Jamia Millia Islamia hasn't had a students' union in 11 years, thanks to clashing ideas of democracy

"Bazicha-e-atfal hai duniya mere aage, hota hai shab-o-roz tamasha mere aage (The world is a children’s playground before me; everyday, this theatre is enacted before me)" — Mirza Ghalib

Standing tall in the main campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University, Mirza Ghalib’s statue watches an enactment of adult life around him. The world within the university is still a theatre of dissenting minds; the only difference is that Ghalib can no longer write about it. Established in 1920, long after Ghalib’s death, Jamia became a central university in 1988. Aside from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, there are three more central universities in Delhi, and Jamia Millia is the most prominent one.

 Jamia Millia Islamia hasnt had a students union in 11 years, thanks to clashing ideas of democracy

A statue of Ghalib watches over the Jamia Millia Islamia University

Over September 2017, the former two held their respective student body elections. DU’s candidates went the firecracker and garland way, leaning on an archaic style of politicking. Billboards were erected far beyond the boundaries of the university and the National Students Union of India, the Congress’ student wing that won the top two seats, centered its campaign on an RTI that exposed the questionable usage of Rs 21.78 lakh by the BJP’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). In JNU, where the Left holds sway, student parties resorted to sloganeering and political satire on hand-painted posters within the campus, but made national headlines by raising issues like the disappearance of student Najeeb Ahmed following a violent scuffle, and the arrest of student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid on charges of sedition last year. The Communist reds washed over any strains of saffron from their campus.

On the other hand, Jamia Millia Islamia — where nearly 17,000 study — banned its students’ union in 2006. The matter is sub-judice, but this week, 16 student groups — including NSUI, AISA (All India Students’ Association; student wing of the Community party of India), CYSS (Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti) and representatives from the SP (Samajwadi Party), RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal), JDU (Janata Dal United), PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) — are forming a joint committee and marching towards vice chancellor Talat Ahmed’s office to demand the restoration of the union.

“Since the union was dissolved, students have consistently been subjected to the administration’s autocratic attitude with a lack of hostels, poor placements, regular fear of a fee hike, less scholarships for needy students. Research scholars too face delays in receiving their stipends. If a university doesn’t offer us a platform and a medium of voicing our concerns, then it is snatching our basic democratic right,” said Laraib Ahmad Neyazi, a member of the Joint Action Committee, and of the NSUI.

The AISA's Amber Fatmi says that students should be given a chance to decide whether they want a politics of love or hate. “We must be allowed to question policies,” he said, reciting his party’s slogan ‘Ladho padhai karne ko, padho samaaj badalne ko’ (Fight to earn the right to study and study to change the world). A flyer that the parties shared with us stated: ‘Don’t forget the turbulent times during the Batla House Encounter and the scared students of Jamia who had no agency to address their grievances. And also remember how administrations behaved and treated you during IB raids. The unheard issues like continuous fee hike, authoritarian attitude of teachers and clerks, worst healthcare facility, zero placement, teacher-student ratio, police surveillance and inadequate facilities in girls and boys hostels. We need to strengthen the students’ voice.’

Laraib also shared with us emails to Congress leaders Mani Shankar Aiyar and Shashi Tharoor, inviting them to deliver public lectures on the campus, both from this year. While the former was being invited to speak on ‘The Rapidly Changing Definition of Nationalism’, the latter’s letter of invite had three topics for him to choose from — ‘The US Politics of Hate'; 'The Global Rise of the Right' and 'The Liberalist Discourse and the Paradox Within It’. Laraib asks us to investigate the actual reasons for why those lectures didn’t actually take place. “It is not a matter of dissent, it is a matter of free speech. Lectures are a peaceful way of listening to another point of view, aren’t they?” asked Laraib.


To get the administration’s point of view, authorities on campus directed us to Saima Saeed, who they described as the media coordinator. She politely denied us the right to speak to students and teachers on campus regarding student politics and clearly stated that those who are wishing to practise politics on campus are doing so for political mileage and not to address actual students’ issues. We then met up with Jamia Teachers' Association (JTA) secretary SM Mahmood, who was willing to speak independently. “We do not prescribe to any particular political party, be it the BJP, the Congress or the Left. The teachers’ association will only represent the teachers and look into their concerns, and not that of any political party,” he said, calling Jamia a neutral space.

