May 16, 2018
Students protesting at TISS, Hyderabad campus.

A student at TISS Hyderabad recalls the fight against withdrawal of scholarships, poor infrastructural facility and other issues

WE RECEIVED the WhatsApp message at around 10 in the night, February 20, 2018. The students’ council of Hyderabad declared that the campus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Hyderabad will be on a strike starting the next day. This was in response to the call for complete university standstill by the Students’ Union in TISS Mumbai.

The agitation started when the administration declared a rollback of financial aid for the SC, ST and OBC (NC) students, previously entitled to the Government of India Post-Matriculation (GOI-PMS) scholarship.

The notification was released in May last year in between the admission process, and none of us felt the gravity of the situation until the month of February when many of my friends were asked to pay the full fee amount if they wished to appear for the final semester examination.

This was a life-changing decision being thrust upon students from the economically disadvantaged and socially marginalised groups, who form a big part of TISS community

On February 21, when we reached the institute, the concerned faculty who was supposed to take the morning class was already waiting for us. We explained the situation and requested her to cancel the class. Not surprisingly, she informed us how the Hyderabad administration had compelled her not to cancel the classes, and therefore she has to continue even with one student attending it.

Our dialogue reached no consensus and a group of students started sloganeering near the administration office. Some placards were quickly prepared and notice boards were filled to inform incoming students about the scenario and asking them to join us in the protest. Who knew then that it would take a week of protest with students even sitting for an indefinite hunger strike to grab attention of the administration.

TISS, despite being a public university, charges a high fee from students, which is outrageous for those belonging to the aforementioned groups without the fee-waiver. This situation created by an institution that has separate courses for dalit studies and tribal studies posed an irony about teachings of social justice and inclusion of all communities that cannot be overlooked.

The decision started protests in all the four campuses, and in the process, several campus-specific issues also came to the forefront

This includes poor infrastructural facilities, campus placement, security concerns around the university and hostels, and really high hostel fees. We as students of TISS Hyderabad especially faced more problems due to lack of a proper campus, or even a building, to begin with. Administrative lapses, logistical errors and miscommunications between the students and administration had existed since the onset of the campus in 2012.

Therefore, when the students’ union called for a strike, the students’ council in Hyderabad expressed their support immediately and the momentum reached heights in no time.

In the initial days, whenever we tried to have a meeting with our Deputy Director, the administration in Hyderabad, Guwahati and Tuljapur tried to shed off all the responsibilities by stating the powerlessness in their ‘off-campus’ status, and the autonomy that rests with the Mumbai administration in all financial matters.

This left us grappling for a reliable grievance redressal committee which can be held accountable. Repeated requests over the years had resulted in accumulation and escalation of issues to such a level that our students’ body could no longer just sit and write e-mails, with the withdrawal of scholarships striking the final nail to the coffin.

In the words of one of my friends, who is also a GOI-PMS scholar, “When they asked me to pay the entire tuition and hostel fee amount in the middle of my second semester of MA, I was shocked. My sister who joined TISS Tuljapur was asked to do the same. I don’t think I can take loans. I have my hopes pinned on this protest. If everything fails, I will drop out. I will find a job somewhere and fund my sister’s education.”

Another scholar vented out her frustration at the entire system, and how paying the fees was impossible for her, “My parents cannot afford to fund my education any longer. They have to think about my younger siblings as well. They are asking me to drop out and get married.”

My parents cannot afford to fund my education any longer. They have to think about my younger siblings as well. They are asking me to drop out and get married

We held meetings amongst the students, asked our faculty for their valuable inputs on how to proceed with the issue in hand and social media was flooded with daily updates, thereby increasing the awareness about the same. A Facebook page (TISS For Everyone) and Instagram account (@tiss4every1) were created and certain groups of students were specifically assigned the task of maintaining and updating about day-to-day happenings, with collaboration among all the four campuses. The students' protest at TISS, Hyderabad. Source: TISS students

We held panel discussions about the effects of privatisation of education, and systematic exclusion of students from marginalised social groups in university spaces. Notable speakers like Ms. Radhika Vemula (mother of Late Rohit Vemula), Prof. Harjinder Singh (faculty at IIT Hyderabad), Prof. Sujatha Surepally (academician and social activist) provided meaningful insights and furthered our cause of social justice and equality.

