Sandeep Mahapatra, the only right-wing president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU), traditionally a Leftist stronghold, feels that free thinking and controversies have co-existed on the campus for long. In an interview to Firstpost, the 40-year-old practising lawyer says that the present hullabaloo is all about gaining political mileage ahead of upcoming elections in a few states.
As a JNU alumnus, do you feel the unique culture of debate and discourse has got affected/ lost?
No I don’t subscribe to this view. The positive aspect of JNU is that it provides an atmosphere of free thinking to a student—to discuss and debate, unlike in any other university. This university provides a wider worldview to its students on every issue and gives students a platform to hone their talent, and this will always be there. The student politics in JNU is different from elsewhere. Here, students of opposite ideologies fight against each other on the basis of debates and intellectual deliberation, and not through muscle-power. It’s only due to this that ABVP could strongly establish itself in the campus amid a strong Leftist ideology, which has been continuing for over two decades. The understanding of student politics amongst the JNU students is ahead of their contemporaries elsewhere.
Monday's rally at Jantar Mantar organised jointly by the JNU students, Left students’ unions and Dalit organisations was a big success. Does this reflect growing dissent among students against the establishment?
The Left parties, the Congress, the AAP and others participating in the students’ rally is nothing but drawing political mileage out of dead bodies. It is a cyclical case going on for political gains. We had witnessed this during Delhi election, when strong rumours were spread about persecution of Christians. Then during the Bihar election, the Dadri incident and the issue of intolerance were played up. Now no one is bothered about these. Keeping in mind the Budget session and upcoming polls in a few states, the Left, the BSP, the Congress and others are politicising the JNU and Dalit issues. Let me ask, why all these parties were silent when a Dalit girl was raped in Haryana by a Muslim youth? Is it because Muslims and Dalits are vote banks? There are several instances of Dalit persecution and killing. How much mobilisation has been done by these parties? There has always been a social churning among students on issues that often takes the shape of a movement. There’s nothing new in it, but we’ve to see whether the movements are ill-motivated or genuine.
No one in ABVP before or after you managed to become president of JNUSU. Why so?
I joined JNU in 1997 and became president as an ABVP candidate in 2000-01 while I was pursuing M Phil (International Law). JNU has always been a stronghold of the Left. Our ideological fight with the Left was at its peak at that time. All the Left forces united to defeat us, but we managed to pull through. After several years, this year, ABVP has won the joint secretary post in JNUSU. It’s quite tough to crack the predominantly Left bastion, but ABVP has gradually emerged as a strong challenger.
How could you make it possible?
It was very tough, especially because the majority of the faculty members and heads are Left-affiliated, many are CPI/CPM cardholders and they exercise immense influence on students who join the campus. It’s like either you follow them or be left out. I connected with people one-on-one and took up real issues of students like hostels, campus problems, etc and this motivated others to connect with Vidyarthi Parishad. Winning or losing an election is a part of the game, but our main achievement was establishing ourselves.
Why there is so much anarchy in the campus all of a sudden?
It has always been there in the campus, but this time it has gone out of control and as the government intervened, and the Left ganged up. JNU is the only place where the Left rules the roost. Since the JNU politics reflects on national politics and vice versa, they are going hammer and tongs to protect even their wrong doings. They talk about intolerance, but it’s they who have shown extreme intolerance inside the campus. If you’re not a Leftist, you’re an outcast. A large number of students join the campus from eastern India, so in 2000 when ABVP wanted to perform Durga puja, it faced severe resistance. But, ultimately we won and till now festival takes place and almost everyone participate in it.
There have been allegations against JNU that a section of its students had been involved in controversial ‘anti-national’ issues like hailing Afzal Guru, the killing of 75 CRPF personnel in Dantewada etc. Did such incidents occur in the past too?
Yes, when I joined in 1996, the CPI-ML affiliated All India Students’ Association (AISA) had invited Kashmiri secessionist leaders to speak in the campus, because they think India is a country of multiple nationalities and Kashmir, Nagaland, etc should be free from India. The ABVP opposed it. There is a dichotomy in their stand. The students who give a call to fight against the state, later become a part of the same state machinery and enjoy power as bureaucrats. Those who raised anti-imperialistic slogans, later latched on to scholarships and went to the US. This is nothing but compromising on your ideology for bigger gains.
JNUSU and Left-backed unions’ members have alleged that ABVP has been into hooliganism in the campus and the BJP-backed government through police crackdown put students behind bars. What do you have to say on this?
The ABVP has no role in it. An inquiry is going on and it’s the police to take the call. The best way to gain mileage is by blaming ABVP and RSS. And, as I said, unlike in other universities there has never been any hooliganism inside JNU campus.
What will you say on students’ allegation that RSS through ABVP has been trying to crush the liberal culture and freedom of expression of though in JNU?
The Left had written-off the RSS, but it has emerged as a potential force and they are unable to accept that. In last 40 years, barring Brinda Karat, how many women could make it as politburo members? How many Dalits have become their top leaders? The RSS has a women’s wing at national level and the Sangh works amongst the tribals for their development unlike the Left. It’s not the RSS that’s crushing the liberal culture but the Left itself unable to deal with the challenge from the Right.