Rising tide of students protest

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By: Ashok Thakur

On 5 January 2020, a masked mob brutally attacked the students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who were holding a peace meeting on the campus. The attack had the explicit intention of not only causing physical injuries to students and teachers, but also creating a perpetual sense of fear and terror. The images that have been pouring in from JNU and shown in the media raise many questions. These images show ransacked rooms, with a rickety wooden shelf full of books and a shelf with basic necessities here, a rudimentary heater-cum-stove there, and trampled-over mattresses and blankets spread out on the floors. Reports in the media point out that the targeted rooms were intentionally chosen for having portraits like those of B R Ambedkar on their doors, or for their occupants having a particular embattled social identity.

Clearly, the students of JNU do not live a lavish life, but JNU does provide a rich life—a life of the mind, in a culture that is liberating and encourages criticality, creativity, and flourishing of diverse world views, “leftist” being only one of these. It is a life that offers dignity and hope. It is a university that goes beyond mere “training” and believes in “educating” students, most of whom are from faraway places and underprivileged backgrounds. JNU has had a tradition of open participation in discourses and practices for generating knowledge and safeguarding values that are crucial for maintaining humanism and morality in our society. It has managed to build an enabling, free, and safe atmosphere for its residents over decades, critical for running any university. It is precisely to save students’ right to affordable and quality public education and to prevent further commodification of higher education that a large number of students have been protesting against the proposed hostel fee hike for more than two months. Any attempt for resolution, however, was avoided by the administration.

Multiple attempts have been made in the past to delegitimise the students of JNU as “anti-national” and freeloaders, besides undermining its social–intellectual fabric. A physical attack of such a magnitude was allowed despite the university allocating over 17 crore for security, more than four times the budget spent on the library. Steps like displacing the old security staff with ex-servicemen and the floating of a parallel body of pro-regime puppet teachers indicate how a show of might on the campus was facilitated. In the images from the attack, the involvement of both such teachers and students sympathising with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is visible. From the way the attack was carried out with full impunity, the guidance and complicity of the “authorities” are starkly clear. The consistently obstinate and high-handed approach of the administration seems to be following the line taken by the current regime that has favoured repression over negotiation or any attempts at dialogue. In the hubris of “not yielding an inch,” the authorities are speaking a language of brute force, evading all accountability and facilitating an attack on the institutions they are meant to serve. The entire sequence of events that played out in JNU underlines the preplanned nature of the violence, indications of which could also be traced in the union home minister’s call to punish the “tukde tukde gang” in a speech made in Delhi in December 2019. The attackers, of course, did not stop to reflect as to who really are the ones working relentlessly to push further the division of the society.

Delhi police, though present in large numbers, remained indifferent as the masked assaulters left the campus without any trace of fear. Lest they look laughably and irredeemably incompetent, the police swiftly swung into action by brutally beating the students protesting at the Ministry of Human Resource Development on 9January. Beyond fear, rage and courage are evident in the spontaneous acts of protests emerging every day against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the proposed National Register of Citizens, from even otherwise “politics”-shy campuses and sections of people. It is in this collective spirit where hope lies. Protestors have developed potent counter-narratives that are drawing more people out and enabling new solidarities, with the most rousing and contagious factor being the humour they employ in the ways and modes in which they are protesting. Parents are joking about how “it is so bad” that they feel compelled to join their children in the protests. The police is ridiculed for taking “Hum Dekhenge” too literally and deciding that “we will only watch.”

However, the current regime, with all its arrogance and hostility, may find it difficult to appreciate or even understand such humour. Instead, it chooses to respond to and repress these voices with hostility. The violence meted out in JNU is also in continuation of attacks at other universities, including Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, as well as in Uttar Pradesh. While, in the earlier instances, coercive state machinery did not shy away from openly firing on students and attacking libraries, in this instance, a “private” mob with iron rods and other such weapons was let loose on students. These masked attackers remind one of the masked sloganeers of 2016, who were never identified, but were used for propaganda to malign the university. However, the people are able to identify such attackers, despite the masks, not because of their clothes, but due to the stark nakedness of the impunity with which such attacks are carried out. Such attacks are without any precedent and have a clear aim of intimidating any dissent, especially inside campuses, as student protests are surpassing other protests both in persistence and magnitude, posing a serious challenge to the government. INAV

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