Interview: Shehla Rashid on the Attack on JNU, Left-Dalit Solidarity and More

Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) Vice President Shehla Rashid Shora is the first Kashmiri woman in the history of the university to contest and win a position on the JNUSU’s central panel. In the elections last year, Shehla polled 1,387 votes, more than any other candidate, including JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar, who garnered 1,029 votes. Shehla joined JNU in 2013 to pursue a Master’s degree in Sociology and is now enrolled in the Center for the Study of Law and Governance for her M. Phil. The 27-year-old has been associated with the All India Students’ Association, the student organisation of CPI(ML) Liberation since joining the university. Even before joining JNU, Rashid had been actively working on issues related to gender and free speech but “didn’t have a theoretical framework” to understand the nuances of such issues and how to deal with them.

With Kanhaiya’s arrest on charges of sedition, Shehla took over the reins of the JNUSU and led students against the attacks on the university. In conversation with The Wire she discusses the lessons learnt during the movement, the challenges she has to face as a woman, why she believes JNU was targeted and a lot more.

Why do you think such strict action was taken against JNU students? Do you see a political motive?

See, JNU has been at the target of the BJP government for a very long time. The current crisis has not arisen because of the specific nature of the programme or the slogans – that is not really the issue. If you see, there was an occupy UGC movement for fellowships that had been going on for about three months, and during that movement we were labelled anti-national by the RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya, which ran a cover story on JNU. It said JNU is anti-national because it talks about caste and gender, and many other such ridiculous things. This shows that JNU has been a target from the very start. It has been a target because it is a public-funded institution where people from all marginalised sections of society can study without fear of discrimination, women can study without fear of discrimination or violence, people from oppressed sections, from the Dalit community, people identifying as transgender – they can all study here with the hope that they won’t be discriminated against here as they are elsewhere.

JNU has always been known as a sharp voice of criticism against any government – be it the Congress during Emergency, or even left governments whose actions have been criticised by leftists in JNU. Why would the BJP expect students to be compliant and conformist, and not question their policies? That issue is at the heart of the current JNU controversy. You saw how people have been targeted – elected representatives of the students’ union and the sexual harassment committee have been debarred from academic engagements and activities. What is this about? This is an attempt to depoliticise the university. However, the way in which the university has responded to this attack on its autonomy is the opposite of what the government might have expected. They perhaps expected us to sulk in fear, stop questioning, stop raising our voice. But the very opposite of that has happened in this university. People have shown that the soul of this university is the ability to question, the desire to protect values and freedoms that were guaranteed to us in the Constitution, which the BJP government is trying to erode. They have opened a battleground against students, be it in JNU, FTII, Hyderabad Central University and now Allahabad University; they even want to take away the minority status of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia. This attack on universities signifies who the government is really afraid of – writers, intellectuals and students. We believe student politics will be the deathbed of the RSS agenda of hatred and their politics of hate.

You say that JNU has been deliberately attacked. Do you anticipate more such attacks in the future?

Honestly, we were anticipating this attack ever since this government came to power, but that it would come so soon was not really expected. Last year, we were holding seminars and discussions on the saffronisation of education. At that time no one was willing to believe this, it seemed almost like a conspiracy theory. But it has started happening, and yes we anticipate more attacks. We’re also ready for them.

There has been unprecedented solidarity from students and teachers, and even people all over the world have spoken up for JNU. We may have only been in JNU for a few years, but people who have known its character for decades have really spoken up. That has really shown us, even me being a union representative, the traditions we are a part of. The support has been really overwhelming and we are ready for any such attacks.

This government has to face general elections in 2019, even sooner in states like UP and West Bengal, and their student wings have to face elections in universities. We really wonder what they will have to say to the people. They promised development, but all they have done is cut the funds for fellowships for research scholars. What kind of development is that? The government is going to have to answer for all of their actions very soon.

