First-person Account

‘This political regime is destroying the university’

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Professor Sucharita Sen: “There was undoubtedly a character to this violence. The covered faces meant that they knew they were doing something that was not acceptable. I feel I was targeted.” Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Sucharita Sen at AIIMS after she was attacked on the campus on January 5. Photo: PTI

A first-person account of the violence on the JNU campus on January 5, by Professor Sucharita Sen, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU.

Professor Sucharita Sen, of the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), teaches geography and was one of the people involved in organising a peace assembly on January 5, the day masked intruders attacked teachers and students with lethal weapons like iron rods. While many faculty members were roughed up, she was the only one who sustained deep head injuries.

Her account of events.

I am a part of the JNU Teachers’ Association [JNUTA], as a representative from the School of Social Sciences. On January 5, the JNUTA gave a call for a peace assembly at 4 p.m. at the T-point near Sabarmati Hostel. The context for the peace assembly was that two days earlier, there were sporadic instances of violence and reports of students getting beaten up by another set of students. We heard reports of security personnel taking away and stamping on the belongings of students like blankets in the lockdown area. We also heard reports of teachers being abusive and hitting students. Our call was against all violence, and we hoped that by doing so normalcy would return. The Students' Union also joined in.

At 4 p.m. we assembled, and around 30 teachers and around 200 students also joined us. It was a very peaceful meeting. The Students Union office-bearers spoke, including Aishe [Ghosh], who is the president. It was collectively decided that even if there was provocation, there would be no violence but that we would seek solidarity among more members to restore the peaceful culture of the campus. We were informed that there were some reports of violence from Periyar Hostel. We thought we shouldn’t just disperse to our houses but stay there a little while longer and maybe work out a solution. Then we heard that a bus full of goons armed with lathis had assembled in front of the Periyar Hostel warden’s house. One of my colleagues from my department, Amit Thorat, offered to check it out. He took his cycle and went towards the hostel. He saw this group with sticks and implements resembling spades. He was trying to take a photograph when they surrounded him and started beating him. They took away his cycle and phone upon which he ran towards us and told us about this armed group. This was the first time we knew that group was actually there.

We saw this group marching towards the Godavari bus stop, 50 metres from the T-point. Their faces were covered and they had lathis. There were around 70 or so [of them]. We were discussing what to do and felt maybe a human chain could be formed so that they would stop and go back to wherever they had come from. I actually had my hands spread out indicating an appeal for peace. But we couldn’t get around to doing anything. Within no time the mob started raining stones on us, one of which hit me. There was absolutely no cover. I think it was a brick that hit me. I fell down and held my head realising that I was bleeding from a cut.

By that time, these people had started running towards us and we started running in all directions to escape the assault. I ran towards the Sabarmati Hostel lawn, which was the spot nearest to us, and my first thought was to get some cover. I was all by myself feeling dizzy; everyone had run off in various directions. I then met Ameet, a teacher, and Zakir, a student, who suggested that I should get some medical treatment. As it was a Sunday, they felt the JNU health centre would be closed, so they took me on their two-wheeler towards the north gate. But the gate appeared impenetrable. I saw many policemen at the gate alongside an aggressive group. I don’t know who they were. The police were doing nothing. And they just looked at me. I was obviously bleeding.

One of the men from the group came and heckled Zakir. I don’t know what that fellow said, but Zakir was very angry and I heard him telling the aggressor to hit him if that would satisfy him. We couldn’t see the gate itself as the aggressors and the police were very much inside and blocking the exit. The person who accosted Zakir was near the north security gate, which means he was inside the gate.

They were many persons assembled outside too. They had been allowed in. There was no way we could go through. We went back to the university health centre where we found one medical staff [member] who was treating an injured student; he bandaged me up advised me to go to the AIIMS [All India Institute of Medical Sciences] trauma centre as the bleeding was not stopping. We spotted an ambulance and I got on to that. We exited the university from another gate; I don’t recall which one but reached the Minor Operation Theatre of AIIMS. I got a CT scan and an ultrasound done. There was another student whose scalp was being stapled; he had been hit by a rod. By that time, many students and teachers came and stood by me in the hospital.

‘Violence was never the norm’

I joined JNU as a student in 1984 and had never encountered or heard of people indulging even in fisticuffs. In 1997, I joined as a faculty member. Elections come and go. Even if people did not agree with one another, which is perfectly normal, violence was never the norm. It was unthinkable. The only occasion when a semblance of this was seen was on January 5. As a teacher, I do not want to even believe that students, some of whom could well be my students, might hit me. Today, I find myself in a strange position believing that it could be a possibility. Today, I am sorry to say that violence is associated with one particular student organisation, which is the ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad].

