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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 22 New Delhi May 21, 2016

Making Sense of the Struggle at JNU: A Call for Action

Monday 23 May 2016

by Vikas Bajpai

The following article was written before the indefinite hunger strike by the JNU students ended following the Court order to keep the authorities’ disciplinary action in abeyance by staying it for now. However, in view of the importance of the points raised by it, it is being belatedly published for the benefit of our readers.

Even as I write these lines, the indefinite hunger strike of the students at JNU has entered its fifteenth day. The students there are demanding the withdrawal of the punishments handed down to them by the university authorities for what the university describes as ‘breach of university rules’, first by deliberately giving misleading information to acquire permission for holding an event on the campus to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of the Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru, and then going ahead with the programme despite the permission for the same being withdrawn. It may be added that the permission was withdrawn by way of an SMS sent barely twenty minutes before the programme was to begin.

By the university’s own admission, the punishments are not on the point of allegedly anti-national acts of the students which, as per the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Jagdesh Kumar, is an issue to be determined by the agencies of the Government of India and the courts.

It may be remembered that the punishments handed over to as many as twentyone students for this ‘breach of university rules’ range between fines of ten to twenty thousand rupees and rustication from the university along with debarment from entering the campus for as many as five years. Even the teachers have been warned against giving shelter to at least two students—Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhatta-charya, both of whom face serious threat to their life from Right-wing Hindu zealots outside the campus.

The struggle at JNU by the students, as also the teachers has now stretched into its fourth month. During these four months there has been little respite from a relentless, motivated, vicious and unsparing assault by the Hindu Right led by the RSS, and the present Modi government supported by it, to virtually decimate JNU. Despite this, if the struggle so demands, the students seem determined to defy death, even though the ongoing hunger strike is not a strike until death.

I’ll come back to the ongoing events at JNU a while later; but let us first reflect on what this entire struggle has been about.

The Support from Far and Near

It has been sometime when a colleague circulated on the JNU teachers google-group a mail from his friend, a Professor at the University of Islamabad, regarding the struggle at JNU. At the peak of the struggle, the Pakistani Professor noted how for the last so many days she had come to be gripped by what was happening at JNU; how the first thing she did in the morning was to reach out for the internet to know of the latest developments at JNU; she followed with bated breath the events regarding the cases of Kanhaiya, Anirban and Umar; how she felt concerned for their safety. The Professor admitted how she had been surprised by her anxieties that had made her feel and react as though these students were her own and that she needed to do everything possible to protect them from the big bad world baying for their blood.

These sentiments filled me with an immensely gratifying sense of fulfilment that is beyond words. I had it conveyed to her through my colleague that she had every right to consider them as her students inasmuch as they were living up to the ideals dear to her; and that we at JNU would like to consider the Pakistani students as our own for similar reasons.

I cannot say if Prime Minister Modi’s much appreciated surprise stop-over at Lahore gene-rated a goodwill for India among the people of Pakistan that could come anywhere near the poignant sentiments expressed by the Pakistani Professor, but certainly, the outcomes thereafter have not been desirable in the least for either country.

The solidarity expressed by the Pakistani Professor was only one among a legion of solidarity messages and the action programmes undertaken in scores of universities and cities across the world by students, teachers, scientists, artists and political activists. Many academics and Nobel Laureates wrote directly to the Prime Minister to counsel the government for upholding the right to freedom of expression and desist from criminalising dissent.

Nearer home the support received was even more emphatic. I do not know how many times has it happened that the people in Kashmir have observed a complete strike either in support of any struggle or in reaction to any other event in the rest of India; or for that matter the Government of India has managed to motivate the Kashmiri masses to rise in support of a cause dear to it, the government’s immense resources and coercive might notwithstanding.

But JNU students need be commended for having broken the ice between the people of Kashmir and the rest of India. In an expression of solidarity, on February 27, 2016 the entire Kashmir Valley remained completely shut down to protest against the arrest of JNU students and the former Delhi University Professor, S.A. R. Geelani, both on sedition charges.

