Terror on the JNU campus

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Outside the main gate of the JNU campus after the attack by masked goons on January 5. Photo: Getty Images

Aishe Ghosh, JNUSU president, at a demonstration against the attack, in New Delhi on January 9. Photo: Kamal Narang

Joy Tirkey, DCP (Crime) of the Delhi Police, and Delhi Police PRO M.S. Randhawa at a press conference in New Delhi on January 10. Photo: PTI

Police crackdown on JNU students protesting the fee hike, in New Delhi on December 9. Photo: PTI

Damaged belongings of students lie scattered in a hostel room in JNU on January 6. Photo: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

JNU Vice Chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar after meeting with the HRD Secretary on January 10. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

The brutal attack on JNU students by masked intruders and the ham-handed approach of the administration and the police in the entire episode draw widespread condemnation, strengthening support for the students and infusing more energy into the movement against the government’s suppression of dissent.

The images of a girl, visibly distressed, holding her bleeding forehead while explaining haltingly to a camera that she had been attacked by masked assailants, shocked the sensibilities of the nation. The girl was Aishe Ghosh, the elected president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU), who had just returned from a peace meeting on January 5 called by the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA).

The meeting had been called specifically to assuage tempers that rose following sporadic incidents of assaults on students on the previous day. It was not unusual in the university’s culture to conduct such a meeting given its democratic culture. JNU is the only university where student elections are conducted by the students and an election commission elected by the students for the purpose. The administration has no role in it.

Unprecedented violence

On January 5, the university witnessed unprecedented violence. That evening, apart from Aishe Ghosh and a large number of her fellow students, several members of the JNU faculty were attacked by a large mob of unidentified assailants armed with stones and sticks. One faculty member sustained serious head injuries. A particular students’ hostel and a teachers’ residential complex known as New Transit House (NTH) were specifically targeted by the mob.

Only a part of the violence of January 5 was captured on video by students, but even that was chilling. One particular image grabbed from the video showed two men and a woman in a checked shirt, all masked, holdings rods and sticks on the premises of Sabarmati Hostel, named after the river in Gujarat (which evokes the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and his ashram on its banks). The gang went on the rampage looking for targets and smashed windows and doors.

There are no closed-circuit TV cameras near the hostel or at the T-point where the peace meeting was held. The identities of the masked and armed intruders who entered the campus on that fateful evening, including the group that attacked the student leader, remain a mystery. Aishe Ghosh and others have stated that they made calls to the police after the peace meeting was attacked. Resident teachers from the NTH were literally trapped inside houses while their doors were being battered. Desperate messages for help were sent to the university’s own security, the police and university officials, but to no avail.

The injuries caused to Aishe Ghosh had to be treated with 16 stitches on her head; her arm was also fractured. An MRI scan overruled any neurological or cranial damage.

The windshields of cars belonging to some faculty members, known for their differences with Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar, were smashed near the venue of the meeting. Among students, the mob targeted those who were sympathisers of Left student groups or Ambedkarites. In Sabarmati Hostel, the rooms of two Kashmiri students were vandalised and one visually challenged student was beaten up.

The Crime Branch of the Delhi Police is investigating allegations that students belonging to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) were involved in the attack with the support of outsiders, coordinating it through messages in a WhatsApp group. This particular WhatsApp group, called “Unity against Left”, is now being investigated by the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police, and the group’s administrator was identified by the police as one of the persons responsible for the violence on January 5.

Liberal culture

JNU in popular imagination is known as a university with a strong Left presence. While various shades of political opinion can be found within its student body, including of the political Right in the form of the ABVP, the spectrum of opinion is mostly ranged against the Right. The students’ union elections last year resulted in a resounding victory for a panel that called itself Left Unity. This panel won in spite of a sustained campaign over the last few years to label the university as a hub of anti-national activities.

JNU continues to have a distinct character because student politics there is not controlled by money or muscle power as in the case of many other universities. Its rich Left and liberal history, inclusive admissions policy, rational fee structure and rich culture of debate and healthy dissent enable students to think differently and settle their differences over well-informed discussions.

JNU’s character proved to be resilient even after the Vice Chancellor appointed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government attempted to transform it; his efforts met with sustained and stiff resistance from students and teachers alike.

Fee hike

In October 2019, the students were told that they would have to pay much more in fees in order to retain their right to reside in the hostels. This was no ordinary fee hike but one which sought to transfer the burden of expenditures such as staff salaries, so far bankrolled by the university, on to the students.

Almost half of the students hail from indigent backgrounds, so the decision to raise fees in the manner proposed would have forced many to drop out. The JNUSU immediately demanded a rollback of the hike. A deadlock on the issue and a long agitation, which included a mass boycott of the end-semester examination, were the prelude to the events of January 5.

Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar defended the decision and refrained from any dialogue with the students. A similar approach was adopted in the case of teachers and academic bodies too, where his discretionary powers to make appointments were widely used.

