From A World to Win News Service:
The 12 February arrest of student union president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition based on a colonial-era law, for a speech at a demonstration deemed anti-India, has brought Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University to a standstill. Protests by students and teachers at universities across India have taken place over the last week, the largest nationwide student protests in 25 years. Public opinion has been sharply polarised around issues of patriotism, freedom of expression, stifling of critical thinking and university autonomy, provoked by the repressive response from the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its supporters, who say Kumar's arrest is justified. According to a 19 February Aljazeera report, demonstrators in Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai clashed with right-wing student activists. At his court appearance Kumar was attacked by a pack of lawyers, while journalists were pelted with stones.
Different and contradictory video versions of Kumar's speech have been turning up in the last few days. Kumar says that during the demonstration (a protest against the execution and unfair trial of a Kashmiri accused of attacking the Indian parliament), he was trying to break up a fight between Kashmiri students and right-wing students who are staunch supporters of Modi. His speech touched on many subjects critical of the Modi government's Hindu chauvinism (Hindutva), its use of patriotism to attack people who dissent, its cutbacks on government spending on higher education, its attacks on tribal and lower-caste people and women's rights.
The people of Jammu and Kashmir live under a brutal Indian occupation. The area has been claimed by both Pakistan and India since 1947, and an estimated 47,000 people have died in the long complex struggle for self-determination. Thousands have been disappeared by the Indian authorities. In a 1988 insurgency, Kashmiri people demanded and fought for liberation from India. Protests of stone-throwing youth are met with live ammunition, tear gas, curfews, mass arrests, torture and disappearances. On a visit to Kashmir some years ago, when author Arundhati Roy spoke about justice for Kashmiri people and an end to Indian military occupation, she was threatened with arrest for sedition (a crime that could mean life in prison). The Indian government could not politically touch the Booker prize winner without causing an uproar and the charges were later dropped.
Any Indian who considers Kashmir not part of India is considered a traitor. Kashmiri students at JNU are being profiled by the Indian police. Because Kashmir is majority Moslem, India's repression of the people there has been justified on religious grounds, sometimes with the false claim that the demand for Kashmiri freedom (azadi) is a ploy by the Islamist Pakistani government, and at other times simply stoking Hindu religious bigotry.
Academics from some of US and Britain's most prestigious universities and others around the world (Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk and Judith Butler to name a few) have signed a statement of solidarity with Kumar, denouncing his unlawful arrest and decrying the repression and bullying of the Modi government and its current stepped-up campaign against dissent. (See sanhati.org for a list of signers).
Taking place in the context of this overall repressive and Hindutva climate, the January suicide of Rohith Vemula was heartbreaking and shocking to many people. Vemula was a brilliant student who happened to be born a Dalit (once called "Untouchables") and whose interests ranged from helping the poor to protecting the environment and using science to change the world. He was inspired by astronomer Carl Sagan. Working towards a doctor's degree, he and four other students were accused of fighting with pro-Modi students in July 2015. Without any semblance of due process, their scholarships were cut and they were banned from public spaces on the campus, including their dormitory. After a hunger strike and a long, futile struggle to overturn the university ruling, Vemula committed suicide. He left a long, scorching letter of indictment of the society he grew up in, and its vicious caste structure. The following is an excerpt: "The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living." (For an informative article on Rohith Vemula and the full text of his letter see "The Clarity of a Suicide Note," 25 January, thehindu.com)
The following article by Dr Deborah Sutton, a history professor of Lancaster University, UK, is reprinted from theconversation.com.
On the night of 12 February, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the students union of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, one of India’s foremost universities, was arrested on charges of sedition. In the words of cabinet minister Smriti Irani, he had insulted the divine "Mother India".
Protests and sit-ins by angry students and staff have been organised on the campus and in the city. On 14 February, thousands of students, alumni and members of the public formed a human chain on campus in a demonstration of solidarity with Kumar.
The crisis is an orchestrated attempt by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cultivate resentment and suspicion of the university as harbouring and encouraging "anti-national" forces. A social media campaign – #shutJNU – has proliferated. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is charged with being an enemy of the nation and of the taxpayer.
"Anti-JNU" protesters who assembled outside of the university gates and who attacked academics, students and journalists at Kumar’s court hearing were organised by associations affiliated with the BJP: the Sangh Parivar, a family of religious and political organisations committed to a robustly, and exclusively, Hindu version of India – "Hindutva".
The case against Kumar is slight. His arrest followed his attendance of a meeting on the JNU campus held the day before to condemn the execution in 2013 of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist accused of involvement in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. Kumar remains incarcerated and has been remanded in judicial custody until 2 March.
Critics of the government have pointedly questioned the credentials of a democracy that employs legislation inherited from the colonial era to lock up a student leader for attending a meeting at which “anti-Indian” slogans may have been shouted.
JNU labelled a "hub of treason"
Beyond the fragile charges levelled against Kumar, a more diffuse accusation that JNU as an institution is "anti-Indian" has been set out by politicians and anonymous activists. On 16 February, the online library catalogue of the university was hacked to display the slogan: "Dear Traitors in JNU …"
The accusation that JNU is, in the words of MP Maheish Girrias, a "hub of treason" is rather dampened by the number of civil servants in India, not to mention members of the current BJP government, who are JNU alumni.
Optimists maintain that the BJP has bitten off considerably more than it can chew in attacking an institution like JNU – an institution that employs many of India's foremost researchers and intellectuals and that has alumni and research affiliations across the world.
Yet, the ongoing maelstrom of violence in Delhi highlights that JNU's prestige as a public institution cannot protect it from the antagonism of the current government towards universities.
History of student protest
The current disturbances remind many of the dark days of the "Emergency", when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended democratic government for two years between 1975 and 1977 and unleashed widespread repression and violence.
Universities across the country were centres of organised resistance and large numbers of students were arrested and incarcerated. The Jana Sangh, the political party from which the BJP emerged in 1980, was one of the many political organisations that resisted the authoritarian strictures of this period and indeed subsequently benefited from the political allegiances formed while opposing it.
By invoking the protection of "Mother India" in its suppression of free speech at Indian universities, the BJP government has chosen a very large target to hide behind.
During the freedom struggle in India, the figure of Mother India embodied the nation and in turn women (of the right kind) were invited to embody a national ideal. Few political parties have not mobilised her; however, her blend of Hindu divinity, nation and chaste morality has made her a particular favourite of Hindu right-wing politicians who revel in reacting to perceived slights to her honour.
Shifting the debate
The JNU crisis has a more immediate context. A month before Kumar's arrest, on 16 January, Rohith Vemula, a dalit student, committed suicide after being suspended from Hyderabad University. Vemula's death provoked weeks of public discussion and protest about the continuation of caste oppression in India.
Kumar's arrest and the organisation of "anti-JNU" demonstrations in Delhi are counter-reactions by the BJP and by Hindu organisations whose politics rest upon the assertion, and violent protection, of a conservative social morality. The aggressive identification of an enemy within the nation, and specifically within universities, has displaced the demands for social change provoked by Vemula's death.
Students have long been active participants, and leaders, of activism in India, championing the causes of social justice and equality. For decades, and long before the current government came to power, university students have been at the forefront of movements against gender violence, caste oppression, the displacement and impoverishment of rural communities.
From the point of view of any government, JNU is a font of thought and debate and, potentially, an irritant. Long may it continue.