They were demanding the repeal of disciplinary provisions inflicted on some of them, all doctoral candidates, by the academic authorities, with suspensions and even expulsions lasting for up to five years, a ban on entering the campus and serious monetary fines. For most of these students this would have marked the end of their education. In the end, all the disciplinary action was suspended, not by the university’s chancery but by New Delhi’s High Court, which accepted the students’ appeal and asked them to put an end to their hunger strike.
This hunger strike on the New Delhi campus was only the most recent event in a wave of protests that involved all India’s most important universities over the last two years. It is a movement that has raised a number of fundamental issues, ranging from freedom to express dissent, threatened by an ultranationalist government, a climate of intolerance fuelled by political culture wishing to impose on India a single identity as a “Hindu nation” (the ideology called Hindutva), to the status of minorities and “disadvantaged groups” in Indian society. For example, the status of the Dalit, the outcasts – once called “untouchables”, a word eliminated from the public discourse since caste discrimination was formally forbidden, but, however, they effectively remain such. The university protest movement has effectively sparked a political challenge that goes well beyond campuses.
At JNU protests were sparked when three students were arrested, a few days after February 9th, following a students debate concerning the case involving Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri activist sentenced to death for having indirectly participated in a violent attack on the Indian parliament in December. Guru’s execution on February 9th, 2006, resulted in a great deal of controversy in India; jurists, human rights activists, journalists and authors had argued that he had not had a fair trial and that a rushed sentence did not clarify who was responsible for the attack, nor did it help address the Kashmir crisis. So this was not the first time that the Afzal Guru case had been publicly debated. That evening, however, activists from a student association linked to the extreme Hindu right protested with the Vice-Chancellor. They stated that the destruction of India was being exalted there. The Vice-Chancellor immediately called the police in order to put an end to these “anti-national activities”. This resulted in the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the elected president of JNU’s student union, as well as two other members of its board of directors, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattachariya.
“It was an intentional incident, a provocation,” said Riya (not her real name, Editor’s note), a student who took part in the hunger strike. All around there are backpacks, water containers, books and a few laptops. Investigations have established that footage broadcast repeatedly by national television channels, and the source of the allegations, was doctored. It showed the students assembly and a group of students shouting “at gunpoint if need be”, “war until India is destroyed”; or “long live Pakistan”: but that turned out to be a scene that had been added. and it is not known who shouted those slogans or when and where this happened. Some have spoken of infiltrators. In any case, the three students arrested were accused of “sedition”.
That was when the protests started. “We held sit-ins for three days, we formed human chains and a march around the campus with over five thousand people,” remembers Riya. “The anti-sedition law must be abolished; it is a legacy of the colonial era and is used to strike dissent” (it was a law promulgated by the British to repress the anti-colonial movement of the time).
The arrests caused an uproar well beyond the campus. A number of government officials attacked, calling the students terrorists and anti-national elements. Television networks exaggerated the allegations. During the court hearing that confirmed their arrest, lawyers and police officers were seen beating the defendants. Kumar and his companions were released a month later on bail as there was no evidence of their guilt. The judge, however, reiterated that one cannot invoke “freedom of speech” for the slogans used, which are a threat to the country’s integrity, “an infection” to be “amputated”. These are disquieting words.
When he returned to the campus, Kanhaiya Kumar spoke to the thousands of students waiting for him. “We want freedom – not from India, but within India”, he said surrounded by applause and people shouting “azadi”, freedom. “We want azadi from capitalism, from Brahmanism, from casteism, this is the kind of azadi that we want.” The speech resonated across the country and many see Kumar as a rising star in the world of politics.
Protests continued throughout the spring, alongside demands for exemplary punishment for “anti-patriots.” Between March and April, open-air lessons were held by famous jurists, historians, economists and artists in the square outside the Administrative building, where the “many meanings of freedom” were discussed (they were filmed and uploaded to the website created to support the JNU movement: www.stanwithjnu.org). “Freedom of opinion is what is at stake,” observed the well-known economist Jayati Ghosh, who like many other professors at JNU supported the students. She observed that the Jawaharlal Nehru University has a consolidated reputation as a university open to debate. At the beginning of this year, however, a new Vice-Chancellor was appointed (by the government), a man known not for his academic credentials but because he is close to the political-cultural organisation RSS that launched the idea of a “Hindu India”. Founded in 1925, the RSS is organised in a paramilitary style, with strong internal cohesion. All the important leaders of the nationalist party currently in power have emerged from its ranks, including Prime Minister Modi. A couple of weeks after the arrival of the new Vice-Chancellor, the provocation that resulted in the arrest of three students took place. “The government’s intentions are clear; it wants to destroy the university as a place of freedom of expression and the circulation of knowledge,” says Ghosh.
“They attack JNU because it opposes the Hindutva ideology promoted by the government,” observes Himanshu, one of the students camping outside the rectorate. “But our movement does not only concern the university; freedom of speech, justice and castes concern everyone,” And anyway, he adds, this movement started long before the arrests. “It began when Rohit Vemula committed suicide”.
