Cover Story

In defence of JNU

Print edition : March 18, 2016

A protest demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU president, in New Delhi on February 18. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/REUTERS

Students agitating for the release of the JNUSU president, Kanhaiya Kumar, on the JNU campus in New Delhi on February 18. Photo: Kamal Kishore/PTI

Kanhaiya Kumar being escorted escorted by the police outside the Patiala House courts in New Delhi on February 1. Photo: REUTERS

BJP MLA O.P. Sharma thrashing a JNU student who was protesting against the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar outside the Patiala House courts on February 15. Photo: PTI

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

HRD Minister Smriti Irani speaking in the Rajya Sabha on February 26. Photo: PTI

The crackdown on Jawaharlal Nehru University and the aggressive campaign with focus on its “anti-national character” is part of a Sangh Parivar plan to capture university spaces in order to take forward the ideology of Hindu nationalism.

Again I’ve returned to this country

where a minaret has been entombed.

Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps

in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps

to read messages scratched on planets.

His fingerprints cancel bank stamps,

in that archive for letters with doomed

addresses, each house buried or empty.

Empty? Because so many fled, ran away,

and became refugees there, in the plains,

where they must now will a final dewfall

to turn the mountains to glass. They’ll see

us through them—see us frantically bury

houses to save them from fire that, like a wall

caves in.



“We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,”

one card lying on the street says, “I want

to be he who pours blood. To soak your hands.

Or I’ll leave mine in the cold till the rain

is ink, and my fingers, at the edge of pain,

are seals all night to cancel the stamps.”

The mad guide! The lost speak like this. They haunt

a country when it is ash. Phantom heart,

pray he’s alive. I have returned in rain

to find him, to learn why he never wrote.



—Agha Shahid Ali, 1997.



These memorable lines about the pathetic situation in Jammu and Kashmir, a State torn apart by decades of conflict, evoke the feelings of separation, lost love, homelessness, and lost addresses. The helplessness of a postman in Kashmir in trying to deliver a postcard to an address that is buried in debris or a home that is abandoned mirrors the lost connection between the state and its people. Almost two decades after the poem appeared, a cultural event, incidentally named “The country without a post office”, held on February 9 in one of India’s finest universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), reinforced this lost connection. A group of students organised the cultural evening to voice the concerns of the Kashmiri people and commemorate Afzal Guru, who was hanged to death in 2013 in the Parliament building attack case. The students sought to highlight the stories of the Kashmiri people, living constantly under military vigilance, through plays and songs. The event was critical of the state’s “high-handedness”, which is a common feature of similar events organised in the Left-dominated campus. The organisers felt the hanging of Afzal Guru was based on fabricated evidence and questioned the judiciary’s decision; in fact, many prominent lawyers, politicians, writers and scholars have done so before. The students raised slogans demanding freedom—freedom from patriarchy, hunger, casteism, feudalism, and state repression. Again, such slogans are raised whenever there is an atrocity against the marginalised. But what was acceptable in the normal course went against the students: the Central government branded them as “anti-nationals” and the Delhi Police slapped sedition charges on six JNU students.

Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, along with JNU Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar, have been arrested for raising “anti-national” slogans. Three other students, Ashutosh Kumar, Anant Prakash Narayan, and JNUSU general secretary Rama Naga, facing similar charges, are living under constant threat of public lynching despite the fact they have promised to cooperate with the police investigation. The students and JNU, which has also been branded as anti-national, have received unprecedented support from the academic community, writers, artists, and people from all walks of life from all over the world. The general opinion is that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has misused its powers to victimise young, inquiring minds on a university campus.

