JNU violence: Why did VC Jagadesh Kumar allow festering student resentment to escalate? And why isn't his inaction under scrutiny?

  • Arguments around 'who did it' are being supported with new videos and 'evidence' being released by both sides — the Left and the Right

  • However, all of this might in all probability fail to provide a definitive answer, just as in the case of Kanhaiya Kumar

  • To date, whether or not Kanhaiya raised anti-India slogans remains buried under the narratives shaped by opinions rather than evidence

  • So, instead of getting into the question of who carried out Sunday's violence, a wiser proposition might be to look into why it happened?

In February 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) witnessed protests that became the most talked-about event of the year. Following the arrest of then-JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar (on charges of sedition), students, academics, public intellectuals and civil society members came together to stage protests against government action.

From the iconic Ganga Dhaba to the "freedom square" near the administrative block of the JNU, the university became a site for protests, where everything from high-pitched sloganeering to lectures were organised. Amidst all this, another group supporting the arrest of Kanhaiya organised its own events — from inviting army veterans to raising slogans of nationalism.

The protests that went on for over a month saw passionate speeches targeting the government and calling for student unity, countered by equally passionate calls to challenge the "leftist hegemony" on campus. But, amidst all this, not a single incident took place that could offend the sensibilities of a university campus. Campus protests are meant to be defined by intellectually-stimulating debates and discussions, placards and posters. And JNU, it appeared, had honoured this unwritten rule in letter and spirit.

Now, nearly four years since that incident, the scenes from the JNU campus on Sunday evening look like a sad, but perfect, anticlimax to the events of 2016.

On Sunday evening, violence broke out at the university campus as masked men and women, armed with sticks, attacked students and teachers, and damaged property on campus. Initially, the JNU registrar issued a statement that "masked miscreants armed with sticks are roaming around, damaging property and attacking people. The JNU administration has called the police to maintain order".

Just a few hours after that, the statement was withdrawn and another was issued. The new one blamed the students opposing registration for the winter semester in protest against a steep hostel fee hike for the entire episode. "At around 4.30 pm, a group of students, who are against the registration process, moved aggressively from the front of the admin block and reached the hostels. The administration immediately contacted the police to come quickly and maintain law and order on the campus. However, by the time police came, the students who are for the registration were beaten up by a group of agitating students opposing the registration."

 JNU violence: Why did VC Jagadesh Kumar allow festering student resentment to escalate? And why isnt his inaction under scrutiny?

JNU teachers stage a protest over Sunday's violence in New Delhi. PTI

The statement clearly puts the onus of violence on "agitating students", but this 'official' version has few takers and the blame-game is being played out in full swing with the JNUSU and Left parties on campus blaming the ABVP for orchestrating the entire episode, while the ABVP alleges the involvement of the Left.

Arguments around "who did it" are being supported with new videos and 'evidence' being released by both sides — the Left and the Right. However, all of this might in all probability fail to provide a definitive answer, just as in the case of Kanhaiya. To date, whether or not Kanhaiya raised anti-India slogans remains buried under the narratives shaped by opinions rather than evidence.

So, instead of getting into the question of who did it, a wiser proposition might be to look into why it happened?

The most obvious route might be to accuse the university administration, helmed by Vice-Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, of somehow allowing it to happen. If the official statement of the registrar is to be believed, it was all done by the students protesting a fee hike, But then, the same statement can also be used to highlight the apparent failure of the JNU administration to curb it.

How did this issue of the fee hike — something that witnessed rare unity between those on the Right and Left — suddenly cause a rift so wide that it culminated in such unprecedented violence? On 12 November, thousands of JNU students clashed with the police during their protest against the hike. Like the 2016 protests, the campus was the same, the slogans were the same, and the target was the same. The campus was JNU, the slogans remained anti-establishment and anti-authority and the target was the JNU administration and government.

What had changed was the fact that this time the protest was more representative as students cutting across ideological leanings were protesting the fee hike. It wasn't "them versus us", "Right versus Left", "anti-nationals versus nationalists". It was just about students. So how then did this rare convergence of Left and the Right suddenly transform into the violence of Sunday evening?

One of the explanations put forward was that some ABVP students facilitating registration for the winter semester were beaten by agitating students who were trying to scuttle the registration process. The official statement by the JNU registrar further reinforces this version, but also raises a few questions. The statement reads, "From 1 January, 2020, the winter semester registration was going on smoothly. However, on 3 January, a group of students opposing the registration process entered the Communication and Information Services (CIS) premises, covering their faces with masks and forcibly evicted the technical staff and made the servers dysfunctional. This led to the discontinuation of the registration process on 3 January."

This was the first instance of a complete failure of the security system on campus. This was, by all means, a criminal act and the only way of dealing it was to take the help of law enforcement agencies. However, they weren't intimated at this point.

The statement further adds, "However, on 4 January morning, the technical staff again made the CIS functional. Immediately, thousands of students started registering by paying the new hostel room rent. A group of students who are bent upon stopping the registration process, again entered the CIS premises with a criminal intent to make the servers dysfunctional. They damaged the power supplies, broke the optical fibres and made the servers dysfunctional again on 4 January at around 1 pm disrupting the registration process. A police complaint was again filed against the miscreants." This was the second instance of the complete failure of the JNU security apparatus. The registrar called it an act of "criminal intent". Why then was there such a delay in enlisting the help of law enforcement agencies?

The statement goes on to mention a third instance of an act that hinted at impending disaster. "For the past few days, the group of agitating students also closed the building of some schools preventing the non-agitating students, staff and the faculty members. On 5 January, when the students who have registered in the winter semester wanted to enter these school buildings, they were physically prevented by the agitating students. Since 5 January afternoon, the campus has witnessed scuffles at the schools as well as inside the hostel premises between the groups of students who wanted to stop the registration and those who wanted to register and continue their studies."

It can be argued that the onus was on the vice-chancellor at this point to take corrective and preventive action that could save the interests of students who chose not to agitate and wanted to register for the next semester. Why was it left to the students of opposing camps to facilitate this?

But as highlighted in the statement, it was only after a "group of students, who are against the registration process moved aggressively from the front of the admin block and reached the hostels" that the administration "immediately" contacted the police to come quickly and maintain law and order on the campus. But, it was too late as "by the time police came, the students who are for the registration were beaten up by a group of agitating students opposing the registration" and the campus erupted into violence.

It is an undisputed fact that JNU is an extremely politically-charged campus, which for decades had witnessed conflicts even among opposing strands of the Left apart from the obvious conflict between the Left and the Right. There has been simmering violence underneath the much-discussed culture of debate and discussion. And, those who have been part of this campus can recount several instances of a scuffle, but these were essentially limited to the sort that comes under the category of "campus life".

But what was seen on Sunday evening was reflective of a failure to yield enough space to politics of confrontation and to certain elements that tend to make the campus their political battlefield.

The current case and the case of the arrest of Kanhaiya highlight how the inaction of an ostensibly inefficient administration fails a university and its students. In the case of Kanhaiya's arrest, a matter that could have been handled at the level of the dean or vice-chancellor's office was taken to the highest offices in the country. The matter defamed the university and left it open to potshots from all corners. And with Sunday's events, the decline continues.

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Updated Date: Jan 09, 2020 09:48:12 IST