DU, JNU protests not about politics: It's a communication breakdown between State and civil society

Unresolved grievances lead to discontent. Discontent leads to resistance. Resistance, if not negotiated, leads to conflict. For India’s public universities, this ominous progression today appears to be on the forward.

In Delhi, spring arrived early this time round, and fiercely so. Not unlike just a year back, when slogans of 'azaadi' and 'inquilabo' disrupted the seasonal calm and order of central Delhi. This was when India's brand-new cult of hyper-nationalism had found its first poster boys of sedition – Kanhaiyaa Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattarcharya. All of that, however, was mostly about the three odd students who were sent to jail at the behest of a colonial-era law, and the uniquely political and performative space of Jawaharlal Nehru University — with its specific context and history of resistance.

 DU, JNU protests not about politics: Its a communication breakdown between State and civil society

A student dons the cap of Che Guevara as he participates in protest march against ABVP in Delhi. Image courtesy: Angshuman Choudhury

But, one year later, something similar yet wholly different happened in Delhi University (DU), perhaps the most diverse academic space in India. Students and teachers, most of whom had no strict political affiliations, found themselves at the receiving end of a violent assault by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) when the latter disrupted a seminar organised by the English Department and Literary Society of Ramjas College on 21 February. At the heart of it all lay the invitation accorded to Umar Khalid, who never even attended the discussion.

The discourse of the seminar – ironically and spontaneously – became a performance, as students and teachers marched out in large numbers the next day to demonstrate against ABVP’s hooliganism, only to be assaulted again.

This isn’t something that happens in DU every day. Even with its longstanding culture of muscular student politics, large scale violence is (or was) rare in the university. Not surprisingly, the events of 21 and 22 February came as a rude slap in the face of DU’s vibrant community of students and teachers that cuts through class, religion, region, language, and ideology.

But, DU – much like JNU — doesn’t seem to be standing down to ideological homogenisation and violent subversion so soon, so easy.

JNU student Umar Khalid addresses students at Mandi House on 4 March. Image courtesy: Angshuman Choudhury

JNU student Umar Khalid addresses students at Mandi House on 4 March. Image courtesy: Angshuman Choudhury

On 4 March 2017, students and faculty from both DU and JNU walked down the high streets of central Delhi in opposition to ABVP’s hooliganism and in solidarity with those who came under attack in Ramjas. The "Citizens’ March" was the fifth public demonstration organised since 22 February (by both ABVP and its opponent groups), and the first to be held outside North Campus since the assault.

Led by Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), the march witnessed fervent participation from various quarters of the DU and JNU communities in fluid continuance of the 28 February 'DU Against Gundagardi' march in North Campus. While calls for "Goondagardi se Azaadi" (Freedom from Hooliganism), "Vaad-Vivaad Ki Azaadi" (Freedom to Debate), and "ABVP Go Back!" rang the loudest, the rally saw the regurgitation of certain inflection points that haven’t been accorded a closure yet, such as Rohith Vemula and Najeeb.

This shows the continuous unravelling of a much larger fight for justice on the streets of Delhi – one that isn’t simply an ad-hoc opposition to specific policy moves of the government, but rather one that attempts to thwart a ‘broader agenda’ of the BJP-led administration (and its ideological affiliates).

Former JNUSU leader Kanhaiyaa Kumar at the students' march in Delhi. Image courtesy: Angshuman Choudhury

Former JNUSU leader Kanhaiyaa Kumar at the students' march in Delhi. Image courtesy: Angshuman Choudhury

Behind the impromptu and impassioned opposition from students of DU who faced the wrath of coercive, anti-democratic politics in physical terms inside their own college campus, lies a sweeping sentiment of discontent and deprivation that is slowly but surely taking centre stage in the anti-government public discourse of today. At the heart of this, stands a broad community of stakeholders of democracy who accuse the government of unleashing a 'fascist takeover' of publicly-owned academic spaces through its affiliates.

The charge is very specific: that of systematic, patterned suppression of contrarian views in state-funded academic institutions.

"The attack on DU is a continuation of the attack on JNU, and the attack on JNU a continuation of the attack on Hyderabad University. This government has singled out universities as its greatest enemy. This is because it wants to privatise public education, and in the process, quash student politics and dissenting views," said Umar Khalid.

Khalid was invited to the Ramjas seminar to deliver a talk on the ‘war in Adivasi areas’. This is an exceptional accusation, one that is being levelled not just by the known contemporaries of India’s anti-establishment politics (like Khalid), but by a wider section of India’s young, newly-educated, socially-mobile, politically-conscious, and tightly-bound student community that staunchly believes in notions of a liberal democracy. They are the ones exposed to the diverse sentimentalities of a globalised world – thanks to the internet and social media – and remain far from conceding what they believe are inalienable rights under a democracy.

The Ramjas assault appears to have throttled this unique community of students to action, the ones who refuse to stand down in the face of coercive subversion while not identifying with mainstream political leanings.


Fatima Nafees, mother of JNU student Najeeb who went missing on 15 October after an alleged confrontation with ABVP members. Image courtesy: Angshuman Choudhury

Arguably, the assault in Ramjas was as unique as the resistance that has followed. Never before had self-declared footsoldiers of Indian nationalism violently invaded a university space like they did on 21 and 22 February. Similarly, never before (at least in recent memory), had so many students put themselves on the frontlines of resistance beyond the binaries of mainstream ‘Left vs Right’ politics. Many, in their public accounts of what happened during the assault, have made it a point to highlight the fact that they hold no affiliations to any party.

This is an extraordinary development in itself, as it indicates a qualitative expansion of the popular demand for democracy, something that once was the monopoly of established partisan and activist groups.

“The spectrum of participation from the students’ community in popular resistance has undoubtedly broadened in the past three years. The Occupy UGC and JNU protests are cases-in-point. While the UPA government too faced popular resistance, the organised violence that the Sangh is employing has only made the opposition to the current government sharper and broader. But, the point here is that the protests won’t vanish once the BJP is removed from power, simply because the counter-narrative is about larger issues like democratising our university spaces and restoring our fundamental rights,” argues Kavita Krishnan, President of All India Progressive Womens’ Association (AIPWA).

Abinash, a student of Ramjas and one of the organisers of the controversial seminar, says, “A large number of students are dropping their ‘neutrality’, and coming out to take a stance against ABVP’s goondaism. That, in itself, is a tangible success for our movement."

Amongst the din of slogans and cries for justice, one thing remains amply clear — a large number of students and professors are direly unhappy about the state of affairs in this country, in a way that is non-negotiable and absolute: they have begun to wholly refute the idea that this government can be an ally in the agenda for progressive and inclusive education.

In a way, this points towards a gradual breakdown of communication between the state and a large section of the civil society.

"This government has done zilch for me and my son. If it had taken proper action, I would not have been standing here today, wailing my heart out,” says Fatima Nafees, mother of JNU student Najeeb who went missing on 15 October after an alleged confrontation with ABVP members.

The feeling of being deprived of justice doesn’t go un-manifested in most cases. It appears in some form or the other, at some point of time. While the government might not actually be delivering a clearly drawn-out agenda of undemocratic repression, the events of the past two years – especially in university campuses – tell a story of justice denied, grievances unresolved, and dialogues postponed.

The question remains – will the government reign in its forces of subversion and engage better before half of India’s young population is rendered permanently disgruntled and despondent? That is, indeed, for time to tell.

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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 09:42:00 IST