However, the government has changed its tactics. Earlier it was communalism, love jihad, beef, ghar wapsi and other such things. When these tactics were thoroughly exposed, everyone started saying “Elections are coming in UP, there will be riots there”. At that time, they probably realised that this is not working, the recipe is not secret any more. That is why they have started on this new thing of “nationalism”. Under the umbrella of nationalism, they can do anything, and anyone who speaks against them will be branded an anti-national. This has been there from the start. Even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was campaigning for the elections they said anyone who goes against the “developmental agenda” is anti-national. So basically anyone who questions the way in which dams are built, nuclear plants are set up, forests are cut down and the ecology is hampered, is anti-national. This government has already declared that. So yes we are ready for this attack, but the government is going to have to answer for all of this. This new funda of nationalism is also being challenged. As you can see, where we are sitting at the administrative block, there are classes on nationalism being taught by professors of JNU, and they have really overturned the nationalism narrative, the narrative they thought they could silence us with. But instead of being silenced, we have tried to subvert the narrative and challenge the hegemonic definition of nationalism. We will define nationalism as a pro-people, pro-poor, pro-women, pro-Dalit nationalism. Not the pro-corporate nationalism that the government is out to promote.

As a woman, have there been any specific challenges that you have had to face during this struggle?

Yes, during this struggle and even before this struggle. As I have repeatedly said, as a woman you have to face additional challenges in public life. You are additionally targeted; you are additionally victimised than your male counterparts. The BJP is obsessed is obsessed with wiping out any opposition, and that is something they have been doing on social media as well. We face a lot of abuse on social media and most of it is not political opposition, it’s not criticism, it’s not dissent – it’s simply abuse. The RSS has this well-organised, systematic army of trolls on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, who post the vilest, threatening and abusive comments to women. I wouldn’t say this has dampened my spirits, but it used to.

This story goes back to 2012, when Modi started being projected as a serious contender for the prime ministerial post. He engaged in image reform for which many companies were put to work. On Twitter, where there were not many Modi supporters. Hordes of people with fake Twitter accounts would come and abuse anyone who would speak against Modi or the Gujarat riots. Today there is no space on Twitter for anyone to say anything against Modi, and that is really the kind of game that they have played. It is organised very much along gender lines. The abuse that both women and men have to face is very gendered, and this has been pointed out by people before me as well. Of late I have been getting these letters at the students’ union office that target all aspects of my identity – that I am a Kashmiri, a Muslim and a woman. They are written in the most abusive language. I don’t know if these should be taken seriously. The attacks on Kanhaiya that have happened repeatedly in the court premises have created an atmosphere of terror, and that is what this government wants.

How has the response from your family been? Are your parents supportive of your struggle here at JNU?

Not really. In the initial days that this issue came up, the students in this university from across the country started getting calls from their parents asking why they were conducting such anti-national events. This happened because of the biased media coverage. All parents have been advising their children to stay away from students’ politics, but defying their parents’ advise students have come out in huge numbers to participate in this movement. I am dealing with a similar situation at home. My parents were worried sick, and for good reasons, that I might be harmed and that they might try to implicate me. They advised me to stay away, not to come in public and not to speak openly against the RSS, but I definitely did not pay heed to that advice. I told my parents that people who have been sent to jail – people like Kanhaiya, Rama Naga, Umar Khalid – who have sedition charges against them, they are all innocent, they haven’t done anything to attract these charges or anything that amounts to sedition. So, even if I don’t do anything and they want to frame me, they can frame me. These people also didn’t do anything, they also someone’s sons and daughters. I think that was the argument through which I was able to reassure them.

How does it feel to have Kanhaiya Kumar back?

It was a very unpredictable and hopeless situation, especially when Umar and Anirban were also arrested. The absence of three student activists from the campus was cause of constant anxiety; people were anxious that they are in jail and what would be happening with them. Here, study and struggle go hand in hand, their studies were also getting affected. Kanhaiya is back, that is definitely a great sigh of relief but it’s also a vindication of our stand, which we have been saying from the start ­­– that there is absolutely no evidence against him, why was he kept in custody for three weeks? He had to pay the bail bond, was kept in custody and was even beaten up. Who is going to make up for all this? Similarly, for Umar and Anirban, I have maintained from the start that they are also innocent and should be released. There is another worry we have apart from these, the academic suspension of eight students. That is something we really need to fight against, and we will continue to build pressure for all of these things. There are certain political steps that we will take in the future.

