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India’s Left University Fights Back

On Sunday, gangs associated with India's ruling BJP organised a violent assault on left-wing students in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The resulting outrage is putting the extreme right on the back foot.

The violent attack unleashed by the extreme right on the students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on January 5th has brought the escalation of repression that is being deployed by India’s ruling party into sharp relief.

The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been agitating against unprecedented fee hikes for more than two and a half months, part of a growing popular resistance to the policies of the Modi government. That evening, in response, masked gangsters brutally assaulted students and teachers of the university. Aishe Ghosh, president of the JNU Students’ Union and a leader of the left-wing Students’ Federation of India (SFI), was among the injured. She received head injuries which required several stitches, and images of her profusely bleeding went viral, shaking the conscience of the country.

Scores of students suffered serious injuries and were admitted to the hospital. Several teachers who were part of a demonstration for peace were also attacked and injured. Images of Professor Sucharita Sen, who suffered head injuries, similarly reached social media. The assailants put into action a well-planned operation in the cover of the night, with the seeming support of the JNU administration, the Delhi Police (which is controlled by the central government) and the security personnel deployed on campus. Street lights were switched off to allow the thugs to have a free run.

Based on images of the same people gathering without masks before the attack, students have identified the assailants as members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The ABVP is the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation) or RSS, a Hindu supremacist outfit and the world’s largest fascist organisation. The Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) or BJP, India’s ruling party, is the political arm of the RSS.

Leaked screenshots of the chats that occurred in WhatsApp groups created by RSS-ABVP activists to coordinate their “action” in JNU exposed the extent of planning that went into the violence they unleashed on campus. The numbers of the group members matched with publicly available numbers of well-known ABVP activists, and they were seen giving instructions to those from outside JNU regarding which gate to use to enter JNU to attack students.

Why the Right Hates JNU

JNU, a University that was set up in 1969, is considered a stronghold of the Left, particularly when it comes to its student movement which has been a key part of the fight against neoliberal economic policies and religio-political sectarianism (termed “communalism” in India) in the country.

The JNU student movement, from its beginning in the early 1970s, has been a bulwark of resistance against right-wing economic policies. Led by the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), it has fought to ensure that students from all backgrounds, particularly those from socially marginalised and economically deprived backgrounds, are able to come and study at the university.

There have been mainly two ways which have been central in achieving this. First, the fees — both tuition fee and other fees such as hostel fees — have been kept low. And secondly, affirmative action — reservations and deprivation points, or extra marks in the entrance examinations — for students hailing from socially and economically deprived sections, and from poor regions, has been put in place. The Union has repeatedly fought off attempts to raise fees, so that even as most other educational institutions, including public educational institutions, have seen fees rise sharply, JNU has avoided such a fate so far.

Another important part of JNU’s renown is its academia, which is known both for high standards and for its social commitment. By and large, the teachers of JNU, particularly those in the social sciences and humanities departments which account for the bulk of the students, maintain a progressive outlook. They uphold a commitment to reason, and to the principles of secularism and democracy which are among the foundational principles of India as a republic.

Many of them challenge the Washington Consensus and the communal politics of the family of organisations led by the RSS. JNU teachers and alumni have played, and continue to play, key roles in providing the intellectual arsenal to fight imperialism, neoliberal economic policies, and the Hindu supremacist politics (known as “Hindutva”) of the RSS-BJP.

The JNUSU is a body in which all JNU students are members by default, and it is led by representatives who are chosen in elections every year. The Union has been led by left-wing organisations during the vast majority of the 48 years of its existence. It is the vision and organised action of these organisations that lie behind the politics championed by the JNU student movement.

In the second half of the 1990s, when the BJP came to power for the first time in India, it had its impact in the JNU campus as well, with the ABVP indulging in violence against students and teachers. There was a rise in number of cases of women being sexually harassed and assaulted. Students responded by rising up in massive numbers against the hideous politics of the ABVP. They set up a committee to deal with cases of harassment and to sensitise students and others on gender issues. The campaign won with the setting up of the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) in 1999 — the first time in India that such a body was set up in an educational institution.

During the tenure of the BJP-led government of 1999-2004, there were attempts to introduce obscurantism and pseudo-science to the curriculum. The students, led by their Union, fought and forced the administration to withdraw the move. There was a massive tide of protest from JNU when more than 2,000 Muslims were massacred in the state of Gujarat in the year 2002, with the full backing of the state government led by the BJP. Fact-finding teams of JNU students and teachers visited Gujarat, collected relief funds and material, and extended legal aid to the victims of the pogrom.

The determined opposition of the students of the university to Hindutva has made the JNU student movement a target of attack for the RSS and its affliated organisations. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, various Hindutva leaders began demanding that the university be shut down, or converted into a management institute. 

But such calls took a more concrete form when the BJP returned to power in 2014 with a majority of its own in the lower house of the Parliament. Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when his state machinery presided over the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, became the Prime Minister.

In January 2016, M Jagadesh Kumar, a professor with RSS links, was appointed the Vice-Chancellor of JNU. His mandate was clear — destroy the student movement, and change the character of the university to suit the pro-corporate, pro-Hindutva politics of the RSS-BJP. The approach was to say if the very university was destroyed in this effort, so be it.

