by Kunal Chattopadhyay
Seldom has an incident in an Indian University received so much international coverage and solidarity as the ongoing confrontation in Jawaharlal Nehru University. 450 scholars, among who were names like Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, as well as JNU alumni, signed a statement. 358 academics from Universities across California issued a letter in which they condemned the harassment of students for their political beliefs. The letter called the police crackdown on the students an “alibi for the incursion of an authoritarian regime onto the university campus”. Oxford University and the University of Chicago among others have sent in their support. Within India, solidarity actions developed in Delhi, Chennai, and various academic institutions, including notably Jadavpur University in Kolkata. And there have also been massive, unrelenting state and rightwing attacks, including physical violence.
Kashmir and Afzal Guru:
The incident that seemed to spark off the conflicts was a programme called by a students’ organisation to observe the day of hanging of Afzal Guru. After a terrorist attack on India’s parliament, there was a great hue and cry, and a need was felt that “someone” must be punished sternly. As a Muslim and a Kashmiri, Guru fit the bill. He was tortured and a confession extracted from him under duress. Though at higher courts the dubious nature of his confession was recognised, the Supreme Court of India upheld the death penalty. As lawyer Nandita Haksar, author Arundhati Roy, and even some jurists observed, the case against Guru was flimsy. So not only Kashmiris who have been facing state violence for years, but many people in other parts of India have repeatedly held up Guru’s hanging as precisely what is not to be done.
However, for the first time in independent India, the BJP, a fascistic party won a clear majority in the elections of 2014. It has high on its agenda the conquest of the institutions of higher education, notably everything to do with humanities and social sciences. So JNU has actually been under attack for quite some time, along with takeovers of major educational funding and regulatory bodies. Attacks on Muslims, on Dalits and a violent nationalism based on hatred towards Pakistan and the glorification of state terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere have been intensifying. Thus, a meeting to remind people that the hanging of a Kashmiri Muslim named Afzal Guru in a University like JNU brought together all the issues that the rulers wanted.
As the programme proceeded, a video was made, and subsequently doctored. The president of the JNU Students Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, was accused of raising the slogan Pakistan Zindabad (‘long live Pakistan’). Within days, Kumar was accused of sedition, under article 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code.
The sedition law is a colonial legacy which the elite of independent India have chosen to continue almost word for word, as one famous accused named M. K. Gandhi remarked:
“Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”
In recent years, the charge has been invoked, for example, against over 8000 people for having opposed the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Any claim that India is really a democratic republic has to question why this law should at all remain in the statutes books.
The Ripple Effect:
JNU matters, because in a country where caste-ism is rampant, JNU has for long been one university where student recruitment has taken class, caste, and other negative entitlements seriously into account. That is why a first generation learner like Kanhaiya Kumar could become Union President, and other first generation learners could do their PhDs. JNU matters because in a country where cramming is the ideal of education, JNU has long had the reputation of being one University that takes pride in making students think. As my student Tithi Bhattacharya, who went on to do her Masters in JNU, wrote in a recent Facebook post:
“I came to JNU and discovered to my utter astonishment, none of these rules applied.
We were asked to read everything from Marx to Chris Bayly. We had to take clear positions in class as to why we backed one and not the other. Our professors ordered tea and snacks for us during long seminars, we smoked in class, and debated everyone.”
JNU has had a wide range of scholars, teachers and students. Leftists include supporters of CPI, CPI(M), CPI(ML), periodically Trotskyists, Maoists, and others. Among teachers, there have been an even wider range of leftists, from Bipan Chandra, via Rakesh Batabyal and Tanika Sarkar, to give three random examples. It is not what the political stance of the teacher was that mattered, but the way in which they were able to generate independent thinking among the students.
It is worth noting that the NAAC, a government created assessment body, rated JNU India’s best University. It is also worth noting that another University, Jadavpur University in Kolkata, also in the top 5, saw masses of students coming out in support of JNU students.
Violence and Resistance:
Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested. When he was put up in court, a bunch of so-called nationalist lawyers attacked him and beat him up, while Delhi police looked on silently. Bassi, the Commissioner of Police, said nothing significant had happened.
In a television channel named Times Now, Arnab Goswami, who invites his leftist targets for so-called discussions then shouts at them and shuts them down, showed a doctored video, aided by a BJP man. He also shouted at student activists and called them anti-nationals, precisely following the RSS-BJP script. When, several days later, another channel, NDTV, had a journalist showing how the media is manufacturing stories, the journalist was abused no ends by ‘nationalist’ trolls on social media. And in several cases, women protesters have been threatened with rape, including sister of Umar Khalid, one of the JNU students who had organised the original programme. Rape has been a standard part of the Hindutva-fascist politics. A Jadavpur University student was threatened with rape through Facebook. The sentiment that radical students are hostile to military ‘sacrifice’ is being whipped up among soldiers.
All over India, students, teachers, general public have been resisting. In JNU, a daily public lecture is being organised on nationalism, delivered by eminent scholars and intellectuals. In Jadavpur, the Teachers’ Association organised a barricade when ABVP vandals tried to come in to attack students, and a public meeting later (where I was among the speakers). Attacks and resistance both continue as India battles for the future.
Featured image © Sanjeev Verma