SADLY, SOME WOULD say luckily, I was not in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on the evening of January 5th. Masked hoodlums went on a rampage inside the campus, injuring several students, even a couple of teachers. They roamed the hostels and buildings armed with sticks, hammers, bricks and rocks. Later, the usual narrative war of mutual recriminations and accusations broke out, with both the Left and the Right blaming each other for the violence.
That Sunday evening, my wife and I were at the ‘Wet Wicket’, Cricket Club of India, with friends.Suddenly, I started getting frantic calls and messages from the US. “Are you all right?” “Hope you guys are safe.” Then a call from a close relative: “Where are you? Hope you’re not injured.” I responded, “We’re in Mumbai; we’re fine. What happened?” After a pause, I heard, “Thank God! There are rampaging mobs in JNU. They’ve invaded the campus and are beating up students and teachers… .”
I felt a sickening sense of pain and alarm. Then anger and shame. I immediately started checking up on my phone. In my 20 years at JNU, this has never happened. Even in the worst of times. Hooligans on campus destroying property, breaking into hostels, labs and offices. Worst of all, attacking students. Now JNU was just like Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Benares Hindu University, Jadavpur University, University of Hyderabad or Maulana Azad National Urdu University.
What did all these universities have in common? They are reputed Central universities, for one. But all of them are also strongholds of recent student agitations against some policy or other of the Modi Government. More to the point, all of them have witnessed pitched battles between student groups or between students and authorities. They are all sites of serious and simmering discord and unrest. Coming back to my beloved JNU, there was blood on the asphalt. Horrifying? Certainly. Shocking? Obviously. But also unprecedented.
Was there a pattern, I thought immediately? Were these brawls politically instigated or supported? Who were the perpetrators? Who were the beneficiaries? Who were the victims? Who was responsible? Paid hooligans? ‘Professional’ thugs and rioters? Or student factions? Why did the university administration fail to act in a timely fashion to prevent or control the outbreak?
That night, we learnt about the protest at the Gateway of India, led by Umar Khalid, formerly also of JNU. Again, ‘aazadi’ slogans were shouted. One, reportedly, was, ‘NPR se aazadi, CAA se azaadi, jativaad se aazadi [freedom from casteism], sanghvaad se aazadi, RSS se aazadi, Mohan Bhagwat se aazadi.’ I saw the video which corroborated this. When we visited the Gateway of India on the 7th, the protests were still going on, right opposite the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Of course, they didn’t say ‘hijab se aazadi’, ‘Triple Talaq se aazadi’, ‘‘Love jihad’ se aazadi’ and so on.
For months JNU has been under a lockdown. You can’t enter your office if you are a faculty member. Labs, classrooms and even the administration building are closed. Most end-semester exams for the 2019 monsoon semester were cancelled or postponed. It would be a zero semester for several students. Now, registration for the 2020 winter semester had just opened. According to the statement put out by the JNU registrar, masked students entered the Communication and Information Services (CIS) building on January 3rd. They threw out the staff and shut down the servers. The campus Wi-Fi system was brought down, virtually bringing the registration process to a standstill.
Why and how did the administration allow this to happen? What’s the point crying victim now, after months of losing control of the campus? After permitting no classes, no exams, no labs, not to mention protests and lockdowns, what’s the point of issuing statements and clarifications? JNU’s reputation is already down in the dust. Now the last straw—masked marauders thrashing students and teachers, rampaging through hostels and university buildings.
Where were the police? Well, the truth is they were right outside the gates, in good numbers. They even had plainclothes intelligence personnel who warned of impending violence. Why didn’t they enter the campus when they saw the rampaging thugs? Apparently, they were waiting for written orders from the Vice Chancellor. According to police sources, they had already intimated the university authorities, but heard nothing back for hours. By then most of the damage was done. It was only around 8.30 PM that the police came in and then shut all the gates. By now, politicians, celebrities, social media activists and others had already started intervening. As to the delayed reaction of the police, their Jamia experience, just a few days before, had made them extra-cautious, they said.
Not surprisingly most of the day after was occupied in a war of words—or to phrase it one better, a ‘war of versions’. An endless blame game of saying the other side did it. The Left and much of the opposition, accused the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), part of the ‘Sangh Parivaar’. Instead, the ABVP denied the charge and blamed the leftist student groups which control the JNU Students Union (JNUSU). Both sides marshalled evidence, including video clips and images of the injured.
But what everyone concerned needs to realise is that it is not winning the battle of narratives that matters. What’s the point of winning the battle of perceptions if you lose the actual war on the ground? It’s winning the war at the level of reality that matters much more than scoring points in the skirmish of views and opinions. What constitutes winning that war? It is saving our universities from dangerous and negative politics.The future of our best educational institutions is at stake. That matters much more than all the ideological and political brinkmanship that we are being subjected to.
What should matter is what you know or how you teach, not which side you support. Depoliticisation and re-intellectualisation, not ideological substitution, are required
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Universities such as JNU should be restored to their primary purpose: academics and research. The prime commitment right now for many, but certainly not the majority, is politics. An anti-government, anti-state politics, in fact. And nothing more. These few students are holding the rest hostage. Preventing them from going to class, taking exams and, eventually, getting degrees. Fee hikes, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens and so on are merely pretexts. In fact, as far as JNU is concerned, the anti-CAA movement did not gather traction. The immediate spark was registration for the new semester, which was sought to be prevented.
What can be done? First of all, a negotiated settlement. Fee hikes can easily be postponed. There is no urgency because JNU is fully funded by the Government. Raising the fees as proposed will not make a huge difference to the budgetary outlay. In fact, fees hikes can be withdrawn on condition that students agree to maintain discipline and devote themselves to studies.
But foregrounding academics requires re-emphasising quality rather than political affiliations. What should matter is what you know or how you teach, not which side you support. Depoliticisation and re-intellectualisation, not ideological substitution, are required.
Administration should not only be fair, but perceived to be such. It should be decisive and consistent. Rather than hesitant and confused. It should talk to all stakeholders rather than barricade itself and play victim. All illegal occupation or blockading of buildings and labs should be cleared forthwith. Principled force should be used to restore normalcy. The guilty, regardless of their political stripes, should be held accountable.
To start with, an impartial inquiry into the recent violence on campus should be conducted. Those responsible should be exposed and punished.Without fudging or massaging the truth.
Now that Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar has spoken out, promising much of the above, perhaps we can hope for more action, less spin. And the rest of the world—let them leave JNU alone for a bit to sort out its mess. Rather than continuing to fish in troubled waters.