Let us set aside the anger and revulsion, disbelief, helplessness and perhaps even fear that many of you would have felt over Sunday night’s events at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and let us also postpone the question of who those masked thugs were that beat up students and faculty, and destroyed public property on campus. We have a fairly good idea of who they were and who is protecting them – but more about that later.
Instead, I want you to think about a more fundamental question: Regardless of where you work, study or live, are you safe? Do you feel safe enough to speak freely about political matters outside the confines of your home? Do you trust the police to keep you safe? Do you trust the government to keep you safe?
If your answer to all these questions is ‘yes’, I don’t think you’re telling the truth but good luck to you anyway. As for the rest of us: we were disturbed by what happened to the students at Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University when they protested the Citizenship (Amendment) Act last month, and bore the full brunt of an out-of-control police force. And yet many of us still felt a sense of disconnect – that this can’t ever happen to me and mine.
Well, after JNU, you need to be clear: this horror show can and will be enacted in your neighbourhood, whether you live in Defence Colony or Lajpat Nagar, or work in Chennai or study in Bangalore. Because, if the heads of students can be cracked open over the course of more than three hours in the heart of India’s capital, with the police standing by despite the presence of the national and international media, then this can happen anywhere, at any time, and to anyone whom the masked thugs and their political masters decide to target next.
A question of command and control
A host of shocking incidents over the past five and half years have left us in no doubt about where India is headed. But the importance of what happened at JNU is that it marks a point of no return. The Modi government has made it clear that it will not be deterred from its project of suppressing the democratic rights of the people and ensuring there is no effective opposition from any political, social or institutional quarter. When you allow thugs to do what they did in full public view to students of India’s top university, you are telling the country you don’t care about the political or legal consequences.
Now, India is a democracy, so what kind of a regime can be so indifferent towards the consequences of what happened? Only one that has no intention of ever going away, and which has been working towards that goal from the word ‘go’.
Since 2014, the Modi government has systematically undermined one institution after the next. The list includes parliament and its committees and protocols, the cabinet system, the judiciary, the RBI, the CBI and other investigative agencies, the Right to Information, the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the federal system and, of course, the media. The idea is to ensure the power vertical around Modi should face no countervailing challenge.
Why JNU matters
In India, as around the world, universities have traditionally been an important source of resistance to rulers with undemocratic ambitions. University resistance comes in two forms: from the power of its intellectual ideas and research, and the strength of its student and teachers organisations and unions. And if there is one university that typifies both forms of resistance in India, it is JNU.
That is why, from day one, the Modi government has worked to undermine the university on both fronts. First, they appointed a pliant vice chancellor, Mamidalla Jagadesh Kumar, to destroy JNU’s traditions of collegiality and democratic governance, and tie down its faculties in bureaucratic rules. From there, the VC moved on to undermine every department with highly questionable appointments.
At the political level, the BJP and the Central government – with the collusion of the Delhi police and pliable media – launched an attack on the students. The first targets in 2016 were student activists framed on false charges like sedition. This is when the idiotic phrase ‘tukde tukde gang’ was introduced and its use industrialised across the right-wing corporate media. Next, the ambit was widened to tarnish the whole of the JNU student population as anti-national freeloaders. And then came the full-fledged assault on the right of poor students to even come to JNU: by announcing a hike in hostel fees a few months ago.
Cutting across political lines, JNU’s students resisted the fee hike. But presumably because of pressure from the RSS and BJP, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) detached itself from the movement and started taking the side of the administration.
Connecting the dots
By linking Sunday’s violence to the fee hike and the movement by students to oppose the registration process for the new semester, the JNU VC has helpfully connected the dots. It is now apparent that the masked thugs who were allowed to attack the students protesting the fee hike were a last desperate throw of the dice by an administration and a government unwilling to admit defeat at the hands of students.
Why do I say this with such certainty? As an occasional visitor to JNU, to visit friends who live there or to give a talk, I have always been stopped at the entrance and asked about the purpose of my visit. This is not a campus where anyone can simply walk in armed with lathis and rods without being challenged by the guards stationed at every entrance gate.
This rule, which has been around for some time, has been more strictly enforced by the current VC. And ever since the mass of students have been protesting the plan to hike hostel fees, security has actually been on extra alert. Despite this, campus security was nowhere in sight for over three hours as hostels were systematically attacked over several hours.
So when the Ministry of Human Resources Development admits in a tweet that “a group of masked people entered the JNU campus today, threw stones, damaged property and attacked students”, the obvious question it is sidestepping is how a group of masked and armed people could enter the campus in the first place.
To my mind, the goons could not have entered without the cooperation of JNU security. And given the kind of regime the VC runs, it is unthinkable that the JNU security could have acted in this way without the VC’s blessings. But the VC, who is a handmaiden of the Modi government and a person who has never hidden his bias towards the RSS, would not have allowed the goons to wreak mayhem without his political bosses egging him on and promising the deployment of stormtroopers.
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has compared what happened in JNU to 26/11 in Mumbai. He may be right at one level, because for several hours the masked thugs were able to do pretty much what they pleased. But if we are looking for analogies, I’d say I was reminded of Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002, when the police stood by as innocent people were attacked and killed.
Next, ask yourself this: when does the police adopt such a lenient attitude towards hoodlums? When the hoodlums are connected to the ruling party and the government, obviously. By now there is enough evidence from WhatsApp, Instagram, eyewitness accounts and even media interviews of ABVP members for there to be no doubt about the identity of the masked attackers: as ABVP activists and supporters.
Such is the wealth of evidence that the ruling establishment has launched multiple efforts to ensure action is not taken. The minister of state for home affairs – whose ministry controls the Delhi police – has already declared that there is no way anyone connected to the BJP could be involved in violence! And rather conveniently, a Hindutva outfit that no one has ever heard of has come forward to take responsibility, thus letting ABVP off the hook. These efforts at a cover-up are all part of the wider political game-plan run from the top to terrorise JNU into submission.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, I have another foolproof formula for identifying guilt in such situations. Just ask yourself whether the police is making any effort to identify, arrest and punish the culprits. In Gujarat, Modi’s guilt for the 2002 killings was obvious when it took the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission and Supreme Court for any of the riot cases to progress. At JNU, we are told the police has begun a probe. But since the police itself is being accused of collusion with the administration and the goons, it’s best not to hold our breath. It is not a coincidence that the first cases to be filed are all against the victims of Sunday’s violence.
If there is a silver lining to the assault on JNU, it is that more and more people across the country have realised that we have indeed reached a point of no return. They know Modi’s shock-and-awe methods must not be allowed to prevail. The fact that this attack on JNU’s students has come at the same time as the government’s plan to turn millions of Indians into “doubtful citizens” through the NPR-NRC-CAA will further open the eyes of the people to what is actually going on.