Rohit Vemula’s suicide while a student at Hyderabad University in southern India left everyone stunned. It happened in January and caused anger all over India, mobilising students, social activists, left-wing parties and intellectuals. Vemula was a graduate student preparing a PhD in natural science. He was also a Dalit. He had joined left-wing groups and then the Ambedkar Students Association, which represents the Dalits, the Adivasi (or “tribal people”, natives of the Indian subcontinent), and other minorities and “disadvantaged groups”.
The reference to Ambedkar provides political a framework. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a jurist and a philosopher, presided over the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Indian Constitution between 1947 and 1949. He was a Dalit and fought against the caste system, favouring an inclusive idea of citizenship. The system of positive action (known in India as “reservation”) in favour of Dalits and Adivasi (or “scheduled castes/scheduled tribes) was born at that time. But Ambedkar’s criticism was more radical. He believed that the cast-iron social hierarchy of castes, in which an outcast will always be at the bottom of the range of disdain, is innate in the very idea of a “Hindu India”. On this subject he had argued with the other “constituent fathers” and with Gandhi himself (earlier this year, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Ambedkar was the object of official celebrations that were even nauseating and that mainly overlooked the radical aspects of his ideas).
Last September, the Vice-Chancellor at Hyderabad University inflicted disciplinary measures on five activists and leaders of the Ambedkar Students Association, expelling them from the hostel and the university’s common areas. Among them there was Rohit Vemula whose scholarship was also revoked. Why? A little earlier the association had organised the screening of a documentary entitled Muzaffarnagar is Still Standing, about the pogrom against Muslim minorities in the spring of 2014 in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. Homes were set of fire, dozens killed and Muslim families forced to flee. The documentary (as already stated by various investigations, both independent and official) narrates how that violence was instigated by right-wing Hindu forces during the election campaign that led to the victory of the Indian People’s Party (BJP) led by the current prime minister, Narendra Modi. The screening was attacked by students belonging to the ABVP, the association linked to the Hindu right (the same one that pressed charges against the students in New Delhi. In a recent essay, the author Arundhati Roy described it as the “RSS’s ears and eyes and its agent provocateur”). Days later, a young student reported that he had been physically attacked by Vemula and his companions, a report that raised many doubts, but the academic authorities believed him.
The humiliation involved in that disciplinary action is evident. Vemula and his companions were forbidden from accessing common areas, just like “untouchables”. As a protest they camped right on the boundary of the forbidden area, protected by pieces of material and cardboard controversially named velivada, just like the areas traditionally reserved to untouchables outside villages: the “Dalit ghettoes”. For months the small group made do, at times sleeping in friends’ rooms, eating the leftovers from the cafeteria. The expelled students’ protest does not appear to have mobilised other student associations or left-wing political forces apart from expressions of solidarity. It is not possible to imagine what causes a person to take their own life, but Vemula’s friends have spoken of an overwhelming feeling of isolation.
Rohit Vemula was the son of a single and extremely poor mother and his life had been very difficult. He was a brilliant student, but without a scholarship it would have been difficult for him to obtain a PhD. His companions too are the first generation-education in their respective families. This is fact; all over India the scholarship system in state universities, as well as twenty years of implementation of the “reservation” system, have transformed the social landscape in the universities. During the eighties, they were more elitist, while nowadays the “disadvantaged groups” are no longer tiny minorities (at JNU in New Delhi, they amount to almost half the students enrolled). Of course, admission to courses is one thing, eliminating contempt is another (a story published by the magazine Caravan about Vemula reports on the humiliations suffered by Dalit students and teachers at Hyderabad). Nowadays, however, a new generation of assertive and curious students does not restrict itself to walking close to the walls. These students demand respect, as well as the right to express their opinions.
The words left by Rohit Vemula have become famous. “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 stardust.” These words have been seen all over India, written on banners and posters, repeated in assemblies, shouted at protest marches.
These are the words I see written under a stylised portrait of a smiling young man hung by students on the wall of the rectorate at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Next to it one sees the face of Ambedkar with another quotation, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say. Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity.” Then there a portrait of Baghat Singh, the legendary leader of the workers’ movement. Further up an image of Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher and social activist in a remote area in central India. These are the figures chosen as references by these students who combine anti-caste claims, a critique of the communal and chauvinist policies of the Hindu right, and criticism of the social inequalities.
“The context is that of a right-wing government that is trying to control higher education,” says David Pradhan, studying for a PhD in cultural anthropology and one of the students who took part in the hunger strike at JNU. He quotes recent horrors, such as a man lynched by a crowd because suspected of having eaten beef, or intellectuals and artists attacked and at times killed because accused of offending the most popular ideology; minorities now live in a state of insecurity. “What is at stake is India as a secular state,” continues the student, “a country stratified in very different social classes and groups, in which those who have the intelligence to pass their exams have a chance to study also at JNU, one of the best universities, a place with high teaching standards and freedom of speech.”
The government attacks the autonomy of universities and cuts funding for research, adds the student. “The government accuses us of sedition and anti-nationalism if we state that abuse inflicted by security forces is a violation of human rights, and this does not look promising for India,” says David. “We do not want this to become a Hindu theocracy, or a state ruled by the corporations where even education is privatised.” His companions nod in agreement. However, adds David, “I do not think the government expected the response from students and teachers all over the country.”
Translated by Francesca Simmons