There are two forms of political engagement. In one, the exchange of ideas, and even intractable disagreements, are part of the rough and tumble of democratic politics. In the other, the coercive power of the State is used to settle all arguments forever.
The battle lines between proponents of these two forms of political engagement were firmly drawn this week, when union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, responding to complaints of his party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP sent the Delhi Police on to the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, with the intention to intimidate an entire University.
Plainclothes policemen entered the JNU campus. A police photographer took pictures of students and faculty gathered at the university’s administrative block to protest the police presence and the arrest of students’ union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, on February 11.
Kumar has been remanded in police custody as the police “want to investigate any links he may have with terror organisations related to Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan”.
Rajnath Singh said the police were acting on his instructions. He pre-empted any formal investigation of a complaint and the verification of facts with his comments a day after Kumar’s arrest. “… about what has happened in JNU… I have given the police all instructions necessary in these situations,” he said. “…strict action will be taken against them… Under no circumstances will I forgive those who raise this type of anti-Indian slogan or who question the unity, integrity…. of India.”
With the might of the State against it, the faculty and students on the JNU campus feel like they are under siege. The University has a system of complaint redressal, and a committee was set up to inquire into the events of February 9. That day, students are said to have chanted “divisive” slogans at an event organised to discuss the execution of Parliament attack-accused Afzal Guru, and the right of self-determination of the people of Kashmir.
While there was some dissatisfaction with the composition of the committee, everyone agreed it was within the norms set by the university. There was no disruption of work and classes. Life should have gone one as usual. Yet, the administration caved in under government pressure and allowed the police to enter the campus to do what it “deems fit” after receiving a letter saying there was “seditious activity” on the campus.
The everyday world of a university like JNU has room for all sorts of opinions and political affiliations. Even the students’ union is composed of three different political groupings, one of which is the BJP affiliate, the ABVP. That JNU students of the ABVP themselves summoned the coercive forces of the State has shaken the world of this campus, where hot words and angry arguments are usually the most extreme form of political engagement.
The Rohith connection?
A master’s student from the Hindi department, who was standing alone on the edge of the crowd of students gathered at the academic block, told me in a quiet voice that the police should not have been brought into disagreement between students. “This is a disagreement between students, even ABVP students are JNU students, why have they sent the police?” the student said. “I don’t agree with some of the slogans that were shouted [on Feburary 9]. But how can they arrest students for a slogan? I think because JNUSU supported Rohith Vemula and the government is looking bad because of Rohith Vemula, all these things – Siachen deaths, slogans etc., are being combined to attack JNU students.”
But, this is not the first time that the ABVP has acted in what might be a less-than-straightforward and collegial manner, and the BJP government has lent it active support. When wardens in JNU shut down a “havan” in a hostel room as a fire hazard, ABVP students filed a police complaint of sexual harassment and hurting religious sentiments against a Christian faculty member present. A university fact-finding committee has proven the claims false, yet a court case continues. At IIT Madras, a letter from the Human Resource Development ministry based on an “anonymous” complaint got the Ambedkar Study Circle banned. In Hyderabad, it was an ABVP student’s complaint to the same ministry via a BJP member of Parliament, and a court case his family filed, that escalated a campus students’ dispute into a battle between the BJP and non-ABVP students. This led the university administration to take disciplinary action against Rohith Vemula and his friends. In JNU this week, an ABVP complaint to the police and a BJP member of Parliament about a students’ dispute over slogans raised on campus unleashed the wrath of the union Home Minister against non-ABVP students.
ABVP vs the others
It is indicative of what the two sides in this battle represent that the ABVP massed non-student supporters from the neighbouring Munirka colony to protest against students inside JNU. It also held a demonstration at India Gate calling for the arrest of students in JNU.
The non-ABVP students have raised concerns about the police presence on their campus and against arbitrary arrests in the public spaces of the university. For the ABVP, this is clearly part of the Sangh Parivar’s battle to redefine the idea of India in which anyone who does not agree with them is a “desh drohi” or anti-national, but for the non-ABVP students, this is a battle for the rights of students at a university in India.
By bringing its clenched fist down on a university campus the government may be winning the battle of the airwaves, but it is not winning the battle for the hearts and minds of students in JNU.
“ABVP is always trying to say if you don’t agree with them you are anti-national, that is not a good argument,” said a woman, an undergraduate student from the School of Languages. She was one of a group of first-year undergraduates who have not joined the protests on campus because their parents told them not to. But they said they supported the protests in spirit because they felt Kumar’s arrest was wrong. “He is not the type to shout such slogans. Even if someone did, how can you put him in in jail?”
The BJP and a segment of the media like to portray JNU as a hotbed of subversive political activity, or in the words of a BJP member, “a Maoist production factory”. This characterisation finds favour with those who watch aggressive television anchors shout their studio guests into submission or silence every night. But there is truth beyond television news.
A young woman from Assam, a first year MA student, tried to explain to me why she and her friends were going to join a student and faculty protest at the administrative block in JNU. “Look, you must understand, it was our dream to study in JNU,” she said. “Now we are finally here, and they are telling us that in JNU they teach us about terrorism, that we support terrorists! They have sent the police to arrest students! They are saying this university we worked hard to enter is a bad place and we are bad people. That is why we are going.”
There is a video now online of Kanhaiya Kumar, the students union president, who is spending this weekend in police remand. The video is an eloquent young man’s impassioned affirmation of the idea of India that was created through the struggle for independence, of democratic principles, the value of the Constitution and a denunciation of the “constitution written in Nagpur” (the home of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).
He clearly does not need lessons in nationalism from his political opponents. But his political opponents and our central government, however, could do with lessons in citizenship, how democracy functions, and on what universities are.
In a democracy a State does not intervene in the functioning of a university where life and limb are secure. Universities are not factories where people are beaten into identikit followers of state ideologies, but sanctuaries where young people can think, argue, debate and become the active questioning citizens that make democracies thrive.