JNU Violence: When Knowledge Becomes a Signifier of Dissidence

Vandalised rooms and thrashed students testify to a tragic yet inspiring story of a university where students come to chase their dreams.

Its the morning after the mayhem, when the full play of night’s destruction is revealed. In the daylight on Monday afternoon, Sabarmati hostel, one of the primary targets of the mob stalking JNU campus on Sunday evening, stood bare and stark. As I entered the rooms of students beaten there, my mind was a jumble of thoughts. On the one hand, the cold brutality of the masked mob (a tame, timid word to describe these actions and those who carried them out), ransacking rooms, beating up their occupants.

On the other hand, a reality check about students’ living conditions in hostels. Small, somewhat dingy rooms where, on Sunday, mattresses lying on the floor alongside other ordinary belongings subject to the mob’s rampage infused violence into the shabby surroundings.

This is the new JNU, where thousands of students from lower and working-class economic families from across the country come chasing a dream to study, to obtain a degree in one of the country’s finest universities. But the very word ‘knowledge’ has become a signifier of dissidence today. And those pursuing it find themselves in grave danger.

The two recent narratives centred around JNU—the long-drawn agitation over the high fee hike making JNU the most expensive central university in the country, the strike against registration, and the larger left vs right ideological conflict centred on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC)—have now been forged together.

Vandalised rooms and thrashed students testify to a tragic yet inspiring story. If the fee structure were to kick in, the students I met at Sabarmati hostel on Monday would find their futures suddenly uncertain, maybe even aborted. It is not surprising that the struggle against the fee hike, for the large majority of JNU students, constitutes a struggle for their academic existence.

Then terror struck on Sunday night, close to home. Hostels are part of the founding mythology of JNU. Not merely places where students live, but nodes in a wider social life that makes the campus what it is. Santosh Bhagat, 29, ran for his life when the mob chased him inside Sabarmati. He was given refuge by a faculty member at the faculty residential quarters. “I no longer feel safe on campus. To barge into hostels, break down doors, beat up students, push them from the balcony… how can anyone feel safe? Anything can happen to anyone. As a common JNU student, I feel threatened on campus,” he said.

Also Read: Living Through JNU’s ‘Bloody Sunday’: A University in Grave Crisis

Into his second year of a PhD at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Santosh told his friends to buy him a ticket back to Asansol, his home. “But then I thought my work was in JNU. What will I do at home? At the same time, I am not sure of our safety on campus, not even when we are inside our hostel rooms. How are we going to continue to live here?”

JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh. Photo: PTI

‘The Room’

There was a particular room (henceforth referred to as The Room) on the first floor of Sabarmati hostel which seems to have been a primary target of the mob. Its occupant, a Kashmiri student. There are nearly 200 Kashmiri students in JNU, I was told as I wandered with others. The mob barged into the room where Surya Prakash, a visually impaired first year MPhil student from UP’s Deoria district, lives. “The mob was beating me. And I heard someone directing them to go to The Room,” he told us.

We then met the occupant of The Room in the corridor. The mob primarily targeted Kashmiris, political activists and minorities, the student informed us. He did not want to reveal his name. This is The Room where many students took refuge. But the mob finally found its way in, breaking things, raining down blows on the students. What I saw was the bare skeleton of a place where someone once stayed. Shards of glass scattered all over the dirty floor; everything in total disarray. The balcony, looking out to a campus serenely peaceful in normal times, offered some relief.

Currently, in the last semester of his PhD in Urdu, the Kashmiri student has been living on the campus for five years. Has anything like this ever happened before? “The usual taunts … but nothing like this,” he said. His three identities—as a left sympathiser, a Muslim, and a Kashmiri—render him a soft target. “I do not know whether I can continue to remain on campus. May have to quit living on the campus and live outside.”

One of the slogans many students claim to have heard was “Bhago Naxalio” (get out, Naxals).

Faculty members attacked

Hours before the violence exploded, Shukla Sawant, a faculty member in the School of Arts and Aesthetics, saw one of the mobs moving onto the campus from the gate on Nelson Mandela Marg. “I informed the policemen about it. They, however, appeared to not care,” Sawant told me.

Also Read: Sunday Evening Mob Attack on JNU ‘a Pre-Planned Exercise’, Alleges JNUTA

Within hours, news of mobs rampaging through the campus reached the faculty at large. “We started walking towards Periyar hostel. Amit Thorat, a faculty member, who was on a cycle, went ahead of us. He reached the spot and started filming the mob. The men then turned on him, beating him up. They made him delete the photographs. He ran and escaped,” Sawant said. The rest of the group moved ahead. “We thought they would not hit faculty members—especially older, grey-haired women. But we were in for a surprise. The mob approaching us started to hurl stones towards us. Sucharita Sen was struck in the head. I got a blow from the lathi on my back.” The vehicles at the site came under the same vicious attack. Professor Atul Sood’s parked car had all of its windows broken.

Protests against CAA, NRC

The violence comes at a time when protests against the CAA and NRC continue across the country. Just a day ahead of the violence in JNU, I visited Shaheen Bagh, where women have been sitting under a thin shamiana, braving the cut of the cold December winter protesting the CAA and NRC. It was afternoon, and the place was emptier than in the evenings, when arriving crowds liven things up. Relative emptiness did not, however, diminish in any manner the remarkableness of their agitation. As women and children sat on the floor, a young woman distributed packets of biscuits and pouches of water. Groups of men spoke about the brave girls from Jamia. “Hamaare Jamia ki ladkiya ne to dikha diya,” they said. They also discussed the impending elections in Delhi, Bihar, Bengal and UP. Arvind Kejriwal was secure in Delhi, they said. A young student of Jamia Hamdard University announced: “Mamata Didi is too good.” They seemed less certain about what the polls would bring in UP and Bihar.

In two days, two snapshots of a city in turmoil, with the jackboots of the state and its henchmen muzzling the collective voices of people who are fed up. What happens next? The answer, as one Nobel Laureate wrote long ago, is blowing in the wind; hanging thick in the atmosphere of the city.