23 February 2016 | Rutaban Yameen
The biggest nationwide student protests in a quarter of a century have erupted in India.
Organised by New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union (JNUSU), in conjunction with several other left wing student unions and organisations, protests have spread to 18 campuses including in Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kerala, Chandigarh, Chennai, Uttar Pradesh, Kolkata and Odisha.
The protests are in response to the arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with sedition for allegedly “raising anti-India slogans” at a 9 February campus rally commemorating the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru from Kashmir.
Guru was convicted for his alleged role in planning the 2001 attack on India’s parliament, despite an admission by the Supreme Court that the evidence was not sufficient to establish his involvement.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is cranking up Hindu-nationalist rhetoric ahead of elections in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh next year and the handing down of what is expected to be a corporate-friendly national budget on 29 February.
Supporting Kumar’s arrest, human resource development minister Smriti Irani told reporters: “The nation can never tolerate an insult to Mother India”. Last November, Irani engineered plans to scrap the non-NET fellowship (research scholarships for income-poor postgraduate students at central universities) – an attack that JNU students and staff resisted.
“I think it is more a case of actually criminalising dissent”, All India Students’ Association organiser Om Prasad told US news outlet NPR. “It’s a larger witch hunt for people who don’t agree with the agenda of the government.”
In January, a Dalit student activist at Hyderabad Central University, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after he and his friends were hounded by the university administration and Hindu nationalists from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of BJP.
“After Rohith’s suicide, campuses across the country erupted in protest, and the BJP government was sent on a back foot”, Prasad told Red Flag.
Vemula was branded an “anti-national”, “casteist” and “extremist”. Government MPs demanded that the university administration take action against him. This was one of many incidents in an increasingly polarised atmosphere. As an academic at Jamia Millia Islamia, Gopinath Ravindran, told AFP TV, “My fellow colleagues and students are in a state of fear. So I think the university’s a space for dissent and that should be respected.”
By 14 February, 3,000 students and striking teachers were regularly attending protests at JNU, and 6,000 to 7,000 students, teachers, activists and intellectuals, in spite of police brutality, formed a 4 km human chain from the main gate of the JNU campus to the Chandrabhaga Hostel chanting, “Free our president Kanhaiya Kumar!”
Protesters across India were galvanised by nationally-televised scenes of Kumar being kicked and punched by Hindu nationalists, including lawyers, while he was escorted to a court hearing on 17 February. A visibly shaken NDTV news correspondent reported that several journalists and students were also beaten.
This culminated in what Prasad described as “a huge movement against the draconian crackdown. This movement is seeing an unprecedented participation by JNU students and teachers”.
On 18 February, 15,000 students, teachers, journalists, lawyers, artists and others marched through the streets of New Delhi. JNUSU vice president Shehla Rashid sarcastically posted on social media, “Arrest them all, they are all seditious”.
There have been regular sit-ins involving thousands at JNU and open-air lectures delivered by striking and supporting teachers and faculty members. Statements of solidarity have also come from MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and students at Oxford University, London School of Economics and Harvard University.
JNU is the first of 39 central universities ordered by the ministry of human resource development to “prominently and proudly” display the Indian national flag atop a 207-foot mast to instil “nationalism and pride” among students, according to Indian Express.
JNU and other academic institutions will continue to be a flashpoint for conflict and resistance in the coming period.
This article was originally published in Red Flag Australia.