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India – Moment Of Reckoning For Student Movements

While the government has managed to forge a feeling of solidarity across campuses in the country through its repressive measures, the discourse sidelines some key uncomfortable questions.
Photo: Amarjeet SinghPhoto: Amarjeet Singh

Among the many conversations that I have had with Umar Khalid, PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University (), and the ‘dreaded anti-national’, the one that came to my mind soon after the news of his surrender was on his relationship with the members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) on campus.

“I was sticking posters when this ABVP guy came to me with a smile and told me how asli ladaayi (the real fight) is always between them and us [Democratic Students Union (DSU)]. He was telling me how there is no fun in fighting the other organisations,” he had said.

Umar, then a member of DSU , often recounted DSU’s  frequent altercations with the ABVP, and even as he narrated his disagreements, there was always a sense of decorum. Khalid might have disliked the ABVP  to his heart’s content but that never stopped him from talking to them.

So on 9 February, 2016, when Umar and nine other   students organised a cultural evening titled ‘A Country without a Post Office’, to condemn the ‘judicial killing of Afzal Guru’ and in support of Kashmir’s right to self determination, the most that the organisers expected was an internal inquiry. “We did expect a proctorial inquiry since we were sure that the ABVP  would file a complaint against us but none  ever thought that this would go beyond that,” one of the organisers told me later.

For a university campus like the , proctorial inquiries weren’t a big deal since it could happen at the behest of a complaint registered by any student on campus. However, matters soon escalated and by 10 February,  was trending on Facebook.


When I woke up that day learning that some of the organisers and student activists had appeared on prime time TV, notably the TRP driven News Hour debate with , I had spoken to one of the organisers asking why they had committed this blunder.

“We thought someone should go and explain why we organised the event. Now we are not sure what will happen. Sedition is a possibility,” she said. I dismissed these doubts and told her how the Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) would not raise a hue and cry over what was clearly a students’ issue and the last thing that the ministry wanted was a repeat of  (UOH) situation following the death of .

I was wrong and how. The nightmare began as I watched the news the next day. The home ministry and the MHRD declared their statements, without a second thought on proof or a probe, and the scale of  their statements generated was unprecedented.

It was a battle between David and Goliath, one that would surely result in the loss of David. In horror, I watched the ticker on Times Now triumphantly declare the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, possibly the smartest Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president I have ever seen.

I met Kanhaiya in the run-up to the 2014 JNUSU  elections. A PhD scholar at the School of International Studies, he was handing slips for his election campaign at the Sabarmati dhaba, the same venue of the cultural evening. An All Students’ Federation (AISF) activist, Kanhaiya was explaining to me why the organisation had only fielded one candidate for the union elections.

“We were hoping for an alliance with Students Federation of  (SFI) but that did not work out in the end because they wanted the post of the president.”

Little did Kanhaiya or SFI  know how odds would swing in his favour after he delivered a historic speech during the presidential elections. Within minutes, the speech, thanks to his oratorical skills, became viral. When the results were declared, Kanhaiya had pulled off a ‘Lenin’ — a former JNUSU president who also won thanks to his speech.

Incidentally Lenin was branded a ‘semi-literate’ on national television. I caught up with Lenin soon after the protests against the arrest of Kanhaiya had begun. I wanted to know his thoughts on the News Hour debate and how it had swung public opinion against him.

Democracy class Students and faculty members gathered in the jnu campus for a class on nationalism | Photo: Vijay Pandey

Democracy class Students and faculty members gathered in the  campus for a class on nationalism | Photo: Vijay Pandey

Sporting a grin, Lenin said, “It was a mistake to go on that show but I think the anchor [] is in bigger trouble. He went all out against us and now, he cannot backtrack despite these attacks on journalists by goons. He has made a bigger mistake.”

When I ask him if he is worried for his life considering how he was labelled a deshdrohi, he replies with the same grin, “I get online threats every day. My family and this university support me. I am not afraid.”

Not just Lenin, but almost every student and professor on campus, who feels wronged after the government came down heavily on the student activists, have been sporting a spirit quite unlike like any other. Inside a bus to , I watched a girl student get into a heated argument with a passenger on the incident.

Asking him how the slogans affected him personally, the student continued her debate with the passenger without losing any patience.

When both of them ended the argument conceding that they would not agree with each other, I realised that the country was witnessing a moment of politicisation, as the student continued to hold her ground, explain in earnest to someone outside of the elite academia what was wrong in sending police to a university campus.

However, this is not to say that the students are geared to take on the State. Most of them who have not been actively involved in the university’s student politics, harbour fear even as they raise slogans in support of the arrested.

When I approach a group of post-graduate women students standing in a huddle, they ask me to fish out my ID, apologising that they have no other option considering how the university was vilified by the media.

As I take out my ID, I ask them what they think of ‘Bharat Mata’. Pallavi, the most articulate student in the group says, “We have been learning this in class. How the Bharat Mata is invariably a woman in distress who needs protection. The inherent patriarchy in this sentiment is quite obvious to us.”

When I ask them if they want the students to be convicted, they respond with a vehement ‘No’. “This was an event that was organised on the university campus and all it requires is a university enquiry. Nothing more,” says Pallavi.

The Sangh Parivar’s disgruntlement against various universities across the country is no surprise if one takes into account the number of protests that erupted across various campuses soon after the  came to power.

At Film and Television Institute of  (FTII), Pune, the disagreement between the students and the government over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan resulted in a 139-day long strike where the students refused to attend classes.

Calling off the strike later, the students maintained that they would continue their protests and perhaps, in this effort to register their dissent, two of them stood up at the inauguration ceremony of International Film Festival of  (IFFI ) and raised slogans against Arun Jaitley, the Information & Broadcasting minister.

