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JNU strike over mess hike, attendance

New Delhi: JNU students held their second strike of the year on Thursday, boycotting classes against a hike in mess charges, newly introduced attendance norms and a perceived bid to scale down PhD admissions.

Last month, the introduction of an attendance register and a rule mandating expulsion if a student attended less than 75 per cent classes during a semester had provoked a day's gherao of officials.

Since then, mess charges have nearly been doubled with retrospective effect from January 1 - an egg now costs Rs 10 - and the fine for delayed payment raised from Re 1 to Rs 20 a day.

Further, the number of candidates called to interviews for admission to some research courses has been fewer even than the reduced number of seats available under the new teacher-scholar ratio norms accepted last year.

The students blame a new University Grants Commission rule that says a candidate must secure at least 50 per cent in the written entrance test to qualify for the interview. They also accuse the university administration of ensuring that few candidates scored above 50 per cent.

"I came here from Chennai's Loyola College where even round-neck T-shirts weren't permitted. It was a culture shock to come to a place where students weren't asked to register their attendance but still flocked to classes, sometimes sitting on the floor if a popular course was full," said Om Prasad from Berhampur, Odisha, who came to JNU for an MA in modern history in 2009 and is set to submit his PhD thesis on trade unionism among scientists this year.

"Now we have seats going vacant and compulsory marking of attendance. It's a culture shock again."

An unofficial referendum, in which a little over half the students participated on Thursday, polled 98.47 per cent votes against compulsory attendance.

The latest blow has been the hike in mess charges, with the deposit raised from Rs 2,700 to Rs 4,500, and the rate for guest meals almost doubled.

The hostel messes are managed by the students on a no-profit, no-loss basis. The rates are decided by the "inter-hall administration", which is headed by the dean of students and has elected hostel representatives.

The last hike came in 2010, after a committee studied the inflation. The Left-controlled students' union, which led Thursday's strike, says it learnt about the latest hikes from the notice board.

Dean of students Umesh Kadam said the hike was needed to pay the minimum wages to workers, which were increased in Delhi last year. The students say the mess charges are higher than the market rates.

Students' union general secretary D. Srikrishna, who worked as a make-up artist and a hotel waiter to pay for his graduation in Hyderabad, fears he would have to go back to doing odd jobs to finish his PhD. "Scholarships are being delayed by at least two months," he said.

He alleged the hikes are meant to provoke the students into breaking the law so that vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar "can justify a police crackdown". Kumar did not answer a WhatsApp message from this newspaper relaying the students' queries.

The Sangh-linked ABVP blames the Left for the small number of admission interviewees.

"The courses where seats are not being filled-Hindi and geography-are Left bastions for both students and teachers," said Vijay Kumar, president of the JNU unit of the ABVP, which did not participate in the referendum on attendance.

He suggested that Leftist teachers had deliberately awarded poor marks in the written test "to provoke panic and anarchy among students" and said his organisation had asked the VC for a probe.

He said the attendance norms had been passed in decision-making bodies that had elected Left representatives.

Over the past couple of years, the campus has witnessed turmoil over the arrest of students on sedition charges, the disappearance of a Muslim student after a clash with the ABVP, and new rules that reduced research seats and stifled reservations for backward classes.

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