Two years ago, when I was in Hyderabad, I heard of real violence of people being chased and beaten up during the counting of votes in the student elections. This was on another level. Even then, I heard that students were beaten up with rods. It was worrying. Faculty members were never involved. So, when we heard about this crowd, we felt that 30 of us could talk to them, and perhaps if they saw many teachers, they would stop. Some of us attempted to go, but a colleague, Avinash, dissuaded us and said it was better to call the police. In hindsight, I think this was good counsel as had we gone towards Periyar Hostel, more of us would have been beaten up.

All of this has been unprecedented, and it is sad that some faculty members have also been involved somewhere. We also mistakenly felt that this violent group would have listened to us as we were faculty members. But these assailants were “wired” differently. I doubt if they had any humanity left in them. I don’t know who they were; what we saw was terrifying and a very non-JNU image. Another thing that struck me later was that at the Sabarmati T-point, we’ve always had a large number of security guards. We are not allowed to hold open meetings near the administrative block as used to be the case earlier, so now meetings are held at the T-point. And on every occasion, there would be a good number of security personnel keeping watch. But that day, there was not a single one present. That was very strange. The huge police force who were parked at the north gate could have easily come in their vehicles up to the T-point where we were attacked. It would have taken them less than a minute. I cannot forgive them for converting my university into a place of violence.

There was undoubtedly a character to this violence. The covered faces meant that they knew they were doing something that was not acceptable. I feel I was targeted. Of the first lot of stones that came, most of them hit me. I was the first to be hit. Then, we heard that Aishe was also hit. Our cars were parked near the T-point. I heard that of five cars parked there, three were targeted. One was mine; the other Ajmal’s, who like me is in the JNUTA, and the third belonging to Atul Sood, former president of the JNUTA.

 

Polarised department

In my own department, things are so polarised that we cannot even have a cup of tea and discuss all this. The environment was never like this. Three of my colleagues in my department have not even called me up to enquire [how I am]. People who I do not know well have called up and commiserated with me. So it scares me that my own faculty colleagues who are so unconcerned that when I sit with them in the future, I wonder what would be my social relationship with them. One of my colleagues told me that there was a rumour going around that I had intimidated students and told them not to register for the semester. That was a total canard as the culture in JNU is not such that teachers instruct students to do their bidding. What is puzzling is that the events in JNU were preceded by what happened in Jamia Millia Islamia where the police entered the campus and wreaked mayhem. The VC [Vice Chancellor] of JMI condemned the police action. As you know, there was widespread condemnation of what happened there and in AMU [Aligarh Muslim University]. Though Jamia is identified as a Muslim university, the entire teaching and student community in Delhi and in many parts of the country came out to condemn the attack on students by the police. So I cannot understand why JNU was targeted by masked goons. This political regime, sadly, is destroying the university. JNU is not like other universities. Here, students have a voice to decide what kind of courses need to be taught. There is a hierarchy as I grade my students, but it is not the kind one sees in other universities. For example, there is no [compulsory] attendance in JNU. One can’t get excellence by using discipline and force.

As a student, I recall my Professor Moonis Raza, who was one of the co-founders of JNU, telling us that if students did not want to attend class, they were free [not] to do so. He said if I was given a good grade in my course, it was a reflection on my ability rather than on the teacher. The onus for making the class interesting was on the teacher. This has been the soul of this university. We don’t come down hard on people. Students can walk into the rooms of teachers any time.

After this VC took over in January 2016, one thing that has happened very successfully is the maligning of this university. This is despite JNU being ranked by the government as one of the best universities in the country. I don’t know the VC personally, but I cannot delink him from the present atmosphere on the campus. We see his policies and the undignified manner in which elected faculty representatives are being treated in academic and executive councils. We don’t know how is it that he was ignorant about all that was happening.

On that particular day, I learned from students that the security personnel were not letting students in without their ID cards. So how was it that the armed people entered the campus if everyone was supposed to show their identity cards? They were not just beating; the intention was not to frighten. It was to cause harm, to cause fatal injuries. I have no other words to describe it. I heard that one of our colleagues, Saugato, was taking photographs at the T-point. They started beating him, and one of them said: “Usko Chhod do [Release him].” They banged on the doors of homes of faculty members in the Transit House. This was absolute terror. The objective was to spread terror among the general students and target some of us. It is strange that the VC has not called to enquire about us till date. We have had instances of Vice Chancellors disagreeing with us; some have even sat on dharnas with us. But this particular VC doesn’t think of the university as his own; he doesn’t even want to see our faces!

As told to T.K. Rajalakshmi.

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