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Why India’s Leading University is Under Siege

by

Prakashnju

Indian political culture sits atop a fine edged blade. Pushing down on it is the Extreme Right, whose political wing – the BJP – is currently in power. Intolerance is the order of the day. India’s celebrated Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen recently said, “India is being turned intolerant. We have been too tolerant with the intolerance. This has to end.”

In the marrow of the Extreme Right is a demand for discipline enforced by violence. Anyone who strays from the authority of its world-view – Hindutva – is either anti-national or a terrorist. Political murders of well-regarded intellectuals and activists, such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi, put the nation on alert.

The death of a young student – Rohit Vemula – of the University of Hyderabad sent all kinds of people onto the streets. Rohit had been hit hard by social discrimination, which manifests itself as a political assault on socially oppressed communities. “From shadows to the stars,” wrote this young man who was fascinated by astronomy. It was an indictment of the social disorder. “Mother India lost a son,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I felt the pain.” He had waited five days to react, and reacted only after mass demonstrations of great feeling across the country. Rohit Vemula’s family rejected the Prime Minister’s remorse. They want to know why their son died. The answers lie firmly in the tentacles of the Extreme Right. It is where blame will eventually rest.

When Richa Singh, the new student leader at Allahabad University, invited senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan to campus to talk about free speech, the Extreme Rights’s students’ group (the ABVP) blocked him. They called Varadarajan, who had been the editor of The Hindu, a “Naxalite” (Maoist) and “anti-national.” This is the chosen vocabulary. Singh later said, “There is a surge in intolerance in this country. The ABVP leaders are not willing to listen to anyone who contradicts their ideology.”

For generations, the Extreme Right in India has sought to erase the Left. But the Left in India is not near as strong as it should be to pose a threat to the Right. So what is it about the Left that the Extreme Right fears? It fears that the Left has an alternative narrative of India’s history and of its possible future – it is one that is rooted not in social exclusion and economic inequality, but in the very opposite of that. Whereas the Congress Party is hated by the BJP for its history and for its hold on institutions of power, the BJP does not believe that the Congress has an alternative powerful enough to challenge its own vision. Talking to Extreme Right leaders about the Left is always an experience in paranoia and hatred – venom holds the words together in their sentences.

One of the great citadels of the Left in New Delhi, the nation’s capital, is Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – founded in 1969. From then till now one or another part of the Left has won student elections, and broadly, the struggles of the broad Left have allowed the campus to be democratic and decent. In the first half of the 1970s, the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPIM, fought alongside the workers on the campus to improve their wages and rights, fought to ensure a powerful students’ union, fought to create structures where the students did not toil at the mercy of their professors and fought for decent living conditions for the students. This struggle set the template for the JNU that has existed since then. As SFI leader Prakash Karat wrote at that time, the students “have used every opportunity to challenge the government educational policies, and to defend democratic rights.”

Over the years, the same issues have re-emerged – treatment of staff and rights of students. The Left – now much more fractious – has continued to dominate the elections, keeping out the forces of the Extreme Right. Punctually, the Extreme Right – and the national media, which is based in Delhi – attack the students for being pampered and for being political. It has been said – over the decades – that the tax-payer should not have to underwrite the political lives of the students. They are there to study. This argument intensified after India “liberalised” its economy in 1991. Since then, private universities have been formed in and around Delhi, putting pressure on this flagship to reform its curriculum and change its standards. But the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) is strong and unyielding – resisting any attempt by the management to change the character of the culture.

Last week, a group of students held a forum on Afzal Guru, who had been executed by the India state in 2013. At the forum, some people yelled anti-Indian slogans. It is not clear who yelled these slogans. This provided the Extreme Right with an opening. Strangeness was in the air. This government seems to rely on protocols of evidence that mean nothing. A fake twitter account of Hafeez Saeed, a terrorist leader based in Pakistan, was cited by the Home Minister as evidence of collusion from across the border. Plain-clothes security forces entered the campus and arrested the JNUSU president, Kanhaiya Kumar – who is a leader of the Communist Party of India’s student wing. They took him under the colonial era Sedition Law (Section 124-A). During a parliamentary debate in 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – after whom the university is named – said, “Take against Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. Now as far as I am concerned that particular Section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.” It remained. Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on that basis and held for three days.

Students knew intuitively that this was not about the forum. It was an attack on their democratic culture. Large sections of the press merely repeated what the government said, drawing a stark connection between the tragic death of an Indian soldier – Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad – on February 11 and the forum on Afzal Guru, who had been convicted on terrorism charges. It was enough to put these side by side to pillory the students. No one challenged the government, and previous governments, for failure to demilitarise the Siachen Glacier, where Lance Naik Koppad was serving. Since 2003, over two thousand Indian and Pakistani soldiers have died from frostbite and avalances. It is anti-national and indeed anti-human to have soldiers at that altitude.

The JNU Teachers’ Association released a statement asking the administration “to maintain normalcy on our campus by immediately withdrawing the police and releasing all those detained.” It was not to be. A massive rally on campus brought leaders of the various Left parties and the Congress Party to campus. Students came to show solidarity for their president. Nearby a Wake of Extreme Right students chanted slogans of disunity and anger. Defiance was the mood against those chants. The students would then form a human chain as a wall around their campus. Amartya Sen’s slogan – This has to end – seemed to inform their commitment.

Vandals of the Right targeted the office of the CPI-M, painting the words “Pakistan” across the signboard. Threatening phone calls came to the CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury. A cartoon appeared in the world of social media that linked the Communists to the Terrorists, with a tag line that said “Jihadi Naxal University” (Naxal is a reference to the Maoists). The picture showed stereotypical images of “jihadis” and an image of a boy and a girl kissing, with a liquor bottle flying out the car – it condensed all the frustrations of the Extreme Right: against Islam, against Communism, against social freedoms enjoyed by young people.

The images of kissing are telling. Events such as this bring out the worst in the Extreme Right. Its toxic constipation ends. A close ally of a leading BJP politician, Jawahar Yadav said, “For the girls who are protesting in JNU, I have only one thing to say that prostitutes who sell their body are better than them because they at least don’t sell the country.” The Extreme Right likes to call journalists “presstitutes.” One person, on Twitter, sends out a tweet, “All anti-national pigs should be slapped with seduction charge by our PM.” It was a Freudian slip, seduction for sedition. But this is appropriate for the Right. Politics for them is suffused with the language of sex and with the fear of sexual freedom.

On Monday, Kanhaiya was to appear in court for the first time. A WhatsApp message went out amongst a network of lawyers. “Peacefully, we will teach these anti-nationals a lesson as per the law. We will show what it takes to be a patriot.” All the window dressing was there – peacefully, as per the law. But the venom tied these pieties together – teach these anti-nationals a lesson, show what it takes to be a patriot. They arrived for violence. As students and teachers went into the courts, these men – some in lawyers’ garb – beat them and went after the journalists. Some were beaten very badly. One of those who did the beating is a BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly – O. P. Sharma.

“There is no cause for despondency,” wrote Ayesha Kidwai, a professor of Linguistics at JNU. “I know that the orchestrated media campaign against JNU is very distressing. Let me assure you that the world knows this already, and knows why all his is happening.”

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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