Various attempts by the teachers’ association failed to make an impact. An attempt by the Human Resource Development Ministry to mediate in the issue also failed. Jagadesh Kumar remained adamant and even tried to complete the end-semester examinations through email and WhatsApp. Even after this attempt failed, he tried to push the process of registration for the new semester from September 1, even though the academic activities of the previous semester were yet to be completed. The JNUSU opposed this attempt.

Jagadesh Kumar also tried to link the mob violence of January 5 with the vandalism of the university’s servers used for the online registration process, allegedly by students owing allegiance to the Left.

In its golden jubilee year, the university has been witness to a standoff between the students and the administration for more than two months. No solution emerged as the Vice Chancellor remained out of bounds for the students. Despite mounting unrest over the fee hike, the protests by students inside and outside the campus for over two months did not result in any violence even though the students were subjected to lathi charge and police brutality on a few occasions.

On January 5, when the situation turned dire after the mob attack, several calls were made by students, but the police did not arrive. Terrified students and faculty members converged at the main entrance of the university where there was a phalanx of policemen on the other side of the closed gate. Even as there were reports of continuing violence inside the campus, another crowd was mobilised just outside the gate from nearby areas including the University of Delhi.

The crowd shouted slogans against JNU students and teachers, calling them anti-nationals, and threatened them with violence. As word spread that a mob had gathered at the main gate of JNU, former students and political leaders who were JNU alumni turned up.

The national president of Swaraj India, Yogendra Yadav, was one of them. As soon as he arrived, he was pushed around by the mob, shouting slogans against JNU and the Left. All this happened while the police watched on. Several mediapersons were also roughed up.

The Vice Chancellor was nowhere to be seen; according to the police, they were allowed to enter the campus only at 7.45 p.m., by which time all the assailants had left.

During protests in Jamia Millia Islamia in December, the police entered without permission and vandalised the campus, brutally thrashing students and parading them like criminals. In JNU, however, despite repeated messages from the faculty and students, the police did not enter; neither did the Vice Chancellor show alacrity in bringing in the police to nab the masked assailants who were having a free run on the campus, entering and leaving at will.

Following criticism that the Delhi Police did not act in time and allowed the attackers to escape into the darkness of the night, the government decided to set up a special investigation team. On January 11, the police briefed the media about the developments in the case, which did little to inspire confidence in the fairness of the investigation.

The focus of the conference was almost entirely on the events that took place before the mob of masked assailants went on the rampage. Nine people were identified by the police among those accused of violence; seven of them were Left activists and two belonged to the ABVP.

While all the four organisations that are part of Left Unity were repeatedly named, the ABVP found no mention. Mistakes were also made in the naming of the organisations; the Students’ Federation of India was repeatedly called Students Front of India, while the photograph of one ABVP member was shown and another’s name given.

The police said there was no CCTV recording on which they could rely on. Among the nine accused by the Crime Branch, the JNUSU president was also identified as being among the masked assailants who allegedly beat up ABVP activists on January 4, a charge which Aishe Ghosh has vehemently denied.

The police briefing had nothing to say about investigating the identity of the masked assailants seen in Sabarmati Hostel. Within seconds of the briefing, Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar gave a statement that it had been “proved” that the Left was responsible for the violence in JNU.

The role of the Delhi Police or that of the Vice Chancellor in the entire episode is unlikely to be investigated.

Speaking to mediapersons in selective interviews, Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar appeared relieved that the registration process could be restarted as the university’s servers were now working. The Crime Branch and the Vice Chancellor appear to be more concerned about the damage caused to the university’s central information system than the murderous assault on students and a faculty member and the vandalism on campus.

A five-member committee constituted by the Vice Chancellor to inquire into the violence has been reportedly packed with his favoured appointees. The Chief Proctor of JNU is a former ABVP activist who was a member of the WhatsApp group allegedly used to organise the mob and whose administrator is one of the two ABVP men named by the police.

On the day of the press conference, the India Today TV channel, through a sting operation, caught on camera the confessions of two JNU students who are ABVP members. They claimed that they had beaten up students from the Left organisations and were also part of the mob that attacked the peace meeting called by the teachers. The ABVP denied that the students were its members.

‘Abusive and armed’

Shaukat, a PhD student in the Centre for Study of Regional Development, was in his room on the first floor of Sabarmati Hostel when the armed intruders barged in. He heard the commotion and bolted the door. The attackers banged on the doors of his room (number 157) and room number 156, where his friend and a fellow Kashmiri, Khaki, lived.

“Khaki came to my room scaling the balcony as the bolts of his door were weak. Within minutes they ransacked his room using a fire extinguisher kept in the corridor and smashed the window panes. We pushed the cot against the door, all the time praying that it wouldn’t give way. Our window and door panes were already smashed with iron rods. The mob was shouting the filthiest of abuses and asking us to come out,” he told Frontline.

