Since last week, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi has been the site of protests and clashes. On 12 February 2016, the JNU Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested under Section 124A and Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code that refer to sedition and criminal conspiracy, respectively. Kumar’s arrest was preceded by an event that was held on 9 February. This event, held at JNU, focused on the hanging of Mohammad Afzal, who was convicted for his alleged role in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Parliament. Although the organisers had originally received permission to conduct the programme, they were told—reportedly 15 minutes before the event was scheduled to take place—that the administration had withdrawn the permission. The administration appeared to have taken this decision a little after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) had complained about the “anti-national event.” Subsequently, the participating students and those from the ABVP entered into an altercation and the police were later deployed on campus to restore order. It has since been revealed that the police had been investigating the campus for anti-national elements for some time. In a report submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the police stated that the Democratic Student’s Union (DSU) was behind the protest on 9 February. Along with DSU, the report also alleged the Democratic Student’s Federation was involved in “anti-national activities” at JNU in the past. These activities included worshipping Mahisasur and not Durga during the Navratri festival and asking for beef in the hostel mess.
In August last year, I covered an ABVP protest at JNU that was targeted at the growing “anti-national” activity within the university. In hindsight, demonstrations such as these were already building the foundation for the ABVP’s stance this year.
On 3 August 2015, a small group of ABVP activists and students assembled outside the administrative block at JNU. They were holding a demonstration, according to the flyers they were passing out, “to pressurise the JNU administration to take strong action against [the] rising anti-national and terrorist activities within [the] university campus.”
Their vocabulary, in hindsight, would appear prescient. The words and phrases that the students from ABVP employed at this protest, were parroted by news anchors and journalists six months later. “There is a thin line between what dissent is and what is anti-national. What is dissent and what is sedition.” Gaurav Jha, the vice president of ABVP at that time, and current president candidate of the organisation said.
The protest was to begin at 2:00 PM but was pushed to 2.45 pm as most students had not turned up by then. In total, there were around 20 people gathered there. The group began with chanting “Vandemataram, bharat mata ki jai.” As a Muslim student walked past, these slogans changed to “Jo Afsal ki baat karega, Woh Afsal ki Maut marega”—Whoever praises [Mohammad] Afsal, will die like Afsal. Chants about the ABVP’s battle against “anti-nationalism” followed. These soon began referring to the university in particular, “JNU mein anti-national activities nahi chelegi—There will be no anti-national activities in JNU; JNU VC down, down ; JNU prasasham hosh me ao—The administration of JNU needs to come to its senses ; DSU ko ban karo—Ban DSU.”
Once the sloganeering was over, the activists and ABVP candidates for the JNU students union elections—which were held in September 2015—went to the makeshift dais at the steps of the administrative block. This is the same spot at which thousands of students assembled recently, to make their speeches and protest against the crackdown on the university.
Lalit Pandey, the ABVP JNU secretary spoke of the hypocrisy of students supporting Mohammad Afzal and elaborated on ABVP’s own stance on law and order, “When Dhananjay Singh [former Bahujan Samaj Party MP who is charged with murdering his domestic help] was punished, did any ABVP activist oppose the punishment?” Another speaker warned the left-leaning student organisations on the campus, predicting, “You are wiped out from the other parts of the world. You would be wiped out of JNU as well.”
Jha spoke of a University General Body Meeting that was held a day or two after the hanging of the 1993 Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon. He complained that although the event was conducted to discuss the hostel crisis, “every speaker spoke two minutes [sic] about Yakub [Memon] and one minute about abusing BJP, or national politics.” One of the students assembled there claimed, “These guys [students from other organisations] are only active in three-four issues: Afzal Guru, Shaheed Divas and Mahishasur Divas.” This line of reasoning was repeated in every argument that painted the campus as anti-national.
Jha and his friends seemed hopeful about the next JNU election, which was scheduled for September, “We will contest everywhere we can: all centres and all schools.” They showed me a letter that they planned to submit to the Vice Chancellor Sudhir Kumar Sopory about the “deteriorating academic situation in JNU as a result of hate-mongering and rising anti-national activities on campus.” The letter was signed by a Phd student Ravi Ranjan Chaudhry and made no mention of his membership of any organisation.
The letter stated that “a series of anti-national activities have increased on campus that are threatening the secular and peaceful fabric” of the university. The letter made special note of the events organised by students who were associated with DSU, the same organisation that would later be named in the poilce report last week for organising the event around Mohammad Afsal’s hanging that sparked the protests. The letter went on to say that “these repeated anti-national and anti-Hindu activities in JNU are vitiating the campus atmosphere and affecting common students especially the newly admitted students who are in [an] impressionable age group.” It called for strong action by the university against the “criminal-minded pro-Naxalites, pro-Jihadi elements.”
One of the posters put up by these students that day alleged that “Naxal Gunda—thug” research scholars Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid, both of whom were named as organisers of Tuesday’s event, attacked an ABVP activist Sandeep Singh. The poster declared, “Mitron, this attack also reflects the casteist mindset of DSU, an organisation that consists of mostly rich, urban elites, who join politics for sake of having fun. The attack was intentionally done against Sandeep who hails from a poor family belonging to backward community in Bihar.” It continued, “On the other hand, the attackers Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid belong to elite upper strata of society. These goondas couldn’t digest a poor boy from backward community rising to their equal status and questioning them by looking into their eye.” When I spoke to Singh earlier today, he admitted “They didn’t beat me up. You can say that there was a scuffle.”
This poster also went on to mention the DSU’s alleged links with Hem Mishra who “is languishing behind bars under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, a law under which terrorist organisations like Lashkar-E-Toiba and LTTE were banned.” Mishra was a JNU student who was arrested in August 2013 for two years for acting as a courier for Naxalites. He was recently released on bail.
At the ABVP event, I tried to speak to a person standing next Jha. I wanted to ask him about who he was and if he identified himself as an activist. Jha interrupted to say, “Anand ji is the chief RSS student volunteer.” I never learnt his full name.
Jha told me that they had organised a campaign across the messes of JNU to get student support. “We are going to meet the vice chancellor now and if he doesn’t take action, we will organise a protest.” I asked Jha if I could accompany them to meet the vice chancellor. He deferred to the man next to him, “Anand ji, he is asking if he can come in when we meet VC?” I did not hear ‘Anand ji’s’ reply, but I was denied the opportunity to accompany them. Six months later, the wide-spread agitation within and outside JNU, was kicked off by the vice chancellor’s last-minute decision to revoke permission for the 9 February gathering because of a complaint lodged by the ABVP.
Rahul M is an independent journalist and a 2017 People’s Archive of Rural India fellow based in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh.