In the current storm over student activism, many in JNU believe the battle between the various shades of Red has got glossed over. So much so that even the Delhi Police may not have been aware of the nuanced differences between these groups before it made out sedition charges against JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar.
The university has been dominated by the left, but there are multiple shades of communist students who differ on the nature of the Indian state, the Indian bourgeoisie (’comprador’ or independent or of dual character), the paths of liberation (violent or democratic), and the place of ‘nationalities’ including Kashmiris.
These debates get played out in the manner in which rallies, protests, and seminars and after dinner mess talks are organised in the campus. Within the left, there are some branded ‘right wing revisionists’; others are considered ‘adventurists’ in the classic jargon.
Here is a brief primer on the various outfits that make up the broader Left in JNU, which broadly reflect the strains of left politics at the national level:
1. All India Student Federation (AISF) is the oldest of the left student outfits, and is aligned to the Communist Party of India. It is often considered the most moderate of left outfits. The irony - JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, arrested for alleged sedition, is from the outfit considered least ‘revolutionary’ by its rivals. CPI in the 60s and 70s, was close to Soviet Union internationally and often allied with the Congress domestically - including supporting the Emergency. AISF however had raised its flag against the Emergency. As the parent party has shrunk in size and influence, AISF remains an important element of the apparatus in recruiting the young and pushing the party agenda.
2. Student Federation of India is a wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPM split from the CPI in the early 60s, almost on the lines of the Sino-Soviet split in the communist world. The joke in left circles is that CPM is a regional party - of West Bengal, Tripura, Kerala and of JNU, where it is represented by SFI. From Prakash Karat to Sitaram Yechury, the party’s tallest leaders have cut their teeth in the JNU unit of the outfit. The SFI has frequently won student union elections.
3. All India Student Association (AISA) is linked to the CPI (ML-Liberation). The ML itself is a fragment from the armed Naxalite movement of the late 60s. But the ML, while retaining a strong radical left character and being deeply critical of parliamentary institutions, participates in elections. It has achieved some success in Bihar. Kavita Krishnan is a prominent AISA figure who has become an important figure in the woman’s and civil liberties movements.
4. Democratic Student Union (DSU) is a network of students who are sympathetic to the worldview of the underground Communist Party of India (Maoist). The February 9th event in JNU, which has generated controversy, was organised by former DSU activists. DSU believes in the seizure of state power through the path of armed revolution and resistance. Within the university, DSU does not participate in student union elections directly, though it is known to have supported independent candidates. It has split on questions of caste and gender.
5. Democratic Student Federation (DSF) is a splinter of SFI, and was formed in 2012 when a group of activists split from the parent party, CPM, over its decision to support Pranab Mukherjee. DSF students claim the decision was a result of multiple grievances, including the party’s mishandling of Nandigram and based on the belief that student groups must have a degree of autonomy and not report to a ‘parent party’. Its leader, V Lenin Kumar, was subsequently elected the JNUSU president.