India is like a Bollywood film, the industrialist Uday Kotak said in the pink papers this week, suggesting that despite the turbulence in the economy, it would have a happy ending. But the scenes that unravelled in the national capital, even as the Narendra Modi government put up a Bollywood-style ‘Make in India’ week in faraway Mumbai, seemed to be straight from a lurid B-grade remake. The director looked terribly uninterested. The character artistes stole the limelight. The villains had too much beating to do in every scene. The cops bumbled along. The climax dragged on. And ‘The End’ seemed far from happy. But was it how the unseen scriptwriters in long shorts always wanted it?
In a nation of the young, going to university should be a life-changing experience—learning, unlearning, discussing and debating, confronting the other and bracing for another. This week, as the students of possibly India’s finest liberal arts institution saw baton-wielding policemen pick up their union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, for something he’d not done—a news channel has dug up the strong possibility of his slogan-raising video being doctored—watched him being thrashed by lawyers (and TV anchors), and heard themselves being painted as “anti-national” an “pro-Pakistan” by Union ministers, the millions who voted for a hero with hope in their hearts 21 months ago must have felt a gentle thud of fear. For the many millions who hadn’t, this was a moment to silently shout, “See, I told you this was how it was going to be.”
A crackdown on JNU was always expected given a) its Congress nomenclature; b) its reputation as a left-liberal bastion; c) a reflex anti-intellectualism the BJP often displays, and d) a general desire to control institutions. When the RSS journal Panchajanya put JNU on the cover four months ago, a few eyebrows went up. Rumours of the appointment of Subramanian Swamy as its V-C gave it some more altitude. But it has taken the brazen tar-brushing of its reputation as a haven of those who mean ill for ‘Bharat mata’—never mind that Modi’s two favourite babus, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and NITI Aayog CEO-designate Amitabh Kant, are its alumni—to reveal the dubious plot.
Some day soon, the Supreme Court will read the Constitution for the benefit of home minister Rajnath Singh and HRD minister Smriti Irani, JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar will walk free of the charge of sedition, Delhi police commissioner B.S. Bassi will get a reward posting, and the nation will move on to the next engineered spectacle. After all, there are elections in several states coming and, as if in response, Jadavpur University in West Bengal is already simmering. But a future historian, most likely one of the 400 academicians who have pledged solidarity with JNU, will be asking: how did a “strong leader” let this come to pass?
As with everything Modi does, conspiracy theorists suspect a grand design. That he had no role in it as he is more focused on the larger tasks involved in ‘nation-building’. That this was a Sangh parivar plot to negate and nullify the Hindu-Dalit faceoff that was developing after Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad. The possible doctoring of the Kanhaiya video—it now seems as if the slogans of a Feb 9 pro-Kashmir demonstration were overlaid on Kanhaiya’s Feb 11 meeting—lends credence to the Sangh plot theory. That this is a ploy to deflect attention on the eve of a budget when things are not looking too rosy for Arun Jaitley’s GST. To each his own alibi. But when the learned BJP parliamentarian Chandan Mitra suggests that JNU should be shut down to “get rid of a factory that produces only spongers and malcontents”, someone should ask, does he include Nirmala Seetharaman?
Reviving the animal spirits of Hindutva is a standard BJP operating procedure and it might in the short term fetch a few seats. This week’s victory in the byelections in Muzaffarnagar shows why. But in the long term, when Modi and his trusted party chief Amit Shah sit down to do the sums, they should be wondering if they chose the wrong target, for the issue has resonance beyond the five states going to the elections this year. And by reawakening the Left parties ahead of Bengal, they may have pushed the consolidation of the opposition, already on an upswing since Bihar.
At Court Lawyers roughed up Kanhaiya Kumar at Patiala House. (Photo by AFP, From Outlook Issue 29 February 2016)
More worrying are the signals that the outside world is receiving. Will Modi ever be able to visit any university in the world with academics not trying to poop his party? Will the foreign companies he is wooing fall for his blandishments so easily if this is how his government treats the young? And is India’s reputation as a law-abiding democracy, unlike China, with institutional checks and balances—the courts, the police, the media—really all they are made out to be if the students of one of free India’s greatest educational institutions are called “traitors”?
Even within the BJP, the reaction appears mixed: one section gloats at the revival of the Hindu nationalistic spirit, and the other worries at the impact it would have on the image of the prime minister and the government he leads. And, even as BJP general secretary Ram Madhav pulled out a three-year-old report to suggest that the Jamia Millia University in Delhi, along with Aligarh Muslim University, could be targeted next, CPI(ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya felt that the move would boomerang on the BJP, with streams cherishing the ideals of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar united in their opposition.
RSS hardliners would have been happy at the “heaven-sent opportunity” to polarise the country between nationalists and ‘anti-national’ elements. But the script appears to have gone horribly wrong despite the brave face put up by the Delhi police chief. There is no evidence to suggest Kanhaiya Kumar raised anti-national slogans or was even remotely concerned with the event at which the slogans were raised. By arresting him, the government seemed to have taken a political decision to send out a signal: evidence be damned. On social media, one cartoon showed Modi telling Indira Gandhi that, unlike her, he did not have to declare an ‘Emergency’ to have the same effect.