Scholars have viewed the crackdown on JNU as part of a series of recent attacks on universities. In the past few months, the Centre has intervened directly in the internal matters of public universities, undermining their autonomy to a great extent. Most of these interventions have been prompted by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological progenitor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For instance, on the ABVP’s request, Union Minister of Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya wrote to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to act against students who, according to him, indulged in “anti-national” activities at the University of Hyderabad, also called Hyderabad Central University (HCU). This letter prompted at least four high-level bureaucrats of the MHRD to pursue a minor scuffle between students on the HCU campus. This resulted in a series of punitive actions against some students and eventually led to the suicide of a Dalit research scholar, Rohith Vemula, in HCU in January ( Frontline, February 19).

In the case of JNU, too, the first information report (FIR) on the alleged anti-national activities was filed by the BJP Member of Parliament from East Delhi, Mahesh Giri. Several universities, including Allahabad University and Gauhati University, have reported cases of punitive action by the administration ever since the NDA came to power in May 2014. All such attacks on a section of the student community have a pattern in which a BJP leader would prompt the HRD Minister to take action. In most of these cases, the Ministry was misinformed by the ABVP, which incidentally fights for the same political space as other dissenting groups on campuses. In all such attacks, the dissenting groups were targeted for being “anti-national”.

The MHRD’s actions have been interpreted as sectarian, pandering to the Hindutva voices on campuses. Academics feel that the crackdown on universities amounts to hounding all dissenting voices, especially communists, Ambedkarites and other liberals, who have been critical of the government’s policies.

Abha Dev Habib, a faculty member at Miranda House Women’s College, Delhi University, and a member of the Delhi Teachers’ Front, said: “That such attacks are mounted in the name of nationalism and patriotism is equally worrisome. Attack on all democratic spaces and criminalising dissent is a way to set aside the government’s failures to improve the standards for education. The government has been slashing funds in education. We have been critical of the government’s intentions to privatise and saffronise education. We have spoken against hundreds of problematic appointments in university administration. As a result, from the Film and Television Institute of India [FTII] to JNU, the academic community has been raising its voice against the government.” The economist Prabhat Patnaik said: “We must understand that the government’s attack on free speech and dissent is the beginning of an insurrection against the Indian Constitution.” Academics believe that the attacks on university spaces and campus politics are the direct result of the Sangh Parivar’s ideas of education. It conceptualises universities and schools as pliant spaces to take forward the ideology of Hindu nationalism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindutva associates have many a time stated that students are meant to study peacefully and remain within the confines of their classrooms.

Aryama, a New-Delhi based political scientist, said: “This primitive idea inherently positions itself in opposition to educational values in liberal democracies. In most democracies, universities are thought of as vibrant, organic spaces which can generate ideas. Ideas can then be contested, argued and measured. Students experiment with politics and issues that they think are important. Naturally, they become critical spaces. Universities are not meant to be an extension of the ideology espoused by the government of the day. Nehruvian socialism under which our universities evolved grants us this space. They are the last few spaces where values like idealism are cultivated, where students take up concerns of the vast population of poor who live without any tangible governance. Yes, they have sometimes been the centre of anti-establishment politics. The unfolding of political debate around JNU, however, clearly states that the government perceives all anti-establishment politics as anti-India.” As many as 40 universities across the world and scholars, including the renowned political critic Noam Chomsky, the feminist theorist Judith Butler, and the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have extended their support to the JNU students’ movement.

Many academics believe that at the root of the attack on universities are two contesting ideas of nationalism—one pushed by the Sangh Parivar and the other espoused by the academic community comprising teachers and students who believe in education as effecting positive changes in society. “The fight is between the neoliberal variant of nationalism and the socialist or, let us say, welfarist ideas of nationalism. The NDA government clearly views higher education as a platform that can push the Sangh Parivar’s agenda of Hindu nationalism and at the same time assist the big corporates who come to the developing world looking for cheap uncritical labour. The attacks on universities should be viewed in this context,” Aryama said.

The chronology of events

It is important to understand the chronology of events that unfolded at JNU in February, which led to it being branded as “anti-national”. A group of 10 students, who were formerly with the Democratic Students Union (DSU), a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist group, considered to be Far-Left, on the campus, organised the cultural event, “The country without a post office”, so that sympathisers and supporters of this group could voice and listen to the stories of Kashmiri students in Delhi.

