(This article was first published in February 2016 in the previous version of People’s Review. Due to an incident of hacking the old website was pulled down and we could only restore the old articles in this section)
The history of student movements and people involved in student movement being branded anti-national is not recent, but the excess to which the Modi regime has now furthered this technique of vilification and branded an entire university like the Jawaharlal Nehru University and those who sympathise with the left-wing student movement as anti-national has reached epic proportions. The Modi regime is completely out of sorts with its narrow and communal definition of nationalism, which I must add, brought the doctorate student Rohith Vemula to his demise. Rohith Vemula’s tragic death is not just a suicide of an individual student but an institutional murder of a Dalit student who had to turn to radical politics to preserve his identity in these dark times of rising saffron emergency. It is to this respect that even Rohith Vemula was branded as an anti-national, not because he was organising a public meeting on the hanging of Yakub Memon, but because he was a poor Dalit student who had the audacity to study in a central university availing subsidised education and was successful in getting into doctoral studies. His suspension, by the Vice-Chancellor of Hyderabad University under the aegis of a BJP MP and Central Minister, was an act of Dalit exploitation propagated by the state. He had every right to be called an anti-national, but we have to understand that it is not he himself but the state that made him out to become anti-national.
To understand why Rohith Vemula was so driven against the authorities, we have to take into account the unreasonable scrapping away of the non-NET fellowship which was the only source of livelihood for many students like Rohith Vemula. The government, losing all its regard for the research community took this draconian measure and was met with massive public dissent in the form of the occupy UGC movement. This created the necessary radical force in the student community to break out and challenge not just the university authorities but the state authority itself, and the students were right in doing so. Students of higher educational institutions were already sceptical about the Modi regime and they had been opposing the various social policies introduced by this fascist government that catered to a Hindutva ideology, the most significant among them being beef ban. The row then began in universities across India like Hyderabad University, Osmania University, TISS Mumbai, JNU etc. The Hindutva ideology that the government was trying to propagate led to incidents like Trilokpuri, Dadri, Malda, and led to death of many individuals such as Kalburgi and Akhlaq to name a few.
Every conscious being knew that Modi regime was gradually, or not so gradually, modulating the discourse of nationalism along a Hindutva line. Nationalism now meant living under the hegemony of Brahminical ideas fused with Hindutva fundamentalism. Secularism and freedom of expression was attacked by both state sponsored violence as well as mob violence. In the guise of religion the BJP regime was able to mobilise an entire militant army in India in the form of outfits such as RSS, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, VHP etc. Then, the Modi regime began the victimisation of others, firstly the Muslims by vilifying Pakistan in its entirety, with the Shiv Sena (acting as the SS in Bombay) and banning Pakistani authors and artists from visiting and performing. Then it turned its attention to the fringe elements, who were incidentally Muslims and brought the entire weight of the law upon them.
I refer here to the case of Yakub Memon who had willingly surrendered, willingly shared intelligence with the Indian security agencies who were quite clueless about the main perpetrators and the details of the bomb blasts until Yakub Memon was able to shed light on the case. He had surrendered to the police and was sure of life imprisonment which is a harsh punishment itself, but the state, frustrated with incomplete success and fuelled with fascist chauvinism had to take some action. The Modi regime saw the hanging of Yakub Memon as a deterrent to anti-national activities when in actuality it compromised the integrity of the judicial system and increased the paranoia of the minorities, both Muslims as well as Dalits.
The economic benefits of the Modi regime did not trickle down to the average taxpayer and was used up by the upper class and upper caste Hindus that the dominant state ideology catered to. As a result, there was growing discontent with the Modi regime which manifested itself in the Delhi elections as well as the Bihar elections with the iconic defeat of the BJP. At the same time, a measure such as the installation of Gajendra Chauhan, a flag bearer of the RSS, as the head of FTII, was another nail in the coffin of the Modi regime. It united the students under one banner to fight against the saffronisation of educational institutions which had already been the case with Delhi University. The FTII strike had started before the occupy UGC movement and provided the occupy UGC movement a necessary fulcrum for an intensified struggle on all fronts. The support of the people was slowly shifting towards the students and the occupy UGC movement turned out not just to be a student protest but a civil protest in its magnitude. Rohith Vemula was one such student who was active in the dynamics of the student movement, and like any conscious political thinker he precluded the fact that if the government is to be fully exposed, issues like that of the fringe elements such as Yakub Memon should be used to begin a criticism of the existing structure that creates hegemony in a more intense and pragmatic manner.
The Modi regime, on the other hand, stuck to its narrow definition of nationalism and it was this idea of nationalism upheld by or Indian Prime Minister and his sycophants that was the reason behind the murder of Rohith Vemula. We should have no doubt about it; just as Yakub Memon was a victim of jingoism so was Rohith Vemula and so were people like Akhlaaq. These incidents are indeed a sad commentary upon India as a nation, and this kind of witch-hunting that the Indian state has reduced itself to, will breed more anti-national forces rather than curbing them.
With the death of Rohith Vemula, the student communities across India were stigmatised because it was a clear case of caste discrimination in higher educational institution. Intelligentsia all the way from public polemicists to renowned journalists were up in arms about the case and the death of this extraordinarily bright Dalit student became the rallying symbol for students studying in premiere institutions across India.
