JNU protests: What is at the core of the ongoing movement?

At the core of this protest, at the essence of it, lies our resolve to protect free speech and our democratic space in JNU, write Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid.

Written by Anirban Bhattacharya , Umar Khalid | Updated: May 14, 2016 5:17 pm
Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, JNU, JNU fast, JNU protest, JNU VC, HLEC report Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya with JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar at JNU campus, after their release from Tihar jail, in New Delhi on March 18, 2016. Express Photo/Ravi Kanojia.

“Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear, than I receive it,” exclaimed Giardono Bruno as the judges sentenced him to death in the year 1600. Bruno, amongst other things, by questioning the centrality of Earth in the universe, had committed the ultimate crime by questioning the existing Catholic beliefs – the “official truth” of those times. Bruno was put on trial by the Roman Inquisition for seven years and burned at the stake as a heretic. Condemned for his views during his lifetime, Bruno, however, is today remembered as one of the torch-bearers of free speech and inquiry – many of whose views were later proved correct. However, if one thought persecution of those holding views contrary to “the official truths” of the times was a prerogative of feudal lords that came to end with the medieval times, one needs to just look around in our own country today.

Students of JNU are the latest addition to the list of uncomfortable voices that the government is attempting to silence. This list is long, and includes Kabir Kala Manch a fiery group of young Dalit artistes, civil rights activist Binayak Sen, writer Arundhati Roy, Delhi University lecturer Dr GN Saibaba and many others. Many centuries later, it seems that the ghost of Bruno has come right back, this time not to haunt Rome, but the Indian state. As the “official truths” behind nationalism, democracy and development become difficult to sustain, we see sentences being pronounced with ever greater frequency to declare citizens as heretics – anti-national is the new word for them. And the responsibility for these pronouncements has also been increasingly outsourced. Apart from the judges in the courts, the lynch-mob on the street, shrill anchors on television, are also the university administrations who have take upon themselves the responsibility of becoming the judge, jury and the prosecutor, when the call of “duty” comes.

As we write this piece, we hear the Delhi High Court putting on hold the punishments meted out to students by the university administration. Sending it back to the Vice-Chancellor for reconsideration of students’ appeals, the court also asked the students of JNU to call off the indefinite hunger strike that had entered its 16th day (Friday).

The punishments meted out to the students by the university administration through the farcical High Level Enquiry Committee set up to probe the now infamous February 9 events was plan B of the government to witch-hunt some of the most vocal student activists of the university. Plan A, of creating a spectacle through media trials, prime time national/anti-national debates, police raids in the university hostels and sedition cases had not just failed to intimidate students, but had instead backfired miserably. It led to an unprecedented solidarity across the country and made campus-level student activists national icons in the anti-fascist struggles.

So now, as per this Plan B, the onus has shifted to a pliant university administration under a newly appointed Vice-Chancellor (with close affinities to the RSS) to operationalise the witch-hunt. In the face of a complete media blackout and in the midst of some of the most adverse weather conditions, students were on a hunger strike for over two weeks demanding the scrapping of the punishments – that includes rustications, hostel evictions, fines and debarment from entering campus. The same university administration that remained indifferent to the security of students when they were facing death threats, only to become very pro-active in imposing punishments, once again moved to an indifferent mode during the strike as student lives were once again at stake. The health of all striking students has taken a beating, many have collapsed, been hospitalised but the fall of one comrade has only seen many others take their place.

In appearance, the ongoing movement may be seen as being a protest against certain punishments. But at the core of this protest, at the essence of it, lies our resolve to protect free speech and our democratic space in this campus. Any acceptance of punishment on our part, even if in a modified form, would be an admission of guilt on our part. It would constitute a betrayal of the four decades of our students movement, that has built this space. It is this culture of democracy, questioning and interrogating “official truths” that has inspired thousands of students to stand up and speak truth to power. It was here, that Indira Gandhi was stopped from entering after she came to visit the campus in the period after Emergency, for her role during that period. Or a decade back, Manmohan Singh was greeted by students with black flags for the erstwhile UPA government’s sell-out of the country’s education and resources. For the Sangh, this democratic space has always been an eyesore. Only last year the RSS mouthpiece had devoted one of their covers to JNU, branding the university “a den of anti-nationals”. Today, by punishing us, the real target is the democratic space and the students’ movement of JNU.

Having and expressing a political opinion – even on Kashmir, the question of self-determination, Afzal Guru’s execution or death penalty — is no crime. And even the Constitution safeguards this right. We, however, live in paradoxical times. The most fascist and authoritarian of all governments, who trample free speech every day, call themselves democratic and deeply committed to freedom of expression. We need to call this bluff, fight back and uncompromisingly defend our right to dissent by continuing to raise questions that discomfort those in power.

Just a few months back, before the witch-hunt of students started in JNU, a similar script had played out in the University of Hyderabad. By witch-hunting Rohith and his comrades, the government thought they were making an example out of them which will scare others into silence. Little did they realise, far from the example they wanted to create out of him, he became a different kind of an example for the students. Rohith’s struggle in his life and in death, the connections he made of varied oppressions, the philosophical insights and the rebellion contained in his suicide letter – all of these became examples, or rather inspirations, for many to take on the same path as
Rohith.

Today, the responsibility and the challenge lies on the shoulders of the JNU students’ movement to pick up from where Rohith left.

It is said that speech is really free, only if it hurts. It is more than obvious that as we speak up against the anti-adivasi/pro-corporate “development” model of the state, or against entrenched Brahmanism, or patriarchy or communalism – it will most certainly hurt the sentiments and interests of those in power. Our resolve therefore must be to go on hurting them.

Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid are students of Jawaharlal Nehru University. They are also members of Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organisation, JNU. The views expressed are personal.
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