JNU Row: Why they protest?
The government has opened a Pandora's box by invading JNU
Abeer Kapoor Delhi
In Rahul Roy’s documentary ‘The Factory’, one of the parents of the incarcerated union workers states that he understands how the state can brand anyone as a criminal, determine the definitions of what is permissible, what is a crime, and now it determines what are the characteristics of an ideal citizen.
In the past week, the city of Delhi has seen massive unrest. Wave after wave of protests erupting at the Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) has arrested the imagination of the nation. Cognitive binaries now abound. ‘Us vs them’ is part of the larger public discourse. ‘Anti-national’ is a catchword now.
Universities, such as JNU, serve as a microcosm of the nation. It’s where the ideas, identities, fears and realities of the country reveal themselves. The tension in India’s universities has been voluble for a while, and it has finally reached a tipping point. According to students in JNU, the genesis of the current situation lies in November 2015. Students living in Jhelum Hostel were not allowed to have a havan inside their room by the wardens; this they understood to be an attack on their right to celebrate and practice their religion. Three wardens, one of them who was conspicuously named Burton Cleetus, stopped the havan, seeing it as a security hazard. Not surprisingly Cleetus paid the price for his Christian surname as it was soon alleged that his actions were politically motivated. The faculty rallied behind the warden calling it an attempt to communally polarize the university space. This according to students and faculty was the first attempt at breaking apart the educational institution from where the most scathing criticism against the government comes.
On 12th February, three days after the Afzal Guru event, when the news channels were going full throttle branding the JNU student body as “anti-national”, the police entered the campus premises and arrested the President of the Students Union Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition. The entrance of the police was preceded by a strongly worded tweet by Home Minister Rajnath Singh on 11 February. The tweet in question stated “Whatever has happened in JNU is extremely unfortunate. I have instructed Delhi CP to take strong action against the anti-India elements”.
On the 13th February, seasoned politicians such as D Raja, Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, Yogendra Yadav and Anand Sharma converged to protest against the arbitrary manner in which Kanhaiya was arrested. Ironically Anand Sharma ended up being pelted by a rock at the gate of the campus. The JNUSU and JNUTA-the student and teachers association of the JNU respectively-have maintained that the current controversy is a natural progression of what has been happening in the country for the past two years.
In turn, after refusing to talk to the media directly, the members of the JNUSU and JNUTA on 14th February came out and shifted the conversation to the core principles that fuel the agitation. The students believe that the first point of attack is the highly subsidised education that is offered in JNU.There has been an attempt by the government, according to the students in the university, to end this subsidy, and proceed towards the privatisation of the education sector. This will rid the state of its responsibility towards the students, and help align the education requirements according to World Trade Organisation standards.
According to Shehla Rashid, Vice President of the JNU Students union, the growing intolerance in the country is the core issue that they are protesting against. The protesting students maintain that it’s these instances of communal hate, casteist hate clubbed together with the squeezing of educational funds that led to the death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula. The protesters have rallied around the struggle and memory of Vemula. His face adorns every poster and placard held by the students. His name was the name they chanted when the students peacefully held hands.
However, the violence cannot be contained within the walls of the campus anymore. It is spilling over to campuses in other parts of the country. Some reckon that this could be the biggest student agitation that the country has witnessed in the last 25 years. The JNU face-off has also deepened the fault lines in Indian politics that could make the smooth conduct of the budget session of the parliament a difficult task.