Left Right on campuses

Rohith Vemula and JNU: The ABVP link

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-Renu R, Jaipur

After the results of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union Elections were announced on September 13 last year, BJP’s students’ wing ABVP carried out a victory march to celebrate end of their 14-year “political banwas” on a campus known as the bastion of left-wing politics. ABVP remained politically insignificant on JNU campus for close to a one-and-half decade – the last time any of their candidates won a central panel seat was in 2001 when Sambit Patra, the current BJP national spokesperson, was elected president – so when it grabbed the joint secretary’s position –although by a narrow margin of 28 votes – people began wondering if ABVP will tear into red JNU and spill saffron.

On February 9 this year, some students indulged in seditious, anti-India sloganeering at an event titled The Country Without A Post Office, which had been organized to “stand in solidarity with the struggle of the Kashmiri people for their democratic rights to self-determination” and, among other things, to protest “the judicial killing of Afzal Guru”, who was hanged in 2013 after being convicted for attack on the Parliament in 2001. This led to a scuffle between the ABVP and the Left organizations.

There was a justified outrage in the country over the slogans – and the act – and people, across ideologies, thought this couldn’t be allowed to happen on Indian campuses. Delhi Police registered a case of sedition against unknown persons after a complaint by the BJP MP Maheish Girri and the ABVP. Though the case was against ‘unknown persons’, on Friday it arrested JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, sparking protests from former students arrested during Emergency – who issued a statement to say police action on the campus was reminiscent of the dark days of the emergency – and the JNU Teachers’ Association, who said they were concerned, anguished and pained with ‘the kind of development and the kind of news being run across’.

Later, when Kanhaiya was produced before a metropolitan magistrate, police sought his custodial interrogation for five days to ascertain the alleged links of the accused persons, including those who are allegedly absconding, with terrorist groups. But more importantly, police told the court that Kanhaiya was also required to be interrogated for the purpose of identification of other accused who were seen shouting “anti-national” slogans on February 9. When police ran a CD in the courtroom and the court asked Kanhaiya if he knew students seen in it, he said he did not know all of them as they were outsiders but he can identify all the students who are from JNU.

CPI-M’s Sitaram Yechury picked this up when he said, “The question is that do you know who raised the slogans? Take action according to law against them. When you don’t know then how are you arresting all the student leaders?”

Less than a month back, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide after the university had allegedly stopped paying his monthly stripend of Rs 25,000 (excluding HRA) with friends alleging that he was targeted for raising issues under the banner of Amdedkar Students’ Association (ASA).

Rohith’s story began in August when the university set up an inquiry against him and four other ASA members for an alleged assault on ABVP leader N Susheel Kumar. On August 17, Union Minister of State (Independent charge) of Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya wrote to HRD Minister urging action and claiming that the “Hyderabad University… has in the recent past, become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”. After a series of flip-flops, the five were suspended in September. On December 17, the decision was upheld. On January 3, after the sanction was confirmed, the five moved out of their hostel rooms to a tent they set up inside the campus and began a “relay hunger protest”. On January 20, police recovered a “suicide note” in the room where Rohith hanged himself. It read: “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster.”

Rohith had earlier been part of a small protest against “majoritarian vandalism” by ABVP when they disrupted screening of a film on the Muzaffarnagar riots in Delhi University. He also a run-in with the Hindu right-wing students’ organization over his alleged protest against the death penalty for Yakub Memom, a convict in 1993 Bombay bombings.

Do you see an ABVP link to both the events like I do? Action against the Hyderabad Dalit research scholar was on an ABVP complaint, forwarded through RSS pracharak and local MP Dattatreya, and police swoop-down on JNU hostels came on an FIR registered by a BJP MP and ABVP leaders.

JNU is not new to anti-national activities. Former Delhi University teacher SAR Geelani, who was also an accused in the 2001 Parliament attack but acquitted, has been invited twice to the JNU to speak at events organised on February 9 to protest Afzal Guru’s hanging. JNU students have also invited separatist leaders from Kashmir to the campus. The university teachers claim JNU provides a vibrant democratic culture, where diverse political ideological and academic views have engaged with each other in a spirit of peaceful dialogue and debate” but there have been incidents in the past which have been anti-India and pro-China and now pro-Pakistan.

While I hold no brief for the cowards who shouted anti-India slogans from an Indian soil and want the strictest possible action against them for not daring to do that again, I cannot but return to from where I started: could this be an attempt by the ABVP to spill saffron on the red bastion to consolidate its small victory after 14 long years?

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