Why there are protests and turmoil on our campuses

The JNU is simmering. A few days ago, there was violence on Jamia campus. Similar scenes played out on other educational campuses across the country. Students’ movement in India can be traced back to nearly 200 years in undivided Bengal’s Hindu College

JNU is latest in a series of students movement on campuses

There was mob violence on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus on January 5. A masked mob assaulted and injured many students and teachers. The RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was held responsible for the violence. However, Delhi Police and some others disputed their narrative and blamed the Left students’ organization for the violence on the campus of one of India’s most premier universities.

Police said the students involved in the violence were from the Students Front of India (SFI), All India Students Federation (AISF), All India Students Association (AISA), and Democratic Students Federation (DSF). It said nine students, including JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh and several students from Left-wing groups, were behind the January 5 violence. Aishe Ghosh was one of those injured in the attack. The JNU students’ union (JNUSU) said the members of Left organisations were beaten up by the ABVP. Actor Deepika Padukone jumped in to stand with the Left narrative, drawing bouquets and brickbats on social media. Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar blamed outsiders for the violence, saying that many illegal students are staying in hostels.

“They could be outsiders. They may be participating in any possible violence because they have nothing to do with the university,” Jagadesh Kumar was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.

The JNU has been under lockdown for more than two months over the university’s decision to increase hostel utility charges to account for a deficit that the University Grants Commission (UGC) refused to fund.

Another version is that Left unleashed terror on the campus before the January 5 violence, which could have been in response. This version says that JNUSU members barged into a meeting of the Inter-Hall Administration on October 28, 2019, and disrupted the proceedings. The JNUSU wasn’t invited as it’s not a notified body this year due to a legal case. Professors were held hostage in classrooms, and a woman professor was detained for 29 hours. She was abused and her clothes torn. CCTV cameras were broken and masked Left-wing protestors shut down libraries, schools, laboratories and offices. Students and faculty who tried to enter or reason with them were physically stopped and threatened. Even after the ministry of human resource development intervened, and the fee increase was substantially rolled back, nothing changed as protestors moved onto the next demand — the removal of the Vice Chancellor.

The semester exams were not allowed to be held. Professors who tried to go ahead with the exams were manhandled, and students were warned of dire consequences. Masked protesters tried to burn answer sheets. On November 16, female security guards at the administration block were beaten.

Later, a united Left called for boycott of registration for the new semester in January. On seeing some students defy them as the online registration route was opened by the university; masked cadre destroyed the server room on January 4. This lead to the first round of skirmishes between the Left and the ABVP as its members protested against the vandalism. The same evening, masked Left cadre assaulted non-Left faculty members at the School of Languages. The situation reached a boiling point on January 5, the last day of the registration. With hundreds of students trying to register, the Left resorted to physical threats and intimidation. This set off the second bout of violence with ABVP activists.

Later around 3 pm, more than 150-strong masked Left mob, led by the JNUSU president, allegedly unleashed indiscriminate violence against ABVP members on the campus. The campus descended into anarchy. As darkness fell, there was alleged retaliation from the ABVP against the Left cadre.

The second narrative says there was media outcry only after the ABVP retaliation. Media was silent for three months when the campus was held hostage. The Left is a hegemonic force in JNU and its cadre hugely outnumbers the ABVP and other non-Left parties.

Irrespective of which side of the debate you are on, you cannot disagree that turmoil on some of our best campuses is only detrimental. But this is not the first time students have erupted on a campus; there’s a long history of student movement on campuses.

After Independence, almost all major political parties started their student wings and the country saw several students’ movements that have been etched into the memory of the nation. Let’s look at some of them.

Bihar student movement, 1974 (also called JP movement)

The Chatra Sangarsh Samiti led by Jai Prakash Narayan focused on corruption, nepotism, electoral reforms, subsidised food and education reforms. It was a non-violent protest, which started from Patna University and spread to several other educational institutes in Hindi-speaking states of northern India. Nitish Kumar, now the Bihar chief minister; Lalu Prasad, a former Bihar CM; and Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former UP CM, are some of the prominent products of the JP movement that promoted the idea of socialism.

Student movement in Emergency, 1975

In several universities and academic institutions across India, students and faculty members organised underground protests, using pamphlets and leaflets to protest against the imposition of Emergency. Over 300 student union leaders, including then Delhi University Students Union president Arun Jaitley and Jai Prakash Narayan, who headed the Chatra Sangarsh Samiti, were sent to jail.

Assam Agitation (1979 to 1985)

The agitation in Assam against illegal migrants was launched by the All Assam Students Union, which is now spearheading protests against the amended citizenship act. It was an agitation to protect the identity of Assamese people in wake of influx of people from Bangladesh following 1971 war. People from different walks of life joined the students’ protests, and it ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord. Student leader Prafulla Mahanta, who then headed the Asom Gana Parishad, became the chief minister in 1985 at an age of 35.

Anti-Mandal agitation, 1990

On August 1990, students from across India started a protest against the introduction of 27% reservation in government jobs for people from the Other Backward Classes. The government, led by VP Singh, implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations submitted to the government in 1980. Although the protest began in Delhi University, it spread to several educational institutes across the country, leading to violent protests in many parts of the country. Students in several places boycotted exams. The agitation ended when Singh resigned on November 7, 1990, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) withdrew support to his Janata Dal government.

Anti-reservation protests, 2006

It was a second major protest against the reservation system. In 2006, widespread protests took place in educational institutes oppose the decision of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government to implement reservations for OBCs in both central and private higher education institutes. Students and doctors belonging to upper castes called the move discriminatory. There were counter-protests in favour of the decision by OBC student groups.

Jadavpur University, 2014

The “hok kalorob (let there be uproar)” movement at Jadavpur University was against alleged police attack on unarmed students. The students were demanding a fair inquiry into the alleged molestation of a student inside the campus. The week-long protest led to the removal of Vice Chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty, who had allegedly allowed police to enter the campus.

Protest over Rohith Vemula’s death, 2016

The suicide of a Dalit scholar of Hyderabad University, Rohith Vermula, triggered a nationwide outrage against the university administration over alleged failure to prevent his suicide. The suicide took place days after the university’s executive council expelled five Dalit students, including Vemula, from the hostel and limited their access to the campus for allegedly assaulting an ABVP student leader. Hundreds of students from universities across India participated in protest rallies.

JNU protest, 2016

On February 9, 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) erupted in protests over the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted of conspiring in an attack on Parliament 16 years ago. There were clashes between different student groups during the demonstration. Four days after the event, then JNUSU president Kahhaiya Kumar was arrested by Delhi Police and booked for sedition. Two other students, including Umar Khalid, were arrested later. JNU authorities conducted an inquiry and took action against 21 students. The action ranged from rustication to fines. In response, students went on an indefinite strike. The Delhi High Court suspended the university action on the condition that students end their strike.

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