While the confrontation between the government and the Opposition about the AgustaWestland scam commands national attention and the experience of 330 million people in drought conditions boggles our imagination, a political storm is again building up in some of India’s universities.
Students at JNU are on an indefinite hunger strike since April 28, joined by teachers, protesting the punishments meted out to the students by a ‘high level enquiry committee’ over their alleged role in the controversial protests on February 9. Meanwhile, there is a nasty confrontation between pro-ABVP students and students and teachers of Left persuasion at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, with the BJP terming the entire university “as a hub of anti-nationals”.
The health of students on strike at JNU is reportedly deteriorating; Umar Khalid, the history student, who was arrested on sedition charges and subsequently released, was taken to AIIMS after his sugar, sodium and potassium levels fell. This has now become a battle of attrition between the authorities seeing the punishment of students as a denouement for the saga that began in February and the students who see this as unjustifiable coercion for expressing alternative political views.
Stiff fines have been imposed on 14 students; three students have been rusticated for varying durations and one has been barred for five years. The students want a rollback of all punishments. Their cause has received strong support from the faculty and alumni for several reasons, not least because proper procedures were not followed by the enquiry committee. The students were not given a chance to represent themselves nor was evidence against them made available to them. The mystery about who raised the ‘anti-national’ slogans on February 9 is yet to be solved and those responsible for airing doctored videos have not yet been apprehended.
The authorities seem to be relying on summer heat to break the will of the students, who are pressing on with principle on their side. That is an unwise strategy for the administration to follow. Hunger strikes are not predictable phenomena and even if the authorities bank on the use of force to break them up there are other consequences to be mindful of.
Turmoil in JNU and other campuses is likely to become the rallying point for more political confrontation, even as Opposition parties set in train their strategies for the general election in 2019. Support for students may wane owing to absences from the campus in the summer, but it will likely resume in July. In short, instability is assured but the nature of the political dividend from charged nationalism debates in universities is not. A single incident can veer a controversy in unexpected ways, as Rohith Vemula’s suicide demonstrated. Wiser heads should urgently push for a face-saving resolution in JNU.