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Friday, March 4

The Burden of Taxpayers' Money

Waste of taxpayers' money is not a new refrain. It comes up in contexts ranging from big cars for legislators to foreign jaunts on flimsy grounds for MPs. From memorial parks to IITians doing MBA.

It is present with extraordinary force in the ongoing JNU row as well. Commentator after commentator have chided JNU students for wasting government money by engaging in politics. Having myself availed of significant government subsidy for my undergraduate education and also having been accused of engaging in politics in campus (poli-poli as it was called derisively), this made me think.

First let's not confuse income taxpayers with taxpayers. While about 3% of the Indian citizens pay income tax, everyone pays the indirect taxes like VAT, service tax etc. So JNU students are also taxpayers. Also worth keeping in mind that constitutional rights are not dependent on how much tax you pay.

Waste of taxpayers' money can mean one of the two things. It may mean that while government is supporting the students so that they can get a good education, they are instead engaging in politics and not focusing on their studies. But how do the commentators know that someone is engaging in politics at the expense of their work or studies? Did they check the semester records of the students involved in the protest? Have they checked the research records, teaching records of the professors? Will they be satisfied if someone with good academic performance was leading these protests?

And how can we decide if someone is paying sufficient attention? By looking at their CPIs? By looking at the number of papers they publish? Turning the question around, is it a waste of taxpayers' money if some of the students who focus only on their studies don't do well?

Another view says that it is a waste of taxpayers' money since these students are anti-national. Since they are questioning the elected government, judiciary and the constitution, why should we bear the burden to educate them? For starters, let me point out that we do spend taxpayers' money on educating all kinds of convicted criminals: murderers, thieves, rapists, even terrorists. Jails do not fund themselves.

But let's get back to the question of anti-national. It is clear that there is no violent action or criminal conspiracy involved here. The police action was in response to the sloganeering at an event. So we are in the territory of thought and speech crimes. Question is what makes you an anti-national? Is questioning the government of the day sedition? You can answer that one yourself.

How about questioning the court? Scholars like Arun Shourie have written entire books criticizing the judges for pushing forward the progressive agenda. Wasn't Manu Sharma let go by one of the very same courts and didn't the whole country came out of streets to protest against that? For the society to work smoothly, you need to follow the court orders. It doesn't mean you have to agree with them.

How about constitution? Let's just say that we have already hit a century of constitutional amendments and there seems no end in sight. BJP itself is against the section 370 of the constitution, demanding its removal. A complete review of Indian constitution has been in their election manifestos. And the last time NDA was in government, they constituted a National Commission to review the working of the Constitution. So much for not questioning the constitution.

So the question becomes that is someone under increased obligation to tow the state line if he/she receives state subsidy for education? Do they surrender their right to criticize the state? Are they not to have political opinions and certainly not to express them? Is the state funding of education a charity? Isn't it state's responsibility to make sure affordable education is available to everyone? Can state discriminate between someone who criticizes them vs someone who supports them?

And to turn the question around, are the standards of patriotism different for those who can afford to pay for their education?

For me personally, one of the most cherished experiences from college life is of participating in the small scale democratic experiment that IITK was. It was nothing compared to big universities and the boundaries were strictly set but even within those limits, it was an eye opener and a great teacher. It helped me to see myself as a part of the society, to engage with it, to care more deeply about its issues rather than being just an individual on a mission to make the greatest fortune for myself while having a shallow institute loyalty.

That experience convinced me that political awareness and engagement is part and parcel of a good education. A education that makes us a good citizen instead of just a taxpayer.