JNU: Left vs Right contest heats up in poll season
University’s right-wing groups bank on nationalism and Pulwama attacks while Left-leaning students are focussing on unemployment and the farm crisis to win support.
At around 7:30 pm on an unusually cold March day, a group of students sat on stone blocks at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) iconic Ganga dhaba and discussed issues that will impact their voting choices in the upcoming general elections.
“Who would like to be known as anti-national?” said 23-year-old Sandeep, an M Phil student who goes by his first name. “We received A++ in the national assessment and accreditation council (NAAC) last December. We are constantly contributing for the intellectual development of the country. How can we be anti-nationals then?”
Sitting next to him, Jhinuk Basu, who hails from a village in West Bengal, shared an incident from last month when she visited a hospital in Vasant Kunj. “The nurse asked me why the JNU students want to break the nation and why we don’t study and make better use of taxpayers’ money. I was shocked. I had no answer.”
The discussion went on for another hour over hot paranthas and numerous cups of tea before the students left for their hostel rooms, announcing their plans to go and cast votes in their respective hometowns. “We can’t make any change by just discussing and debating these things,” said one of them.
With the 2019 Lok Sabha election round the corner, the JNU campus, traditionally known for its culture of political activism, is buzzing with fierce debates and discussions. The students’ wings active on the campus are also busy mobilising students to vote for their parent parties.
While most sessions and protests organised by the left student groups — All India Students Association (AISA), Students Federation of India (SFI), Democratic Students Federation (DSF) and All India Students Federation (AISF)— revolve around the criticisms of Narendra Modi’s government, such as lack of jobs, privatisation of public education, and farmer suicides, those organised by the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bhartiya Vidhayarthi Parishad (ABVP) highlight nationalism, the surgical strike, thePulwama terror attack, and the “success of Modi government policies.”
JNU sprang to national attention in 2016 when various police complaints were filed alleging that during a protest organised at the campus on February 9 against the execution of Afzal Guru, the mastermind of 2001 parliament attacks who was hanged in 2013, anti-national slogans were raised. Three students—Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirbhan Bhattacharya—were arrested under sedition charges.
Since then JNU has become enmeshed with raging debates on nationalism vs. freedom of dissent.
After almost three years, the Delhi police in January filed a chargesheet against former students’ union president Kumar, 32, and nine others. However, the police are yet to get a sanction from the Delhi government to prosecute the case.
“JNU students have been at the receiving end ever since this [central] government came to power,” said Shehla Rashid, 30, a PhD student at JNU who was also named in the February 2016 incident charge sheet.
“Students these days feel suffocated because of the political repression. If one tries to express dissent then the person will be charged with an FIR. And this is going to matter a lot when they vote this time,” she added.
Many students at the university believe that the campus still feels the heat of the February 2016 row. N Sai Balaji, president of JNU students’ union (JNUSU) and a member of AISA, said that the university has been “targeted” every single day after February 2016. “We have been attacked in an organised manner for being a traditionally critical lot of students in the country. We don’t accept things blindly. How can we buy the government’s claims that it has improved education when scholars are struggling for basic necessities, and youth are not getting jobs?”
SFI member and JNU students’ union general secretary Aejaz Rather said that the university has undergone a “series of changes” post 2016. “One of the most regressive changes JNU has witnessed was the scrapping of deprivation points. That was the first step of making the university inaccessible for those at the margins. In this election students will keep in mind under which government that has happened.”
Kumar is now a CPI Lok Sabha candidate from Begusarai in Bihar. And Rashid has joined former Indian Administrative Officer Shah Faesal’s Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement.
After the February 2016 controversy, the university administration also introduced many rules and regulations aimed at what it said was an effort to inculcate discipline among students and teachers. This included banning protests within 100 meter range of the administrative block— popularly known as “freedom square”— compulsory attendance system for students, regular filming of student protests and gatherings, closing down of 24*7 dhabas, and regular checking at hostels to make sure no “outsider” is staying there.
A senior official in the university administration said that the changes were made after following the due process. “We have taken every possible decision that was good to bring discipline at the campus in democratic ways. Nothing has been imposed on students or teachers,” said the official who asked not to be named.
ABVP member and the main complainant in the February 2016 incident, Saurabh Sharma, added that the university has changed “for good”. “The left students groups are scared after their anti-national faces were uncovered. ABVP’s constant rise at the campus also bothers them a lot. Things are perfectly fine at JNU,” he said.
On 5 March the JNU unit of ABVP hosted a talk on “rise of anti-national sentiments — a threat to national unity and integrity” and invited suspended Aam Aadmi Party member Kapil Mishra as a speaker. In February, a police complaint was filed against Mishra for circulating a “highly incendiary video” provoking people to attack those “against the nation” including Shehla Rashid.
“When JNU students will go for voting this time they will remember who protected their campus from anti-national forces,” Saurabh Sharma said.
The university was established in 1966 through the JNU Act with the idea “to create a space where there are no boundaries or hierarchy in the process of learning,” said Harjit Singh, who has spent 45 years of his life at JNU — as student, teacher and administrative officer — before he retired in 2017.
Singh said JNU managed to stand out among all Indian universities because of “the way it decided to celebrate diversity”. “When I had joined the university in 1969 professor Moonis Raza, JNU’s first dean of students’, did not allow me and my friend to stay in a same hostel room. He said no two roommates in this university should belong to same region, same religion and same subject.That’s the philosophy of this university,” he said.
JNU has been known as a left-dominated campus right from its initial days. Sachidanand Sinha, a professor, attributed this to JNU’s unique admission criteria of providing deprivation points that facilitated entry of students from backward regions. “They (these students)started questioning and expressing dissent against inequality. They started inclining towards left ideology,” he said. The university scrapped the deprivation points in 2017.
Initially, the two strong left parties on campus were theCPI (M)’s student wing SFI and the CPI (ML)’s AISF. “Students who were not associated with either of them were known as free thinkers. It’s much after 1983 that other left parties including AISA emerged at the campus. ABVP also started making its presence felt by then,” Sinha said. The ABVP won presidential post for the first time in 2001. It hasn’t won since.
It was only in 2015 that the ABVP’s Saurabh Sharma won the joint secretary’s post in JNUSU. Post February 2016, though, the left student groups that used to contest against each other in the students’ union polls started to team up. In the 2016 elections, AISA and SFI joined hands. The following year, the DSF joined them. And finally in 2018, all four left parties including AISF stood together in the student union elections and won all four posts in the central panel.
The ABVP, meanwhile, claims to have emerged as the dominant party in terms of vote share. The presidential candidate of the Left Unity received 41.8% of total votes whereas ABVP’s candidate received 18.9%.
“Four left groups had to come together to defeat us last year. Though we lost, we managed to get a stronghold in JNU campus that was always known as a left bastion. It clearly depicts where the support lies,” said ABVP’s JNU unit president Vijay Kumar.
Left students’ groups disagreed. “Around 30 students groups and youth organisations from across the country have joined hands to form a young India charter. We are personally meeting students and young voters to make them aware of their rights,” said Balaji.
In February, the members of this young India charter took out a rally in Delhi demanding better education for students and jobs for youth. “Together, we will defeat the fascist forces,” said Balaji.