Union minister, JNU VC trapped inside building on Tuesday as students protest outside

The third convocation ceremony of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Monday saw high drama outside the venue at All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) building in Vasant Kunj, with hundreds of students arriving there to protest against a “steep hike” in the hostel fee and other rule changes.

Union human resource development minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’, who was the guest of honour, vice-chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar and other dignitaries were trapped inside for nearly seven hours as students refused to let them leave.

Outside the venue, there was a highly charged standoff between the students around 600 personnel of the local police and paramilitary forces.

The students are at loggerheads with the administration for the past two weeks over a new hostel manual, which mentions several changes in rules as well as a fee hike.

The JNU students’ union (JNUSU) on Sunday had announced a protest outside the AICTE building, where the convocation was to be held on Monday. Following this, a heavy security force was deployed on the JNU campus and its north and west gates barricaded to prevent the students from leaving. The route from the campus to the AICTE auditorium — a stretch of about 2.5km — was also heavily barricaded.

All these came measures came to naught as students, shouting slogans and carrying posters of ‘roll back fee hike’, broke through the barricades and reached the AICTE building around 10:30am. They demanded a dialogue with the vice-chancellor.

Vice-president Venkaiah Naidu, chief guest at the convocation, where 430 students were conferred with PhD degrees, left the venue before the protesters reached, while Pokhiryal stayed back to hand over degrees.

Around 1:30pm, the situation escalated as students tried to break through the barricades and police briefly resorted to water cannons to control them. Police also removed some students from the spot and took them to another site. They later denied the use of water cannons and said one of the officials had switched on the pipe accidentally, for fewer than 10 seconds.

JNUSU president Aishe Gosh said the students have been trying to meet the vice-chancellor for the last two weeks. “All we need is a meeting with the V-C to discuss our demands. He has been avoiding students for the past two weeks. It’s due to him that the things have worsened to this point. The protest will only intensity if the administration does not roll back the new hostel manual,” she said.

JNU’s hostel committee had approved a new hostel manual during a meeting on October 28, without consulting representatives of the students’ union. The JNUSU had organised several protests on the campus demanding its rollback since then. However, the varsity executive council, the top decision making body, is yet to approve the manual.

As per the manual, students will have to pay a new service charge of ₹1,700 a month. The rent for a single-seater room has been increased from ₹20 a month to ₹600 a month, and for a double-sharing room, from ₹10 a month to ₹300 a month. The refundable mess security fee, has been revised to ₹12,000 from ₹5,500.

The representatives of JNUSU also met Pokhriyal around 2pm and submitted him a memorandum . “The HRD minister has assured us that he will direct the V-C to talk to students. He also promised to call JNUSU members to the ministry for a meeting,” Gosh said.

But, despite an assurance from the minister, protesters did not leave. Ghosh said students were demanding a written assurance from the administration. “We had been given such assurances in the past as well. Students wanted a written assurance but we did not get one,” she said.

Some students who were awarded their degrees also joined the protest from inside the building. “ This is a university, where a majority of students come from the most marginalised backgrounds. It’s little wonder then that many of those receiving their degrees also joined the protest,” JNUSU vice-president Satish Yadav said.

Shramistha Sharma, a PhD student, said, “The administration has increased the hostel fee by 300%. This will deny students from marginalised sections access to the university. With this change in the fee structure, the JNU campus will not remain the same.”

Despite repeated attempts V-C Kumar, registrar Pramod Kumar and dean of student welfare Umesh Kadam did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement issued last week, the registrar had said, “JNU is incurring an expenditure of more than ₹10 crore per annum towards service charges. These charges are not paid by the UGC. The university has not revised the room rent in the last three decades. The increase in the refundable mess security has become a necessity owing to increasing number of defaulters.”

The JNU teachers’ association (JNUTA) also issued a statement alleging that the police resorted to violence on students during the protest. The students vacated the site only by 7pm.

“We did not use force on students. It’s just that them some of them were physically removed from the venue. No tear gas was used. We have not received any complaint regarding injury to students,” Devender Arya, deputy commissioner of police (southwest), said.

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