Our voices were further strengthened by the solidarity shown by our professors, who pledged their support both vocally and through newspaper articles, often risking their jobs in face of the disciplinary committee. They expressed pride in their students, and vowed to stand beside us in this fight for social equality, inclusion and justice.

Some professors looked at it as a learning experience, while others expressed their admiration for the courage, commitment and conviction of the students in keeping the struggle alive. Similar solidarity was shown by the non-teaching members, the alumni circles and several national and international students’ rights organisations as well. All of TISS spoke through the slogans and the charter of demands that had been sent out to the Mumbai administration.

Our voices were further strengthened by the solidarity shown by our professors, who pledged their support both vocally and through newspaper articles

The demands included, but were not limited to: financial autonomy of the off-campuses, regular meetings of Students’ Council (Hyderabad) and Students’ Union (Mumbai), provision for providing laptops and related academic resources to those financially incapable to avail them otherwise, exemption of dining hall charges, reimbursement of experiential learning fee, separate committees to address lack of infrastructural support, sexual harassment cases and exploitation of students by service providers (catering and hostel), transparency in fee collection and explaining the expenditure heads without any ambiguity.

After six days of complete boycott of classes along with incessant sloganeering and protest marches against the administration, on seventh day, six of my friends decided to sit for an indefinite hunger strike, especially in light of the outrageous negligence shown by the Mumbai administration the previous day. The Hyderabad charter was deemed ‘illegitimate since it had been framed by students” in the meeting held at TISS Mumbai campus, despite the authorisation of our Deputy Director and Chairperson of the Social Protection Cell.

The hunger strike. Source: TISS studentsAll the frustration and anguish experienced over the lastaround four years gushed into an array of emotions and bound all of us in unity over slogans like “Students unity zindabad, TISS admin murdabad”, “students unity long live”, “give us back our scholarships, give us back our education” and many more. One could feel the rage amongst the students as well as the teaching and non-teaching staff, which included concerns regarding the physical health of the students on hunger strike.

Our Acting Director, Dr. Shalini Bharath, reached Hyderabad on February 27 to request the students to withdraw from the hunger strike. The storm of sloganeering filled the air as we refused to compromise one more time. The gates were guarded by us, and a group of 20 made sure the Acting Director was unable to leave the campus. The night passed amidst discussions with the faculty, who stayed awake alongside us, and students humming to the tunes of unity.

Protest will continue until all the demands of all the four campuses are met, which includes complete fee-waiver for the concerned groups in the upcoming batches as well

fter 14 hours of negotiations between the Acting Director and the representatives of the Students’ Action Committee, our struggle at last bore fruits on February 28 when most of the demands on the Hyderabad Charter were promised to be fulfilled. TISS Hyderabad celebrated its victory after a week of total boycott and being a witness to what students can achieve if they are united and fighting for the right cause.

The protest will however continue until all the demands of all the four campuses are met, which includes complete fee-waiver for the concerned groups in the upcoming batches as well. During the recent convocation ceremony held at TISS Mumbai, hundreds of students expressed their anguish over the fees that will be charged from the new students taking admission by wearing a badge of protest, and few refusing to accept their degrees.

This withdrawal of scholarships stems from a general uneasiness, majorly towards Social Science institutions like JNU, TISS, and other higher learning universities and is part of a bigger scheme of plans as implemented by the neo-liberal practitioners in the country. As a faculty member rightly commented, “The recent shift to a neo-liberal approach of privatising education and making it a profit-oriented venture is making the whole process of higher education extremely inaccessible to the common public, especially the marginalised.”

In the words of a TISS Guwahati student, “We are silently watching as a system is being created which turns the act of education into a field of competition – where the teacher is constantly evaluated and is subject to the scrutiny of the system that will replace them the moment they feel the need to. This will only result in an atmosphere where teaching becomes more of a job, where teachers are reduced to mere employees and they cater to the needs of students-turned-customers”.

We are silently watching as a system is being created which turns the act of education into a field of competition

But the responsibility lies on us, the students and future architects of our society, to question every policy implemented by the current system, and bring to the forefront the level of unjust, oppressive and repressive measures often taken by them to silence voices that dissent.

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