Over 4,000 students come together for ‘satyagraha’ against exams during Covid

Organised by AISA, the students also went on hunger strike on August 23, asking for the postponement of exams like JEE and NEET.

WrittenBy:Samyak Jain
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A one-day hunger strike and satyagraha was held on August 23 against the government’s decision to conduct examinations in September, despite the students facing challenges due to the Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdown to contain the virus’s spread. The protest was organised by the All India Students’ Association, which told Newslaundry that over 4,200 students had participated.

For months now, students across India have been asking the government to postpone all important exams. Last week, the government announced that the entrance examinations for undergraduate engineering and medical courses — the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) and the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) — will take place as scheduled in September, after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition seeking their postponement. The apex court said “life has to go on”, even as the court itself continues to function virtually.

Earlier today, climate change activist Greta Thunberg had also tweeted in support of students in India, saying it was "deeply unfair" that they had to sit for exams in the current scenario.

The satyagraha on August 23 included students protesting against these entrance examinations. A dataset shared by AISA with Newslaundry stated that 3,437 NEET and JEE aspirants pledged their support for the protest.

Of the numerous concerns raised by the students, the biggest issue is that of logistics. Many students said that the examination centres they were allotted don’t even fall within the perimeters of their districts, forcing them to travel over 250 km during a lockdown and a pandemic to sit for the exam. This at a time when public transport remains suspended in many areas.

Additionally, students who attended coaching classes before the lockdown in Rajasthan’s Kota had, at the time, requested to take the exam in Kota. Once the lockdown began, they returned to their home states — and they now need to travel back to Kota to be able to take their exams.

“My examination centre is in Patna, over 200 km from my residence in Bhagalpur, Bihar,” said Mohammad Danish Khan, a NEET aspirant who sat on a day-long hunger strike on August 23. “I come from a humble background and do not have the means to pay for a private taxi to ferry me and my guardians to the city. Including travel, food and stay, my family will have to shell out over Rs 10,000 so I can sit for the exam. How will we be able to spend so much?”

Even if his family arranges the funds, Khan said, he’s worried about putting their health at risk to make the journey. “Patna is a hot spot,” he pointed out. “There might be asymptomatic Covid-positive students in my exam hall. The same invigilator will roam the entire hall with the attendance sheet. What if I get infected? What if I become a carrier?”

He added: “NEET ka exam na hogaya Jallianwallah Bagh hogaya, jaan pe ban aayi hai.” It feels like this exam is a matter of life and death, like Jallianwallah Bagh.

At 2 pm on August 23, AISA conducted a “press conference” in a live broadcast from its Facebook page, where the concerns of students from 15 states were discussed. Questions were raised on the standard operating procedure issued by the National Testing Agency, stating that the agency has not demonstrated how it will be implemented. They also pointed out that the SOPs failed during tests that have already been conducted.

Sandeep Saurav, the national general secretary of AISA, said during the press conference that 90 percent of students do not wish to sit for the exams in the current situation. More than 50 percent will have to travel over 200 km to reach their respective exam centres, he said.

“These exams are being conducted for only one reason. The government wants to show that ‘all is well’ when it is not, so they are using students as scapegoats,” he said.

OP Siddh has to sit for the UGC NET exam this year, a test that needs to be taken to teach at colleges and universities. The exam will take place in September.

“Until the day we weren’t speaking against the Modi government, we [students] were all good people, patriots,” Siddh said during AISA’s livestream. “Once we started talking against these exams, we are being called ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘tukde tukde gang’...”

Students said that they’re also being called “non-serious” and “non-studying” for asking for the postponement of crucial exams. Madhu Bhatt, who is sitting for the JEE and the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research test, brought this up during AISA's press conference.

"Okay, I’ll assume we are all non-studying, non-serious students, fine. If all these students who want to appear for exams are so brilliant, why can’t they wait for a few months?” she said. “We are non-studying students so their seats are anyway safe, we can’t take them.”

She added: “Why can’t we wait for a vaccine to come first and then schedule exams? Is rescheduling exams tougher than making vaccines in our country?”

A student who joined AISA’s press conference from Dubai said this issue is affecting students outside India’s borders too.

“There are loads of Indian students due to sit for CBSE’s compartmental exams and entrance exams who do not stay in the country. What about us?” she said. “Why isn’t the government taking stock of our situation? There are no centres outside India. When there were only 60,000 cases in India, the exams were cancelled. Now we have 60,000 cases a day but exams are being held. Why?”

Last week, the Supreme Court refused to direct the central government to set up NEET centres in the Middle East. Instead, the court said the government must fly down students on Vande Bharat flights to sit for the exam. The Medical Council of India had also submitted an affidavit in the court saying the exam should not be postponed further, and that conducting the exam in centres abroad was not possible.

N Sai Balaji, the national president of AISA, told Newslaundry that AISA has the same demands as the students: to cancel final-year exams and the CBSE compartmental exams and find an alternative; and to postpone the university entrance exams.

“Who will take a guarantee if my parents or I get infected due to corona? The government is not prepared, the SOPs are not functional and failing, and students are getting infected,” he said.

Update: This story has been update with Greta Thunberg's tweet.


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