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The 1983 students’ agitation on JNU campus was democratic and disciplined

Things changed with the emergence of the ABVP as a major student group on campus, in tandem with the rise of the BJP as the pre-eminent political force in the country. In our times, too, the ABVP existed, but it had a marginal presence.

Written by N R Mohanty | Updated: January 15, 2020 9:56:25 am
JNU attack, violence, ABVP, fee hike protest, indan express opinion, indian express news First, during that 1983 struggle, I was the JNU Students’ Union president and I did not belong to the traditional Left. In fact, I had won by defeating the potent combination of SFI+AISF, the established Left group on campus.

The article, ‘A history of violence’ (IE, January 9)’, presents a false narrative spun by Srinivas, national joint organising secretary of the ABVP. It refers to a “history of violence” by the Left in JNU and, to corroborate the argument, it cites the example of the May 1983 students agitation.

First, during that 1983 struggle, I was the JNU Students’ Union president and I did not belong to the traditional Left. In fact, I had won by defeating the potent combination of SFI+AISF, the established Left group on campus. For the first time in history that year, a medley of campus-based organisations — SDS+FT+DSF — had decisively defeated the dominant Left forces in JNU.

Second, the agitation was a battle for upholding a democratic principle: That each section of the JNU family with a stake in building the JNU culture — students, staff and teachers — must have a say in the decision-making process.

Srinivas’s fabricated charge of violence in that agitation is pure propaganda. Abhijit Banerjee, the Nobel laureate, was a student of JNU then. After winning the Nobel, he spoke fondly about the 1983 agitation that landed him, along with almost a thousand of us from JNU, in Tihar jail. He repeatedly told the media how proud he was of his jail stint, for defending the democratic rights of the students.

Srinivas writes: “The then vice chancellor, P N Srivastava, told the media that rowdy elements had forcefully entered his house, destroyed his property and looted his 35-year deposits.” Unfortunately, Srivastava is not alive to set the record straight. But this charge is a manufactured lie of such proportions that even Joseph Goebbels would envy it.

It is true that the entire JNU student community had gheraoed the VC, demanding the revocation of the expulsion order of the JNUSU president and general secretary. The gherao happened at the residence of the VC as he, despite our repeated demands, refused to come to the office. But the gherao was completely non-violent. Most other students, myself included, generally held Srivastava in great esteem — he was a gentleman to the core. An unfortunate sequence of events pitted us, the students, against a VC we truly admired: We could not think of turning violent or showing any disrespect to him during the agitation.

During the gherao, some flower pots placed outside the VC’s house broke, inadvertently. I immediately promised in writing that we would replace them with our own contribution. That was the spirit of our movement.

That is why when the administration called the police on May 11, 1983, we decided to amicably court arrest. Anticipating violence, police vehicles had come in — there were at least two dozen mounted police ready to charge. But not a single stone was pelted by any student. In typical JNU tradition, boys and girls filed past in a queue to court arrest. The commanding officer of the force was taken aback by such conduct. He told me that he had not seen such a disciplined student body in his lifetime.

Things changed with the emergence of the ABVP as a major student group on campus, in tandem with the rise of the BJP as the pre-eminent political force in the country. In our times, too, the ABVP existed, but it had a marginal presence. In fact, the ABVP then contested JNUSU elections, but never resorted to violence: The democratic tradition of JNU kept its members in check.

But now, with support from the Centre and a partisan VC, the ABVP has no qualms in trying to destroy JNU’s democratic ethos. The assault on JNU students by masked goons on January 5 was the darkest day in JNU’s history. Srinivas’s article trying to justify that attack using false accusations of “Leftist violence” appears to be part of that sinister design.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Indian Express, titled ‘Lies and Loathing in JNU’, on January 15, 2020. 

The writer was president of JNUSU in 1983; he currently teaches journalism to students of media studies

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