The DSU has been critical of state excesses in Adivasi lands and has been campaigning against state programmes like Operation Green Hunt and laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The DSU professes the Leninist doctrine of “right to self-determination” and supports separatist movements in Kashmir and north-eastern India in democratic platforms. However, it has no direct links with either the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) or other militant groups in Kashmir and north-eastern India. It has no history of inciting or unleashing any form of violence on the campus or outside.

Scholars and writers having similar ideologies have often participated in the DSU’s programmes. Since JNU’s academic and political environment has always encouraged critical thought, of which teachers, students and the administrative staff have been an integral part, political activism of different hues, from extreme Right to extreme Left, is practised. The DSU fits in the university space in this context. A few months ago, the 10 students who organised the event resigned from the DSU as they felt that it was theoretically ill-equipped to address gender discrimination.

The cultural evening was a curtain-raiser for a new campus political group the 10 students were planning to launch. The event was conceived as a protest with the participation of poets, artists, singers, writers, students, intellectuals and cultural activists, and was “in solidarity with the valiant people of Kashmir”, who were fighting military excesses.

In accordance with the usual practice in JNU, the poster of the event had the names of the 10 students as organisers. Hundreds of such dissenting posters and pamphlets are drawn and distributed in JNU every month. However, the programme was denied permission minutes before it was to start. By that time, a crowd, which included people from outside, had gathered to attend the event. So the students went ahead with the programme in protest against the university administration, which had granted permission to hold the event. In the meantime, in a pre-planned manner, a group of ABVP students gathered around the venue with a team of Zee News journalists and started raising slogans against the “anti-nationals” on the campus. This led to counter-sloganeering by the supporters of the event. While the ABVP members were raising their usual slogans against members of the Left group, whom they consider “anti-nationals”, the supporters of the event shouted slogans against communalism.

In the midst of this televised ABVP attack on a usual event on the campus, other leftist groups joined the sloganeering against the ABVP. This led to a situation where the ABVP and all leftist groups competed in shouting slogans. The leftists, who included Kanhaiya Kumar, Ashutosh Kumar Yadav, Rama Naga, Anant Prakash Narayan, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, voiced slogans against the Sangh Parivar’s communal agenda, and its alleged espousal of feudalism, casteism and patriarchy. The ABVP raised slogans like “Vande Mataram”, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Bharat ke Gaddaron ko Ek Dhakka Aur Do”.

Some outsiders, with their faces covered, joined the slogan-shouting in support of the leftist students. Some of them raised the controversial slogans that are usually uttered by separatists in the Kashmir Valley. They said: “Bharat tere tukde honge, Insha Allah, Insha Allah and Jung Chalegi, Bharat ki Barbaadi Tak.” At this juncture, the organisers claim that they asked the outsiders to stop the slogans and they heeded the request. That the organisers stopped some people with faces covered is also evident in the Zee News video. After this, all the groups protesting against the disruption of the event took out a protest march during which ABVP students clashed with JNUSU leaders. The clash did not last more than a minute and the march continued towards the north gate of the university.

The entire event was filmed by the Zee News team and was later aired with great sensationalism and the accusation that JNU had become the hub of anti-national activities. Mahesh Giri, with the assistance of ABVP activists, filed an FIR at the nearby Vasant Kunj police station. All the Left leaders of the campus were attacked by news anchors on various television channels for harbouring “anti-nationals” and encouraging anti-national activities. The televised event became the talking point on social media, mobile messengers, and on other Internet platforms in a pre-planned, organised way, and was blown out of proportion.