Prof Mahmood was of the view that if the students want a union, the need for it should come from them. “As a teacher, as a citizen, I feel that democratic institutions are everybody’s responsibility. Let the students speak for themselves, since it’s their decision. There is no good or bad, students are here to learn and question. If they falter, they can seek guidance from a student advisor, who is a senior teacher,” he said. Prof Mahmood feels it is important to engage the students in a dialogue, so they understand their rights and why the administration is against the union.

Just last month, the university cancelled the admission of PhD Sociology candidate Dhrupadi Ghosh. She was a member of the Dayar-I-Shauq Students' Charter (DISSC), a left-oriented political organisation. Her resistance art animated posters on state repression in Kashmir, shrinking democratic spaces in public universities and pro-imperialist government policies impacting agriculture.

Citing the evidence above, one may conclude that the university is denying, if not muzzling, dissent. Firstpost took its queries to the office of Jamia’s Dean of Students’ Welfare, Naved Iqbal. He shared with us email correspondence between HODs, directors and senior professors on the administration’s proposal to the students to conduct indirect elections where Class Representatives (CRs) were to choose and form the council. The nomination form Prof Iqbal shared with us contained the clause: ‘Candidates must also submit a copy of the mark sheet of (their) qualifying exam before joining present course in Jamia Millia Islamia’. The students rejected the proposal, a chance at democracy. Why? Their reasons were listed out on a flyer for a public meeting scheduled on 21 March at Jamia’s Union Hall Building: ‘On 15 March, the JMI administration called a secretive meeting, which comprised the CRs of only some faculties and centers. The administration apparently wants to promote academic standards through this council, for which parameters are predefined by them. The constitution of the council clearly reveals the administration’s shrewd intention to tame and infantilise students… We, the students of Jamia Millia Islamia, do not want an academia devoid of the real social and political issues of inequality, poverty, exclusion and discrimination for the students.’

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On 9 January 2012, the Jamia bulletin board had shared a circular about three petitioners who had filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court, seeking directions for holding elections to the student’s body in the university. The matter was heard by a division bench. Lengthy arguments were advanced from both sides. The university informed the court of the circumstances that prevented it from holding direct elections. The university cited that there is in fact a mechanism for students to air grievances and that their representation is sustained through subject associations in various departments/faculties. The court observed that the petition was preferred by individuals who were not on the regular rolls of the University. The court then noted that one Mr Afroz Alam Sahil, who was also a petitioner, hadn’t been attending classes at the university. The judges were of the opinion that "the petitioners do not genuinely raise issues pertaining to electoral politics on campus" and they being "non-interested parties", Justice SK Kaul was inclined to dismiss the writ petition. At this juncture, the counsel for the petitioners withdrew the writ petition against Jamia Millia Islamia.

Today, Jamia offers 53 doctoral programmes, 83 Masters’ programmes and 55 undergraduate programmes along with diplomas and certificate courses, in subjects ranging from Peace and Conflict Studies to Neurology to Architecture Pedagogy to Convergent Journalism and Nanotechnology. Jamia’s Centre for Coaching and Career Planning is famous for giving India a fresh crop of civil servants each year. The MA Ansari Health Centre extends its services to neighbouring communities and Jamia’s The AJK Mass Communication Research Centre (which was founded in 1982, long before media and communication became a popular career of choice), has now forged collaborative ties with the University of York, Toronto (Canada), University of Westminster, London (UK) and Sciences Po, Paris (France). On its website, Jamia proudly wears the badge of an ‘A’ Grade certification from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC).

What’s missing from the Jamia Millia Islamia campus is the lack of a singular concept of democracy, one that the administration and the politically attentive student groups don’t agree on. The administration doesn’t think anything's amiss, and the students aren’t embracing what’s available. Jamia is at war with itself.

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Updated Date: Oct 07, 2017 12:05:44 IST