Is JNU Burning?: The university alumni in America respond to the turmoil

  • By Suman Guha Mozumder Jan 14, 2020
Is JNU Burning?: The university alumni in America respond to the turmoil
Students and social activists shout slogans during a protest against an attack on the students and teachers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi two days before, in Kolkata on January 7, 2020. Protests were held across India on January 6 after masked assailants wielding batons and iron rods went on a rampage at a top Delhi university, leaving more than two dozen injured. (Getty Images)

When he heard the news of the recent violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University, S. Rashid Naim, an 1979 alumnus of the prestigious university in New Delhi, who is now a professor at Georgia State University, was first shocked and upset like many others of his ilk.

But a few days later he felt angry as well, because his alma mater’s character and tradition, which for decades has provided space for free thinking and nurtured diversity of views and opinions, was now being sought to be transformed into a place where only those subscribing to the views of the government could thrive.

On Jan. 5, India’s premier university witnessed bloody violence against students and some teachers, allegedly by rightwing goons from outside. At least 26 students and teachers were admitted to the hospital with injuries from the violence that began in the evening of Jan. 5 after a demonstration by the Left student union supporters began against increase in hostel and academic fees.

The agitation on the issue has been going on since October last year. On that evening, however, hordes of outsiders, allegedly armed goons belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata party and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS, entered the campus and beat up students, including girls.

“I wonder how so many people from outside could enter the university without anybody checking their IDs. Even today when I visit JNU I have to show my ID card and explain to the security the reason for my visit and who I want to meet at JNU. It is just not possible to enter the campus without being checked,” Naim said.

But a much larger question staring at the face of everybody was if this was an attempt by the BJP and its allies to smother dissenting opinions and protests against policies nationwide, including on the recently-passed citizenship act, protests against which have spread across the country, including by the student community.

Many saw in the Jan. 5 incident an attempt by Modi’s BJP to gain stronger foothold in India’s most liberal and left-leaning university where BJP’s student wing traditionally had almost negligible presence.

Abhijit Banerjee, an alumni of JNU and the 2019 Nobel laureate in economics, once wrote in a newspaper speak piece that, “We need thinking spaces like JNU, and the government must stay out of it.”

That was in February 2016 during the height of a student agitation at the university over government allegation about students raising pro-Pakistan slogans on the campus, when Banerjee noted that “universities and civil society are important for a democracy like India’s, which was founded on a genuine idealism that we have a hard time holding on to.”

Almost four years since Banerjee’s assertion, the bid to destroy that thinking space in JNU drew widespread condemnation, both in India and the United States. Banerjee, currently Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said in comments to media in India that, “I think any Indian who cares about the nation’s image in the world should worry. This has too many echoes of the years when Germany was moving towards Nazi rule.”

For hundreds of other less illustrious JNU-ites living across the United States, the news of violence at their alma mater was equally shocking and disconcerting. They expressed solidarity with the students despite generational gaps and living in another continent thousands of miles away, and decided to register their protest against the bloodshed of one of their own.

Maryland-based schoolteacher and documentary filmmaker Suneeta Mishra, who did her master’s and MPhil from the School of International Studies in JNU in 1979, was in a pensive mood after the attack, wondering what ails her alma mater that witnessed the violence, the kind of which, she said, was unthinkable in JNU during her time.

Mishra read the news with shock and surprise because she could scarce believe that protests and agitation on various issues, which have been part of normal student life on the JNU campus for as long as she can remember, could lead to such unprecedented violence and bloodshed.

Her feelings were echoed by Troy, Michigan based JNU-ite Bipasha Guptaroy, who did her M.Sc., M.Phil. and Ph.D. from the School of Life Sciences at JNU, staying at the hostel for almost ten years. Reminiscing her time at JNU, she noted that protests and agitations against university authorities used to happen a lot during her time too, but she does not have memory of a single incident that had gone out of hand and led to bloodshed.

“This is an extremely disheartening and painful occurrence that has shocked not just me but several of the JNU-ites living in the U.S.,” Guptaroy, a research scientist at the University of Michigan until recently, said.