While India looked incapable of coping with a few ‘anti-national’ slogans this week, it is difficult to miss the irony. After all, this nation has successfully coopted as its political leaders people who had been insurgents, secessionists and rebels and had burnt the national flag and the Constitution. An American diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks had quoted a Tamil Nadu minister enquiring if the US would support the state if it decided to secede. Democratic India successfully, if messily, took on secessionist movements in the south and Northeast, Sheikh Abdullah, Laldenga, Prafulla Mahanta and even Khalistanis in its stride.
But a bunch of students irked the Union home minister, who, besides perfecting the art of looking for trouble, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedy, appears to have single-handedly derailed the PM’s “development agenda”. Or, was he acting under instruction? If so, whose? While there are no definite answers, home ministers are known to handle sensitive subjects discreetly. But Rajnath is guilty of not verifying information before giving Delhi Police the carte blanche to deal with ‘anti-national elements’ in JNU. For good measure, he added that nobody would be spared, and then compounded the mistake by claiming, wrongly as it turned out, that JNU students were receiving support from “Pakistani terror mastermind Hafiz Saeed” on the basis of a fake tweet.
Lawyers swear to fight “anti-nationals” (Photo by Sanjay Rawat)
If a majority government finds it difficult to deal with six slogan-shouting students, how difficult must it have been to deal with “four” terrorists in Pathankot? That’s a question worth pondering.
As the opposition cried foul and AAP leader Ashutosh and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal complained of a constitutional breakdown after unruly pro-BJP lawyers beat up journalists and Kanhaiya Kumar, the SC added to the scare by pleading helplessness. Even a committee of senior lawyers sent by the apex court to oversee the arrangements at the Patiala House courts, where Kanhaiya Kumar was being produced, was attacked and abused as Pakistani agents. The glaring institutional failures were compounded by a laconic MoS Kiren Rijiju and Delhi police ignoring video evidence, in sharp contrast to the alacrity of the response to videos from JNU, and dismissing the violence as a minor scuffle. “Was there a murder?” asked Rijiju, sarcastically, after reporters were roughed up by hooligans in court. As if that was the threshold of crime.
The BJP brushed aside criticism that its nationalist plank was riddled with holes. The government has made no secret of its breaking bread with the Isak-Muivah faction of the rebel group NSCN, which has repeatedly asserted it has not compromised on ‘Naga sovereignty’. The BJP has no problem dealing with Prafulla Mahanta in Assam or Mehbooba Mufti in Jammu and Kashmir, or, for that matter, with events and slogans raised in Kashmir to condemn the hanging of Afzal Guru. But it played up the slogans raised by a few students and visitors in JNU to a fever pitch, conjuring a national crisis out of thin air.
It seemed equally unaffected by criticism that it should be the last party to claim a monopoly on nationalism as it does nothing to its supporters who celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and glorify his killer, Nathuram Godse. Pro-BJP voice Sunil Alagh, a business consultant, came up with the fishy alibi that while Godse was an assassin, he was not ‘anti-India’, whereas Afzal Guru, whose hanging was being condemned at JNU, was.
Even as right-wing tweets about a “conspiracy to pressure the government to impose a state of emergency again” did the rounds, observers were baffled at the timing. With Modi making another impassioned plea for foreign investment while kicking off an ambitious ‘Make In India Week’ and with the crucial budget session around the bend, it appeared the wrong time to create a crisis. Surely a government which rode on the back of hope and promised 100 million jobs for the young cannot afford unrest? Surely the government does not want to unite the opposition, give fresh oxygen to the Left and get another session of Parliament washed out?
Others felt that it was a deliberately engineered crisis to take attention away from Pathankot and the shockwaves created by the suicide of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. The BJP, said CPI(M) MP Mohammed Salim, was feeling the heat on the economic front and the growing alienation of Dalits. The binary of BJP as nationalists taking on all anti-national forces, he felt, was a simple but emotive instrument to polarise people. With the RSS calling the shots, he felt the crisis was cooked up to draw political benefits in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where elections are due this year. “The RSS this time is not ready to make the mistake of not asserting enough during the NDA’s earlier tenure in government.”
Does that mean that Modi is no longer as ‘presidential’ as he appeared? Is his ‘development’ plan being hijacked by the RSS hard core? Are some ministers responding to a different master? If the answer is no, the question arises, why didn’t Modi act to stem the damage? Or was there a nod and a wink from the PMO? While Delhi reeled under theories, the BJP and the RSS planned to intensify the campaign against ‘anti-national elements’, convinced that it would give them rich political dividends. What do you want to support, they planned to ask people, build India or break India?
An early indication of JNU’s impending fate had arrived as early as November 2015, when the RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya made the sweeping and unsubstantiated claim that teachers and students at the university favoured withdrawal of the army from Kashmir and had celebrated the Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh in which 75 CRPF jawans were killed. That JNU had to be cleansed of both the traditional and radical left had been a constant refrain among Sangh supporters on the social media for the past several months. And it culminated this week in a gloating tweet from Subramanian Swamy that “Operation ‘Sanitise JNU’ has just begun.”