The police claim that they were asked by the Home Ministry to take prompt action. In a detailed report prepared by the Delhi Police and submitted to the Home Ministry, it was stated that the area officer of the Special Branch noticed the event’s poster on the morning of February 9, was alarmed and rang up all concerned, including the local police and the control room of the Special Branch. It was presumed that the programme would create unrest on the campus, and security was apprehended on some possible repercussions. It was also feared that the DSU and other Left-supported organisations would conspire against the state in the garb of a cultural evening. Such alarmist conclusions by the police based on flimsy grounds polarised the political debate further. The debate was not taken forward on the shrinking spaces for dissent, free speech and the university’s autonomy but on the outdoor political lines of nationalism versus sedition. There was no middle ground.

Such high-pitched debate in the media made students and faculty fear a crackdown on JNU. Delhi Police Commissioner B.S. Bassi’s special interest in the case made the academic community suspicious. A climate of hatred was created against JNU on February 10 and 11. An aggressive posturing on the question of nationalism and the fear of mob violence on the campus made many Left and Ambedkarite leaders go into hiding for a few days. Kanhaiya Kumar, on the assurance of some professors, decided to campaign against the ABVP’s malicious campaign on the campus. But by then, JNU, which has been judged by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) as the finest university in India, and the only university to practise student politics free of money and muscle power, had already become an “anti-national” hub in the eyes of the media and the Sangh Parivar.

On the morning of February 12, the Delhi Police entered the campus with the recently appointed Vice-Chancellor, V. Jagadeesh Kumar, to arrest the six students. Kanhaiya was arrested from the campus. Along with him, five other students were charged with sedition. ABVP activists, emboldened by the government’s action, publicly threatened Marxist students. “One ABVP activist came up to me to say that Marxists should be publicly hanged,” a Students Federation of India (SFI) activist told Frontline. In the following days, an atmosphere of fear prevailed on the campus. Morphed videos, images, and smear campaigns against JNU students were circulated by the Sangh Parivar on social media and mobile messengers. BJP leaders, such as Sambit Patra, have shown doctored videos on national television to prove the “anti-national” character of JNU.

Meanwhile, the JNU administration constituted an undemocratic internal inquiry committee to probe the alleged anti-national activities of the students. In its report, the committee concluded that eight students indulged in raising unconstitutional slogans. However, Ayesha Kidwai, a faculty member, told Frontline: “The inquiry committee is itself unconstitutional. In the JNU code, it is mandatory to have at least one representative of each school in the inquiry committee. The Vice-Chancellor appointed representatives of only science schools in the committee.” The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) has been able to pressure the Vice-Chancellor to reconstitute the committee and give a new report.

The unequivocal support of the JNUTA, scholars across the world, and many political parties from different ideologies have emboldened the students to demand and fight for their right to dissent. The overwhelming support in favour of the JNU students gave the accused students the confidence to come out and participate in the struggle against the crackdown. Former students of JNU, who are now in various professions, have also supported the struggle.

Mob violence

Amidst this brutal crackdown on JNU, the Sangh Parivar machinery launched a sustained aggressive campaign against all those who supported or marched with JNU students, painting them with the brush of anti-nationalism. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh suggested that one of the accused students, Umar Khalid, may have links with the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, but denied elaborating on the evidence. Some news channels declared Khalid a terrorist associated with the Jaish-e-Mohammad. All such reports were based on unnamed Intelligence Bureau sources.

Amidst a high-pitched binary debate on nationalism versus anti-nationalism, with JNU at the centre, Hindutva activists are running amok on the streets. A group of journalists, JNU students, and faculty members were attacked twice at the Patiala House courts in Delhi. On February 17, they assaulted Kanhaiya when he was brought to the court for the bail hearing. The same day, this group of lawyers also attacked a group of the Supreme Court-constituted team of eminent lawyers, including Kapil Sibal, Rajeev Dhawan and Dushyant Dave, who had come to probe the court violence. The immunity and confidence that the Hindutva mob enjoys under this government was evident when the mob beating up journalists and students did not care about being filmed. One of these correspondents witnessed the police standing by as the mob went about assaulting everyone who had come to hear or cover Kanhaiya’s bail plea.

