The presidential debate organised at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Thursday night was unlike any other. While past years have seen candidates debating on a range of social and political issues in the country, the main focus on Thursday was the February 9 incident and the Rohith Vemula suicide, with presidential hopefuls arguing over who stood with JNU after the episode.
The entire route from the Jhelum Lawns to Ganga Dhaba swarmed with people. Student organisations had reached early to capture their spots for the event. Daflis, tambourines and conch shells were played each time candidates delivered punch-lines. This is what the five presidential candidates had to say:
Janhawi Ojha — ABVP
Calling herself ‘Babbar Sherni’, she took on the Left saying, “When a rape happens outside the campus, (they say) Nirbhaya, when a rape happens inside the campus, (they say) kuchch na hua (nothing happened).”
On the nationalism debate sparked in the country due to an incident on JNU campus on February 9, she said, “The manner in which you have defamed this campus, you should be ashamed, comrades… An incident took place on February 9 — that incident where you shouted slogans relating to the break-up of the nation. You said — Desh ke tukde tuke honge, Inshallah, Inshallah… I had come here as a sympathiser, I have become an activist, thanks to you, comrades…You were the one who went to jail, not JNU, so stop calling yourself Stand with JNU.”
Rahul Sonpimple — Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA)
While he began his speech by attacking the ABVP and the Left alliance, he said the elections were happening in the context of “oppressed sections” standing against the RSS. Accusing the Left of creating fear among the students, he said, “Ye log kehte hain BAPSA ko vote mat do warna ABVP aa jayega. Ye gabbar aa jayega, gabbar aa jayega kab tak chalega? Main kehta hoon is baar Kabali aa jayega.”
Referring to the February 9 incident, he said,”Jai Bhim and Salaam to all those who’ve shown the RSS their place by coming to the debate today.” Alluding to the rape case, Sonpimple said, “Every student and every woman of this campus who understands gender justice is standing against you (Left alliance). There’s no difference between the SFI and AISA. This is the same AISA which blamed the rape victim and shielded the rape accused. This is their record.”
Mohit K Pandey — AISA-SFI
While Pandey attacked the ABVP for its stand on the February 9 incident, he trained guns on BAPSA, alleging that the rival party was not supporting the ‘Stand with JNU’ movement.
“In logon (BAPSA) ne Stand with JNU movement ko kaha Stand with Janeyu movement. Kiska Janeyu khoj rahe the Bhai? Koraput se aaye us Dalit neta Rama Naga ka janeyu khoj rahe the kya? Kashmir se aaye Shehla Rashid ka janeyu khoj rahe the ya Chintu Kumari ka janheyu khoj rahe the?”
“In the month of February, there was an attempt to brand Umar (Khalid) a terrorist. There was an atmosphere of communal witch-hunting which was sought to be created. Kanhaiya (Kumar) was beaten up, Umar and Anirban were arrested. Police were surprised and said, ‘Bhattacharya Ji, Umar ka to samajh aata hai ki wo kuchch galat kaam kiye honge, aap kahan se phans gaye?” We need to say this is the unity JNU stands for,” he said.
Facing attacks from various students’ groups for a rape case against his party leader, Pandey said, “There was an unfortunate case of rape on the campus. We condemn that incident and we believe that the struggle for gender justice is yet to reach its end. We will fight to strengthen the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment.”
Sunny Dhiman — NSUI
Even as Dhiman maintained that the first struggle in JNU and in the country was to fight right-wing forces, he maintained that only “supporters of ISIS” would speak for the destruction of the country. “Such kind of protests used to happen on campus for the last three years and we also used to protest against it. But for the first time, slogans such as — “Bharat ke tukde honge. Inshallah. Inshallah” — were used. Allah’s name was misused…Every Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, every citizen of this country loves the nation a lot,” he said.
Dileep Kumar — Students’ Front for Swaraj (SFS)
On the February 9 incident, the SFS presidential candidate attacked a section of the left student groups, alleging that many members had gone underground following the February 9 incident. “Your (AISA) comrades had gone underground during Stand with JNU. I was the first councillor, along with Satarupa Chakraborty and Mukesh Kulariya, to call the first all-party meeting. I said there should be a strike, but you said if there’s a strike, the campus will be closed sine die,” he said.
Continuing his attack on the Left, Kumar condemned the attitude of AISA after the rape incident and said, “These people (AISA) talk of gender justice but when their party leader commits rape, they don’t speak up.”