Russia, he had told the media earlier), students generously shared their study material with him. When results were announced in July, and he found his name on the list of those who had made it, he believed he had won a second shot at life.

He made some quick calculations. His salary of ₹15,000 barely allowed him to scrape through the month; the housing, food and expenses of three schoolgoing children had to be met. Meena had become the fourth student in the family and was still its only breadwinner. His tuition and hostel fees at JNU added another ₹2,000 to his expenses every month. He had little choice but to dip into his meagre savings of ₹40,000.

Yet Meena remained resolute. He would wake up early, attend classes till 2pm and then take up his eight-hour security shift from 4 pm to 12 am. He would be bleary-eyed in class, his friends recall, but Meena was determined to keep it together. “He pushed himself to the limit,” Sagar Kumar, his batchmate and close friend, says. “The faculty were supportive, but he had to work hard because the lectures and textbooks were in English,” Kumar adds. For Meena, a poor English speaker, the course meant simultaneously picking up two foreign languages — English and Russian. He would take copious notes in Hindi to understand his lectures better.

Things fell apart for Meena in September when JNU ended its contract with G4S. Meena was among the many security guards who lost their jobs on the campus. “It has been a difficult time for me ever since I lost my job. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” says Meena on the phone. He agrees to meet me, but when I show up at campus, I am told that he has left for the village. His phone is switched off.

“When it became evident that Meena wasn’t going to find a replacement job anytime soon, he sent his family back to the village. His kids were in a good school in Delhi, but now they attend the government school in the village,” Kumar says. With no job and, now, with the proposed fee hike, Kumar is afraid Meena might buckle under the pressure. “He has exhausted his savings. He is hanging by a thread,” Kumar says. The fee hike will up his expenses by 50 per cent. “It will push him off the edge,” adds Kumar.

Sai Balaji, former president of the JNU Students’ Union and national secretary of All India Students’ Association, notes, “As per our records, 40 per cent of JNU’s students belong to families with a monthly income of less than ₹12,000. And 70 to 80 per cent students come from families that earn less than ₹20,000 a month.”

JNU’s deprivation point system allows students belonging to backward communities and remote parts of the country a fair chance to study in one of the country’s topmost institutions. So a Dalit girl belonging to the remote Kalahandi region of Odisha has a higher chance of getting into JNU than someone born and raised in a metropolitan city. The fee-hike proposal threatens this very idea, Balaji observes.

Balaji, a second-year PhD student at the School of International Studies, observes: “Ramjal is a symbol of what JNU stands for. If he cannot study here, we have failed the country, we have failed a democracy.”

It’s been over two weeks since classes were disrupted at JNU over the fee hike. Inside Meena’s silent room, his books with copious handwritten notes on Russian grammar and culture are kept neatly. Outside, there is the growing noise of a student uprising.

In chorus they chant:

“Police ke bacche kahan padhenge?

Army ke bacche kahan padhenge?

Sasti shiksha jahan milegi

Sasti shiksha kahan milegi?

JNU! JNU!”

(Where will the children of police officers and soldiers study?

Where education is low-cost,

JNU! JNU!)

Shriya Mohan

Published on November 21, 2019
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