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JNU protests: Students exercising rights without considering responsibilities invite chaos; State must not give in to blackmail

  • The students definitely have the right to protest. That is a tool given to them by the Indian Constitution

  • The problems begin when students disregard the burden of responsibilities and reject the consequences of their actions

  • . Consider the chaos that has unfolded in JNU since the administration proposed a hike in fees

Amid the raging debate in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over proposed hike in fees and essential services (part of which has already been rolled back) and all the rioting and mob frenzy, one question remains unanswered: Even in a free society, can there be rights without responsibilities?

A look at the situation in India’s premier educational institution seems to suggest students are keen to enjoy all their rights and balk at the slightest constraint on liberty, but they are unable to understand or appreciate that they also have their own share of responsibilities without which the delicate balance between rights and responsibilities in a free society is disrupted and we invite chaos.

The students definitely have the right to protest. That is a tool given to them by the Indian Constitution and guaranteed by the democratic governing structure. The problems begin when students disregard the burden of responsibilities and reject the consequences of their actions. Consider the chaos that has unfolded in JNU since the administration proposed a hike in fees.

 

 JNU protests: Students exercising rights without considering responsibilities invite chaos; State must not give in to blackmail

File image of JNU students protesting against fee hikes. PTI

When rights are exercised sans responsibilities we have a situation where one set of citizens — all of legally adult age and fully cognisant of the consequences of their actions — claim that they have the right to protest, the right to march on streets and block arterial roads, entry and exit points of public transportation systems, the right to block ambulances and deny an ailing patient urgent medical help, the right to deface statues by inscribing obscenities targetting a political party, the right to vandalise and destroy properties funded by the taxpayer or even the right to threaten journalists doing their work.

Yet, while the students find no legal or moral hazard in their actions — that are essentially using blackmail to force the administration to accept their demands — they claim that they are being victimised when subjected to discipline. In other words, students want to continue their coercive tactics, rioting and disruption of public order without being censured by the State. In effect, the JNU students are claiming that they have another inalienable right along with all the right guaranteed by the Constitution: the right to destroy and create chaos.

This is self-defeating and arises from a sense of entitlement that is mind-boggling. The point here isn’t just the fact that by subsidising education at JNU, the Indian State is enabling a form of socialist elitism. The issue is bigger. It is incumbent on citizens of a free society to uphold the delicate balance of rights and responsibilities because without commensurate responsibility there is no right, and without right there is no liberty.

In his piece Economics Of Funding JNU, author Anurag Singh in Swarajyamag crunched some data to find that the Indian State spends Rs 4.4 lakh per year of taxpayers’ money for each JNU student. The author argues that for all the funding provided, the university has failed to produce commensurate outcome in the form of research papers in journals, publications or patents (even considering the fact that it is an academics-focussed institution).

The author concludes, “JNU is a perfect example of bad socialism. If you give something for free, people have no incentive to work and earn. Why would anyone at JNU be in a hurry to find jobs or even publish research.”

Even if we disregard the author’s arguments and contend that subsidisation of high-quality education is necessary to impart the benefit of such education to economically-weaker students, then the State must find a way to make high-quality education affordable without bankrupting the exchequer.

Monika Halan in Livemint offers some solutions to fix this conundrum. Her first suggestion is that students who are in a position to pay  market rates for education and lodging at JNU must do so not only for themselves but a friend of their choosing. Since one justification behind the mobocracy in JNU being provided is that even well-off students are protesting for those who cannot afford hike in fees (assuming they are without agency), it is a fair proposal to expect them to share the burden.

As the author writes “Should the students who are financially able to pay not come forward themselves to pay market prices for education, boarding and lodging? A noble way to fight for those without is to offer to pay their share yourself rather than expect another set of people—the taxpayers—to pay.”

Among the author’s other options to meet the income-expenditure gap and make the rich pay for the poor is relocate the university at a place where the land cost is low and utilise the land thus released for commercial and residential purposes that may provide the rent for free high-quality education.

These are certainly suggestions worth pondering, but these are not being discussed. In effect what we have are a section of students who have gotten used to freebies and dissent at taxpayers’ expense that they do not want this cozy setup to be disrupted.

This brings us back to the problem with socialism and the moral hazard associated with policies of social welfare that absolve the individuals of their share of responsibilities, makes them internalise the profits and externalise the costs. This takes away accountability from failure and incentivises bad behavior, exactly of the kind that we are witnessing in JNU. Who would want a system to end where I am not paying for the benefits that I enjoy? It is a small step and normal human behaviour from the beneficiaries to assume that such an arrangement is my right, and even the slightest threat to it compels me to take to the streets.

It is incumbent on the State not to give in to the blackmailing tactics of the students. As Tyler Brandt writes in Liberty Is Meaningless without Responsibility, “If we weren’t held responsible for our actions, whether they be right or wrong, we wouldn’t learn to change our actions to influence outcomes.”

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2019 16:46:48 IST