Another student named Lozaan from Manipur was in an adjoining room. “I locked myself in, put out the lights. One of the men in the mob was heard telling others to keep hitting at the door till it broke. Clashes between students can happen but they don’t cover their faces,” he said. Another student on the same floor, who did not want to be named, said that his door also would not bolt properly from the inside. “They came in easily. I asked them point blank: do you want to kill me? They checked my balcony to see if I was hiding anyone there. I think they were looking for Khaki. He is a little vocal and is active on the campus,” he said.

“It was very scary. They were in the hostel from 6.50 p.m. till 7.20 p.m. or so. They went to Transit House too where the professors live. They terrorised some families there as well. We went to the warden for help. But he didn’t open the door,” said Shaukat.

Suvidya, a PhD student in the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, said that she made many calls to the police but no one came. The guards of the hostel were missing as well that evening.

A visually challenged student named Suryaprakash was hit on his back and hands by the assailants. “I kept on telling them I was blind. But they didn’t listen. They saw an image of Ambedkar on my door and that was it. A woman who was accompanying them said, hit him. I could smell alcohol under their breath,” he said.

The bolts on his door were faulty too. He said that a forensic team of the Crime Branch came 48 hours after the incident, by which time many had even cleaned up their rooms.

“The violence on the campus has to do with the ABVP. I have been here for three years now. I have seen that the Left-affiliated student organisations have never indulged in violence in JNU. I am not affiliated to any group. I am preparing for the UPSC exam as are many in the university. The portrait of Babasaheb was put up by the previous resident. The attackers had no pity or compassion,” he said. Residents of the hostel also said that the lights went out as soon as the assailants entered the hostel. They seemed to know who to pick on, they said. None of the students of Sabarmati Hostel wanted to be photographed.

Outpouring of support

Just as there was an outpouring of support for the students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) following the brutal crackdown on their protests, JNU students received unexpected support from all quarters.

The visuals of the masked goons and a bleeding Aishe Ghosh disturbed many. The industrialist Anand Mahindra condemned the violence. He tweeted that those “who invaded JNU must be traced and hunted down and given no quarter”. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, CEO of Biocon, also tweeted: “This is unpardonable…violence cannot be condoned.”

At a protest rally called by the JNUTA and then the JNUSU in Delhi, politicians such as Sharad Yadav and Manoj Jha joined Left leaders Sitaram Yechury, D. Raja, Brinda Karat and others.

Students and teachers in the University of Delhi held protest meetings in their respective colleges and for the first time in 30 years, students of St. Stephen’s sang songs of protest on the college campus.

In Mumbai, protesters converged at the Gateway of India, speaking out against the violence in JNU. The actor Deepika Padukone, who was in Delhi for the promotion of her latest film, made a surprise visit to JNU while a public meeting was on to condemn the violence on campus.

BJP Ministers lost little time in condemning the “role of the Left” after the Delhi Police briefing. Prakash Javadekar said it was “clear that left-wing student outfits were involved in the attack”. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Aam Aadmi Party were “using students for their vested interests”, he added.

Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Textiles who also holds the Women and Child Development portfolio, criticised Deepika Padukone for showing solidarity with the JNU students. She said that the actor must have known that she was “choosing to stand with people who wanted the destruction of India”.

Clashes in universities in India are not uncommon, especially during student elections, but JNU has been generally free from such instances. In the last few years, however, the partisan attitude of the administration has encouraged violent incidents from time to time.

A major case in point is that of Najeeb, a student who disappeared in 2017, never to be found, soon after being assaulted in his hostel by ABVP activists. The administration’s handling of that episode was similar to the approach in the latest case.

It began by painting Najeeb himself as the culprit for the violence and eventually ended in his assailants being let off with mild penalties.

The JNUTA has expressed deep disappointment with the latest inquiry by the Delhi Police and by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. With the underplaying of the violence on the campus it has demanded an independent investigation into the role of both the police and the JNU administration in acts of omission and commission.

It has also expressed its lack of faith in the five-member inquiry committee set by the Vice Chancellor, stating that the Vice Chancellor and the administration have been responsible for the “extreme violence” inflicted on the students and the teachers.

At the time of writing the story, none of the complaints of the teachers had been converted into first information reports.

JNU has always been an eyesore for the BJP, more so under the tenure of the Narendra Modi-led government. There have been constant efforts to portray it as a den of anti-nationals and a hideout of the “tukde tukde gang”, a term coined by a section of the media and popularised by BJP leaders.

However, such tags do not matter any more. The joint protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act across the country and against the police repression on protesters are a rejection of the majority-minority binary that the BJP’s ideology has sought to promote and gain from. The broad-based support for students of Jamia Millia Islamia, AMU and now JNU from across the spectrum is indicative of change.

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