Why college students have finally found a voice. Opinion – analysis
The attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is a desperate attempt to silence the vanguard of a popular protest that is threatening the ruling regime’s ability to govern with its consent. One way to understand what led us to the day when it became possible for armed men to brutally assault students and professors at our universities is to realize that our students have been waging a bigger war over the past four years.
Shortly after Delhi police arrested the leader of the JNU Student Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, in 2016, I met students, professors and officials from all universities in Uttar Pradesh, from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) to the Hindu University of Benares. I realized then that JNU wasn’t the only university attacked.
Students at Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) protested against a sociology professor at Lucknow University for sharing a comprehensive article about Kanhaiya Kumar on Facebook. The first woman president of the Student Union of the University of Allahabad, Richa Singh, was abused and threatened by ABVP students in the presence of the vice chancellor inside her office. At the Kanpur Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), students wanted to talk about Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the treatment of Kashmiri students on their campus, but management made it clear that this was not acceptable. The mayor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Aligarh alleged that the UMA canteen served beef and bJP’s local parliamentarian Satish Gautam sent the university a letter of warning against “anti-national and anti-government activities” on campus. Both students and teachers feared a new campus environment that could label them “anti-national” for attending a film screening, sharing a editorial, even attending a discussion that criticized the ruling regime.
And yet, with the exception of a few vocal students, it was difficult for most students on these campuses to join the dots to make sense of a new political reality that would target all students, not just Kanhaiya Kumar and JNU. The country was being divided into two camps: antinational (anyone critical of the government, liberals and Muslims) and nationalists (Modi’s supporters). The fact that students were active on social media did not help them find a voice to express their anger because mainstream media and social media were feeding them medical videos and misinformation. A student at The University of Lucknow justified government repression in jNU by displaying medical videos on his cell phone.
Speaking to UMA students outside the Maulana Azad Library, one has the feeling that students and professors were using these attacks to emphasize the historical role of universities as sanctuaries for knowledge and dissent. They were discussing and debating the meaning and history of nationalism. But how long could this form of resistance last when the government was clear that all that mattered was whether a university was patriotic or anti-national?
Even when UMA students wrote dissertations on world literature and discussed multiculturalism in their classes, they were once again attacked by a portrait of Jinnah that had been hanging in the trade union hall since 1938. Aligarh’s BJP MP sent a letter to the university in search of the removal of the portrait. Later, Hindu groups broke into the university when former alumnus and alumnus Hamid Ansari went to give a lecture on Indian pluralism. Instead of covering the right’s smear campaign against WCOCs, mainstream media sectors, particularly television channels, joined the government’s war against the university. Some TV headlines said, “Azaadi’s slogans shouted at the UMA,” “Why is India’s enemy its ‘icon’,” “Is Jinnah an icon for young Muslims in India?”
Two years ago, I think it would have been fair to read the controversy of Jinnah’s portrait as a Hindu nationalist politician as usual. The elections at THE UP were narrow and the UMA was—and remains—a perfect scapegoat for polarizing people along religious lines in the already polarized city of Aligarh. Most students outside the UMA and JNU may not have paid attention to an emerging political context that was making India’s best public universities symbols of antinationalism.
Perhaps the National Citizenship Amendment/National Citizen Registration Act is that piece of the puzzle that finally helped students find a voice to protest against something they’ve been feeling all along. Because universities have always been political in India, it’s not just that students are being politicized. Rather, current student protests are an answer to a question students have been asking for a long time.
Last year, in February, together with some faculty colleagues and students from Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, I organized a public reading and discussion on the work of human rights workers and government-labeled scholars as “Urban Naxals”. We have discussed the importance of the need for public intellectuals who can show us the relationship between historical injustice and continuing against the marginalized. But one student was not satisfied with our academic response to the crisis. “What can students do when even you, our teachers, don’t have a resistance strategy?” Perhaps his own colleagues have answered your question.
Moyukh Chatterjee is a visiting scholar at Middlebury College and is working on an ethnography of the state’s majority formation in India
The opinions expressed are personal