The harassment of liberal and left wing students in India by the ABVP-RSS-BJP cohort continues. Last February, JNU student leaders were wrongfully arrested on charges of sedition. This time it is the forced shutdown of a seminar on ‘cultures of protest’ on February 21 at Ramjas College where JNU student leaders Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid were to speak. An academic who was at Ramjas relates that members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, flooded the canteen area, shoved their way aggressively. Young men stood on the roof of the building, threw branches and dangled “steel buckets in a threatening way” at the dense crowd below. The next day ABVP targeted students protesting their violence and threw bricks and stones at them, thrashing many with total impunity caring little about watching Delhi Police or the cameras recording them. The videos that have emerged tell their own story.
The ABVP denies that it has been violent but it is unapologetic about opposing ‘anti-nationals’. It says it does not want DU to turn into JNU; one of its leaders has said that “Even in the future, if anyone does any such thing, we will raise the issue and protest.” Two conclusions can be drawn from this. The ABVP recognises that JNU student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Khalid and Rashid have emerged as impressive public figures who can speak forcefully on a range of political issues – and thus it wants to oppose them in whatever way possible to limit their influence. These methods of intimidation are also designed to undermine liberal spaces and reshape the (political) imagination of students at colleges and universities across India.
Speaking to NDTV, Delhi university professor Apoorvanand mentioned some instances of ABVP’s strong-arm tactics in universities. A lecture by JNU professor Nivedita Menon at a university in Jodhpur led to the suspension of the academic who invited Menon. Teachers who staged an adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s short story at the Central University of Haryana were issued a show cause notice by administrators. An academic at Mohanlal Sukhadia University was attacked (for organising a lecture on Hindu deities). An associate professor at the Central University of Jharkhand was suspended last year for inviting a JNU professor for an event. Apoorvanand points that ABVP activism is common in such incidents and says that college administrators in Delhi University are now wary of giving permission for academic events that features those from JNU for fear of disturbances.
In effect ABVP has set about making any student, activist and academic with a connection to JNU as taboo in university campuses. Having tasted success, it is now in a position to declare any subject it does not like as “anti-national”. This is not only a grave threat to free speech but is a strategy that has the potential to transform the substance of political conversation in India. The ABVP is the student arm of the RSS and the latter is of course closely linked to the BJP. The ABVP’s mode of altering the climate of universities in this manner works very well for the BJP and could constitute the next stage of its ambition to establish political dominance in India. Looking at the pattern of targeting universities it is possible to argue that the BJP is surging into newer frontiers of controlling political conversation in India, after it has conquered other realms in the public sphere.
To get a sense of this, look at how the political landscape looks from the BJP’s vantage: The opposition is fragmented, the mainstream media is largely compliant, social media is vibrant but manageable because loyalist trolls relentlessly target opposing voices. The only space that the BJP does not yet control are universities, which it sees as the last bastion that stops its march to an ideological takeover. The Sangh Parivar sees universities in adversarial terms because they are spaces for free speech and inquiry, they allow for tradition and authority to be questioned; importantly they allow women to dress as they like, craft personal identities and make individual choices (a prospect that rattles Indian conservatives no end). Universities are incubators where India’s liberal democracy reproduces itself; think of the academics, journalists, lawyers, artists and social movement activists across the country that have sprung, for instance, from universities in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Madras. Universities are important because they raise awareness of important issues in ways mainstream political parties cannot do because the latter are wedded to the news cycle. For instance, students can organise discussions or rallies on deprivation of adivasis, dalits and other marginal groups in India at any point, without being beholden to topicality which politicians are wary of. In other words, student politics is a crucial point of continuity for transmitting political knowledge, advancing political agendas and socialising future generations of leaders and activists who often return to their states after stints at university.
It is this potential of universities as the vehicles of liberalism that right-wing activists want to undermine. Hence the use of force to break the morale of students. The violence at Ramjas is there for all to see. There have been death threats to JNU leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Khalid and Rashid over the last year. Hindustan Times reported recently that the JNU campus has changed in significant ways and that it falls silent after 11:30 pm, which will shock old-timers. One JNU student says “There is panic among students as we are seeing things that we had never seen before. Late in the night at around 3 am we heard some people shouting slogans outside the hostel like, ‘Desh ke gaddaron ko ek dhakka aur do’, ‘Afzal ki jo baat karega, woh Afzal ki maut marega’ and ‘Jis ghar se Afzal niklega, us mein ghus kar marenge.” In JNU one never had to look over your shoulder to speak your mind. Now you evidently are beginning to. What force by activists cannot achieve, the flouting of rules will. JNU’s vice-chancellor, whose pro-establishment credentials are well-founded, has brazenly overruled the university’s academic council to make crucial policy changes, leading one academic to say that “the JNU administration is now in an open war with teachers and students to destroy everything that the institution has been known for.”
The silencing of campuses through steady punctuated tactics of intimidation and subterfuge is a grave moment for India’s democracy and its constitutional freedoms. Citizens and opposition parties must come to terms with what India will become if universities are repressed. As noted, free academic debate and student politics are nodes of continuity for democratic activism, universities are the repositories of political memory that compel change and produce future leaders. To realise their worth try imagining an India where the media is largely deferential, social science is starved of talent and resources and (liberal) student politics falls silent. That will be an India that sounds the death knell for other parties as they will have to contrive the energy and intellectual muscle mostly by themselves to challenge the BJP. Parties should note that a university system cleansed of social science mettle is the ground on which political competition is eliminated. A country in that state is poised for authoritarianism. It is imperative for that reason that every seminar, conference and student rally is protected.
(The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @SushilAaron)