Witch-hunt & protest

Print edition : May 27, 2016

JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar (extreme right) and other students take out a torchlight rally on the campus in New Delhi on April 27. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The hunger strike in JNU over the action taken against students in connection with the February 9 events marks the third month of the protests and there is no truce in sight.

THE unrest in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) entered its third month in May with the university administration continuing to systematically target individuals and showing no sign of reconciliation.

A five-member high-level enquiry committee (HLEC) set up to probe the events of February 9, when anti-national slogans were allegedly raised, submitted its report to the Vice Chancellor in March. On the basis of the inquiry, JNU came down heavily on the students and recommended rustication of three of them: Umar Khalid for one semester, Kashmiri student Mujeeb Gattoo for two semesters and Anirban Bhattacharya until July 15. Anirban Bhattacharya’s academic year ends on July 21, when he is to submit his PhD thesis, and it would seem like the administration was giving him a small window to submit the thesis. He said that as he had been barred from the campus, he would not get a chance to defend the thesis in the viva voce or complete other formalities. Kanhaiya Kumar, and Saurabh Sharma of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) were fined Rs.10,000 each. Fourteen students were fined between Rs.10,000 and Rs.20,000. Two students, Ashutosh Kumar and Komal Mohite, were denied hostel facility for a year and until July 21 respectively, and two ex-students, Banojyotsna and Dhrupadi, were barred from the university campus.

The university general body meeting had earlier rejected the HLEC as it did not have representation from the marginalised sections of society to which most of the students under scrutiny belonged. Calling the report revengeful and draconian, the students rejected it totally and demanded a rollback of all punishments, including the fines. “There is no logic in the differential punishments. The constitution of the HLEC was biased just as in Hyderabad [Central University]. The entire thing was a farce and we were not asked to present our sides at all,” said Anirban Bhattacharya. The students rejected the report and burnt a copy of it at the administrative block, which has come to be known as “Freedom Square”, and began a hunger strike which they say will continue until all the punishments are revoked.

Stating that the punishments were not “severe enough” and that some students had been let off “lightly”, students belonging to the ABVP commenced their hunger strike a night earlier.

Responding to the recommendations, the affected students and their supporters enumerated complaints made in the past against ABVP students and the inaction against them to date. “In 2007, on the day of the presidential debate before university elections, the ABVP engaged in physical violence. During the 2012 elections in November, they pointed to girl students and raised slogans such as ‘ Gujarat ke rapists ko ek mauka aur do’. Once, on Eid, they poured alcohol inside Narmada hostel. Then, in front of Chandrabhaga, they beat up a Muslim student of the Students’ Federation of India so badly that his hand broke. There were complaints made in the Proctor’s office against each of these cases, but till today no action has been taken against any of them,” said a student.

Many observers felt that by releasing the HLEC report just before the vacations, the JNU administration was trying to weaken the movement. But Umar Khalid responded by saying that people who struggled did not take vacations. Students and teachers continued to visit the administrative block even as examinations were on.

On the night of April 27, following a mashaal juloos (torchlight rally), 19 students began an indefinite as well as relay hunger strike. On the sixth day in a one-day solidarity strike, more than 120 teachers from JNU and Delhi University and 180 students took part. Programmes continued to be held at “Freedom Square”, and a large number of activists, artists, alumni and intellectuals joined the hunger strike. Students and activists in Bihar and Kolkata (Jadavpur University) expressed solidarity through hunger strikes and torchlight rallies. In Ara Jail in Bihar’s Bhojpur district, 20 prisoners also expressed solidarity with the students’ struggle. On May Day, mess and sanitation workers in JNU marched to “Freedom Square”. Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba’s wife, Vasantha Kumari, spoke at the venue and the reggae band Delhi Sultanate (Base Foundation Roots) performed there. Contractual employees in Mumbai collected money towards the fine that JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar had to pay.

Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar responded by calling the hunger strike “an unlawful activity and a harmful method of protest that adversely affects” students and asked them to resort to “constitutional means to put forth their demands, if any”. He urged the students to call off the strike and come for dialogue. He even had separate meetings with the students’ unions. Following the meeting, the ABVP called off its fast on the grounds that the Vice Chancellor had promised to reconsider the punishment to Saurabh Sharma. But the Left-affiliated groups were disappointed and decided to continue with the strike until all the punishments were withdrawn.

In the midst of all this, a 200-page report or “dossier” titled “Jawaharlal Nehru University: The Den of Secessionism and Terrorism” submitted by 11 teachers to the JNU administration last year came to light. It painted JNU as a den of an organised sex racket and suggested depoliticisation of the campus. It also accused JNU teachers of engaging in nefarious and anti-national activities. It racially profiled Muslim and Dalit students and students from the north-eastern region and Kashmir and took umbrage at the idea of a discussion over a free Kashmir and cultural practices of students from the north-eastern region, among other things.

It said: “Almost 300 Kashmiri and North-East separatist activists are staying illegally in the hostels of JNU. They are the main force behind organising anti-India activities, protest demonstrations, talks and lectures by separatist leaders in the JNU campus. Beef eating festival, Mahishaswar Diwas, and Hate Hindu campaigns are the regular feature in hostel activities and various seminars/ lectures organised by known anti-Hindu and anti-national elements.” In response to what the students from the north-eastern region called “ludicrous insinuations”, hundreds of students gathered at “Freedom Square” and burnt a copy of the dossier.

Meanwhile, a fresh set of notices from the Proctor’s office were sent to Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya for “participating” in the screening of a film, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, last year. The organisers of the screening had been hauled up for it at that time and the matter was thought to be closed, so it was a surprise when these two students were singled out for being present at the screening where hundreds of other students were also present. “It underlines the witch-hunt that we have been talking about. I guess now we should wait for more notices to be sent to us for participating in other events,” said Umar Khalid.

A protest screening of the film was held amidst the hunger strike and the ABVP attempted to disrupt it by playing aloud patriotic and religious songs from Hindi films. The disruption of the screening of this film in both JNU and University of Hyderabad (UoH) in August last year sparked a chain of events that disturbed the state of equilibrium in both institutions.

Nakul Singh Sawhney, who made the film, was unable to come to terms with this offensive following the screening of the film. He could not understand how the screening of the film by students could be unpalatable when the government itself had screened it at the Mumbai International Film Festival in February. “If screening the film is wrong, then [Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra] Phadnavis [who inaugurated the festival and [Arun] Jaitley [whose Information and Broadcasting Ministry organised it] should be sent notices first,” Sawhney said.

Meanwhile, Kanhaiya Kumar, even while on hunger strike, visited various parts of the country and met students, workers, farmers, activists and politicians with the purpose of concretising a counter-fascist force. What the exact shape or the platform of such solidarity might be was not clear yet, but he was confident that it would solidify into an effective political force soon. Would it be a political party? “We are not looking for an alternative in politics. We are looking for an alternative politics,” he said and added that passing the Rohith Act was a priority.

Meanwhile, the ABVP students on hunger strike, who were far fewer in number compared with the other students, brought in outsiders led by Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) president Satindar Awana to raise slogans against the hunger strikers on the opposite side. Even as the health of several students sitting on hunger strike deteriorated, Kanhaiya Kumar was admitted to the JNU health centre on the eighth day of the strike following a bout of vomiting and a sharp fall in his blood pressure and blood sugar levels. However, the students are clear about one thing: they will not budge until the punishments are revoked totally.