16 September 2016| ‘Endless Waiting’ is the heading of the ABVP mural that was my landmark for the office of the Inter-Hostel Administration in the discombobulating first few days on campus. It features a checklist of long-standing student grievances—a chronic shortage of hostel accommodation, adequate merit-cum-means scholarships and research fellowships, and a proper bus service—each with a red dot alongside it. ‘Remove the Red’, it exhorts, in a clumsy attempt at subliminal messaging.
Endless Waiting captures the mood as we stand outside said office a little after two on Friday afternoon, waiting for the latest round of protests over the hostel crisis to start. It isn’t so much the fact that the protest is running late—a 45-minute delay is par for the course as JNU events go—but that almost everyone here knows that this crucial issue is not going to be resolved today, that win, lose, or draw, the days of people having to wander about campus all night because they have nowhere to go are nowhere near ending.
The size of the crowd reflects the low expectations. Now around 30, it will be double that at its peak. As people wait for the show to start, some of them wander over to the IHA Board to check whether some new list has arrived. Of course it hasn’t. In any case, there aren’t too many new students here, mostly regulars on the protest scene. Most parties have sent their representatives, though the ABVP, which campaigned in last week’s election on the plank of infrastructure development, is nowhere to be seen.
The point of the demonstration is for a delegation of the JNU Students’ Union to meet the Dean of Students, Rana Pratap Singh, and present him with a charter of demands related to delays and anomalies in the hostel allotment process. (The Dean of Students was until recently called the Dean of Student Welfare, just like JNU was until recently called a residential campus.)
‘New students, who have come from distant parts of the country’, the charter reads, ‘are facing immense inconvenience due to the highly insensitive and bureaucratic attitude of the DoS. In contrast, DoS is busy issuing farmans to tamper with every possible rule just to harass the students in every possible manner. Such inactivity to provide hostels to the new students on the one hand and hyperactivity to harass students with ever new machinations are completely unacceptable and will be stiffly resisted.’
After the few minutes of sloganeering that serve as a call to order—‘Hostel list mein sab ka naam/Warna hogi neend haram’ (Everybody’s name on the hostel list/otherwise sleep will be forbidden)—JNUSU President Mohit Kumar Pandey lays out the case for the protest. Not only is there a shortage of hostels, the process for allocating hostel rooms can take months, as the IHA issues rooms in several installments over the year, despite requiring graduating students to vacate their rooms in July, before the academic year starts. The allocation is often haphazard, he says, with some students with higher ranks not getting rooms while those with lower ranks do.
The hostel crisis has existed for so long that it has become the new normal. Over a thousand current students don’t have a hostel room; no one expects to be allocated one when they join campus. Some get accommodation in nearby Munirka or Vasant Kunj; many enter formal or informal room-sharing arrangements with seniors. The administration’s relief measure is to provide dormitories as a stopgap, until a hostel room is allotted. These lack many basic facilities and are often in poor condition, but they are better than nothing.
This year, however, the allocation of dormitories is also based on the student’s rank and not how much they need accommodation. As a result, those who cannot afford to rent and cannot find willing seniors to crash with—the ones who need dormitories the most—find themselves out in the cold. To make things worse, the administration has decided in its wisdom to crack down on those residing ‘illegally’ on campus. There have been raids in a number of hostels to find students staying without official authorization. Two students who decided to improvise lodgings on the terrace of Mahi-Mandavi hostel have been threatened with suspension.
The students demand that these conditions are unacceptable, and that the authorities must stop perpetuating the crisis and build new hostels. They are also asking for alternate accommodation to be provided in the interim. (There is a precedent for this. In 1998–9, after an agitation by the union, the administration had provided temporary lodgings in Mahipalpur, with food and transport facilities.) Also among the demands is a stop to the harassment of PhD students seeking extension of hostel stay as well as plans to convert the Post-Doctoral Fellows hostel into a guest house.
It isn’t the students, who have a right to be granted accommodation, but the administration that is acting illegally, Mohit says, since it isn’t obeying UGC directives that SC, ST, and OBC students must be prioritized in hostel allocation. Although 27 percent of hostel rooms are meant to be reserved for OBC students, a number of speakers at the protest allege that this rule is not being adhered to. ‘You are not following your own law’, says Chepal Sherpa, a representative from BASO, ‘then you give us sermons on legality’. Shashi Tripathi, a councillor from the School of International Studies who serves as compère once the central office-bearers go inside to speak to the dean, says that this is part of a systematic attempt by the Brahminical authorities to stymie reservations for OBCs.
The implementation of OBC reservations, which led to the expansion of the student body, is blamed by the administration for the shortage of hostels. However, the protesters say this is just another excuse. After all, when the reservations were announced, funds were also released to expand campus infrastructure; instead of hostels, a swanky convention centre was built. The OBC expansion funds were misused by the then Vice-Chancellor, who commissioned unnecessary repairs to siphon off funds, says former JNUSU President Ashutosh Kumar, who in 2014 led a hunger strike demanding immediate action on building new hostels. He alleges that the official inaction on hostels over the years is partly an attempt to delegitimize the Left-led student union.
Another excuse provided is the delay in obtaining environmental clearances for building new hostels. Speakers at the protest allege that this is just a bureaucratic delaying tactic and question why in that case would the administration choose to construct new dormitories instead of hostels if clearance had been granted for those particular sites. And how have so many malls mushroomed adjacent to campus in the last few years, they ask.
It was the 2014 hunger strike that led to the few incremental improvements that have been made to campus infrastructure and facilities in recent times, and the snail’s pace at which change has been achieved is not lost on the speakers. ‘I feel nostalgic’, says Dawa Sherpa, who represents the DSU. ‘The first protest I attended when I came to campus in 2011 was for the construction of new hostels. Now a new set of students is here agitating for the same issue’. He feels cynical about the possibility of change, he says, for he has seen the same cycle of protests and compromise and delays and protests play out too many times. He quotes Marx, expressing his fear that history will be repeated, this time as farce.
The union, however, is keen to break this cycle. After the delegation comes out of the dean’s office, Mohit insists that this protest is just the beginning of an agitation demanding ‘Hostels for All’. This demonstration was designed to be a curtain raiser; instead of accepting verbal assurances as usual—four dormitories will be built soon, it seems—the union has asked the dean for a written response to the students’ demands by Tuesday, 20 September. It has also asked for a white paper laying out how many hostel rooms are vacant on campus, and how many students have been allocated hostels, for which the authorities have asked for 10 days’ time. Union representatives will also meet the Vice-Chancellor over the next week, and further action will be planned according to the official response.
General Secretary Satarupa Chakraborty also reports that the dean has agreed to halt the raids on hostels, and that he has denied ever issuing instructions banning public meetings at certain hostels. A circular to that effect will be released soon. She says that the union will talk to the university’s legal cell about the progress in the environmental clearances case, which is currently before the Supreme Court.
It’s a start, but time will tell whether the latest round of agitation over the issue of hostels brings any tangible change.
Ajachi Chakrabarti is an MA student at CISLS, School of Social Sciences, and works for The Informer.
Pictures by Sunaina, an research scholar at SIS, and works at the Photography Pool of The Informer.