The Sabarmati Declaration
In a National Convention of Universities, Shiksha, Samajik Nyay aur Sangharsh (Education, Social Justice, and Struggle) on 27 March 2019, organised by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Association (JNUTA), the following resolution was adopted. Faculty hailing from 22 universities, and hundreds of students endorsed the Sabarmati Declaration.
The declaration agrees upon the following: that education must be publicly funded, that the scope of publicly funded education be expanded to reach all sections of society, that public education should be autonomous of the government of the day, that it be socially responsible and stand by principles of social justice, and at this historical juncture, make a transformative intervention in our society.
Members who addressed the convention included: Anand Teltumbde (Goa institute of Management), Anil Sadgopal (eminent educationist, retiree from Delhi University, Dhiraj Kumar Nite Ambedkar University Delhi). Debananda Singh Ningthoujam (Manipur University), G. Haragopal (eminent educationist, currently visiting professor at Bangalore’s National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Harjeet Singh (All India Institute of Medical Science, New Delhi), Mritunjay K. Yadavendu (Mahatma Gandhi Central University, Bihar, Nandita Narain ((Delhi University), Parminder Singh (Guru Nanak Dev University), Rajib Ray (Delhi University), Rakesh Meena (Central University Haryana), Rosemary Dzuvichu(Nagaland University), Sudipta Bhattacharya (Visva Bharati University), Sujatha Surepally (Satavahana University), and D.K. Lobiyal, Maitrayee Chaudhuri, Ajmer Singh Kajal, Atul Sood, and Ayesha Kidwai (JNU).
Text of the declaration
The past five years have seen a concerted attack on the public funded university and other institutions of higher education. This assault has been on multiple levels simultaneously — availability of funding, irregularities in recruitment and finance, inadequate infrastructure, attacks on institutional autonomy, political interference, constriction of equity, access and reservation, diminishing quality of education and research, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, democracy and security. Although in part a continuation of alarming trends of the past, the past five years represent an exacerbation of these tendencies both in terms of their virulence as well as the breadth of their impact.
The membership of this House includes those that have spent the past five years in a relentless struggle to safeguard publicly funded universities. On the dint of this experience, we assert the fundamental properties of publicly funded higher education now critically under threat, and lay out how they must be defended:
- Public education must be publicly funded: Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the expenditure on education as a proportion to GDP declined from 0.67% to 0.45%. Taken together with the withdrawal of nearly 50% of the UGC’s budget for the direct funding of states’ sector institutions through RUSA, and the yearly budget cuts thereafter, academic institutions are in a state of collapse. The Modi govt’s policy of replacing loans (from the Higher Education Financing Authority) for grants as the means by which infrastructure can be expanded and new areas developed spells doom, as stringent debt-servicing conditions through ‘internal resource generation’ will transfer the costs of higher education onto the students through a steady escalation in fees. The government’s schemes like Graded Autonomy, Institutions of Eminence, provisions in the Rashtriya Uchhatar Shiksha Abhiyan, and the requirement that all Central Universities sign a tripartite MoU with the MHRD and UGC committing to goals relating to internal resource generation in exchange for meagre grants will have a similar consequence of engendering a vigorous implementation of the ‘User Pay’ principle in our institutions. This house rejects all these schemes and policies and demands that the Knowledge Commission recommendations that at least 1.5% of GDP (out a total of 6% of GDP for education) should be spent on higher education.
- Public education must expand: The last three years of the Modi government has seen an alarming shrinkage in terms of enrolment at various levels of higher education as well as in terms of employment. College density has stagnated, average enrolment per college has dropped, the teacher-student ratio has deteriorated, and across institutions, there have been substantial seat cuts. Over two lakh temporary and permanent teaching positions are vacant, with many universities and colleges functioning only on ad-hoc and temporary teachers. All these shortfalls are because of the Modi government’s adherence to a policy of starving higher education, and this house demands the immediate cessation of them.
- Public education must be autonomous of the government: The past five years have seen a systematic destruction of the autonomy of academic institutions. Institutional autonomy has also been whittled away by the extent to which MHRD seeks to directly interfere in university functioning through the Heads of Institutions it nominates— Vice-Chancellors, Principals, Directors — whose fidelity to the ideology and petty political considerations of their patrons far overwhelms their observance of the letter and spirit of the Acts that founded the institution. This has entailed that every illegality committed by these nominees is either sponsored or overlooked, and protest and critique is met with repression, punitive action, and deployment of state power to subdue it. Recruitments and promotions are shot through with political considerations, rules are invented to facilitate mismanagement and financial misappropriation, and no accountability is either enforced or expected. This House demands that transparent procedures of appointments of Vice Chancellors must be formulated so as to ensure that only persons with high academic calibre and recognised personal integrity are chosen and that transparent mechanisms of accountability be evolved to arrest any deviations from this norm. The house also demands that comprehensive official probes must be instituted allegation of misuse of public office, financial mismanagement, and institutional excesses by Vice- chancellors and other heads of academic institutions. Furthermore, representation of teachers’ and students’ democratically elected bodies in the highest decision-making bodies of academic institutions is an important safeguard that must be implemented.