A full-blown assault on the university began the next month. Fake videos of students raising “anti-India”, “pro-Pakistan” slogans were aired on a pro-BJP television channel, and the President of the JNUSU and two other student activists were put in jail on the charge of sedition — a draconian, colonial law. The aim was to drum up jingoist hysteria, painting left activists as “anti-nationals” and to use the ABVP to take control of the university.

In response, the students and teachers of the university launched the largest movement that JNU had seen hitherto — the ‘Stand with JNU’ movement. Thousands of students, teachers, alumni and others took part in marches, convened mass gatherings and held open-air lectures for more than a month in defence of the university’s democratic ethos. The jailed student activists were released after being forced to spend several weeks in prison. The ABVP ended up isolated. The attempt to rein in the student movement had failed.

In the subsequent months, the JNU administration adopted a more direct approach to change the character of the university. It was recognised that the basic “problem” was that students from all backgrounds were coming to the university, learning about the world and about the various approaches to understand society, and thus developing a staunchly critical attitude to right-wing politics. If students from socially and economically deprived backgrounds join the university, they are more likely to end up being critics of ruling class policies. Hence, to curb the student movement, the attack has to be at the root of the problem itself.

The JNU administration cut places in the M.Phil. and Ph.D. research programmes of the university. More than a thousand places were cut in the first year in 2017. In addition, incompetent pro-RSS candidates were recruited to faculty positions, flouting norms and overlooking deserving candidates. With RSS acolytes who could remain university teachers for decades, the curriculum could be changed to reflect pro-market, pro-Hindutva politics, inflicting long-term damage on academic standards and the character of the university.

But the student agitation underway now in JNU is in response to the recent decision to hike hostel fees in the university. The fee hike would result in living expenses doubling, thus making education in the university inaccessible to the vast majority of students in a country where average monthly household income is less than 10,000 rupees (£108) for 85 percent of the population. It is also contrary to the principle of education as a right, which the JNU student movement has championed.

The BJP government, however, responded with brute force, with the police assaulting the students when they marched to parliament on November 18th. The students remained unfazed, and public support to their cause increased. Therefore, further violence was required.

India’s Citizenship Scandal

The situation in India took a new turn as the BJP government got the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Indian parliament on December 11th. The CAA, combined with the government’s plan to put in place a National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country, is a law which copper fastens the message that Muslims are second-class citizen.

The establishment of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu State) is the objective of the RSS, and the elimination or complete subjugation of Muslims, Christians and Communists, whom the RSS considers India’s “internal threats,” is essential for them to achieve this goal. If it is Muslims today, it could be Christians, people belonging to other minority religious communities, leftists, or anybody else tomorrow. Any of us could be targeted for expulsion, or even sent to detention camps.

As this became apparent to increasingly larger sections of people, protests against the CAA-NRC spread across the country. Yet again, the Delhi Police, controlled by the central government, and the police in Uttar Pradesh, controlled by the BJP government of that state, responded by assaulting students – this time of Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Uttar Pradesh.

The police savagely beat protestors, and fired tear gas into the library in Jamia. They burnt buses and vandalised buildings to justify the violence, blaming students for the destruction of public property. As videos and photos exposing the police atrocities went viral, protests in solidarity with the students of Jamia and AMU, and against the CAA-NRC, gained further strength. JNU students were among the forefront.

Faced with intense backlash over the issue, the BJP decided to go an a nationwide campaign to defend its stance. But on Sunday, Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister, was faced with protests by two young women while he went campaigning in a Delhi neighbourhood. This was a major embarrassment to the BJP leadership, and the ferocious assault on JNU took place later in the evening. Was it an attempt to assuage the RSS’s frustration at its inability to contain the wave of protests? Or was it meant to terrorise the students and teachers into submission? Either way, it hasn’t worked.

It is truly impressive that four years of unrelenting attacks on JNU haven’t managed to browbeat the student movement. The organised nature of the student movement in JNU, with left student organisations at its core, has played a crucial role in keeping the struggle alive. In recent years, the RSS-BJP’s attempt to impose its writ on students has triggered powerful student agitations in many renowned educational institutions, including Hyderabad Central University, the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

The ongoing struggle in JNU has resonated in campuses across the country, with students of many higher education institutions which haven’t had significant movements or organisations joining protests in solidarity. In many such cases, students have demanded that fee hikes in their own institutions be rolled back, or that the high fees in their institutions be brought down. That the movement is spreading across the country is what has really spooked the ruling establishment.

In the aftermath of the violent attack on students and teachers a large number of people, including film actors, who had previously been silent or apathetic, expressed solidarity with JNU. With the convergence of the nationwide movement against the CAA-NRC and the movement for affordable public education, the Indian winter of discontent seems to have truly arrived. 

Repeated right-wing attacks on campuses are serving to politicise an entire generation of students and youth. Each such attack has led to the building of more popular resilience, creating more leaders and slogans that capture people’s imagination. 

For the student movement as well as the movement of the working people, these provide a historic opportunity. The most crucial point in this context, as demonstrated by the example of JNU, is the fact that fascist forces can be fought only if people are organised. It is the Left, as the most consistent and uncompromising anti-fascist force, which can provide the leadership for the battles that lie ahead.