Najeeb Ahmad still missing: Is the JNU student union failing to lead the movement?

On 31 March, 1997, Chandrashekhar Prasad, affectionately called Chandu by his fellow comrades, was gunned down in broad daylight in Siwan, Bihar. Chandu was a student leader and former president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union (JNUSU).

Student politics for many is undeniably the stepping stone for bigger roles in national politics. Many student leaders from JNU and Delhi University took the route of student politics to drive to the highest echelons of power.

Chandu choose a different path and followed a different trajectory. After his stint as a student activist, he returned back to Bihar and started a campaign against the criminalisation of politics in Lalu Prasad Yadav-ruled Bihar, and in doing so he lost his life.

But in this pursuit he gave a new dimension and respect to the student union, its politics and activism. Massive protests took place all over the country following his murder and Comrade Chandu became a metaphor of student activism.

Some two decades later, early this year, when former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on sedition charges, student politics and post of president of the student union again asserted its clout.

 Najeeb Ahmad still missing: Is the JNU student union failing to lead the movement?

Representational image. CNN News 18

His comparison with Chandu came handy for those analysing his rise. But bigger questions remained to be answered that has surfaced again with the ongoing protest in JNU over the disappearance of an MSc student.

Was Kumar an accidental leader? Can his transformation from a little-known student union president to young 'revolutionary' incidental to what happened post 9 February?

Or was the massive protest that followed Kumar’s arrest a hint at the return of the student movement? Or the truth was that Kumar’s sudden elevation to the status of a ‘leader’ was caused because of attack on free speech and autonomy of the university, that Kumar’s arrest to a greater extent hinted at.

The answer to these questions to some extent lies in the protest that was organised following the mysterious disappearance of Najeeb Ahmad, an MSc student, two months ago from JNU campus, following a alleged scuffle with a group of students canvassing for hostel elections.

Following Ahmad's disappearance, protests were staged against the alleged lackadaisical attitude of JNU administration in finding Ahmad. On 19 October, JNU vice-chancellor M Jagdeesh Kumar and other top university officials were confined in their office for an entire day by the protesting students.

After some lull, following Kanhaiya’s return, dharna pradarshans again made headway in JNU campus, human chains were again seen lining up campus avenues and solidarity marches were held with full vigour, loaded with fascinating slogans, raised in full tempo: "Zulmi jab jab zulm karega satta ke hathiyaron se chappa chappa goonj uthe ga Najeeb Najeeb ke naaron se”.

Following the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar (in relation to 9 February incident), the protests that followed garnered support from different quarters as it had an underlying logic to it. The support that poured in was for a student leader, who allegedly participated in "anti-India" programme and was arrested like a local thug and slapped with a sedition charge, without any concrete evidence hinting at his culpability.

Merely nine months after that incident, protests demanding 'justice for Najeeb' is being held at the JNU campus, demanding quick action against the alleged culprits and against the "lackadaisical attitude of the JNU administration" in dealing with the issue of a missing student. However this time, the support it attracted is nothing in comparison to the post 9 February incident.

What was the reason for this lack of support this time? It could have been conveniently assumed that it was because the person for whom justice was demanded was a common student and not the president of the student union. Similarly, it could have been easily assumed that the change of guard in student union was the reason for the lack of support. After all the current JNUSU president Mohit Pandey is not as dynamic a leader as Kumar was or current vice-president Amal Pullarkkat is not as 'charismatic' as Shehla Rashid was.

While this argument can be widely taken as true it would be extremely erroneous to do so. It does not take much to understand that Kumar's metamorphosis into a ‘national leader’ was purely accidental. It was caused because of the immense support that JNU student union and protesting student got from civil society, intelligentsia and academic world, from across the world. Again it could be erroneous to assume that the support was for Kumar or Rashid.

From the onset it was clear that the support poured in for a university which is of great repute and was presumed to be under attack. The support was for free speech and against an attack on it. Kumar incidentally became the symbol of this attack and resistance.

In an interview with Firstpost published last month, Kanhaiya Kumar, while responding to a question on why this issue had not received the same support from the student community as his arrest had said, "This time around, there are many versions of the issue. My arrest was seen as a crackdown and an attack on the university, and that united the students. On this particular issue, the current student union has not been able to forge a unity."

It was an honest confession on Kumar’s part. In the current case there were actually many versions of truth. The reason for the scuffle provided by both the sides seemed implausible and laughable to some extent. In spite of all the efforts by the Left and Right in the campus to project it as a communal issue, the narrative was rejected by the majority. It was mostly seen as an attack on an individual or at most a scuffle between two groups.

While serious questions are being raised against the credentials of the current student union in failing to lead the movement to any desirable conclusion, any comparison with former office bearers of the JNUSU would be wrong. As the fact remains that before the arrest of Kumar, all the people who shot to public imagination for their 'fiery speech and exuberant oratory' were confined to the walls of the lush green campus of JNU and would have remained so if the government would not have acted in the manner it did by arresting Kumar without any concrete evidence. And in this misadventure of government rests the rise of Kumar and his compatriots.

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2016 18:14:28 IST