It has been a dark month for Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. An event held on 9th February, the death anniversary of Afzal Guru that questioned capital punishment has gotten three students arrested and three others charged with sedition. Slogans of these young students have shaken and threatened the nation intensely.
This archaic law obviously isn’t a new menace. The state took offence 512 times in 2014 which included many sedition charges. But the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar has created phenomenal unrest and managed to bring together and forth thousands of students, teachers, alumni and general citizens out on the road in solidarity. The urgency of protecting a space like JNU which has an extensively heterogeneous student body and a progressive academic environment has seen solidarity via demonstrations, marches, debates, and discussions. The issue at hand is definitely larger than the immediate cause of claiming back the democratic freedom of the university space. Demands of repealing sedition completely and appeals for the right to dissent have been at the centre of the debate.
On the 14th of February, a couple of days after JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest and a day after Rahul Gandhi’s show of solidarity on the campus, a human chain signifying symbolic protest ran through the entire campus. A space that has been attacked and tried to be unnerved with surveillance, scrutiny and accusations of harbouring ‘anti-national’ sentiments came together in optimism and determination.
The march of 14th February culminated at the Administration Block where speakers or mikes weren’t allowed to the students and teachers. After some sloganeering, everyone sat huddled together in hushed silence to listen to the speeches, updates, and strategic advice from teachers. The teachers community has been extensively involved with the protests in several different ways. The members of JNUTA or the Teacher’s Association were physically attacked by lawyers in court and even sexually harassed the next day.
Students had broken out in outrage against the media and the government which have linked Umar Khalid, communist and PhD student of history with Islamic Fundamentalist groups. His father has faced extensive media humiliation and sisters have gotten life and sexually violent threats. He and the other four charged with sedition went on hiding and resurfaced on 22nd Feb. The following night Umar and Anirban were arrested.
There was initially some dissatisfaction within part of the student community about the protests not speaking up for Umar enough.
On 18th February, around fifteen thousand people took to the streets to voice solidarity for JNU and condemn the oppressive government. Slogans were raised for Rohith Vemula and for student solidarity across universities all over the country. This was also the day Professor Geelani was charged with sedition and arrested for anchoring a seminar on justice, Kashmir and fascism. ABVP, the student wing of the Hindu right wing in power broke into violence at Benares Hindu University and MS University of Baroda. Besides, news of Chattisgarh Government revoking tribal land rights made it a truly dark day.
Students marched peacefully. Some of them carried placards, some of them carried flowers. The strength in numbers comforted many.
A lot of media has been instrumental, consistent and malicious in framing students, running doctored videos of Kanhaiya shouting slogans amongst other things. Special awards for recklessly unethical journalism go to Times Now, News X and Zee. There has also been sensible and brave journalism from Ravish Kumar of NDTV. The Telegraph has made no qualms about being witty and candid.
JNUTA decided to start a teach-in at the administrative block of the campus from 17th Feb onwards. Academic stalwarts like Nivedita Menon and Ayesha Kidwai have given expansive lectures on different aspects of what goes into building a uniform construct of nationalism and its problems. Others like P K Sainath, film maker Tarun Bhartiya, Advocate Sarim Navid have addressed the students here on important issues. The Honda workers who have been striking came and addressed students to show solidarity to student-workers union. Many performances on relevant issues have been held ranging from a Dastangoi (Urdu storytelling) about sedition written initially for Binayak Sen to Jana Natya Manch’s reading of Rohith’s last letter. On 21st Feb, tribal activist Soni Sori was attacked in Bastar.
On the 24th, Kanhaiya’s bail plea got deferred another five days. Some students protesting in front of India Gate for Rohith’s ‘institutional murder’ got picked up by the police. Students, teachers and others walked in large numbers through the campus. This was followed by a gathering which had Richa Singh, President of Allahabad University Students’ Union talk about the curbing of progressive voices that has been going on at her university. Siddhartha Vardarajan spoke to and encouraged students as well. Documentary filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan and Nakul Singh Sawhney were also present.
It’s possible that JNU has a long fight ahead but there’s resolve in the community to stand by and fight for their student identity and their right to critique, debate, and dissent. They have been open and consistent in their critique of the government. Academic communities from across the world have come together and shown solidarity. The environment of chaos persists. Reckless media and government oppression continues and JNU seems prepared for painstaking resistance.