The sole reason for this gesture of the Kashmiri people is the sensetivity with which the JNU students have always viewed the trials and travails and the pain of the people in the Valley. They have not only condemned the excesses committed by the security forces, but a section of them has firmly supported the right to self-determination by the people of different nationalities, including those of Kashmir. It is in this context that the naked terror unleashed by the government on students of JNU elicited such a strong reaction from the people in Kashmir.

Taking such positions undoubtedly runs into conflict with the national chauvinism preached by the ruling classes and contradicts the notions of nationalism this cultivates among the people. To articulate such positions in the kind of socio-political milieu that obtains in the country today is indeed a matter of great courage.

The JNU students have not just had the courage to raise their voice for the people traumatised by the Indian state, but if the people’s participation in the number of rallies taken out in the country’s Capital and prog-rammes held by students, youth, academics, political and civil society activists in different parts of the country in support of the struggle at JNU are any indication, the JNU students have been successful in rallying large sections of the Indian people behind their struggle. But for this wide support received from outside, the Modi Government would have vanquished this struggle in no time.

The Other Side of the Picture

Nothing encapsulates the pathos of the RSS and Modi Government vis-à-vis JNU better than a statement made by a Professor who hosted me in Amritsar in the first week of March, when I had been invited there to address a meeting on the struggle at JNU. The Professor commented —“aina ne aapna paddar aninna niva kar liya hai ki hun Prime Minister da mukabla ik student union leader naal ho reha hai (they have lowered their standard so much that the Prime Minister is now having to compete with a student union leader)”.

Refined ideological and intellectual contes-tation has never been the forte of the RSS and its cohorts; however, their overzealousness to settle scores with JNU exposed their ideological bankruptcy in the instant case rather too soon. Unable to restrain the struggle despite a high decibel media campaign using morphed videos, they soon came down to fist-fighting and physical intimidation. Repeated attempts to assault JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, threats to assassinate him along with Umar and Anirban, seizure of arms and other objects meant for this purpose have all been in the news.

The ludicrous level to which they stooped in their ‘hate JNU’ campaign is shown by the following averments made by a BJP legislator from Rajasthan, Gyandev Ahuja (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/3000-condoms-2000-liquor-bottles-at-jnu-this-bjp-mla-is-keeping-count/article8272367.ece), who said:

“¯More than 10,000 butts of cigarettes and 4000 pieces of beedis are found daily in the JNU campus. 50,000 big and small pieces of bones are left by those eating non-vegetarian food. They gorge on meat... these anti-nationals. 2000 wrappers of chips and namkeen are found, as also 3000 used condoms—the misdeeds they commit with our sisters and daughters there. And 500 used contraceptive injections are also found. Besides this, 2000 liquor bottles as also over 3000 beer cans and bottles are daily detected in the campus.”

That this is not a misadventure of a wayward loose cannon is shown by the fact that a handful of teachers at JNU who are affiliated to the Sangh Parivar had actually prepared a two hundred page dossier (http://thewire.in/2016/04/26/dossier-calls-jnu-den-of-organised-sex-racket-students-professors-allege-hate-campaign-31709/) in 2015 itself that profiled some of the JNU teachers and made the most shameful of accusations against JNU teachers, students and even the employees. The whole dossier is full of the following kind of slurs, and of course without the obligation to provide any evidence whatsoever.

“Over one thousand boys and girls (sic) students have been fined from Rs 2000 to Rs 5000 for consuming alcohol, for indulging in immoral activities in their hostels. On a casual glance at the gates of the hostel, one can see hundreds of empty alcohol bottles. Sex workers have been openly employed in hostel messes, where they not only lure JNU girls into their organised racket but also pollute the boys. How come big and high brand cars are moving around the hostels particularly in the night hours? Some security staff is (sic) also involved in this racket. Freshers are particularly inducted in this ring of vice by luring through money, sex, drugs and alcohol, so that they become tied up with the cause of foreign agencies.”

