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Mainstream Weekly, VOL LVI No 15 New Delhi March 31, 2018

JNU on the Roads: Protesting Injustice, Suppression and Repression

Saturday 31 March 2018

by Rushda Siddiqui

On March 23, 2018, thousands of students of the JNU, supported by students and teachers from a range of other universities, marched across the city seeking justice in a democratic India. On March 23, the scribes covering the event, students, teachers and supporters, were stopped, beaten and humiliated at the centre of the city. This was not the first time that a protest movement was halted and forcibly dispersed. Protest marches are not new to democracy. Protestors are aware of the fact that governments suffer from acute allergy to marches or public displays of discontent, as they reflect a failure of the administration. Protest marches are also not unused to the idea of being disbursed. The JNU protest movement, however, is reflective of the wave of unrest that has been spreading across university campuses all over the country in the last four years, and the archaic manner of suppression of democracy.

The suppression of the students’ movements in the last four years, particularly movements of the state-funded universities, has been maligned by the state machinery and repressed rather than suppressed. Democratic spaces have been shut down, and the traditional democratic processes of negotiations with representatives or seeking solutions to problems through the channels of the Indian Constitution have been discarded altogether. The JNU Long March on March 23 brought to the fore the hostile attitude of the government regarding the students of the country. Supporters of the students were beaten up indiscriminately during the rounding up of the students and journalists covering the march were beaten up on the pretext that they looked like the protesting students.

 Since 2014 the tendency of the government and administrative authorities, with regard to student discontent, has been of colonial repression. Archaic laws like sedition, are slapped on students, who are held guilty unless proven otherwise. In 2016, the JNU Student Union President was arrested and charged under Sections 124-A (sedition) and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) as were two more union leaders, for addressing a public meeting on the campus. The laws are archaic British laws of the 1870s, that do not allow Indian citizens to voice discontent. Slapping the law on students discussing the Kashmir problem is symbolic of the extent to which the government was ready to repress anyone discussing any socio-economic-political problem within the country. The democratic space of debate and discussion was crushed in one stroke when the students talking on an issue were told they were rioters, ‘anti-nationals’, in brief a challenge to the authorities making them criminals.

Since 2014, the sedition clause has been used indiscriminately and arbitrarily. From cartoonists to Kashmiri students to actors who did not find Pakistan to be ‘hell’ and many more, people have been arrested and charged with ‘sedition’. The arrest of the JNU students was of immense significance as it was proven that videos and other evidences presented by the prosecutors were doctored and fake. The extent to which the authorities were ready to tamper with the truth to persecute and prosecute students shook the world. University campuses, that are supposed to be bastions of democracy, free speech, debates, discussions and non-violent dissent, were declared hostile. The youth of the country were given an overnight notice that their educational institutions were akin to jails where they could not talk to each other in public spaces.

The suppression of the Long March needs to understood in the very context of the repression of democracy that has plagued the JNU since 2016. The campus has not only been publicly demonised in news channels, print and audio visual media as a centre of anti-national seditious activities; there has also been a systematic attack on the very distinctiveness that the JNU is identified with. To begin with, there has been an administrative and public attack on the admission process of students. The unique character of the JNU was largely the result of every citizen of India, from howsoever a remote and deprived corner of country, being able to enroll and avail higher education of inter-national standard. Women, people from marginalised communities and areas were given deprivation points to help them get admission. As the students and teachers worked together to enable students to acquire world class knowledge, the system of deprivation points was abandoned. The last two years has witnessed a decline of nearly 90 per cent in student intake.

Another feature of the JNU, that set a national precedent, was the setting up of the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH). It was a democratically elected body with students, teachers and administrative representatives. The committee, that had come into existence after years of students, teachers and administration working together, was replaced last year with an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) with appointed members. The GSCASH, constituted in 1999, was formed on the recommendations of the Working Group on Sexual Harassment in 1997. The Rules and Procedures of the Committee were approved by the JNU Executive Council in 2001, based on the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India, in its ruling on the Writ Petition (Criminal) Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan (1997) on the prevention and deterrence of sexual harassment at the workplace. The rules were later modified as per the newer developments such as the SAKSHAM guideline by the UGC (2013), the Justice Verma Committee Report and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (2013). The formation of the body was an inspiration for working women in organised and unorganised sectors, and worked as a guideline for the Human Resource Departments of nearly all government and private sector offices. It allowed every individual to seek justice from an impartial and objective body. The elected character of the members ensured neutrality, while the ICC with members nominated by the administration instils a fear of bias and insecurity.