Although the university administration blamed students protesting against the fee hike for the violence, the Left-backed union, including its president Aishe Ghosh and many students alleged that members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, the parent organization of Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s BJP, attacked them.

The government ordered routine inquiry into the incident, but few believed that it would lead to arrests and conviction of the guilty. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ministers condemned the violence, blaming the “forces of anarchy” for the unrest. Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for environment blamed the communists, the Congress party and the Aam Admi Party that rules Delhi for seeking to create an environment of violence in universities across the country.

But in the U.S. JNU-ites like Chandrashekhar Tibrewal, one of the first generation of JNU alumni who finished his masters in 1978 before moving to the U.S. in 1987, rejected the government view.

Tibrewal, who lives in Summerville, Massachusetts, and had unsuccessfully ran for the student union president as a Free Thinker in 1979 after an electoral alliance with Samata Yuvjan Sabha (SYS), said, “If you put the incident in the larger perspective, this is a slow but concerted effort by the RSS and the Hindutva guys to kill the traditional liberal culture of the university. They actually want to grab the students union and I think if they have it within their power,they want to shut down the university.”

Mishra expressed similar views, saying that this is happening because the government in power is enabling some of the student groups and because of that these groups feel validated.

“I think at our time the government had a hands off position and student politics was based only in the campus but now it goes to the top circles of the government and that makes it a little different,” Mishra, a native of Uttar Pradesh, said.

Mishra, who is toying with the idea of making a documentary on the JNU violence, once she retires from work this year and visits India, said student politics have been the kind of lifeblood in JNU and it was always very connected to what is happening in the country.

“We were involved in protests against the 1975 Emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and that time also student politics was very aligned with social, political developments,” Mishra said.

Two ministers of the Modi government — S. Jaishankar, the Union minister of external affairs and Nirmala Sitharaman, Union minister of finance, both of whom are former JNU students, condemned the violence, although none of them named the perpetrators.

That condemnation, however, gave little solace to JNU-ites like Tibrewal who claimed that both Shankar and Sitharaman should be ashamed of themselves because “both of them said they feel sorry for JNU because of its ‘Tukde, Tukde gang’ or ‘Break India Gang’ which was not in JNU at their time.”

Since the February 2016 agitation in JNU when its student leader Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested for raising allegedly anti-India slogans at a student-organized event on JNU campus to commemorate the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, the convict in Parliament attack, JNU students have been from time to time accused of being anti-National by BJP and Hindutva groups.

Kumar’s arrest at that time, triggered widespread outrage among students and teachers and drew criticisms from non-BJP political parties, many of which felt this was yet another instance of the “ruling party’s growing intolerance” of different opinions and views that do not follow BJP’s party lines.

Scholars and academics in the U.S. at that time signed a statement, including Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jonathan Cole, former provost of Columbia University and Richard N. Zare, professor of Chemistry, Stanford University, among others, to protest Kumar’s arrest under the infamous British-era sedition law.

After the Jan. 5 violence, Bipasha Guptaroy said that compared to what happened during the Kanhaiya Kumar incident and all other previous incidents of agitation, the Jan. 5 violence on the campus takes the cake and was the worst. “Guys coming from outside and entering the campus to beat up girls in their hostels is something really scary and unbelievable. I wonder the how the JNU administration allowed such a thing,” she said.

Sources among the ex-JNU students community in the U.S. said protest rallies in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco, comprising JNU alumni in the U.S. decrying the violence was being planned on January 26 which will also include former students from Jamia Millia and other Indian educational institutions. The protests will be held in front of the Indian embassy and the consulates.

The JNU-ites hope to build a student movement both in India and in the U.S., similar to what happened in the U.S. against the Vietnam War in the 1970s that ultimately pushed the U.S. administration into making a change and their policies.

“If President Donald Trump is voted out of office and a sympathetic Democratic administration occupies White House then we can urge them to put pressure on the Modi government to change policies,” the sources told India Abroad.

A number of JNU-ites and academics India Abroad spoke to for this article felt although on the face of it the trouble started over the issue of increased fees over which the students have been agitating, the fee hike issue was just a ruse by the ruling BJP party and its followers to scare the left and the Congress supporters and break their stranglehold at the university.

