For many months, the issue of the national or ‘anti-national’ character of Jawaharlal Nehru University and its students has been at the centre of media and public scrutiny, at the instigation of right-wing communal forces.
On Monday, nearing the end of the academic year, the High-Level Enquiry Committee set up by the vice-chancellor of JNU to investigate, apportion blame and take action on those involved in the 9 February programme titled ‘Country Without A Post Office’ (in which allegedly anti-national and seditious slogan were raised) released its report.
Considering the fact that the penalties were being handed out to the students at the behest of the Narendra Modi government, it appeared to be an attempt at ‘token fairness’, where one of the key students who apparently conspired to set up others to look like ‘seditionists’ is given a light slap on the wrist — in this case, Sharma.
Another fact to be noted is that Shehla Rashid, the prominent student leader and current vice-president of JNUSU has been neither rusticated, nor fined.
The punishments are all based on a complaint comprising one-sided statements from ABVP members, and the fairness of the enquiry is under question from all sides – students, teachers and karmacharis.
The sentiment among students is that the VC is taking directions from the Central government, and that he should have behaved in his capacity as a scholar and administrator rather than as a loyalist of the BJP-RSS. Rakesh Bhatnagar, the head of the enquiry committee, is the treasurer of anti-reservationist Youth for Equality, and many of the students who have been punished belong to Dalit, Muslim and backward castes.
There was a meeting held on Tuesday at the admin block in JNU regarding the matter, where the students at large, the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA), and the JNU Students’ Union firmly rejected the enquiry report, vowing to oppose and overturn it in the name of justice. The report was termed as 'scapegoating' and a 'political vendetta' for speaking out against the authoritarian administration of the university as well as the Modi government. More meeting are to be held in the coming days for the various student and teacher organisations to come up with a concrete roadmap to overturning the punishments imposed.
Certain issues need re-examination:
The penalties fly in the face of the fact that much of the video evidence and sloganeering (including much of what was telecast by Zee News) has been proved as doctored and by what is seen by many as fabricated charges on a politically-motivated complaint filed by the ABVP.
Unfazed by their ordeals, the students on their return from custody remained just as defiant, carrying on with their critiques of the current government and issues affecting students, including communalism, corruption, poverty, human rights and government overreach — as did the remainder of the student leadership.
This helps explain why members of the student leadership who were not even involved with the 9 February event have also been penalised for what transpired on that day — for the actions they later took: Organising students against the undue action taken on the university as a whole, and the public slander and the arrest of their colleagues.
The students under attack from the government during the controversy, instead of cowing down, began a national speaking tour to build student solidarity and progressive unity against what they saw as the anti-people policies of the present regime. Many of the allegations in the original complaint have been dismissed by the court as being heavily misreported, distorted or inapplicable. Further, the matter is subjudice and there is no guilt determined by the court yet, and in fact, each of the accused was given interim bail — why should the High Level Enquiry Committee make up its own mind about guilt? The High-Level Enquiry Committee report also amounts to an attempt to influence court proceedings, by implying guilt for charges that are subjudice.
Extremely heavy fines have been imposed on students, many of whom can only afford to study in a university that charges Rs 250 as its annual fee. Coming as they do from extremely humble and underprivileged backgrounds, the idea appears to be that either the scapegoated students are expected to default on the payments, or the penalties are expected to hurt the students so much that they will be discouraged from continuing their activism.
More importantly, a campus with a students union and regular democratic elections should not punish student union office-bearers for legitimate political activity, especially for the weeks that followed the events of 9 February.
The strategic time for the release of the penalty order by the JNU administration also has to be taken into account: The commencement of exams, the searing heat, and the nearing vacations will favour an ebb of activism, rather than a groundswell. Further as university-level action, the punishments count as an ‘internal matter’ and are less likely to be picked up by the media and equally unlikely to be portrayed as a contentious national-level issue.
However, a byproduct of the action taken has been that it roused many students who were beginning to reluctantly settle with the status quo, after all three students (Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya) received interim bail. They have now awoken to the fact that the onslaught is not over, and that there will be several more attempts to suppress the voices and needs of ordinary students, especially in such a liberal, politicised university as JNU.
It has also made the JNU students aware of their political and mobilisational shortcomings in the face of heavy-handed authoritarian action.
The students movement was not tactical enough nor militant enough. Many were afraid. There was no court arrest by students in protest against the fabricated charges of sedition on their colleagues, despite the students’ movement having amassed around 15,000 people for a rally on the 18 February — they did not press hard enough. Despite Kanhaiya, journalists, and teachers being assaulted in the courthouse twice, there was no hunger strike in custody by the union president, despite having the eyes of the national media on him and a clear cause. An unconditional release was never achieved.
It took several days for the movement to arrange for a portable microphone that was not dependent on that power supplied by the admin block. There was a lack of general body meetings (GBM) despite the requisite student strength being present. This led to quick but unilateral decision-making at times. From the first confrontation, the current regime has understood that heavy-handed is the way to go — rather than losing television debates to idealistic students with a flair for populism.
While this is clearly an attempt to intimidate students into submission and while the university everyone knew is being morphed to suit the political purpose of the saffronisation of education, the actions of the JNU administration may just backfire.
Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban were unwitting and relatively isolated activists when they were victimised — and returned as heroes, with the ordinary students rallying around them to fight for their democratic rights. A 23-year-old student, not wishing to be named, remarked, “We all know they are being targetted for standing up to the Modi regime. The administration has taken special discretion to penalise these students on flimsy grounds, when none of them had committed any violation according to university rules.”
Further, after the suicide of HCU student Rohith Vemula, the government is proving itself more and more insensitive towards student and Dalit issues. There are many similarities in the way the JNU students are being harassed by the administration, and the oppressive circumstances of Vemula’s suicide.
The government-instigated action appears part of a larger scheme of criminalisation of dissent, suppression of democratic rights, felonisation of activism, intimidation and mob fury in the wake of criticism for terrible governance, normalised injustice, and policies detrimental to the public. The university must be suppressed because social sciences and politicisation question the basis and outcomes of current policy, while the austerity policies of the government count among their integral components education budget cuts, privatisation, abolition of fellowships, reduction of subsidies, as well as the underfunding and under-maintenance of existing institutions.
It turns out, eventually, that one suppresses the university to be able to pass unpopular welfare-reform policy that ultimately harms the university, which would then require another dose of suppression. From the stand-off between the students and the state, we can see that the seeds of authoritarianism have already been sown.
The writer is a research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University