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Monday, December 06, 2021

JNU’s Azadi Chowk is now behind grills, so is students’ right to protest

JNU's step to close off the Azadi Chowk for student protests, conveys that it is aligning itself to the overarching narrative of acquiescence.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | New Delhi |
Updated: December 13, 2016 7:07:57 pm
jnu, jnu azadi chowk, azadi chowk, azadi chowk jnu, jnu campus, jnu campus azadi chowk, azadi chowk protest, jnu news, delhi news Kanhaiya Kumar addressing the crowd at Azadi Chowk, hours after his release. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

The authorities at the Jawarharlal Nehru University recently built an iron grill at the ‘Freedom Square’ or ‘Azadi Chowk’, a ground that has often functioned as the epicenter for students to hold protests. It was the same place where JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar gave his speech earlier this year, rallying enthusiastic support. However, now the JNU administration has placed an iron grill at its side entrance, arguing that due to space limitations, the place will be allocated to the administrative block. The gate had been put overnight on Sunday. Affronted, the institute’s student union, JNUSU has raised concerns, commenting that the institute is conceitedly taking away its “spaces of protests”. JNUSU’s general secretary Satarupa Chakraborty told indianexpress.com, “This indicates how the JNU V-C is using cheap tactics to prevent students from raising their voices.”

The grounds will now be unavailable to the students. Instead a pretext is offered as reasoning: it will be used by the administrative block for “official purposes rather than as a Jantar Mantar area”. The institute’s authorities say alternative places for student protests such as the Kamal Shopping Complex and the JNUSU office are already there. However, by cordoning off a place that holds historic significance for students – where the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar have transformed into student icons giving speeches of social and political importance – JNU is restricting the students’ rights to freely express themselves in a place of their choosing. If the administration hadn’t exhibited a difficulty earlier, why was it now?

Of late in India, the right to protest – one of the linchpins of a democratic society, especially ours – is increasingly being thwarted. Last year, when BJP’s Gajendra Chauhan was appointed as FTII’s chairperson, mass student protests broke out against Chauhan, arguing that he lacked experience. Students who protested, however, were threatened to be rusticated. It showed how the government wanted to smother dissent in an undemocratic fashion. JNU has been regarded as a premier institute for advocating modern ideologies by housing students with diverse worldviews. In public perception, the institute is emblematic of progressiveness and open-mindedness. It’s an institute where thoughts aren’t dictated, but allowed to form through one’s own inferences and learning.

Barricading grounds where students have uninhibitedly expressed themselves; where stimulating discussions have taken place; where Amit Sengupta (a faculty member of IIMC) professed his solidarity with JNU by standing up for Rohith Vemula, the Dalit student who had committed suicide; where lectures on ‘nationalism’ have been given by the likes of Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik – such an incident that cannot be looked at in isolation. On November 7, when JNU students gathered at Jantar Mantar to show their solidarity for Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU student who has been missing since October 15, the government dispatched the law and order machinery to disperse the crowd. The police force dragged and manhandled protestors, including Najeeb’s distraught mother, who was thrown into a bus and detained. Stringent, forceful resistance against those who express dissent exhibits how thin-skinned our ruling authority is.

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JNU’s step to close off the Azadi Chowk for student protests, conveys that it is aligning itself to the overarching narrative of acquiescence, in a country that is being run by a right-wing, nationalist party. By keeping Azadi Chowk off limits, JNU is dismantling the center of student protests, in the hope to mitigate potential future protests.

Across the globe, grounds like Tiananmen Square or Tahrir Square that have birthed protests, carry great political significance. Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, too, is an established site for voicing dissent against the establishment. Although at a smaller scale, for students at JNU, Azadi Chowk carries similar political relevance. If the JNU Students Union general secretary feels that to make Azadi Chowk inaccessible to the students is preventing them from “raising voices”, there must be some weight to it.

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