Tactical error on JNU has backfired on Modi govt

Tactical error on JNU has backfired on Modi govt

The trajectory of students' and civil society protests shows how many issues have converged into mood of anger and defiance against the Modi regime

Police personnel walk in front of JNU students' protest march from Mandi House to HRD Ministry, demanding removal of the university vice-chancellor, at Ferozeshah Road in New Delhi, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. (PTI Photo/Ravi Choudhary)

If certain defining moments and images had to be picked out to thread together the saga of the protests on India’s campuses, streets and "mohallas", these would be Assam's detention camps whose inmates stare out of eyes that resemble hollowed out caverns, the girls of Jamia Millia Islamia University who braved police blows to shield a male student from being pounded, the women and children of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh who sit put 24x7 in the open, unmindful of the toll a cruel winter can extract physically and the danger of an ambush, and of Aishe Ghosh, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students' union, head swathed in a bandage and resolve, unbroken.

As the protests and demonstrations show no sign of tapering off, the central issue that sparked them off was the Centre’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Together with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR), the CAA makes for a package which throws the onus on Muslims to "prove" their "bona fides' as Indian citizens. No matter what the government/Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ex-post-facto explanations/justifications might contend, the CAA and the instrumentalities to execute it are dangerous, divisive and communal. 

The agitation originated in Assam whose demography is distinct but as it spread across the country, it was clear that Muslims, who feared they would be disenfranchised and reduced to being second-class citizens, picked up the baton as sections of civil society and rights’ activists shored up the protests. Interestingly, barring the Left and fringe Dalit groups, not a single "mainstream" party came out in support, except to tweet. Their inability showed the extent to which the polity has got polarised since 2014, so polarised that the non-BJP spectrum, barring parties like the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Assam's All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), looked over its shoulders before speaking its mind out. The AIMIM and AIUDF make no bones that they stand for minorities’ rights and interests.

If the CAA was the political underpinning, as the protests coursed through, other issues coalesced with it to enlarge the context and transform into a broader rally against the Centre’s obvious endeavour to first target the minorities (lynching, cattle vigilantism, the Act to end triple "talaq" and the abrogation of Article 370 were the other modalities) and then the larger constituency of 'ideological" dissenters. In victimising the latter segment, the labels, "tukde, tukde gang" and "urban Naxals", were useful in imagining and imaging adversaries who were "anti-national" and "secessionist" and, therefore, enemies of the state. Hence, the JNU, that has a history of challenging any establishment and is remarkably diverse, economically, socially and politically, was ground zero.

As long as the state"s repression and brutalities were directed against Jamia, the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Lucknow’s Nadwa College and the Integral University (a private varsity run by a Muslim trust), the Centre and the BJP managed to cope with and even cash in on the fall-out. These institutions were portrayed as "hotbeds" of "separatism" and "jihadism" although Jamia and AMU have a considerable number of non-Muslim students co-existing peacefully with the others. In Uttar Pradesh, the police crackdown on Muslims was applauded by many Hindus who felt the "insurrectionists" had to be shown their "place". If the protests – spearheaded largely by Muslims in response to police suppression, and abetted by local BJP leaders and workers, with a nod from the government’s brass – did not trigger conflicts with Hindus, it was primarily because many Hindus believed that the cops did the job for them.

However, in piling in on JNU, the Centre/BJP might have erred tactically. The alibi of pulverising the "urban Naxals" has not found a larger currency. JNU is not an island in the national capital, unlike some of the colleges on the Delhi University campus. It draws students subscribing to disparate ideologies (that explains why the RSS’ student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP secured a toehold) like the students' organisations representing the Bahujan Samaj from the country over, especially from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and the North-East that have less-than-par educational resources. The fee structures and facilities have made JNU amenable to the less well off. The students are always game for a debate on the day’s topics and most of them are intensely political till they live on the campus.  

Privately, some BJP leaders expressed regret over the assault, calling it unwarranted. They admitted that the student unions in JNU have an enormous capacity to mobilise dissenters and that could show up in the upcoming Delhi Assembly elections. Admitting that the ABVP's role in the violence could not be denied, they censured the outfit for resorting to "extra-constitutional" means to register its presence on JNU. 

(Radhika Ramaseshan is a Delhi based political analyst and columnist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH. 

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