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'The Centre is trying to silence JNU'

By Rashme Sehgal
February 16, 2016 09:02 IST
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JNU students protest against the police crackdown and the arrest of their students' union president. Photograph: PTI

IMAGE: JNU students protest against the police crackdown and the arrest of the students union president. Photograph: PTI

'If they succeed in silencing this great university, it will be a tragic day for the nation.'

Rashme Sehgal reports on the raging controversy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

It was an ordeal by fire. Dr Jagdeesh Kumar, an electrical engineer by training, has been hit on the chin by the unprecedented chain of events that have engulfed Jawaharlal Nehru University to which he was appointed vice-chancellor barely two weeks ago.

And though he may have put up a weak defence Monday, February 15, morning to claim he had not ordered the police crackdown on the student community, there is no doubt that it was his administrative machinery which supplied the names, addresses and phone numbers of 20 students led by JNU Students Union President Kanhiaya Kumar to the Delhi police.

This unprecedented crackdown has seen the 8,000-strong JNU student community come out in protest. An enraged JNU teachers community has questioned why Dr Kumar did not use the press meet to raise the issue of the large police contingent including plainclothes policemen who arrived on the campus, which was reminiscent of the Emergency.

Dr Kumar did make the point that the police had sought some audio footage and it was for this reason that they had been granted permission, but the JNU Students Union wants to know why the police have launched a veritable witch hunt against the absconding students.

Airports, railway stations and bus depots are under surveillance in order to arrest these students, who police sources claim, will be slapped with sedition charges.

The VC's observations were confirmed by statements given by the recently appointed JNU Registrar Bupinder Zutshi who insisted that no policemen or women were allowed on the campus. But at the same time he admitted to journalists that the police had sought help in identify Kanhiaya Kumar and 20 other students to whom 'we provided the video footage and whatever other details we possessed' as far back as last Thursday, February 11.

Historian Mridula Mukherjee, who was present from the start at this controversial, some say ill-advised, meeting on Saturday held inside the JNU campus, wondered how students affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad "arranged" to have an FIR (First Information Report) filed against these students for indulging in anti-national activities.

"This paved the way for the police entry. As a historian, I would like to know whether the VC put up a fight against their entry. Did he call Home Minister Rajnath Singh in protest?"

"Announcing the setting up of an inquiry committee by the VC is hardly enough," she said. "Even during the days of the colonial raj, VCs like Morris Gwyer did not allow the police to enter the campus. A campus is a protected space, it is not a government office."

Recalling the events of 'Black Saturday,' Mukherjee said, "Over 2,500 students had gathered for this meet to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru. There was no violence, but a lot of slogan shouting. The electricity was disconnected. The mikes stopped working before Rahul Gandhi had to speak and the AVBP activists heckled him right through. Somehow, a hand mike was arranged and that is how the politicians including Rahul Gandhi and D Raja were able to address the students."

"Around 15 students, who were members of the Democratic Students Union, which is a Maoist organisation, and a breakaway group had organised this meeting," JNU Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy pointed out. "They had been granted permission which was subsequently withdrawn, but they went ahead and held it. Indeed, the electricity to the mikes was cut and the students were told that this was based on a Supreme Court order which disallowed the use of mikes."

"The JNU has been a bugbear for the government because they see it as representing the views of the Left parties," Professor Mitra Chenoy added. "But I believe this entire episode has taken place in order to deflect attention from the suicide of Rohith Vemula."

Professor Mitra Chenoy believes the boys shouting slogans were Bharatiya Janata Party sympathisers from Munirka colony and the video footage making the rounds showing Kanhaiya Kumar making inflammatory statements could well have been morphed since the JNUSU president was trying to dissuade the students from making anti-national remarks.

"I believe the police are using manipulated video and a video with no sound to try and implicate Kanhaiya Kumar," Professor Mitra Chenoy added.

JNU teachers maintain the university is well equipped with an internal complaint redressal mechanism whereby protesting students are taken to task. "We have dealt with such issues in the past," one professor said. "It must not be forgotten that JNU allows room for all shades of opinion and political affiliation."

The other issue which has raised the bar of protest is Home Minister Rajnath Singh's claim that Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorist Muhamad Saeed has supported the JNU protest.

Some JNU students wonder if the country's home minister got his information from the Delhi police which tweeted a similar claim some time earlier. BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli declared that the home minister received sensitive information from several sources, but the question doing the rounds is if the Delhi police provided Rajnath Singh with this information from a parody Twitter account.

"The BJP government does not care about higher education," JNU physics Professor Ashok Rastogi said. "All these developments are playing out to a beautifully scripted script which is being engineered by the Centre itself. This happened in Hyderabad where they were not able to achieve the kind of success they wanted. And the same attempt to destabilise JNU is being unfolded here."

Teachers from 40 central universities have come out in support of their counterparts at JNU. Nandita Narain, president of the Federation of Central University Teachers Association, in a statement declared, 'Forty central universities including Hyderabad University have extended support to JNU. This kind of police action against students on the grounds of national security is uncalled for.'

Mridula Mukherjee believes the Sangh Parivar is deliberately trying to present this as a "national and anti-national debate" where everyone who does not agree with them is dubbed a desh drohi (traitor) otherwise how could "slogan shouting by a handful of students pose a threat to the Indian State?"

"The reason why they are trying to silence JNU is because if they succeed, they can turn around and silence other universities and colleges which have much less capacity to be heard. If they do succeed in silencing this great university, it will be a tragic day for the nation," Mukherjee added.

JNU has been in the forefront of contributing a large percentage of its students to the bureaucracy and other nation building posts. Communist Party opf India-Marxist General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, himself a JNU alumnus, listed 57 secretary-level positions in the Indian bureaucracy presently being held by former JNU students. Union Minister of Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitaraman is a JNU alumnus as well.

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Rashme Sehgal