With the slogan for Justice for Rohith Vemula, the students demanded a campus that is free of discrimination, a space that promotes plurality, celebrates equality, and engages in intellectual debates that can lead to a progressive systemic change. The question of justice was also linked to the context of Dalit exploitation in India and thus it was furthered into a question of social significance. It is important to note that, both these movements, occupy UGC and well as justice for Rohith Vemula were spearheaded by the JNU Students’ Union(JNUSU) in particular and the JNU community in general. The Joint Action Committee for Social Justice grew out of the politically conscious circles of JNU and was an assembly of all the national Left student forces such as the All India Students’ Association, Students’ Federation of India, All India Students’ Federation, Democratic Students’ Union and Democratic Students’ Federation to name a few. It is needless to say that both the RSS and its militant student affiliate group Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad see JNU as a hub of solidarity, freedom of expression and dissent.
We now move our attention to the recent row at JNU over the celebration of death anniversary of Afzal Guru and the shouting of pro-Pakistan slogans and the subsequent arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition.
The event of the death anniversary of Afzal Guru was organised in order to question the verdict of Supreme Court on the case of Afzal Guru hanging. The verdict of Supreme Court clearly states that there is a lack of evidence which would prove that Afzal Guru was directly involved with the Parliament attack case, but considering the ‘collective conscience of the nation’, the court gave him the guilty verdict and sentenced him to hang. What is this if not another case of victimisation of the Muslim community by the Indian state under the guise of chauvinism and thus hollowing the integrity of the judicial system? This kind of move inevitably makes people lose their faith in the justice system, and creates an idea that the justice system is able to mete out justice only to a select few, for example the super-rich Salman Khan or the Ambani brothers.
Let us consider the organisation of the Afzal Guru event in comparison with the Yakub Memon event organised by Rohith Vemula’s association. In both the case, nowhere is the nation a target of destruction and the main motive is the opening up of dialogues to strengthen the idea of democracy and plurality. Let us consider the conditions in which the slogans were raised. Through the video which has gone viral, it is evident that the ABVP is the one shouting pro-Pakistan slogans in order to instigate anti-nationalist sentiments in some individual who may have indeed given in and redoubled those slogans. Though, it was also found that the Zee News and News X doctored the tapes to fan xenophobia across the nation. We have to understand this type of politics is prevalent in a part of Indian-controlled Kashmir where the government has given leeway to the defence personnel to rape and kill innocent civilians without any further inquiry under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA. Afzal Guru was a product of such politics and the people who may have supported those slogans have a similar politics that surrounds them in their domicile. It is obvious that no student comes to JNU as a docile body, but comes with a certain social consciousness and the space of JNU allows, as all universities should, to vent their political thoughts and indulge in proper dialectics in order to come to a synthesis of ideas.
Let us move now to the law of sedition that Kanhaiya was booked with. Mostly all modern democracies in the world have done away with laws of sedition. If we look at sedition in the Indian context, it was one of the many laws that have existed since the colonial British regime. It should be noted that the United Kingdom, which introduced this law in India and other colonies, has recently scrapped it from her law book in 2010. Let us also look at the link that the BJP regime has drawn between sedition and anti-nationalism. The Modi regime believes that any sort of activity, talk or even ideology that propagates plurality and celebrates the multi-nationality of the Indian union is anti-national. It is evident from this that the state under Modi strictly adheres to a policy of totalitarian fascism and he has proved this by sending police force to quell an activity, which was not at all contested by any student group and was celebrated rather peacefully.
The arrest of Kanhaiya and the further violence in the court during his bail hearing only goes to show how this fascism is similar to the German National Socialist or Nazi model, where the average Caucasian White German man was mobilised by the Nazi ideology of Aryan racial supremacy to attack any person who did not subscribe to their ideology in totality. The false fascist consciousness that has been propagated in the name of Hindutva is the root of all causes. It has created a camp of nationalism and whoever differs from that canon goes automatically to the anti-national camp. In JNU, when the number of protesters reached a whopping three to four thousand, there were only twenty people from ABVP showing black flags. Inside the campus, they are a minority but the recent attack on the JNU website by hackers and the violence that erupted twice in front of Patiala high court clearly shows that the terrorists of RSS are ready to draw first blood in the name of pseudo-nationalism.
We need to understand that JNU, as well as rational people all across India respect the diversity of India and believe it to be a country of rich ethnic diversity. The Prime Minister as well as those who believe in the narrow minded vision of nationalism should be made aware of the fact that the Indian state does not exist per se, but as a coming together of different states. In that sense India is a republic and a union as well. But obviously the BJP government is already aware of the fact and tries to hide them from the common people because it has vested interests in the destruction of JNU, the first being that since JNU students have always been championing the cause of people, from social justice to fighting for the marginalised, the Modi regime sees it as a hindrance to total control of the power of Indian state over the campuses, so that they may be turned into corporate slave producing machines of the ruling classes. The second reason is that since Modi wants to boost corporate sector and bring in private players, there is an inherent need to devalue our current educational institutions which run on subsidies, especially a university such as JNU which is world-renowned, so world renowned that Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Columbia and Yale among many others have shown their solidarity with JNU.
The fact of the matter is that JNU will not and cannot be shut down. Since the assaults on society reflected themselves in the struggles of JNU, whether it be the beef festival or the celebration of the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, similarly the assault on JNU will also as a consequence reflect upon society creating a social movement so massive, it will restructure the entire social situation and that is exactly what is needed in these times of crises where saffron emergency is on the rise. If a protracted and intensified struggle is continued, we will not just see new discourses emerging but we, the people of India, will be the ones who will forge it.