Do you feel that Umar Khalid will be specifically targeted because of his Muslim identity?

Yes, definitely. He is already being targeted for his identity. This has exposed the hollow politics of Islamophobia that some parties try to play. Just because someone has a ‘Muslim’ name, they can be conveniently put in jail and it is automatically assumed they are terrorists. This is really problematic. They didn’t do this against me. But if you look at what people like Ashoke Pandit have been saying, he occupies a responsible position in the CBFC, and he says that Shehla Rashid should be interrogated because she is a Kashmiri Muslim. This is the most ridiculous argument that I have ever heard, that just because you are a Kashmiri Muslim you cannot have a different kind of politics and by default you are a terrorist and are roaming around with an AK-47. This is bizarre, and these are things being said by people from BJP who are holding positions of power. What do you expect from the rest of their cadre base?

When and how did you get associated with left politics?

Definitely after coming to JNU, but also during the December 16 movement. I wasn’t a JNU student at that time, but observed the shift in the narrative. Earlier it was all about death penalty, castration of men, protection of women by commando forces and other such arguments. But later the discourse shifted to the freedom for women, freedom from protection even, freedom from male protectionism. That shift in the debate, I was personally very fond of Kavita Krishnan’s interventions in that debate. I always grappled with this question of gender – of rape, acid attacks – but didn’t have a systematic and theoretical framework to understand these issues. This really changed after my engagement with left politics. It gives you a framework to understand poverty, injustice, gender, caste, and many other forms of oppression. So, that has been an enriching experience for me.

The Indian left in general has been accused of ignoring the question of caste, but with struggles like Justice for Rohith Vemula and JNU do you think that a renewed Left-Dalit solidarity movement will emerge?

In my observations, I have seen the left active in protest demonstrations such as on Bhagana when there were mass rapes of Dalit women. We were very active during that struggle. It was probably my first year in JNU, and all the left groups were very active in the struggle demanding justice. But definitely there has been such criticism, and I’ve heard of it. I have not been associated with the left for a very long time but yes, if these criticisms exist, they have to be taken on board. All of our struggles have to find a meeting point. We may have differences, and we may continue to have them. I personally don’t believe in identity politics. As you can see, I do left politics and not identity politics. However, the criticisms that come from other progressive movements have to be taken on board. Older left parties faced such criticisms, and they have definitely been addressed. I see many left parties addressing this question very seriously now. What has really spurred this unity is the tremendous repression the Modi government has unleashed within one and a half years of coming to power. When Modi used to say ache din ayenge we didn’t believe him. But I think he has fulfilled his promise by getting all of us united. There is so much repression now that no one is spared – students, intellectuals, even university teachers. And it’s not just the Left and Dalit movements, the attack is on liberalism. We have all been brought together, and probably these are the good days that he promised.

  • Gourishankar

    In a free nation, you can demand freedom from that nation and that, however unpatriotic, will fall within the freedom of speech framework. Calling for a total destruction of that very free nation is misuse of the fundamental right the same nation’s constitution affords us all. This is not bordering on incitement, this is incitement.

  • DaryaSophia

    Keep going Shehla! Wise words, tremendously prescient. I can identify with you more than I can say, but there are scores and scores more like me as well. This is what makes the cause so goddamn right and so easily defensible. Half victory is here in these “ache din” for the left, as you say; and the other half will come with the upheaval of shut minds all across!

    With much respect and in solidarity!

  • Fair Mind

    Fabulous interview! Not one question raised why these so-called students are indulging in politics on the University campus instead of educating themselves and preparing for careers ahead. These students led by leftist faculty that has been entrenched in the university for decades which teaches and encourages divisions and revolts in the name of dissent, are digging graves for their careers.