How Extreme Student Protests Launched Narendra Modi's Career

The BJP is maligning student protestors at Jamia Milia and across the country. Yet the PM's website describes his own political origins in a far more disruptive student movement. 

On December 15, Jamia Millia Islamia was stormed by police, the prime minister responded with a communal dog-whistle, BJP leaders spread fake news to defame anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protestors, and the message went out that such extreme protests had no place in a democracy.

Yet, Narendra Modi’s own website dedicates a page to the Navnirman Movement – in which student protestors brought entire cities to a halt with its ‘extremism’ in 1974 – and Modi’s own role in it.

“The Navnirman Movement was Narendra’s first encounter with mass protest and led to a significant broadening of his worldview on social issues,” the page on narendramodi.in says. “It also propelled Narendra to the first post of his political career, General Secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti in Gujarat in 1975.”

In December 1973, in Gujarat, students at the LD Engineering College in Ahmedabad began raising their voices over campus grievances, like canteen charges. The police used force against them, which backfired: Protests blew up on other campuses, and spread into the city through early 1974, leading to state-wide strikes, arson and looting, all targeting the state government.

Student protestors attacked the vehicles and property of Congress (I) legislators and corporators to frighten them into resigning. Ahmedabad was close to anarchy before the army marched in.

“The state and central governments failed to quell this discontent despite all their efforts,” Modi’s website says.

“As a young Pracharak and associate of ABVP,” the page adds, “Narendra joined the Navnirman movement and dutifully performed the tasks assigned to him.”

Meanwhile, in Patna, a similar but more broad-based uprising was coming alive. On March 18, the ABVP and other right-wing protestors had picketed the Bihar state assembly. After battling with police, the students torched government buildings, a public warehouse and two newspaper offices.

Once the protests had taken hold in Bihar, it was joined by a new leader – the freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP, whom students invited back to the public stage to lead them.

Sampoorna Kranti

JP had been an old comrade of Jawaharlal Nehru, but was now an outstanding critic of Nehru’s daughter Indira, who was turning the Congress party into a sycophantic, centralised family firm, and undermining the institutions that checked the party’s power. In Bihar, JP issued a call for ‘sampoorna kranti’, total revolution, against the elected government of India.

The JP movement was backed by (and eventually consisted of) motley opposition forces, including the RSS, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the Socialists, and disgruntled Congress conservatives – and even, at times, sections of the CPI-ML.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Jayaprakash Narayan. Photo: http://www.nehrumemorial.nic.in/

In 1974, Arun Jaitley was in his early twenties, finishing law college at Delhi University. He travelled to both Ahmedabad and Patna to support and stoke the JP andolan, which had students rioting, stone-pelting, setting university offices on fire, and declaring city-wide bandhs, all against elected governments.

At the end of the year, in Delhi, Jaitley was appointed national convenor of the sangharsh samiti, or Struggle Committee, for those student organisations.

It’s worth noting that the Navnirman protests began 18 months before Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

Even when the JP andolan was at its peak, the Emergency had still not even been conceived among Indira’s advisers: That only happened in early 1975, after the railway minister, L.N. Mishra, was assassinated in a bomb blast in Bihar.

It would be a further six months before the Emergency was declared – and that occurred after a high court judge tried to unseat the PM of India from the parliament, where she led a two-thirds majority government, and bar her from contesting elections for a further six years. The basis for this ruling was a minor infraction of election rules, compared by The Times of London to ‘dismissing a Prime Minister for a traffic offence’.

On June 23, Indira won a stay on that order from the Supreme Court. In response, JP called a rally in New Delhi, to appeal to Indians to make it impossible for the government to function. Arun Jaitley was there. JP also appealed, not for the first time, to the army and police to disobey orders they felt were illegal – which could be read as an instigation to mutiny.

The house of the PM, JP promised, was mobbed by students. ‘We intend to overthrow her,’ Morarji Desai said, in an interview later that evening. ‘Thousands of us will surround her house to prevent her from going out or receiving visitors. We’ll camp there day and night shouting to her to resign.’

That was on June 25, 1975. The Emergency was declared minutes before midnight.

In profiles of Arun Jaitley, however, the year 1974 usually goes missing. As he puts it, ‘It all began… in June 1975’, when he is teleported out of innocent student life straight into jail.

By 2015, Jaitley – then India’s finance minister and one of the most powerful men in the Union cabinet – was describing campus protests in India as an ‘alliance of subversion’.

The same is true of the BJP, and its genetic origins in the JP movement. The ABVP had formed the hard-core of JP’s student revolutionaries; and the Jana Sangh, the centre of his political coalition, was reborn in 1980 as the BJP.

The first NDA government did acknowledge that lineage: In 2002, it inaugurated a train called the Sampoorna Kranti Express, to carry people, fittingly, from Patna to New Delhi. For the present government, though, this history is less convenient. It is lightly skipped over in the official infographic of the party’s history online.

Yet Modi’s own website is more honest about his own connection to student radicalism and extreme protest, or at least it was until he was elected Prime Minister, and became the target of student anger and resistance.

The article has been extracted and modified from an earlier article, published June 2018, The Emergency, and the BJP’s Hidden History of Student Protest“.