The #OccupyUGC Movement

The University Grants Commission (UGC) in Delhi and the streets around it have become the latest battleground against the Modi Govt. Students have been 'occupying' the UGC premises for over a month, in protest against the UGC’s move to scrap all non-NET fellowships for research scholars. Over the past one month students sitting at UGC from various universities have faced lathis from the police as well the cold winter nights.

Occupy UGC

The #OccupyUGC movement began on 21st October 2015, following the shocking decision taken by a UGC committee (constituted for enhancement of non NET fellowship) to scrap the non NET fellowship being currently provided to researchers pursuing M. Phil. and Ph.D. in Central Universities. The students are demanding that the decision to scrap non-NET fellowships be immediately revoked; the scholarship amount be increased from 5000 to 8000 for M.Phil. and from 8000 to 12,000 for Ph.D.; the fellowship also be extended to research scholars in all State Universities; and the government of India refuse to sign on the WTO agreement in December this year.

However, despite several protests and the refusal of the students to leave the UGC premises, the UGC authorities have refused to address the demands of the students.

The students have been heroically continuing the movement on the face of lathi charges, multiple detentions by the Delhi Police as well as continuous ploy’s of the Government to divert and distract the movement. The ABVP – student wing of the ruling BJP – even turned up at midnight to indulge in vile sexist abuse and stone pelting at the protesters and the police remained mute spectators to this.

Occupy UGCOn 5 November, students, teachers and activists from various Universities in the NCR region held a massive ‪#‎OccupyUGC March to the MHRD. The sheer strength of students, teachers and activists who had gathered outside MHRD, forced the Minister to come out and address the protesters. The students demanded a complete scrapping of the review committee which has been formed by the UGC to "look into" the distribution of Non-Net Fellowship from the next academic session, and which in fact seeks to restrict the scholarships on spurious ‘merit’ criteria. The Minister refused to make any commitment to students and stood by the press release which was released by MHRD after first round of #OccupyUGC demonstrations.

The students too refused to budge from their demands and resolved to continue their movement.

Widespread Solidarity and Support

The #OccupyUGC movement has received support and solidarity from universities across the country. Students at Aligarh Muslim University, Allahabad University, Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Wardha, Punjab University Chandigarh, MD University Rohtak, Central University Gujarat, Allahabad University, NEHU Shillong, University of Hyderabad, EFLU Hyderabad, MANUU Hyderabad, Central University of Sikkim, Central University of Rajasthan, Central University of Haryana, Vishwa Bharati and Jadavpur University have organized protests in their campuses and have been continuously campaigning on this issue. The movement has also received solidarity message from the students of FTII.

Teachers from various universities have come to the #OccupyUGC site to express solidarity and some have even shifted their classrooms to the site of the protest preferring to take classes at the Occupy site itself. DUTA President Nandita Narain, Prof. Janaki Nair, Prof. Sumit Sarkar, Prof. Tanika Sarkar, Prof. Hargopal, Prof. Mary John, Prof. Chaman Lal, Prof. Yogendra Yadav have come to UGC to express solidarity and support to the movement. Leaders of women organizations Comrades Kavita Krishnan and Annie Raja have also addressed public meeting at the Occupy site.

MHRD’s Dirty Tricks

The MHRD and the UGC at its behest has been trying its best to derail and divert the movement since the beginning. To do it has been all the possible ploys and dirty tricks at its disposal. Initially the MHRD Minister, instead of meeting the students who were protesting she met the ABVP in a pre-arranged backdoor meeting, after which she gave an 'assurance' on twitter that the fellowships would not be scrapped. But the students correctly read between the lines and realised what the statement implied: only students already receiving fellowships would continue to do so - but in future, students would only get fellowships based on 'merit' or 'economic' criteria! Imposition of any criterion would not only be exclusionary but also limit the scope of the scholarship. The students instead are demanding exactly the opposite – that the scope of the scholarship be increased to include researchers also of the state universities who have been hitherto denied this scholarship.