Such protests or slogans at film festival venues is not a first, nationally or even internationally. The government, however, did not take kindly to the slogans and almost indirectly proposed a blanket ban on the students being present anywhere close to the venue.

IFFI  authorities at niche venues like Film Bazaar where quick to send anyone who was sporting a FTII T-shirt away. To an outsider, it seemed the government was tremendously anxious about anyone who rendered a few words against its policies. Slogans, apparently, had the power to send the government into panic mode and rain blows on students who had minuscule resources compared to the State.

In IIT Madras, this translated into the MHRD  involving itself in the ban of Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle and later, the institute revoking it, after the backlash. It therefore came as no surprise when Roundtable  published a series of letters that showed the ministry’s active involvement in monitoring the activities of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA ) at UOH — again at the behest of a complaint registered by the ABVP.

Photo: Vijay Pandey

Photo: Vijay Pandey

This involvement of the ministry which directly abetted the suicide of  indirectly galvanised a student movement like no other, predominantly led by Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan and Muslim students.

In other words, in spite of the efforts from the government, a larger solidarity seemed to have been forged between students and teachers across universities and have in effect prompted many students resting comfortably within campuses to come out on the streets.

While some call it a throwback to a time when the students worked to oust the Indira Gandhi government during Emergency, others have described this moment of politicisation to be the battle of the nationalists vs anti-nationals.

While it is true that these student movements would be remembered in history for its dissent against the State, their nature of mirroring the sentiments of mainstream political parties, both the Congress and the , even as they continue their struggle relentlessly, have left doubts in many of those who seek to see a change in the system and not just the government.

A key slogan of the student movement in , ‘Stand with ’ and in defence of ‘the idea of ’, has been criticised by Ambedkarites for being in contrast to the very tenets of the movement for , which seeks to interrogate universities like UOH and  for their complicity in abetting harassment of students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds.

Secondly, the visible discomfort in addressing the organisers’ motives behind holding a cultural evening condemning the capital punishment of Afzal Guru, the slogans which were raised at the event on Azaadi, on the ‘destruction of the country’ and the right to self-determination of Kashmiris has disconcerted some students and activists.

In a solidarity statement published in Raiot website, a group of women faculty who have been working on Kashmir writes, “This could be the opportunity to find a common vocabulary and establish a firm platform for solidarity with Kashmiri voices and ask some important questions which include but are not limited to: Can ongoing conversations on nationalism and the fascist appropriation of the concepts of nation and identity also create a space to discuss the struggle for Kashmiri rights to nationhood and nationalism?… instead of subscribing to the easy binaries between  and nonviolence that demonise those whose struggles should become grounds to question such neat dichotomies, can we discuss why people might choose to participate in armed rebellions or violent insurrections in the first place? Is it possible that while Kashmiris find new and creative means to extend their solidarities with people and communities who are engaged in an urgent struggle to reclaim public and intellectual spaces across , for them to expect the same kind of solidarity in return?”

, over the last three years, has witnessed two arrests before this. When SFI activist Nidheesh Narayanan was sent to Tihar for 14 days for protesting at Jantar Mantar, neither the student community nor the professors came out on the streets.

There was no outpouring of solidarity either when a DSU student activist Hem Mishra was arrested and sent to Nagpur jail for three years owing to his affiliation to an organisation that follows Maoist ideology. As a result, DSF in  had stayed away from being a part of the solidarity platform for Hem since it did not believe in ‘’.

In her address to the Parliament, , the HRD minister also reads out from a pamphlet that was allegedly written celebrating Mahishasura divas, in memory of the asura who was slain by goddess Durga.

Though the contents of the pamphlet were found to be fabricated, key concerns on Irani raising this along with the slogans raised on 9 February have been ignored.

In , the two other times the university administration revoked permission for events included the BAPSA organised Caste on the Menu film screening and Mahishasura day.

Both events saw altercations between the ABVP  and the organisers and each time, the sentiments of hurting a majority were raised, just like at the cultural evening held on 9 February. Yet, none of the speeches delivered at the university hinted on these events nor did any of the lectures cover these debates that were thrown open at the parliament.


Failed forces Police line up outside the Patiala House Court | Photo: AFP


Similarly, the unity among professors to condemn the attacks on university campuses have fallen short when it comes to addressing the arrest of SAR Geelani, the former  University professor for conducting a similar event at the Press Club. In a statement, his brother, Bismillah Geelani says, “It is okay for the State to arrest him for something he is not guilty of. No protest has been carried out in his support despite the two cases being similar.”

Journalists who have condemned the attack on reporters at the Patiala House Court have not produced a statement on Press Club’s expulsion of its member Ali Javed, for booking the conference hall for the event. Instead of going through its due process of inquiry, the Press Club management took a call despite Javed’s statement that he is not an organiser of the event.

There can be no doubt that this is a political moment, one that has driven people across political spectrum to prove their love to this country. It is also an important moment for journalists who were trained to verify their facts and think twice before they aired their views. There was no story at   on 9 February and certainly nothing that was worth driving a campaign for.

Yet inevitably labels such as ‘nationalist’ and anti-national’ were thrown about. This is not because of the sustained efforts of this government alone. It is because of the death of our thoughts that perpetuate a continuity in the  towards all those who are in the margins.

So in this moment, when a Ravish Kumar is blacking out the screen condemning media trial, when The Telegraph has gone on an offensive against the government and when several editorials have lambasted it for its irresponsible use of an archaic law, the question student movements must ask is this: is it time to talk about what we have been sweeping under the carpet for decades or is it time to only revolt against the privileges we lost?

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