Why India's university protests don't just matter to students

Demonstrators demand the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, a university student accused of sedition, in New Delhi, March 2, 2016.
Adnan Abidi

NEW DELHI, India — What started as sloganeering at a Delhi university is polarizing people across India. Amid the country’s biggest student protests in 25 years, many are being forced to pick a side, often further left or right than they would usually lean.

The face-off began last month when a small far-left student group at India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University gathered to commemorate the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri militant controversially hanged in 2013 for involvement in a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. 

The Feb. 9 event attracted opposition from the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who accused organizers of “anti-India” sentiment. The rally was swarmed by protesters and counter-protesters, decrying everything from the right-wing government’s perceived crackdown on dissent to India’s control over Kashmir. 

Videos of angry students allegedly calling for India’s destruction circulated widely online and on TV. Though analysts subsequently found at least two of the clips to have been doctored, it triggered a wave of condemnation for the university, a public institution with a longstanding reputation for left-wing politics. 

Before long #ShutDownJNU was trending on social media, along with accusations that the campus was a hotbed of revolutionary communists. Two days after the event, police arrested the president of the student union, Kanhaiya Kumar, on charges of sedition — inciting “disaffection towards the government,” a criminal offense in India. Five other students were accused of the same charge; two have been taken into custody.

The move was widely condemned by JNU students and staff as excessive. Their protests gained support from students from other universities as well as members of the public who claimed the government was using the police to suppress free speech. 

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Those on the other side of the debate, meanwhile, questioned their patriotism. The government’s supporters branded protesters “anti-national,” while slurs like “sickular,” “presstitute” and simply “intellectual” became commonplace on social media.

The controversy soon extended well beyond words. JNU professors, students and journalists were physically attacked in a courtroom where they were waiting for the hearing of Kumar’s case. Kumar himself, who was released on bail this week after three weeks in custody, was beaten up by a group of lawyers who later bragged to a reporter: “We beat up that boy for three hours… Three hours.”

Outside the university’s gates, media vans lined up, hoping to capture fresh confrontations. Sometimes crowds joined the press, calling for the university’s closure. Some JNU students told GlobalPost that the “protesters” were in fact local domestic workers, who they said right-wing groups were paying to swell the numbers.

Whether or not that’s true, plenty of people think the JNU students crossed a line. “Whatever has happened in JNU, I don’t think this is good for the country,” commented Gourav Agarwal, a marketing manager in nearby Noida, outside Delhi. “People talk about freedom of expression, but they never [realize] freedom brings a lot of responsibility also.”

Others, however, believe that the incident raises very different questions.

“Our education is at stake. If we aren’t here today, they will come for us tomorrow,” said Monika Pareek, an undergraduate at St. Stephen’s College who aspires to study at JNU.

Pareek was one of hundreds, maybe thousands, who were present two weeks ago at the administrative block on the JNU campus, a political center stage where the original rally took place and where students have been protesting ever since. 

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Amidst murals of nationalist icon Jawaharlal Nehru and posters demanding #JusticeForRohith, students sang while JNU security formed a human chain in front of the students wanted for sedition. They had resurfaced the night before, having gone into hiding citing fears they might be lynched.

Despite the vitriol directed at the university, the scenes inside were peaceful. JNU, which has been called “India’s Berkeley,” responded to Kumar’s arrest by arranging open classes on nationalism by some of India’s best known names in political thought.

On the day that GlobalPost visited, noted feminist scholar Nivedita Menon was delivering a lecture on who gets to define nationalism. “It is evident that nationalism isn’t as powerful as we thought if the sloganeering of four boys caused this kind of a reaction,” she said.

One faction was notably absent: the ABVP, a right-wing student organization associated with the ruling BJP. The group led efforts to cancel the February gathering that led to the student arrests, and turned out to disrupt it when they couldn’t stop it taking place. 

“These are not slogans that we are hearing for the first time on campus, these are happening every year,” said Gaurav Jha, a JNU student and ABVP member.

“We will not allow anti-India activities on campus. After proper investigation… those involved need to be identified and acted upon according to the law of the land, not through JNU rules.”

Back at the nationalism class, students were asking questions on how to deal with right-wing attacks. As the last questions were being fielded, a woman in her 50s pushed to the front of the students, and started shouting unintelligibly at Menon. 

When the professor asked her if she had a question, the woman, in tears, called out abuse. Before she was led away gently but firmly, the students clapped loudly to drown her shouting out. The moment was telling — two sides, both making a lot of noise, and not much being heard.

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