The Long March was a direct fallout of the repealing of the GSCASH. A woman research scholar, who was a victim of sexual harassment, fled the campus to avoid victimisation. As the students moved towards filing a missing complaint on behalf of her parents, she returned and wrote a public letter detailing her agony. The letter triggered a #MeToo moment for the students under the same teacher, and eight of them joined her in filing an FIR against the teacher, armed with evidence and testimonies. True to its style, the police botched up the case. Despite the agitation outside the police station, they turned a deaf ear to the complaints. After 48 hours when they filed the complaints as non-cognisable offence, the accused was let out on bail in less than two hours. It triggered an outrage as the students and teachers were not sure what came first, the bail or the warrant.

It brought to the forefront, on a much larger scale than ever before, the hostility that the student community had been facing from the administration. From the time of Kanhaiya’s arrest, the vindictiveness of the Vice-Chancellor was apparent. Not only did the VC allow false cases being framed, he also brought the police and security apparatus on the campus as weapons of war. The administrative building was barricaded with students being allowed extremely limited access. The administration became a one way channel that only issued directives and orders, refusing to listen to the grievances of the students and teachers. The interference of the administration in education and teaching started surfacing with students being fined for protesting, promotions of teachers being stalled on groundless reasons and traditional university activities of debates or public meetings being de-legitimised as seditious activity.

The university had been on the boil since the assertion of muscle power by the Right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) which wrote to Ministers seeking the arrest of ideologically Left-oriented student union leaders on fake charges, doctored videos and questionable evidences/witnesses. They were supported by a section of the faculty that submitted a report of charges with no evidence against the teachers and students. The rift widened when a student, Najeeb, went missing from the campus. The administration refused to question or even allow the students/teachers to file a case with the police. It has been over two years and the student has still not been found despite the student pressure leading to the case being transferred to the CBI. Meanwhile the administration and ABVP regularly supply canards to the media and police about his character and whereabouts. The pressure on the students has been increased with draconian measures of fines, fee hikes, stalling of scholarships and the latest marking attendance. In a university that prides itself in being trans-disciplinary, where every student is free to attend lectures and take guidance from teachers across disciplines, strictures regarding attendance kills inter-disciplinary learning and teaching ethos.

In the case of the sexual harasser, Atul Johri, too, the administration and ABVP have been working overtime to question the character and credibility of the students who have filed the complaints. The coercion, blackmail and intimidation in this case are ironic as the complainants also belong to the ABVP. It is a case that bares the ideological and moral bankruptcy of the Right-wing political parties. They are ready to malign and penalise their own women to save a man who is closely connected to the political elite of the RSS. The hollowness of the slogans and jumlas of the Prime Minister were highlighted as the marchers countered it with Bachegi beti tabhi toh parhegi beti (the daughter will be able to study only when she is saved); Johri/VC/Modi hatao beti bachao (remove Johri/VC/Modi to safeguard the daughter).

As in the case of Najeeb, where the administration took no action against the accused students and culprits, here too the administration is openly shielding Johri. He is allowed to remain the supervisor and teacher with administrative powers of the aggrieved women. There has been no disciplinary action taken against him and he is allowed to freely terrorise any student who may depose against him.

The Long March by the students, teachers and supporters of the JNU is another step in the battle between the administration and students. The administration is waging a war on the ethos and identity of the university by shutting off all channels of communication and imposing the violence of the police and coercive apparatus on the students. The administration, that represents a neo-liberal ideology of privatising education, excluding the margina-lised and limiting education to mugging without questioning either the facts being taught or authorities that dole out those facts, is dismantling the university brick by brick. The students, alumni, teachers and supporters are clearly at a disadvantage that they are fighting a losing war with scanty resources and most of the time with nothing but ideas, conviction and a commitment to justice.

The author, a free-lance social science researcher, is an alumnus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a member of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW).

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