JNU and the politics of alienation: On AISA that failed a Muslim comrade
Most of these comrades in JNU are prejudiced, ill-equipped and lack scholarly instincts when discussing Islamic faith and practices in general. The result of this prejudiced rhetoric is the alienation of Muslim youth in the campus.
I was born and raised in the adjacent districts of Patna and Jehanabad in Magadh region where Muslims are a small minority. They constitute around 7-8 percent of the population, and are mostly concentrated in the towns with sparse rural population. Hence, in rural areas, the existence has been historically more perilous for the Muslims amid the volatile Hindu majority, as Muslim villages have been frequently attacked in the last Century, with the most massive and organised attacks happening in 1917, 1946 and 1989.
In this difficult terrain, where the minuscule Muslim population is attacked at worst, or discriminated against at best, my father, Akbar Imam, spent his life as a politician, who struggled to secure Muslim communities by organising them as electoral forces throughout his life, and passed away three years ago continuously struggling towards this goal. In short, the drastic imbalance of forces during any conflict or debate, be it communal or not, has been far too apparent for me since my childhood, and I have been a witness to many of the political realities of a beleaguered minority.
After I finished my schooling in 2006, I qualified for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and was admitted to the Computer Science department of IIT Bombay. I spent five fruitful years in the Powai campus, where I met many who are now my closest friends. However, even there I was the sole Muslim in my class. The situation was slightly better in the hostel, where there were three or four Muslim post-graduate students, however, among around 200 undergraduates I was the only Muslim.
Partly because of the negligible Muslim presence there, many rumours and prejudices against Muslims were propagated and taken as truth by many ill-informed Hindu students, as there were no Muslims to debunk them. Once in my second year, when I was being ‘interviewed’ for induction into one of the senior wings, some of the third-year students vetoed my entry as I was a Muslim. I was asked strange questions such as: "What if one of us abuses Muhammad?", "Why don’t you guys shave?" etc. However, the issue was resolved by the administration after intervention from some of my batchmates, and I was allotted a random room as the informal ‘interview’ process was done away with.
Similarly, in my third year, there was a ridiculous and month-long attempt by a group of Hindu students to convert me to Hinduism by repeatedly coming to my room for discussions, and forcing Islamophobic literature upon me. These are some highlights of the issues which forced my argumentative self into long hours of debate and polemics against these ill-informed bigots. After my graduation, I spent two years working as a developer for a software firm in Bengaluru. The Muslims are an extreme minority in upper echelons of the corporate world as well, as most of these professionals are extracted from colleges like IITs etc. Hence, my two years in the corporate world were an extension of my life in IIT Bombay, at least as far as my Muslim self is concerned.
It is from this background that I entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2013 for Masters in Modern History. I was already aware of the reputation of JNU as the fort of secularism and struggles against oppressive forces. On the admission day, I saw large posters on Muslim issues such as witch-hunting, fake encounters etc. by the main Left parties of the campus such as AISA, SFI and DSF etc. These posters and the sloganeering by these parties gave me the impression that the youth of this nation is finally waking up to the miseries of the marginalised people. I was attracted to the Left parties immediately, and joined AISA which is the largest Left party on the campus. I was a member of the party for over two years, was in its executive committee for a year, and also contested the 2015 JNUSU election as their candidate for the councillor post, and finally, left the party after the Najeeb Ahmad incident. In these years, I had the opportunity to observe the internal mechanism of the party, the intellectual limits of many of our comrades, and the hypocrisy of some others.
The first dent in my respect for this party was a case of sexual harassment against then JNUSU president and joint secretary in 2013-2014, both of whom were AISA members. The president was later exonerated only through an intervention by executive committee. However, both the president and joint secretary had to resign from their posts, were suspended from the hostel because they were found guilty of slandering against the complainant. The party was involved in this slandering wholesale, and tried its best to defend these two individuals. I was also trying to follow the updates of the case, but my curiosities were generally dismissed by our comrades, and the whole affair was often explained as a sinister plan against the party and as our party was apparently the last hope of the oppressed, we should stop asking questions, and slander against the complainant. Initially, I read the behaviour of these two members as a mere anomaly, something which could not be consistent with the larger progressive politics, and rhetorics of gender equality of the party. However, as time passed, and other cases emerged, it became certain that AISA has a history of sexual harassment cases against its office-bearers and members, and a culture of defaming the complainant and its leaders. In fact, when one looks at the record of the parent parties of both AISA and SFI (CPI-ML, and CPM respectively), the political representation given to women historically has been poorer than other mainstream parties.
In the same 2013-2014 session, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (Bapsa) was formed against the Left wing appropriation of Dalit voices in the campus. BAPSA claims that both mainstream Left wing organisations are brahmanical and patriarchal in nature, and have checked the emergence of a Dalit leadership. In fact, none of these mainstream parties have produced Dalit leadership, and their highest bodies and positions of power have been monopolised by upper caste Hindu men. The rise of Bapsa in the campus was long overdue, and it helped increase my knowledge on the hypocritical role played by the Indian Left in movements which sought to empower Dalit communities. Bapsa gained in strength over the last two years, and its presidential candidate was the runner-up in the last elections. This was the second major dent in my respect for the party which spoke a progressive tongue.
