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India's premier university accused of pro-Hindu slant

A hike in hostel fees is seen as a move to give dominance to upper-caste Hindus by driving out tribal and Dalit students

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India's premier university accused of pro-Hindu slant

Students of Jawaharlal Nehru University stage a demonstration near Jor Bagh metro station in New Delhi on Nov. 18 as they continue to demand a rollback of hostel fee hikes and the release of detained students. (Photo: IANS)

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Protests continue in India’s premier Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over a plan to hike its hostel fees, which many say is a pro-Hindu strategy to drive out poor Dalit and tribal students.

The university, which functions under the federal government run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has proposed to increase its annual hostel fees from US$350-400 to US$780-870 from the next academic year.

Following a week-long protest, the university on Nov. 20 announced some concessions to low-income group students, but protests continue demanding a complete rollback.

“It looks like the university is acting on behalf of a majoritarian policy that wants to ban Dalit, tribal and other weaker sections from this university,” said Father Vincent Ekka, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Indian Social Institute.

An estimated 40 percent of some 8,500 students in the university come from families with a monthly income of less than US$150, media reports show.

Since its establishment in 1969, the university has been subsidizing education, particularly at research levels, as a national policy to promote academic excellence. 

Father Ekka noted that the policy had helped hundreds of tribal and Dalit students to achieve excellence in their fields and advance their careers.

However, the proposed fee hike will make the university unaffordable to hundreds of poor students, said Mukti Prakash Tirkey, editor of a weekly newspaper on tribal affairs published from New Delhi.

“Unfortunately, some people are trying to commercialize education, which will affect mostly poor tribal, Dalit people and other weaker sections,” the tribal activist said.

The concern comes against the background of complaints that the BJP government supports the ideology of building a nation of Hindu upper-caste hegemony, subjugating religious minorities and lower-caste people.

Father Ekka, a former student at JNU, said he has noticed an unannounced policy change in the university that affects tribal and Dalit students.

In the past two or three years, the university has abandoned the points system that gave some concessions to lower-caste and tribal students in securing admission to the university, he said. 

“When we see all these together, the fee hike looks like a deliberate move,” said Father Ekka.

The government’s cash crunch cannot be seen as a reason as it comes months after announcing billions of tax cuts to companies, said G. David Milton in a letter to the editor of the Kolkata-based Telegraph daily newspaper.

In September, the government announced tax cuts of US$20 billion to revive the slumbering economy and add more employment opportunities. 

“The government cannot shirk its responsibility of providing quality education to those without the wherewithal to pay for it themselves,” Milton said. “Students should not be discriminated against based on ideology."

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