In India, Congress party politician Shashi Tharoor described the violence as unbelievable. “These are tactics from Germany in the 1930s, not India in 2020. I implore the authorities to stop this. They are destroying Indian democracy as well as what remains of our nation’s image in the democratic world,” he tweeted.

Tibrewal said if one looks at the speed with which Modi grabbed various institutions throughout the country and particularly in Delhi, including for example Indian Council for Historical Research, the Teen Murti Bhavan, it becomes evident that the BJP had a list of institutions to capture even before Modi came to power.

“They have very rapidly changed people around and put incompetent, mediocre people in charge, including the current JNU Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar who is believed to be an RSS appointee. So, basically, it is subjugation of dissenters that is on the agenda of the Modi government,” Tibrewal said.

In response to a question Tibrewal said the beating up of students was not done because of the campaign against fees increase but because of JNU protests against Modi-Amit Shah partnership to get the Citizenship Amendment Act passed in parliament, criticism against which is still reverberating across the nation.

Some JNU-ites in the U.S., including some academics, said the university incident cannot be seen in isolation but must be put in the backdrop of what is happening in Modi’s India where dissenting opinions from that of the ruling party and the Hindutva groups supporting it, are smothered.

They said BJP’s ambition of turning India into a Hindu nation where no dissension or opinions different from that of the ruling party and Hindutva groups supporting them have any place.

Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, a professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, who went last year to Jamila Milia University in Delhi for research on a Fullbright Fellowship, said she is not surprised by the violence in JNU this month because lumpen activities and thuggery have increased since the beginning of Modi’s coming to power.

“I think today the JNU issue and the protests all over the country are related now not just to CAA but also to the general discontentment that people are feeling with the current government at every level. I think that the violence that occurred in JNU was a reflection of that overall dissatisfaction with this government and protests against it than just the issue of JNU being a Left university,” Ahmed-Ghosh, who did her master’ in sociology from JNU in 1979, said.

“What is happening today in the country is that we are seeing the culmination of a dissatisfied population coming together for different reasons to basically protest Modi and Amit Shah and the government in its totality. It is not one issue-based thing anymore,” she said.

Naim remembered that JNU campus was once a place where there were always differences of opinions among students on any given issue, and although there used to be also some supporters of ABVP, people used to have debates and would disagree with each other but all in a congenial atmosphere.

Naim, who has been teaching South Asian politics and religion at Georgia since 1993, and has held research positions at the Centre for Islamic Studies at Oxford University in the UK and at the University of California Santa Cruz, said he was both angry and upset over violence.

“I could not believe an institution like JNU,which has contributed so much to the country, should be treated the way it was treated. It is quite possible the BJP wants to make it an election issue in the upcoming election in Delhi by launching a propaganda that the ‘elite university’ produces hoodlums and anti-national youngsters and use that propaganda as a polarizing issue to win election,” he said.

“JNU is a fine educational institution that has produced so many outstanding individuals in different fields. Although agitation in JNU predates CAA, I think the stimulus to this had been the CAA and the students’ opposition to government’s bid to destroy the secular character of the country. This is sort of coalescing of people who all agree that CAA was a bad idea. And added to that are other grievances, especially the policies with regard to education not just in JNU but also IIMs, IITs as well,” Naim said.

“JNU has always been a place for discussion, debate and constructive criticism of various governments, not just the present government and undermining and changing that atmosphere I think is a blow to the basic fundamentals of a democracy,” he added.

The JNU violence and the protests that it has sparked along with people’s opposition to the citizenship and various “frustrating policies” of the BJP government may have the potential, some JNU-ites in the U.S. say, of a bigger Jayaprakash Narayan-type nationwide movement in the country against the BJP government.

“There may not be one unifying individual like JP but the spark that has been created by the Citizenship Act, the rising hatred against Muslims and killings and thrashing of people who do not see eye-to-eye with the BJP government’s policies, a tremendous popular disenchantment with the government is building up now which is even stronger today than at the time of JP,” Tibrewal said.