The suspicion that this week’s outrage was worked up is strengthened by the fact that the initial reactions to the alleged slogans came almost 72 hours after the event to question the hanging of Afzal Guru. Indeed two groups of students raising slogans in JNU is so commonplace that none of the capital’s English newspapers cared to carry a report even on their city pages over the next three days, although all of them have campus reporters. The event on February 9 went unnoticed till February 12, and may have had something to do with the fact that it had been held in the same campus in both 2014 and 2015 without causing a ripple.
But by withdrawing permission to hold the event this year following a complaint by ABVP, allegedly minutes before the event, JNU’s new V-C Jagadesh Kumar sent the temperature soaring. A determined group of ABVP supporters gathered in strength at a campus dhaba, where organisers were trying to regroup, and heckled them. Some eyewitness accounts held that they taunted Kashmiri students in the gathering as traitors and Pakistani stooges. Provoked, they retaliated by raising slogans in favour of ‘azadi’ and the disintegration of India.
The Voices Are Clear And Unafraid. Clamping Down On An Open Spa Ce Is Bad In Itself. It’s Also A Tactical Blunder Before Elections.
|“The university is a place where you can question the law. If the police comes in and enters our class room and says ‘you know what, you can’t have a discussion on Section 377 because the Supreme Court has said this, this is contempt of court,’ I think as a society we are limited in the production of knowledge. We know how the police acts. The police is not just. Even if the Left misuses state might, we will have to question that too.” Shehla Rashid, Vice-president, JNUSU||“Leave alone protests, students are increasingly left with no platform to voice grievances. I did not tell my parents I’m attending a protest march today because they fear that I, being Kashmiri and a Muslim, would be vulnerable. Education is important, but we still have time for debate and it’s not money wasted. Even after graduation I have to live in this country. If there’s discrimination, won’t it matter to me?” Firaz Qazi, Final year, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi|
|“India expects youth to participate in all aspects of social and economic development—so why not politics? In fact, more students should be politically engaged. Asking youth to stay away from politics is a bit like saying they should ignore policy- making while participating in it—a very strange expectation. A political student raises questions about the system. This forces people in authority out of their comfort zones. This is what they fear.” Richa Singh, President, Allahabad, University students union||“Of late there is an effort to make this college into a high school. If any teacher shows solidarity with the students on any issue, then the teacher is immediately transferred. I dont think it is a waste of time or the taxpayer’s money to have meaningful discussions in colleges. I did not join this college just for the academics... I need to be equipped for life. I should be aware of the politics behind the food I eat, the bus I ride, etc...” Rohit Ajay, BA Economics, 3rd year, Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam|
|“As young people, college and university students discuss many current topics with passion. I have noticed that the interference and interpretations come from external elements who are not students but seeking to cause trouble. Mostly, it is just the case of students voicing what they see and perceive in society and in their immediate surroundings. Giving it a heavy description of anti-nationalism may not be correct.” Pruthvi Nallamalla, BCom, final year, St Francis College, Hyderabad||“It was very immature to interfere in a small protest organised by a small bunch of students. Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest is the first such case since emergency. It sends a very wrong message. To say that the state is funding so you should fall in line with its dictum is really wrong. JNU is the only university that has a 5-star rating from NAAC. It’s a pride for the country and people from all over come to JNU.” Sandeep Dash, BA in Social Sciences, TISS-Tuljapur.|
A physical clash was averted with the arrival of Kanhaiya Kumar, who spoke passionately against the ‘Sanghis’, but by all accounts managed to persuade the warring groups to disperse. He did deliver a powerful speech against the BJP and the RSS and seems to be paying a price for saying “we don’t need a certificate of patriotism from the RSS. We don’t need a nationalist certificate from the BJP. We belong to this country. We love this country. We fight for the 80 per cent of the poor people of this country. For us, this is nation worship”.
Teachers and students of JNU worry about research scholar Umar Khalid, who had organised the ‘Country without a Post Office’ event after an eponymous poem by the late Agha Shahid Ali, which spoke hauntingly of Kashmir in the 1990s, when nobody delivered letters. Like Rohith Vemula, they feel, Khalid too has been victimised and demonised, his family harassed and the police launching a manhunt to arrest him. While Kashmiri students in Delhi bore the brunt of questioning and profiling by the police, the unspoken anxiety is about young, inquisitive, even rebellious, lives ruined by an insensitive government pursuing its petty politics.
“JNU aaoge?” asked the young lady to an autorickshaw driver in south Delhi this week. The driver looked her over with a malicious glint in his eyes and responded, “Why JNU, I will take you to Pakistan.” The hostility concealed in the sarcasm pretty much captures the love what was lost after Valentine’s Day.
By Uttam Sengupta in Delhi with Pragya Singh, Ushinor Majumdar and Anoo Bhuyan