However, as Islamophobia has been a running theme in my life amid an overwhelming Hindu majority, I would be naturally most sensitive to and aware of this problem. Over the four years of my existence in the campus, I spent no less time than I did in IIT debating against people who had practically no knowledge of Islamic faith, figures and practices, yet could abuse these with impunity. Slowly it dawned upon me, that the anti-Islamic zeal of our comrades is not much different from the zeal of ill-informed Hindu students in the IITs, at lest as far as the content of the debates is concerned. Both are based on prejudices and caricaturing of Islamic faith, and mindless exaggeration of incidents and issues of local nature to make them appear as global ‘Islamic’ issues. The Qur’an is seen by some comrades as a ‘defected’ book which leads to terrorism among Muslims. The Muslims are regularly painted as uniquely misogynistic by many comrades. And there is a healthy propagation of anti-Islamic fake news, and “fatwas” which are hardly ever fatwas.
In short, Islamophobia is rampant inside this ‘progressive’ campus as well. Most of these prejudices against Islam, in my opinion, are prevalent because of three important reasons: 1) Most of the comrades are conditioned to the caste-Hindu narrative against Islam, 2) Most of us are exposed to the liberal media of the English-speaking world, which has pioneered many new ways to hate and misrepresent Islam, and 3) The dogmatic prejudice against ‘religion’ in general, which derives from their self-identification as Marxist atheists. In short, most of these comrades are prejudiced, ill-equipped and lack scholarly instincts when discussing Islamic faith and practices in general. The result of this prejudiced rhetoric is the alienation of Muslim youth in the campus.
For instance, a former VP of JNUSU and an AISA leader once used a sentence abusing Prophet Muhammad as an example to explain to us that such statements do not constitute hate speech. I was amazed at the ignorance of the leading lights of this progressive campus. I was unable to explain to myself that if such statements are not Islamophobic and hate-inducing, then why was I, a 19-year old lonely Muslim, disturbed when one of my bigoted seniors asked me the same question during the ‘interview’ in that hostel of IIT Bombay. It is extremely important to understand the power dynamics against minorities in a polarised space, only then an informed discussion on hate speech can take place.
Another interesting example is a Facebook post by an AISA member who was also a candidate for the post of JNUSU president. He declares an ABVP leader as ‘jaichand’ because ABVP has been against the interests of academic freedom in JNU. The spirit is right, but the metaphor is wrong. Jaichand is a villain and a traitor only in an anti-Islamic characterisation of Indian history. Jaichand allegedly helped the ‘Muslim’ Ghauri against the ‘Hindu’ Prithvi Raj Chauhan and hence was ‘anti-India’, even though ‘India’ as a nation was conceived seven centuries later! Tracing India to 13th century seems a decent thought from an Islamophobic ABVP member, but even an AISA comrade is unaware that he is inadvertently adding fuel to the fire. If there is problem at the basic level of historical understanding in a presidential candidate, one can expect the state of the average comrade.
On the account of representation as well, AISA has failed Muslims repeatedly. Year after year, Muslims have been offered token candidature as JNUSU Joint Secretary to register nominal Muslim presence and ensure Muslim votes. SFI is no better. In fact, its parent party, which has ruled West Bengal for three and a half decades has continuously kept Muslims in a state of utter deprivation.
The last nail in the coffin was the Najeeb incident, in which after an alleged scuffle, Najeeb was beaten up by a group of students. JNUSU President, and AISA leader Mohit Pandey reached the spot during the violence, and witnessed it, but during the hearing in front of the warden, he failed to report the fact. He declared Najeeb as the offender, silenced his voice, and spoke against him. The warden then asked Najeeb to leave the hostel in six days. Najeeb disappeared the next morning and it has been six months since. Instead of impeaching and punishing the president for silencing, instead of representing Najeeb’s side, AISA-SFI union decided to take a different line. After the disappearance of Najeeb, they started defending Mohit Pandey and immediately communalised the issue, and declared that a “communally charged mob” beat Najeeb up, and hence Muslims in this campus should feel insecure. All of this was an exercise of misinformation and fear-mongering in order to hide their own president’s failure, and frighten the Muslims into submission. It is no different from how Congress has been treating the Muslims for a century, let alone BJP which openly speaks against this minority community. This is what forced me out of my politically inactive state, as I severed my ties with the party, and started speaking against AISA-SFI narrative.
This is the state of the leading Left party in JNU. Their legitimacy lies in the fact that they are very loud and slogan-friendly. There is no drive to sanitise the minds of the individual cadre, no encouragement of healthy debate and skepticism. Their loud revolutions can be witnessed often in form of juloos from the Ganga dhaba, to the Chandrabhaga hostel.
The author is a Computer Science graduate from IIT Bombay, and is currently a research scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, and lives in the same hostel wing where Najeeb resided.
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