Om Sharma, a BJP member of the Delhi Assembly, was caught on television beating up a political activist outside the court. Two lawyers, Vikram Chauhan and Yashpal Tyagi, who were leading the mob, got bail within minutes for an offence as serious as mob violence at the court. In many places across the country, ABVP activists have been assaulting people who are campaigning against Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest. Addressing a gathering, Delhi University Students Union president Satender Awana of the ABVP issued open threats to JNU students. “If these people are not punished, then we as jagruk yuvak [awakened youth] will enter their campus and shoot the traitors,” he said at the meeting. Protesters at Allahabad University, Patna University, Banaras Hindu University and other universities have been brutally assaulted by ABVP activists. The family of the six students charged with sedition have been threatened with death and rape. The Congress leader, Anand Sharma, was assaulted by ABVP students inside the JNU campus.

“Fascism is marching on Rajpath,” said Communist Party of India leader D. Raja, from the steps of the administration block, which has remained the centre stage of the struggle. Raja’s daughter Aparajita Raja was also named by the ABVP as one of the leaders who raised “anti-national” slogans. However, her name does not figure in the list of students made public by the police. The controversy has united the opposition in condemning the government’s action against JNU. The opposition political parties either believe that the government has overreacted or say that the JNU has been drawn into a controversy for political gains at a time when the government has been cornered on policy failures and electoral failures in Bihar and Delhi.

The failure of the government and the police to control mob violence suggests that the polarisation in the name of nationalism has benefited the political prospects of the NDA. In fact, the government intensified the nationalism debate in the course of the JNU controversy. For instance, at a meeting with the Vice-Chancellors of Central universities to discuss caste discrimination on campuses, HRD Minister Smriti Irani gave an order that all universities should hoist the national flag “prominently and proudly” on a 207-foot tall pole to instil the feeling of patriotism on university campuses.

As Kanhaiya, Umar, and Anirban face interrogation in police custody, it is important to remember the speech that Kanhaiya Kumar gave to mark his protest against the ABVP’s hooliganism on February 11. He said: “We don’t need the certificate of patriotism from the RSS. We don’t need a nationalist certificate from the RSS. We belong to this country. We love this country. We fight for the 80 per cent of the poor population of this country. For us, this is nation worship. Yes, we demand freedom, freedom from hunger and poverty for so many poor people. We have full faith in Babasaheb ]Ambedkar]. We have full faith in the Constitution of India. We want to say this very forcefully that if anyone tries to challenge the Constitution, be it the Sanghis, we will not tolerate. We have faith in the Constitution. But we don’t have faith in the Constitution that is taught in Jhandewalan [RSS headquarters in Delhi] and Nagpur. We don’t have faith in Manusmriti, we don’t have faith in the caste system in this country. The Constitution and Babasaheb Ambedkar talk about corrective measures. The same Babasaheb Ambedkar talks about abolishing capital punishment. The same Babasaheb Ambedkar talks about freedom of expression. And we want to uphold the Constitution, we want to uphold our right.” Kanhaiya’s speech was doctored and shown on television channels to prove his anti-nationalism.

As India debates the sustained attack on civil liberties and free speech and the NDA government leaves no stone unturned to criminalise all forms of dissent, Kanhaiya’s speech raises important questions: Who is an anti-national? Can only those who advance the ideas of aggressive-expansionist militarism be called nationalists? Can only those who try to forcefully homogenise a diverse country such as India on communal lines be called nationalists?

As the six students face sedition charges for raising slogans for freedom against feudalism, patriarchy and casteism, the world’s largest democracy must ponder over these questions. For, the students raised their voices on behalf of those who die of hunger and those who live in perpetual fear of oppression and under the tyranny of the powerful in various parts of India. They raised their voice for a united India, an India fostered by universal brotherhood and equal rights, and not hatred and suspicion.

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