The suicide of Aishwarya Reddy, a student of Lady Shri Ram College, has sparked debates on the potholes in the education system and has disturbed the student community at large. Students of LSR took to the streets to demand justice for their batchmate.
In forefront of this protest was the LSR Student Union representative Unnimaya who is currently a general secretary of the LSR Student Union. She is also a member of the Delhi state committee of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and an active participant in the movement “Justice for Aishwarya”.
In her conversation with Outlook’s Manvi Gupta, she talks about the movement, issue of the digital divide and the discriminatory nature of the Indian education system. Excerpts:
Q) The issues of the digital divide and technology accessibility are the challenges to pursue quality education in this Covid-19 era, do you think these issues are prevalent in LSR also?
Digital divide always existed in India, with students from marginalized communities and lower-middle-class having little or no access to smart gadgets, uninterrupted internet facilities or broadband facilities. After the pandemic, the divide just widened with the government initiating no infrastructure help on time to bridge this gap and help the students. In LSR particularly, 25 per cent of students don’t own a laptop or tablet. LSR still hasn’t provided its students with free WiFi. A good part of LSR students comes from hilly terrain and struggles with severe connectivity issues. The premiere college like LSR which is supposed to guarantee free education has actually divided its students in the name of privatized digitalization.
Q) What happened to Aishwarya was devastating and we all LSR students grieved for her. What was your initial response to the news?
Waking up to the news was devastating for me as well. I remember reading the message of her suicide on a hostel WhatsApp group with no clear reasons as to why. Since I am a member of the SFI, I informed its Delhi state committee which in turn contacted the Telangana state committee. Then the president of Ranga Reddy district (Aishwarya’s home district) committee of the SFI arrived at Aishwarya’s home, talked to her parents and reviewed the entire situation. From there we got to knew about the suicide letter, about her financial constraints, about she not receiving her INSPIRE scholarship on time. Her parents also told us that she was worried about the hostel administration’s notice asking her to vacate it November 10. After getting to know all these details, we declared Aishwarya’s suicide “institutional murder” and started the “Justice For Aishwarya” campaign the same day.
Q) Do you think if proper steps from college authorities and government sides were initiated on time, we could have prevented Aishwarya’s death?
Definitely, the case like Aishwarya happens because the university and the government do not keep their promise of free quality education. This happened because the promise of equal access to the hostel highlighted in section 33 of Delhi University was not given. What is the concept of India? India is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, republic, but are we seeing socialism being practised in any sector of India? If there were socialism in the Indian education sector, a student will not have to take a loan of Rs 3 three lakh to pursue her education at a public university, a student will not have to depend only on a scholarship for her education, a sibling would not have to drop out of school. It is basically negligence on the part of LSR authorities, the government, and Delhi University which is why we are calling Aishwara’s suicide “institutional murder”.
Q) Aishwarya in her struggles was not alone, there are students who are struggling to attend classes, maintain attendance due to connectivity, affordability and geographical issues. Have you received any complaints from students with similar problems? If yes, how are these students offered help?
Yes, a lot of students have told us that they are struggling because of fund cuts, online classes, accessibility issues. While there is no confirmation of help offered to us from the government or college authorities, many of our alumni have agreed to provide funds. We ourselves are collecting funds to help these students with data packs. But we do realize this one-time mechanism, this charity work is not a permanent solution. The government is talking about digital education in its New Education Policy but there is no mention how it will tackle the digital divide, provide electricity to every Indian household, make technology accessible to each student.
We know that this one-time mechanism will not help students entering college next year and that is why we are demanding an institutional mechanism to tackle these issues. Students should not be taking loans, we expect more funds from the UGC. That is why we are questioning the New Education Policy, shunning this whole concept of higher education-funding agencies where colleges initially take loans from these agencies and then raise the fees to pay back the loan.
Q) You were the voice of justice for Aishwarya with a photo of yours raising your voice in front of barricades standing outside our college gate surfacing on social media. What was your initial motivation to raise your voice and fight for her?
I always uphold this simple motto in my life --- “Study First, Struggle must”. I think it’s my identity of being a woman hailing from rural parts of Kerala and belonging to an economically marginalized section of society which motivates me to fight for my needs. By me, I mean people like me, people like Aishwarya who are equally harassed by this class, caste divide. Also, I am not alone in this struggle of the “Justice For Aishwarya”. My comrades and I from the college are fighting this battle together. I also believe for any movement to survive, especially a movement like ours, a student-oriented movement, organization, and solidarity are important. I believe individualism can never lead to any positive changes in society, rather it’s the idea of togetherness and solidarity which motivates people to sustain tough measures like detainment, lathi-charge and hit the streets to raise their voices in unison.
Q) The demands of the student body in the Aishwarya death case are still not met but LSR students in unison have agreed to boycott classes and not cooperate with college authorities till the demands are met. Do you think this will create any difference and push college authorities to listen to students’ demands?
I think what we are witnessing right now in college students is a mere spontaneous reaction, an outrage but this solely cannot sustain the entire movement of “Justice For Aishwarya”. I think the LSR student body as one community has always tried to distance itself from the student union and it’s not really its fault. It’s the LSR administration that has always tried to project the student union as urban Naxals and spread propaganda against the union.
Also if we look at other student protests like the JNU protest, why do you think it created a stir and attracted concerned authorities attention? It’s because there were a lot of students involved. Several student organizations were talking to each student to clear their doubts about what they were fighting for. In LSR, lack of organization is a major hurdle as to why it’s getting difficult for us to sustain a movement like “Justice For Aishwarya”. But I do hope with this movement many students will realize why they should not distance themselves from the student organization.
Q) What are the steps you think should be taken to mitigate the digital divide?
Basically, the government should stop privatizing education. Recently, we are witnessing more and more sectors getting privatized in India, such as railways and airlines. This privatization will affect the marginalized sections of society, block accessibility of marginalized students to free quality education. The government should nationalize education to stop more Aishwaryas from committing suicide.