JNU Violence: Sitharaman, Jaishankar Condemnations Fall Short of Placing Blame

Eminent alumni members Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and the Union external affairs minister S. Jaishankar condemned the violence but still fell short of pointing fingers at anyone.

New Delhi: The security lapse that enabled a masked mob of over a 100 to enter the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus on Sunday evening will be a matter of debate in the days to come.

The pre-planned, coordinated attack on students and teachers, however, will definitely place the spotlight on vice-chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar’s sustained refusal to engage with the university community that has been protesting against an unprecedented four-fold fee hike over the last three months. The fee hike, it is said, can lead to almost 40% of the total students dropping out.

Over the last few months, the community attempted to mobilise various alumni groups, civil society organisations and urged political leaders from various hues to intervene.

While most extended their support to the demands of JNU students, political leaders who now hold important positions in the Modi government had remained tight-lipped. It took a mob assault on the students who had been protesting for some of them to speak up.

Two of the most eminent alumni members, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Union external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, condemned the violence but still fell short of pointing fingers at anyone.

The meek response, of at least Sitharaman, stood out as she has not hesitated in demonising protesting students in the past. Right from when the JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, along with Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, was arrested on charges of sedition to the recent fee hike protest – Sitharaman has been supportive of the university administration’s hardline positions. And, curiously, has held students accountable for the stalemate at the university.

Also read: How ABVP Planned Attack on JNU Students, Teachers on WhatsApp

While Jaishankar claimed he saw pictures of the attack, Sitharaman described the images as “horrifying”. The available corpus of evidence clearly indicates that the masked assault was planned by the right-wing fringe to attack the protesting students. They raised slogans like “Jai Shri Ram”, “Desh ke Gaddaron ko Goli Maaro Saalo Ko” and “Comradon ki kabr khudegi, Savarkar ki dharti par“. Some eyewitness accounts have also indicated that the mob specifically targeted the rooms of Kashmiri Muslims. Some leaked screenshots from WhatsApp groups like “Friends of RSS” and “Unity against Left” suggest that the attack was also a coordinated one.

“VC apna hi hai, (VC is our man)” said one such text message from the group’s members about the JNU VC. The member almost immediately got a prompt response, saying, “100%”.

The slogans and messages leave barely any doubt about the political affiliation of the so-called “miscreants”. But imagine a situation in which the protesting groups of JNU or say Aligarh Muslim University or Jamia Millia Islamia, may have indulged in such a violent response. Would the honourable ministers have given such a timid response even then?

Their response had in fact encouraged the right-wing machinery on social media to portray the ghastly attack on students as merely a skirmish between the Left and Right. Some videos also emerged that suggested that members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student’s wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) were also were attacked.

The one-sided narrative sought to be advanced by the right-wing ecosystem appears to be more of an apology for the VC’s intransigence and the ABVP’s own U-turn on students’ issues.

For months now, the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) had been agitating against the fee hike. Since the VC has refused to even meet the office bearers, the student’s union gave a call for a total lockdown of the university. They boycotted classes, even as they attended lectures by university professors in the open. The ABVP had also supported the students’ movement against fee hike.

As time passed by, the JNUSU itself started to battle the question of whether or not to continue with the boycott call. It was justifiably worried about the sustainability of such a movement that may impact students’ careers. The VC, during this time, relied on his obstinacy and waited for the movement to die on its own.

Then came the registration for a new semester with the beginning of 2020. The ABVP suddenly withdrew its support to the movement and decided to mobilise its supporters to register, while the JNUSU decided to boycott the registration. On January 3 and 4, some JNU students disrupted the online registration system to prevent the administration from presenting a picture that everything was normal in the university. A majority of students supported the JNUSU in its efforts.

Also read: The Message After JNU Attack Is Clear: No Space Is Safe

The debate between the Left and Right took a violent turn on January 4 and 5. When the students union attempted to prevent a few ABVP activists from registering, a skirmish followed between some of the saffron and Left Unity activists. The students intervened to stop the fight. But through the day, ABVP students rounded up the Left Unity activists at different places of the university and attacked them. Several of them had to be treated at AIIMS. Similarly, small scuffles took place even on January 5.

The university turned into a camp for ABVP activists overnight. At around 5 pm on January 5, there was another attack by the ABVP students on some Left Unity students outside the Periyar hostel. The fight resulted in students from both groups suffering minor injuries. The ABVP’s presidential candidate Manish Jangid and some Left Unity activists were hurt in this fight.

The matter snowballed when ABVP mobilised a mob from outside the university, snuck them in, allowed it to go on a rampage.

The JNU Teachers’ Association had planned a peace march at 6 pm outside the Sabarmati Hostel. At this point, the masked mob, covered with helmets, and armed with rods and stones, began to attack both the teachers and students. The assaulters went to one hostel after another and vandalised rooms, messes, and common rooms for nearly two hours. According to witness accounts, the mobsters were directly hitting students on their heads.

The scale of violence that unfolded on the evening of January 5 was starkly different from what happened the previous day. Those who see any equivalence between the two, like the right-wing supporters, are not only being injudicious but are probably doing so to deflect attention from the criminal assault on JNU students and teachers.

Sitharaman and Jaishakar’s statements condemning the violence are guilty of the same. They fail to make any party accountable and help the mobsters evade culpability.

Also read: ‘They Were Banging the Door With an Iron Rack’: Students, Teachers Describe JNU Violence

Most opposition parties have condemned the mayhem at JNU. While Shiv Sena likened the mob violence at JNU to the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, Congress has demanded a judicial inquiry on the incident. While a large section of the population sees the perpetual situation of chaos in Indian universities as government-fuelled anarchy, VC Jagadesh Kumar has refused to budge. In fact, he had held the student’s movement against the fee hike as responsible for the violence.

Without uttering a word on the armed mob, his tweets indicate that the university administration may soon initiate action against the protesting students who were beaten up brutally. The press note that the JNU registrar released mentions the masked mob as merely “miscreants” but devotes a large part of its attention to the scuffles between the protesting students and ABVP activists.

In fact, it pointedly states that “a group of agitating students” were responsible for the violent turn of events instead of taking accountability for the “miscreants” who had entered “Periyar hostel rooms and attacked the students with sticks and rods.”

Many would agree that the Modi government, and its agents in Indian institutions, have killed the great Indian tradition of dialogue that has resolved multiple conflicts in the past. JNU is one of the few universities where elections are still fought without money and muscle power; where movements are led solely on students’ agenda.

In a situation where ministers, the university administration, and the police have turned their backs on students, it is plausible why a mob chanting “Jai Shri Ram” in the same breath as “Goli Maron Saalon Ko” went about ransacking the best liberal arts and sciences university of the country with such impunity.