It fails one’s imagination as to what kind of a teacher it takes to be able to commit such a conscious profanity against his/her own students. Indeed, whom must we consider a genuine friend of the Indian people—these Sanghi zealots or our Pakistani friend?

Unlike the groundswell of support that the JNU students and teachers have received from across the world and in India, the BJP has had to be content with self-certification. The BJP President, Amit Shah, and leaders like Arun Jaitely have declared more than once that the party has won the ‘Nationalism’ debate, while the fact is that their own political affiliates — Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena and even the ‘Hindu Sant Mahasabha’, affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/kanhaiya-umar-not-antinational-says-hindu-sant-mahasabha/article8521473.ece) believe the JNU students to be innocent. In fact the latter even felt that:

“Quite frankly, most of the people were swayed by the BJP propaganda. It is quite shameless and completely wrong to brand innocent students as anti-national when their views are completely within the purview of the Constitution.”

Preserving our Future

JNU presents us with a situation in which it is impossible to remain neutral for anyone who engages seriously with the democratic aspira-tions of the Indian people. It makes it imperative for us to act while the struggle is alive.

In order that an informed action becomes possible, we need to think what has made such a glorious struggle possible? Why despite an elaborately planned advance strategy to brand JNU as anti-national being in place, with a brute political majority and a sway over large sections of the media to back it up, the govern-ment has utterly failed to decimate JNU? What makes completely unrelated people respond to the agony of these students with full force of poignant anger directed at the rulers? Is it just a question of one incident that piqued the rulers of the day or are there larger issues involved?

There is little gainsaying that it is not a ‘revolution’ yet; and yet again it has been becoming difficult for the rulers to perpetuate their rule in the same old manner. A situation so obtains that the only answer to mitigate an existing crisis is to invent a larger crisis. Things would still be doable for the ruling classes if they were to remain at this. But most fortunately for the people of this country, a large section of our youth and students seem to be increasingly refusing to be ruled by the old ways.

The trend started with the struggle by students and teachers of Delhi University against the imposition of the four-year undergraduate course under the UPA rule. The suppression of the Ambedkar-Periyar study circle at IIT, Chennai soon after the NDA Government took power at the Centre followed next, followed by the prolonged strike by students at FTII against the imposition of a thoroughly inept actor as the Chairman of its Governing Council; then came the ‘Occupy UGC’ movement against withdrawal of scholarships to research students in Central Universities followed by the move-ment against the ‘institutional murder’ of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University, and the list continues to grow. Even as these struggles were going on, there broke this crisis at JNU. The JNU students had already been playing an active role in the FTII, Occupy UGC and Rohith Vemula struggles.

The ongoing struggle at JNU represents the tallest and the brightest of the green shoots of a new widening student movement in search of an alternative in the country. What is more, the core of this struggle seems to be constituted of the radical Left students and the radicalised sections of the Ambedkarite student groups—both of whom are least encumbered by the dominant ruling class politics of the day. These students are impatient to make their break from the past to usher in a new future for the marginalised labouring masses of India.

None of the alternatives these students articulate are in the ‘populist mould’; rather their ideas are meant to defy the establishment in every sense of the word, may it be on the question of ‘Nationalism’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Gender’, ‘Development’, ‘Politics’ and every other manner in which the present social political and economic structure oppresses the Indian people. In a nutshell, these struggles are a declaration of war on the status quo.

For the coming summer vacations at the university the JNU Students, Union has given the call to the students—“Stay Back and Fight Back”. It remains to be seen whether the people of India shall ‘Stay Put’ and join the ‘Fight Back’ with these brave students.

Dr Vikas Bajpai is an Assistant Professor, Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at drvikasbajpai[at]gmail.com

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