- Public education must have substantive academic autonomy: From being an institution that promoted the maintenance and coordination of minimum standards, the UGC has been illegally transformed into a regulator whose power to make binding regulations has been weaponised to control government expenditure, to encourage privatisation, and to enforce obedience to government diktats at multiple levels, including curricular and syllabus, and mandatory prescriptions about one-size-fits-all models of academic administration and governance that fail to recognise that in a country as diverse as India, a plurality of institutional models is needed. UGC Regulations have been used by venal administrations to circumvent all university-internal democratic and participative functioning and to eliminate the centrality of teachers and students in the decision-making framework. In the process, the UGC itself has been transformed from an autonomous institution into a government puppet and its role as a body that can advise, consult and guide universities and colleges to further expansion of higher education in the country and/or improve its quality has all but vanished. This House demands that not only must the full autonomy of academic institutions be restored with an emphasis on making the academic institution a place governed as per the provisions of their Acts and Statutes as well as through democratic consensus of teachers and students, the UGC must also be restored to functioning as per the terms of its functions laid out in the UGC Act.
- Public education must be socially responsible: Through the aforementioned schemes and policy proposals, we are on the threshold of a complete transformation of the public university into a space of exclusion, where those who cannot afford to pay will not be able to access higher education. This reality only becomes starker when the intent of the UGC Graded Autonomy regulations and the provisions of the Higher Education Commission of India Bill is factored in — this de facto privatisation irreparably weakens the force of Constitutional provisions for reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Central Education Institutions (Reservation for Admission) Act 2006, and the recent Ordinance restoring the 200 point roster for admissions and recruitment. This house holds that all the shortfalls of the past five years in meeting the mandated reservation thresholds in admissions and recruitment must be remedied, with universities treating them as a backlog that must be filled.
- Public education must be transformative: A university is a microcosm of society, a space that incubates political and social critique, difference, and change. Over the past five years, students and teachers who dared to exercise their voice in defence of democracy, of the right to dissent and free speech have been penalised by university administrations, harassed inordinately through instrumentalization of law enforcement agencies, and assaulted violently by radical groups, labelled as anti-nationals, beaten by charged with sedition and under draconian laws like the UAPA and AFSPA. Institution-internally, the CCS (Conduct) Rules have been used in universities to victimise and silence employees, particularly teachers, in a bid to quell dissent against immoral and unethical governance of the institution as well as any critique of the government. Furthermore, the prevailing atmosphere of misogyny, caste and religious hatred has seriously undermined the progress towards fashioning universities as spaces that foster dignity and equality, freedom of expression, and spirit of fraternity enshrined in the Constitution of India. Brutal repression and penalisation of anti-caste struggles and movements against sexual harassment and misogyny have become the norm. Students and teachers have been subjected to internal inquiries and harsh penalties, suspended, and lost their jobs. The charges both teachers and students make against administrations and right-wing forces — of violence, of illegitimate and illegal functioning, of caste discrimination, of communal hate, of sexual harassment and violence have fallen on deaf ears, because university spaces are no longer conceived of as spaces of justice. This House demands first that the right of academic institutions to free speech and inquiry must be explicitly upheld, with an undertaking that laws like sedition, UAPA, and conduct rules like the CCS rules will not be applied to academic institutions. It expects reparation to be made in all such instances in which rights to equality and the right to life and liberty have been disrespected. Not only must all unfair penalties imposed on students and employees be withdrawn, institutions that strengthen social and gender justice and its delivery, such as credible anti- sexual harassment committees and offices of equal opportunity, must become embedded in university structures.
This House resolves to fight against right wing Hindutva forces, and press forward in this Lok Sabha elections and beyond, with this vision of what an academic institution must be. It appeals to the public to support the demands it makes, and to keep these in mind when they cast their vote, and to the Opposition parties to heed its call. We also appeal to the valiant students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the JNUSU that, even as we congratulate them for their indomitable fight for the public university over several decades and particularly in the past four years, to withdraw its indefinite fast at the conclusion of this convention, and to assume a pivotal role in spreading this message to the electorate and across the political spectrum.