India: Outcry from international education community over violent attacks on university students and staff

published 16 January 2020 updated 27 January 2020

Education International has strongly condemned the violent attacks against students and educators at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India and supports students’ demands for affordable quality education and the right to freedom of expression.

New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been the epicentre of student activism in the country since November 2019. Students and staff have protested against a hike of approximately 300 per cent in tuition and hostel fees by JNU administration and the government’s decision to revoke Article 370 in Kashmir. They have also called for the repeal of the Citizenship Amendment Act which discriminates against Muslims. The university came to a complete standstill as students and staff boycotted classes, examinations, and registrations for the winter semester.

To date, Vice-Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar and the JNU administration have refused to engage with students and staff, worsening the situation and going against UNESCO’s 1997 Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel. The Recommendation clearly stipulates that higher-education teaching personnel should have the right and opportunity to criticize the functioning of higher education institutions, including their own. In addition, the Recommendation states that the principles of collegiality include “the policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision making structures and practices and the development of consultative mechanisms”.

On 5 January, JNU students and staff held a peaceful protest demanding affordable quality education for all and an end to violent incidents on campus. During the protest, a mob of 50 to 60 masked persons were able to get past university security, enter the campus and attack protesting students and staff with stones, iron rods, and bricks. The assault left more than 39 protestors severely injured and university property vandalised.

Education International: solidarity with JNU students and staff

Education International issued a statement strongly condemning the attack on the peaceful campus protest and expressing solidarity with the demands of students and staff. David Edwards, Education International General Secretary, highlighted that recent attacks targeting universities in India “make it increasingly difficult for students, staff, and their organisations to voice their opinions on government policies, politics and socio-economic issues, including their right to demand access to and provision of affordable quality education for all”.

Education International calls on the government of India to:

  • Conduct a thorough independent inquiry into the violence and bring the culprits to justice;
  • Immediately remove Jagadesh Kumar from the position of Vice-Chancellor of the University for his continuous failure to maintain a safe academic environment;
  • Ensure that universities uphold democratic values and human rights for all;
  • Pressure the JNU administration to engage with the JNU students’ union and teachers’ union to find a solution to their demands.

NTEU: Universities have a special role in democracy

The Australian union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), has also condemned the violence in JNU. “Recent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University raise serious concerns about the integrity of the institution and its commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and the defence of its role as a community of scholars,” wrote NTEU General Secretary Matthew McGowan in a letter to JNU Vice Chancellor Professor Jagadesh Kumar.

Reaffirming that “universities have a special role in a democracy” and “are key democratic institutions that should operate independent of the political debates and contests around them”, McGowan insisted that violence of any sort has no place in a university. When that violence is politically, racially or religiously motivated, and where there is a suggestion that the university administration has condoned or enabled that violence, it brings the legitimacy of an institution into question, he explained.

The NTEU also expressed concern over events unfolding in India more broadly. The Australian union urged the JNU Vice Chancellor and the Government of India to condemn these attacks in the interests of a strong and vibrant democracy, and to take all necessary actions to bring the perpetrators of these attacks to justice.

Police crackdown on campus protests

In December 2019, students held protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act at the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamila Milia Islamia University. The protests were violently suppressed by the Indian Police Service. The crackdown was condemned by the Commonwealth Students’ Association.

In a statement released on 31 December 2019, the CSA expressed its support for the solidarity march held by students and alumni of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata – the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. This march aimed to shed light on the harsh treatment of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University students by the Indian Police Service during peaceful protests.