Based on this 'assurance', the ABVP has been trying to persuade protesting students that since they are not in danger of losing their own fellowships, they should withdraw. But the students decided - displaying admirable moral fibre - that their struggle was not merely to protect the fellowships of existing students but those of future generations - and the very future of higher education in India.

The Real Agenda: Sell Out of Education to WTO-GATS

The move to scrap the fellowships and restrict future recipients of the fellowships has been correctly diagnosed by students as a move tailored to fit the Modi Government's plans to accept the WTO grouping of higher education under GATS as a "tradable service."

The UPA Government had already made an "offer" to this effect; in the WTO Ministerial talks due in December, the Modi Government plans to seal this "offer" and accept "binding commitments" to make India's higher education a tradable service. If India indeed accepts these "binding commitments" under WTO-GATS, the Indian Government would be "bound" to cut subsidies in public-funded higher education, since such subsidies would be seen by WTO as a violation of its "commitments" to provide a "non-discriminatory" "level playing field" for domestic and international traders in education.

Once these binding commitments are in place, any Government of India could face punitive action from the WTO for extending subsidies in public sector higher education. Any future student movement demanding extension of subsidies or even affirmative action (like reservations) could face being told by Governments, "Our hands are tied by our binding commitments to the WTO." So, the Government's proposed stance at the WTO Ministerial would be serious erosion - or rather surrender by the Government - of the country's autonomy in higher education.

Ironically, this is an issue on which the UPA and NDA have had an identical position. The current Government's 'nationalist' posturing is limited to saber-rattling against neighbours and vilifying activists, dissenting voices and minorities within India -they are as eager, if not more so, than previous regimes to surrender the country's autonomy. So, the students are not merely fighting a bread and butter battle - they are fighting against the first footfalls of an impending 'regime change' in India's higher education that will jeopardise the country's autonomy.

#OccupyUGC Express

AISA has launched a nationwide campaign, #OccupyUGC Express against the impending WTO GATS regime on education and the scrapping of the Non-NET Fellowship. The campaign will culminate in on the 8th and 9th of December in Delhi at the AIFRTE’s All India Resistance Camp and the #OccupyUGC Protest respectively. As part of the campaign AISA teams have visited and campaigned at Garhwal University, BHU, Allahabad, AMU, Lucknow University, Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Central University of Gujrat, Central University of Haryana, Central University of Rajasthan, Sagar University, Hyderabad Central University, EFLU Hyderabad, Mathura, NEHU in Shillong and other Universities across the country.

In Delhi as part of the #OccupyUGC Express campaign four padyatras were taken out in various localities of the city. In the run up to the events of the 8th and 9th December more such events are planned in the city.

The Occupy UGC protests are another powerful chapter in these growing voices of protest against the Modi Government's dangerous and destructive attitude towards creative arts, research and institutions of education.

Students Protest in South Africa, London and the US

At a time when students is India have raised the banner of protest against the slashing of scholarship a huge protest against massive fee hikes have broken out in South Africa, London and the United States of America. Popularly known as #FeesMustFall movement, the students, teachers as well as the staff of South African Universities have forced the govt. to withdraw their proposal for a 12% hike in tuition fees as well further contractualisation of teaching and non teaching posts in Universities.

In the UK, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has been the center of protests against the move to do away with ‘less profitable’ courses and victimization of a Trade Union leader and staff of the University. The streets of London have witnessed huge marches against rising austerity cuts in the education budget and the protests are set to continue. The #OccupySOAS movement and #OccupyUGC have exchanged solidarities.

Camalita Naicker, a student from South Africa also spoke at the #OccupyUGC site an expressed solidarity on behalf of the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa.

In United States too students are on the warpath protesting rising student loan debt in higher education and demanding tuition fee free public colleges. The protests across the US known as the Million Student March also demanded a $ 15 hourly minimum wage and union rights for those employed in educational institutions.

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