Bound in a maroon jacket, embossed in gold, Umar Khalid’s thesis awaits submission for over a week now, amidst uncertainty and ‘high drama’. Based on the prejudiced enquiry of the high level enquiry committee (HLEC), the JNU administration wants him to pay a hefty Rs 20,000 fine, succumb to an unjust rustication order and thereby also accept his “guilt”. By leveraging his thesis submission what they want is to coerce him (and many of us) to submit to the diktats of their kangaroo court (read HLEC). So much so that they are openly and repeatedly flouting clear directives from the high court that has categorically stated that the matter is sub judice and no “coercive action” can be taken against the students. While hearing the petition of other students implicated by the HLEC such as Aswathi Nar, Komal Mohite and others, the court has also subsequently clarified in no uncertain terms that “no coercion” ought to mean no denial of submission of thesis, registration or hostel accommodation. But to no avail. The administration continues to harass, blackmail and threaten its students.
Two students, including Umar Khalid, are still to submit their thesis. There are several others whose registration or hostel accommodation has been denied. Khalid has been their most obvious target, demonised the most since the February 9, 2016. But each of them have had their own share of distress and struggles that only those close to them have witnessed. A Dalit woman, while mourning her father’s untimely death, still held her ground against the threat of eviction from her hostel. A woman, battling poor health, had to not just complete her PhD, but also confront a vindictive administration.
Somebody ought to hold the administration to account for the sheer criminality and inhumanity of their actions. Kanhaiya Kumar, Chintu Kumari, Anant Prakash Narayan, Rama Naga, Komal Mohite and Jatin Goraya belong to marginalised backgrounds. Each of them have been targeted simply because they had a different opinion. The list of those being persecuted runs much longer. However, in this blinking game, if the administration expected them to cower, then the resilience shown by the students shows they were miserably mistaken.
Academics and politics are not devoid of each other
A prolonged effort has been made by hirelings of the present regime to portray JNU students as students who are not serious about academic pursuits and as ones who just “do politics”. As socially conscious students pursuing education in a public funded university, we are rightfully concerned about the ills and injustices that plague our society. So yes, we “do politics”. But we are also serious researchers. The two are not devoid of each other. Our social and political concerns inform our academics and the same is true the other way round. Now that we have also proved our academic credentials as students by completing our PhD thesis, ironically the administration is denying us submission.
Going down the memory lane, Umar Khalid and I have spent almost a third of our lives in this university in the capacity of research students and also student activists. In all these years, we have marched together, been in the library or the archives with each other, distributed countless pamphlets together, fervently disagreed with each other and also happened to share a jail cell. Having joined this campus a decade back, one of the first slogans that captivated us both was “Padho ladai karneko, lado samaj badalneko” (Study to lead the fight, fight to change the society). Unlike those public funded ‘centres of excellence’, where students are bred to fly abroad at the first opportunity, JNU as an institution has taught us to contribute to the society in both research and in service.
This is how over the years, students have been enthused to return the debt, if one were to invoke the “tax-payer’s” money argument that is. But of course, we have still earned the epithet of being “anti-nationals”. Why? Because instead of parroting to the ruling elite, instead of being cogs in their wheels, we have been bred to critically engage with the concerns of the society. Because in our research, we speak against caste, against patriarchy, against neo-liberalism and against fundamentalism of all hues – be it market or Hindutva. We strive to make visible what they attempt to invisibilise.
An attempt to dismantle JNU’s legacy
Khalid’s thesis is on the condition of Adivasis of Singhbhum since the colonial era and the continued political and economic marginalisation of tribal people well after independence. In the acknowledgement of his thesis, he states that more than a degree, the main incentive for his research was to understand the present struggles of Adivasis of Jharkhand. He dedicates his PhD to Rohith Vemula and Gauri Lankesh. His thesis and those of most others in this university, is representative of the same concerns, same legacy of critical pedagogy that JNU has inculcated. A legacy, that the regime today is desperately trying to alter.
The assault and subsequent “disappearance” of Najeeb Ahmed, the blatant flouting of reservations, the massive seat cuts in MPhil/PhD, the dismantling of GSCASH, the selective branding and targeting of several voices within the faculty, the inquisition and witch-hunt by the HLEC post February 9, 2016, the countless proctorial enquiries and fines running into lakhs of rupees cumulatively imposed on students and the denial of registration, submission and hostel accommodation are all aimed towards altering the aforementioned legacy. To break the back of the democratic forces and coerce them into conformity. They have are in for the long haul. They want us to bleed for every question we raise, to pay a heavy price every time we defy. But so far, the students have fought back, whether in JNU or across all universities that they are trying to tame into submission.
“Chun kar az hameh heelate dar guzasht,
Halal ast burdan bi-shamsher dast.”
“When all has been tried,
Yet justice is not in sight,
It is then right to pick up the sword,
It is then right to fight.”
Guru Gobind Singh, in Zafarnama
The high court judge quoted the above couplet when the JNU lawyer in court spoke of the ‘menacing students’, their propensity to protest, and the need to ‘discipline’ them. While hearing our petitions in court, he upheld the right to protest as a fundamental right and emphasised that universities have always been “hotbeds of protest” the world over. Referring to the legacy of Rousseau, Robespierre and the French revolution, he traced the role of students in the historic Paris uprising of May 1968. This observation goes a long way in refuting the repeated attempts by the RSS/BJP to single out and malign JNU as a hub of “anti-national” forces.
When prime time anchors are turning their TV studios into courts, passing down their saffron judgment deep into the mass psyche, such an observation from the high court is quite significant. When a lawyer appearing on behalf of another student punished by the HLEC spoke of the blatant double standards of the administration as to how some are protected, while others are hounded, the judge went on to suggest the Orwellian dystopia we are living in today wherein, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” A proclamation by the pigs who control the government in the novel Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I feel this is an apt comparison and the struggle for real democracy ought to be one against this saffron dystopia.
In 2016, in the most dire of circumstances, Khalid and I happened to meet Kanhaiya Kumar in a venue of not our choosing: joint interrogation by the police. The first words Kumar said to me were, “I must by all means submit my PhD thesis, as it is as much a political responsibility now as it is academic.” I did submit my thesis months after our release. This time, it was Kanhaiya Kumar’s turn. He has. And so will Umar Khalid.
Anirban Bhhatacharya is a former JNU research scholar.