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Future of Assam Women’s University Students Under Threat, Students Accuse State BJP Government Of Destroying Public Educational Institutions

The Students had written to Prime Minister Modi last year but have received no response.

Jorhat, Assam: At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps on highlighting the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the girl child, educate the girl child) campaign across the country, the future of Assam’s first women’s university is under threat because of the BJP government’s indecisiveness. State education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma reportedly made contradictory statements to the media — he first said that the BJP state government planned to degrade Assam Women’s University (AWU) to a technical institute, and then retracted, saying that they had “plans” for the university and that the degrees had no value as the varsity did not even have a vice-chancellor (VC).

The AWU students, on the edge over Biswa’s statements and worried about their future, have been holding protests since March 5, demanding a permanent VC and full-fledged university status for AWU so that it is not deprived of UGC benefits. On March 8, the students staged protests and observed a black day opposing the government’s decision. They accused the government of “insincerity” and of “ignoring” their future. On March 9, 25 students sat on a 36-hour hunger strike in front of the Jorhat district court.

There are more than 500 students enrolled in the university in various post-graduate, graduate, and diploma courses in political science, sociology, psychology, and other social sciences. Two batches of students have passed out from the university and many of them are now pursuing MPhil and PhD programmes. The government is considering the move by repealing the Assam Women’s University Act, 2013, (XXII of 2013), which was passed by the state assembly in 2013. The matter is likely to be discussed in the next cabinet meeting.

The agitation has received support from various quarters with protests being organized across Assam. The All Assam Students’ Union (Aasu), the Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti (SMSS), and the Student Federation of India (SFI) have also organised rallies, satyagraha, and other protest programmes in support of the AWU students. On March 28, Congress MPs from Assam protested in front of the Gandhi statue at the Parliament in New Delhi, shouting slogans like “Assam ki beti to padhana padega” and “Naari virodhi BJP sarkar go back.”

BJP Blames INC, Gogoi Reminds BJP That BJP Has Been In Power For Over Two Years.

Meanwhile, the issue has resulted in a blame game between the BJP and the Congress with Sarma accusing former three-term chief minister and Titabor Congress MLA Tarun Gogoi of appointing a mentor instead of a VC at the university due to his “personal interest”. Things came to a head when Gogoi raised the matter in the Assam legislative assembly on March 29. When speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami refused to allow Gogoi to talk about the matter, Congress MLAs started protesting, raising slogans, and storming into the well of the house. The ruckus forced the speaker to adjourn the house for 15 minutes.

The speaker finally allowed Gogoi to make a submission on the matter. Gogoi, during whose tenure AWU was established, argued that if the problem was that a mentor was appointed instead of a VC, then why had the BJP-led state government, which has been in power for two years now, allowed the same “mistake” to continue. It must be noted that AWU has been functioning under the mentorship of K M Bujarbaruah, VC of Assam Agriculture University, without a permanent VC of its own since 2013. According to Sarma, all 74 staff at AWU, including teachers, have been appointed on an ad hoc or contractual basis.

Students want written promise of ‘protection’ for AWU

Finally, after a lot of hue and cry, the speaker declared that AWU would be “protected” and “strengthened”, although he didn’t specify how. The students, however, want to know what the speaker meant. “We, the students of Assam Women University, are not in agreement with the term used by the honourable speaker of Assam legislative assembly. Though we have been struggling for this cause for last one year, we have not received any satisfactory response from the government. We want written assurance of what they promised. We want a complete detail of the term “protection” since they have been delaying it from the beginning,” said Chinmayee Gogoi, president of AWU students’ forum.

With chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal remaining quiet on the issue, the students are demanding written assurance instead of a verbal promise of “protection” by the government. Other student organizations have also demanded a written confirmation of the declaration of “protection” made by the speaker. Nirankush Nath, state secretary, SFI, said that Goswami’s declaration can’t be taken seriously until the chief minister corroborates it. “He must give the people assurance of the “protection” of the university as declared by Goswami,” said Nath. He added that the SFI is also demanding infrastructural development of the varsity campus.

Gautam Pratim Gogoi, an active member of the SMSS from Cotton University, said, “We can’t take verbal promises for granted. The government must take the responsibility of public educational institutions, be it JNU, Delhi University, or Assam Women University. By destroying public educational institutions, the government is pushing students towards private universities. This will lead to nothing but more marginalisation of the lower castes and classes in the education system.”

AWU students, meanwhile, are seeking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention in the matter. The students’ forum chief said they even wrote to Modi last year, seeking the appointment of a permanent VC. An AWU student told this reporter that in 2014, when UGC representatives had visited AWU, they had asked the varsity authorities to fulfil certain criteria, including appointment of a permanent VC and at least two permanent faculty members per department within five years. But no steps have been taken in this direction. Students are terrified that the university might lose its UGC recognition if the norms are not met within the given time.

In Assam where the female literacy rate (67.2%) is slightly above the national rate (65.45%), the importance of a women’s university can’t be ignored. Instead of playing a political blame game, the government should take the issue seriously so that the future of these students can be secure.

(Pratyush Deep is a Jorhat – based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.) 

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