To account for the events unfolding at various central universities in India, it is essential to pinpoint their inception and view them as repercussions of a larger phenomenon. These conflicts are undoubtedly exemplary of what happens when a government affiliates itself with authoritarian and fascist organisations to consolidate power and gradually curb dissent.
9 June 2015, perhaps marked the beginning of this consolidation, as Ganjendra Chauhan, former television personality and current BJP member, was appointed as the Chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India. This was seen as the beginning of “saffronisation” of national institutions, as the government appointed an individual based on membership within the party’s structural apparatus. On 17 January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide after his suspension from the University hostel, public spaces and disqualification from student elections.
The reason for his suspension was an alleged “assault” on an ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad) member, objecting to the content of events organized by Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), at UOH. A Prevention of Atrocities case was then filed against University Vice Chancellor Appa Rao and BJP politician Bandaru Dattatreya. Recently, Appa Rao was reinstated as the UOH Vice Chancellor. Following a series of protests by university students and faculty members against this illicit reinstatement, the UOH Vice Chancellor called in state police and a consequent lathi (baton) charge was made upon students and faculty members.
On 9 February, at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, a few students arranged a “poetry-reading” session to mourn the “judicial killing of Afzal Guru” [a Kashmiri separatist] and make solidarity with the self-determination of Kashmir. Immediately after, charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy under section 124A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code were lodged against several students, including the president of the JNU student union, Kanhaiya Kumar. These student have currently been granted an interim bail for six months.
In 2008, the executive committee and academic council of Aligarh Muslim University decided to establish five off-campus sites, out of which three were made operational. The BJP led HRD Ministry intended to declare these sites illegal and stop assistance, causing grave insecurity. Students at the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong protested against the “anti-student policies”, such as a year-long halt on scholarships, lack of classrooms, and delayed clearance for a School of Technology.
After these alarming cases of police and state brutality, mainstream media has situated this tension as a “national versus anti-national” debate. The narrative portrays activities which are primarily academic, as “terrorist” or to use a redundant term, “anti-national”. The popular media, most of which is concentrated in the hands of a few business conglomerates, makes these debates into show-trials. It is a spectacle, which, to quote Debord, is “a means of unification… where all attention, all consciousness, converges”. This convergence has replaced informed, democratic exchange over the problems of students. The affiliation of the Government with the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) explains the involvement of tributary Hindu organizations such as ABVP in clashes against student bodies at UOH and JNU.
JNU, as one of the distinguished educational institutes of India, has produced left-wing intellectuals in the past, and that has become a sore point for saffron brigades such as the RSS and parties like the BJP. The fact that the RSS, which was responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, lectures “left-wing terrorists” on nationalism is both ironic and horrifying. The general amnesia about the history of Hindutva (extreme Hindu nationalism) was revealed in the assassinations of scholars like M M Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabolkar by right-wing militants, and explains why it accompanies the development of a disciplinary state. On the one hand, we have “left-leaning” JNU teachers on the Delhi police’s “watch list” and on the other, the introduction of the Aadhar Bill which places all “volunteers” under the surveillance of intelligence agencies.
Moreover, the “disciplinary action” conducted by committees at UOH and JNU against students aims to ensure ideological appropriation and manufacture of “ideal students”, incapable of dissent within lecture halls. As long as the state adheres to the ideological foundations of an organization like the RSS, which is hell-bent on burying cultural plurality, India will soon adopt a totalitarian character, one which ensures the survival of Hindutva. Discussion about the organised attack by the government, media and right wing militant groups must be part of a larger dialogue over the reinvention of left-wing politics in India.
The left must face up to issues of the Dalit communities [so-called “untouchables”] and erase any Brahminical strains left within its structures. Expression of ideas now risks imprisonment in the world’s largest democracy, and therefore, international support is a matter of moral and ideological obligation. What is clearly an onslaught on established academia is being met with a strong and historic unification of student bodies across India. Unless the left strives to ensure the survival of dissent, the continuance of this nation-wide student movement might be short-lived.