The debate following the unprecedented and planned attack, under police cover, on significant sections of faculty and students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Sunday, 5 January 2020 has so far been restricted to the protracted assault per se. The identities of those who were attacked and injured are well-established as they have nothing to hide. In contrast, those who were masked have everything to fear -- after all only the ones who dread being identified, hide their faces and do not own up actions.
More than forty-eight hours after the attack, no official agency -- be it the police or the university authorities -- have provided information on who were part of the masked and armed mob. The brazenness of the attacks and the protection provided by Delhi Police has been followed by the bizarre claim that the injuries and attacks were self-afflicted.
Demanding action against perpetrators of the violence is necessary under a regime which declares that the Constitution is the only 'Holy Book' of the nation but, in reality, pays scant respect to it. But, as we have seen since 2014, no perpetrator of targeted attacks on minority groups, religious or from the intelligentsia, has ever been proceeded against. While the debate over who were the masked men and women rages, it is wise to recall that none of the masked people who triggered the targeting of JNU is February 2016 have been identified. Scant hope thus that any headway will be made this time.
The unidentified two sets of masked people in JNU over three years casts light on the serial nature of the regime's actions. The targeting of JNU students took place less than ten days after union home minister, Amit Shah, declared at a rally to drum up support for his party for the forthcoming assembly elections in Delhi, "it's time to teach Delhi's 'tukde tukde gang' a lesson." The statement was made and the action followed even as protests raged in Jamia Millia Islamia and by now iconic Shaheen Bagh.
The violence in JNU and the debate and rage surrounding it has ensured that the spotlight has shifted from the anti-CAA-NRC protests. In fact, if one scrutinised the Centre's controversial steps which drew opposition, one will conclude that the government has moved from one contentious issue to another incessantly. Right after being re-elected, the government made noises and made amendments in the highly undemocratic Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and even before protests against this could gather momentum, the RTI Act was diluted.
Before the furore over this could subside, came the triple talaq law and followed up with the law diluting Article 370. Even while the opposition to this was being voiced, the government moved and secured passage of the CAA. The only step back which the Centre has taken was the insincere declaration that NRC is not imminent, and no decision has been (yet) taken on it. And now the crackdown on JNU.
There is a need to understand why JNU has become a target of the government for the past three years. Put simply, JNU has become a metaphor for this regime. The university reared on indisputably progressive ideas framed by people given the freehand by Indira Gandhi when being leftish suited her, represents everything repugnant and a challenge to the sangh parivar's idea of nation and nationhood.
The university has been known for its free-thinking ways and non-conformism since inception. It was the first university which not only did away with the repugnant tradition of raging and instead inculcated the tradition of the seniors reaching out to freshers offering help and assistance from the first day. The sangh parivar, which incidentally run one of the country's largest school network, which is structured as a top-down system with no system of free enquiry, found the university and its tradition of free debate an anathema because teachers encouraged a questioning temperament among students. Such a system does not sit well with the Indian Right.
As a result, JNU has been targeted since 2016. In the beginning came the attacks on the idea of JNU. This was followed by an all out offensive against the politics of JNU - labelling everyone not supportive of them as communists/liberals/ and often coming up with new abusive labels for critical faculty members and students.
When the BJP and its allies created a huge noise over the protest to mark Afzal Guru's death anniversary and labelled every one of those as anti-nationals, it ignored past political tradition. The government or BJP did not mention that when Guru was executed in 2013, many from India’s civil society questioned the fairness of the trial. Furthermore, there had been a similar response when Kehar Singh was executed in January 1989 by the Congress regime. Several opposition leaders made a last-ditch attempt to seek pardon for him and this included Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
So, did any BJP activist in 2016 consider filing sedition charges against the former prime minister?
After delegitimizing JNU's politics and casting it as the archetypal 'tukdetukde gang', the university community has been physically harmed. This is the classical fascist tactics of targeting the intelligentsia first. This now only reduces the forces it is up against but also serves as warning to every potential dissenter. The issue is simple: the sangh parivar does not respect independent thinking and scholarship. As a result, in the past five years, aided by its troll army, they have made intellectuals a hated community. As Nobel Laureate and JNU alumni Abhijit Banerjee put it succinctly, "this (attack on JNU) has too many echoes of the years when Germany was moving towards Nazi rule."
However, the BJP has to overcome the collective rage now raising its head in large part of the country, especially the campuses. The youth gets driven cyclically by the motivation to protest. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot be unaware of student and youth power. After all, he cut his teeth in India’s political cauldron that the country was before panic-stricken Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency.
The BJP and its affiliates will also have to counter a fast-growing sense among former supporters that the regime is going a bit too far. It also has to worry about denting its international image beyond a point. An early warning of this was the decision of Bollywood A-listers to stay away from Piyush Goyal's dinner-cum-CAA-briefing session on Sunday.
It can be safely deduced that the regime will once again attempt to deflect public attention. These are still early days to foretell if the ploy will work once again or not.
(The writer is an author and journalist. His first book was The Demolition: India at the Crossroad and his most recent one is The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. Views expressed are personal.)