Interview: Shehla Rashid

‘They are using JNU to polarise people’

Print edition : January 31, 2020

JNU students’ union vice president Shehla Rashid (right) with union president Kanhaiya Kumar at the university campus in New Delhi on March 7, 2016. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Interview with Shehla Rashid, a JNU alumna.

SHEHLA RASHID, AN ALUMNA OF Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who rose from being a vocal student activist to a leader of the Shah Faesal-led Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM), explains to Frontline why she feels the university is a handy target for the Central government. Excerpts from the interview:

Why is there such an obsession in a section of the Union government and the media with putting JNU under scrutiny time and again?

They are using JNU as a ploy to delegitimise people’s movements. JNU does not identify itself with the ideals of political parties as much as it identifies itself with people’s movements. Be it the anti-dam protests of the Narmada Bachao Andolan or protests against the Kashmir situation or the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, JNU students have lent their support to these movements and contributed to fact-finding reports.

In contrast to the national media’s tendency to focus on a handful of cities, we have gone to the hinterland to give voice to the most marginalised communities. The Bhagana anti-rape protests are a case in point. It was in a way more radical than the Nirbhaya protests of 2012 since the families of the gang-rape survivors were themselves protesting. But the national media did not give them adequate coverage because the protesters were landless Dalits. JNU students were there day in and day out; we camped with them at Jantar Mantar. So the whole idea behind orchestrating attacks on the university is to delegitimise people’s movement.

The narrative being built on social media platforms by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) sympathisers is that the proponents of one ideological leaning do not give fair operating space to people with differing viewpoints. Your comments.

The perception of JNU as an exclusively communist territory is flawed and motivated. JNU is a progressive space where you have complete freedom of expression, and that is manifest in the emergence of all sorts of political formations there, from the Far Left to the Far Right, from free thinkers to LGBT and Dalit groups. There are around 27 Left factions in JNU and they all disagree with one another. After Singur [protests against the Tata Nano project in West Bengal in 2008], the Students Federation of India [SFI] could not win elections in JNU for the next 10 years. The Left protested against the Left. Karl Marx is not criticised so brutally anywhere else in the country as he is in JNU. If you have to learn criticism of Karl Marx, you have to come to JNU. There is a new political formation that has come up in JNU over the years. It is called BAPSA, a conglomeration of Dalit-Bahujan groups. They are a bitter critic of the Left but no one has ever bothered them. How are they operating freely?

It is evident that the ABVP is trying to widen its influence and emphasise its ideology within JNU. How has this impacted or is beginning to impact the identity and ethos of the university?

If we look at the voting trends in university elections over the years, the ABVP has not been a marginal force ever—it has been polling between 600 and 1,000 votes. But what is new is that it now has protection to engage in vandalism and throttle opposing viewpoint. JNU always had a culture of organising political discussions and protests. But this had been done democratically. If I don’t like what you are saying, I would probably hold a public meeting right outside your public meeting, or I would probably go to your public meeting and ask questions or raise a placard to voice my disagreement. We had never imagined politics in this way [the ABVP way] where you are in disagreement with someone else and you manhandle that person.

One may argue that the politics of JNU might isolate you from the realpolitik of the outside world, which is muscular and money-based. But it is not fair to dismiss our politics as a utopian model. It is a model for the future. It is a vision for how we imagine politics to be in this country one day—based on consensual protection of diverse opinion.

You said the ABVP in JNU now “enjoys protection to engage in vandalism”. What could be the objective of interest groups in according impunity to the ABVP?

The agenda is to establish ideological domination over JNU. It is the only place that is defeating the right wing ideologically. The right wing by definition is against minorities, against women, against the rights of the marginalised groups. But that does not find any resonance in JNU. So they want to establish their domination by other means. Their motive is that if we can’t defeat them ideologically or in elections, we will beat them, so that students are scared, so that they stop participating in Left rallies and then the ABVP gets a walkover.

They are bringing a feudal, muscular politics into the university where intimidation would decide the fate of elections. They want to undo decades of efforts that had been behind the peaceful, democratic and productive environment in JNU where there is space and freedom for all. They [ABVP] want JNU to be a vote manufacturing body for their parent political party.

Has the ABVP been successful in gaining support from non-aligned groups within JNU?

It is true that there are not too many activists in JNU; most of them are quiet observers who are seemingly agonistic. But I think fence-sitters have gravitated towards the Left over the years. The university has a tendency to come together at times of crisis. When, for example, elections were stopped following [for four years for non-compliance with] the Lyngdoh Committee proposals [in 2005], the political mobilisation on the campus was huge. When [JNU students union president] Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested [in 2016] or when there is an attack on the campus, that is when you know where the fence-sitters are. There is an outpouring of solidarity from them.

The university Vice Chancellor, M. Jagdesh Kumar, has been in the thick of controversy. Some see him as a polarising figure, many are demanding his resignation. Your comments.

I wouldn’t say the Vice Chancellor is a polarising figure because the ABVP hates him equally. The ABVP has also been protesting against the fee hike and he refuses to meet them as well. The former V.C., Prof. Sudhir Kumar Sopory, was a man of honour and a genuine intellectual. Whenever students protested on various issues, he would come and sit with them. That is the sign of an intellectual.

The current Vice Chancellor is a perfect rubber stamp of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]. If someone is made the head of a professional body, he/she should be true to that position. The Vice Chancellor should raise the concerns of the academia. I can understand that when someone is appointed by a certain regime, someone has to toe that regime’s line to a certain extent. But at some point one’s conscience has to kick in. But where is the conscience of this man?

In the context of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the attacks on universities, did the government underestimate the students’ power of mobilisation and their capacity to offer resistance?

I believe that the government is deliberately doing all of this in Delhi and across India because the Delhi Assembly elections are round the corner and the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party is on a strong footing. The agenda is to polarise the environment to an extent that elections are not about development anymore because that’s not their forte. What really is their forte is capitalising on Hindu-Muslim polarisation.

They wanted to create polarisation by attacking Jamia Millia Islamia. They thought that since Jamia is perceived to be a Muslim university there wouldn’t be enough fight back. But they underestimated the power of the Jamia alumni network; the Jamia students won that round. So they have now come back to their old gamble: of using JNU as a pitch for elections.

They are using JNU to polarise people on nationalist and anti-nationalist lines. It is accurately timed for the elections.