Shehla Rashid kept her calm as a journalist shouted at her seeking answers about issues he thought were sidestepped by the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union, a body she represents as the vice-president.
The journalist, who repeatedly interrupted her during the press conference in Bengaluru on Friday, wanted to know why JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar did not speak against the Congress for the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, the corruption scandals during the previous UPA regime or against the Left for their atrocities against farmers opposing land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram.
“The nation wants to know right now!” the senior reporter asked; his voice shaking.
Another senior journalist joined the aggressive chorus and said he had many relatives and friends in the army. He asked her how she could expect his support when she criticises the army.
Rashid never acknowledged the hostility and did not even bat an eyelid during the interaction. She listed out the number of times JNU students had raised the issue of the 1984 riots, the Singur-Nandigram atrocities and the “crony capitalism promoted by the Congress”.
To the gentleman with relatives and friends in the army, she said, “Being against Afspa doesn’t make us anti-army. We are pro-army. And for us, a pro-army position necessarily means an anti-war position.”
If videos of their speeches that have gone viral are any indication, Rashid and her comrades at JNU have evolved a political rhetoric sharp enough to pierce the right-wing line of arguments. What they haven’t figured out yet is how to counter and possibly win over student groups that aren’t exactly ideological enemies yet are far from friendly.
They are equally anti-Hindutva, anti-caste, pro-Rohith Vemula and anti-Modi as the All India Students’ Association (AISA) -- the students’ union Rashid belongs to. Their positions may be a hair’s breadth apart but they would loathe to let them intersect.
Rashid’s composure slipped a little when we asked about the critique of the JNUSU, Left and specifically the AISA line by these ‘frenemies’. She initially refused to accommodate this question from HT and said she has never heard anybody criticising them for how they handled the Rohith Vemula issue.
Clearly annoyed with the question, she demanded proof of this line of criticism and then asked this reporter, “Is it your personal view or are there actually some people saying this?” She relented when told that some of this criticism is coming from the same Dalit radicals who opposed Arundhati Roy’s essay on BR Ambedkar titled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, which is the ideological mentor of the AISA, is headed by Dipankar Bhattacharya -- a Bengali Brahmin. There are Dalit groups who have questioned the Left’s commitment to the annihilation of caste on the basis of the fact that there is very little caste diversity in the top leadership of all communist parties. The leaders of some of these groups have even accused Left groups in JNU of hijacking the struggle for Vemula.
Rashid pointed out that the JNUSU held protests in Delhi in support of the Dalit students’ agitation in Hyderabad much before Vemula’s death. After his death, they made the passage of the Rohith Act one of their prime demands.
“We have a very good understanding with the Joint Action Committee from Hyderabad. There may be some misguided critics. I don’t agree with them,” she said.
So what does she think about the fact that most communist parties, including hers, are headed by upper caste Hindu men? Does she believe, as communists often claim, that comrades “de-class” and “de-caste” themselves after they join the working class struggle?
“Let’s say we have a Dalit general secretary. Will that make a qualitative difference to our activities?” she asks and raises the issue of other excluded communities. “What about the exclusion of disabled people or people from the northeast or south India?”
Every time they have been attacked by the Right for being anti-national, Rashid and her comrades have invoked the Constitution -- the document, which among other things, proposes reservations to redistribute political, economic and social power. Will reservation of party positions for Dalits and Adivasis solve the Left’s leadership problem?
“If you ask me if there should be reservations in social movements, my answer is ‘no’. I see my party first as a social movement,” she said.
Sections of Kashmiri activists have accused the JNU students of appropriating their ‘Azadi’ slogan and abandoning the Kashmiri self-determination movement.
“Firstly, the Azadi slogan was raised by the feminist movement also. As for the self-determination issue, many liberals and Left ideologues are supportive of it but there is a lot of fear. There is a lot of self-censorship because of the atmosphere of terror created by the government. People are scared even to talk about Afspa leave alone the Kashmiri struggle for Azadi. This government is the real terrorist.” She too is careful in her choice of words at this point.
These are not merely academic questions or a hair-splitting exercise.
Rashid also addressed a public meeting at the St Joseph’s College on Friday evening. She made a passionate appeal for parallel protests from the city’s student community in support of the JNUSU’s Parliament Chalo agitation planned for March 15. Only, most of the people in the room were not students. The event was organised by the local units of the AISA and the CPI(ML); reason enough for other progressive student unions to stay away.
Prominent among the absentees were representatives from the CPI(Marxist) aligned Students Federation of India (SFI) and the Bahujan Vidyarthi Sangha (BVS), which follows the ideological line of Mayawati, Kanshi Ram and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Both unions have the ability to easily muster a few thousand students. On February 3, the BVS managed to gather 10,000 Dalit students from across Karnataka for a protest demonstration demanding reservations in the private sector. They were brutally caned by Bengaluru Police but no Left students’ Union held a protest to condemn the incident.
“This is not an AISA or a Left agitation. Those who care about Rohith Vemula and those who think that injustice has been done to JNU students will join,” she said. These two issues, she believes, are important enough to blur decimal point distances between the ideological lines.
Rashid is not a YouTube sensation for nothing. Her media interaction on Friday started at 11.30am and was incomplete even at 3.30pm. The small group of students who attended her talk later that evening were inspired enough to come again on Saturday for a strategy meeting at St Joseph’s College with Rashid and her comrades.
Her appeal to the students at the meeting was simple: “Reach out to whoever you think cares about Rohith Vemula and JNU.” The simplicity of Rashid’s call appears to have had some impact. Bengaluru students managed to organise another strategy meeting on Sunday for which leaders of some of the largest student unions confirmed their participation.
Karnataka is a particularly tough place to be for a Left, progressive or Dalit student activist. The political parties and organisations whose lines they follow are themselves struggling to counter the Sangh Parivar. Worse, for the last 20 years, student unions have been banned from entering campuses in the state.
These two decades have also seen a massive spurt in the number of private colleges which control the students with an iron hand. Discipline and order are more important to them than cultivating a spirit of questioning, debate and dissent among students.
St Joseph’s College is one of the few private institutions where there is a sizable population of students and teachers on the Left. For years, it has hosted film screenings and talks by Left, LGBTQ, feminist and Dalit leaders. But in the same college, students have been suspended for growing their hair too long or wearing clothes too short for the tastes of the conservative catholic priests who run the place. Boys and girls have been hauled up for hugging each other, sharing earphones and for being seen together too often.
Some of the students who won this year’s students’ council elections shouted the Left slogan ‘Lal Salam’ which roughly translates to ‘Long Live the Revolution’. The same council leaders did not say anything when the college management turned into moral police.
“Students are not used to protesting. Most have never even signed a petition. There is a great deal of political awareness and sympathy for the JNU and HCU struggles in our college. But they would rather watch a film or share some articles about the agitations on social media,” one of the students from the campus, who is trying to build support for the March 15 protest, said.
Rashid left for Delhi on Saturday and it is now up to the students who were inspired by her to ensure the success of the parallel protests in the city. Although committed, they are still raw. It will be interesting to see how they build a common ground with hardened student leaders.