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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2016

Undermining Democracy: Stifling Academic Institutions

State Repression of JNUSU and Unleashing of Street Violence

Sunday 20 March 2016

by Ram Puniyani

Following the death of Rohith Vemula in the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), one of the most prestigious universities of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has been targeted by the ruling Modi Sarkar. The frightening things which happened in the HCU were just the beginning of the attack on the autonomy of universities, on free thinking in a democracy. Rohith was forced to kill himself by the machinations of the ABVP, which had brought pressure through a BJP MP on the Ministry of HRD to get Rohith expelled from the hostel and stop his fellowship. Similarly the local ABVP unit brought pressure through its usual channels to intimidate and stifle the democratically-elected Students’ Union in JNU.

 It is alleged that in JNU some anti-India pro-Pakistan slogans were shouted. There are confusing versions as to who did so. The truth of the video has come out: it was doctored. On the pretext of that Kanhiaya Kumar, the President of the JNUSU, was arrested and the charge of sedition was slapped on him. Now Kumar is a member of the AISF, the student wing of the CPI, which is opposed to the separatist pro-Pakistan stance and in no way can he be a part of the type of slogan-shouting which is supposed to have taken place. The original video also makes this clear. He neither shouted the slogans nor can anybody be arrested on the charge of shouting the slogans. The constitutional position, as clarified by noted jurist Soli Sorabjee, is that incitement to violence alone can be termed anti-national.

How come the Delhi Police entered the campus? The Vice-Chancellor, a BJP appointee, is indulging in double-speak on the issue. On TV he stated that he will be the last person to call the police into the campus. The investigation shows that he wrote letters to the police calling upon them to take suitable action. The Delhi Police, working under Home Minister Rajnath Singh, went on recklessly to put the charge of sedition against Kumar. The lawyers in the court indulged in violence against those who looked like JNU students. One BJP MLA was involved in mercilessly beating up a CPI activist. This MLA also said that had he got a gun he would have shot those raising anti-India slogans. One journalist was also attacked by BJP supporters. The same violence was repeated by lawyers the following day as well and when Kanhaiya was being brought to the court he was also beaten up.

Now what is happening is a blatant attack by the RSS-controlled ABVP-BJP to crush the democratic secular voices in the country. As in the Rohith Vemula case, the ABVP has become emboldened to call all those opposing their politics as anti-national as it is getting the state support to intimidate the voices for social justice, that is, the progressive voices. BJP-affiliated organisations are creating a mass hysteria around the word ‘anti-national’. All those who don’t endorse the ‘RSS-promoted Hindutva nationalism’ are being called anti-national. Prashant Bhushan calls it a fascist onslaught.

All this constitutes a big erosion of the values and practices which India has been nourishing. The RSS combine is seeing this as an opportunity to wipe out all the norms and ethos of democratic culture and dissenting voices. It is a matter of shame that the police lacks the spine and professionalism and arrests the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar.

Rahul Gandhi, who went to the JNU campus and showed solidarity with the students, was greeted with black flags and stones were thrown at him in Lucknow. Those agitating said that they were very angry as Rahul was sympathising with anti-nationals. The MLA, who beat up the CPI worker, also said that anti-national activities were going on and so he was showing his anger against those who shouted the pro-Pakistan slogans. In TV debates the BJP spokespersons have been harping on the same slogans and the social media is resorting to a similar language.

 The argument has been uniformly advanced by the Delhi lawyers taking law into their own hands to those indulging in violence, from the Ministers and top BJP leaders to those resorting to street violence. The second observation is that JNU students have been demonised through the propaganda as being anti-national, and JNU being the den of anti-India activities. One recalls that all this demonisation of JNU started with this government coming to power. The RSS affiliates, VHP etc. have been taking marches to the JNU gate to protest against the anti-national JNU students and faculty.

 Both these arguments in a way show the deeper agenda. The anti-national rhetoric has been created to generate a mass hysteria against those disagreeing with the BJP’s politics. The resorting to violence on this pretext clearly shows that this is a concerted effort to browbeat the practices and ideas which are not in keeping with the RSS-BJP mindset. This hysteria has been created to distract attention from the social movement building up around the death of Rohith Vemula. The all-round anger on the Rohith issue had put the BJP on the backfoot. The mass hysteria generated around anti-India slogans is leading to street violence. This is an attempt on the part of the BJP associates to wrest the initiative away from the movement which is building around Rohith. Apart from the attempt to abolish the autonomy of universities, this is also an offort to sidetrack the issue of Dalits. The latter has also been reflected in the resignation of three office-bearers of the ABVP in JNU. These office-bearers in their letter point to their dissatisfaction with the government-BJP-ABVP interference in JNU affairs and their attitude of undermining the Dalit issue as reflected in their approach to the death of Rohith.

 The demonisation of JNU again is on purpose. This institution has reflected the democratic spirit, the freedom of thought, and the progressive values, all of which are an anathema to the agenda represented by ABVP-BJP. They want to abolish the autonomy of academic institutions as reflected in their policies in the case of FTTI, IIT Madras, IIT Delhi and HCU, to name a few. JNU was a particular target due to its outstanding contribution to the high level of scholarship and adherence to progressive secular values. The concerted move by the ruling dispensation and its political associates to create a mass hysteria around anti-nationalism and to erode the image of a progressive institution like JNU is an attack on the principles of democracy in the country.

While hopefully the courts may give some relief to Kanhaiya Kumar, the issue remains as to whether the mass hysteria and street violence which has been unleashed on the pretext of anti-India slogans can be brought under control. The massive rallies of students demanding the release of Kumar, calling upon the government not to interfere in the autonomy of universities and opposing the demonisation of JNU drew a massive response. The ABVP and its family in a recalcitrant manner is mobilising its cadres all through the country to protest against ‘anti-nationalism’. Those who were part of the JNU students meeting at the university have condemned the anti-India pro-Pakistan slogans. The need is to take up the struggle for preserving the democratic values to the masses.

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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