The students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi have been protesting for a week now, after a police crackdown on their campus following an event to commemorate the death anniversary of Afzal Guru.
Afzal was a young Kashmiri man hanged in Tihar jail three years ago after he was convicted for his alleged role on the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. Most Kashmiris refused to buy the government’s narrative on his involvement in the act, and so did many people in India. But the Indian Supreme Court said in its judgment that the death sentence had been given to satisfy the “collective conscience of the people of India”.
This year, when the students at JNU gathered on his death anniversary to discuss whether Afzal Guru had been given a fair trial, there was anti-India sloganeering at the event. Kashmiri students in Delhi and other large cities of India have become quite vibrant in the last few years, frequently raising concerns about the killings and other forms of atrocities in Kashmir. There were a good number of Kashmiri students at this event too. And many chanted slogans to vent their anger. They were not alone. Many other students joined them to commemorate the death anniversary of a person who the government and right-wing political parties see as a terrorist, because they believe he was hanged for political reasons.
Like many student activists at various universities in India, a large number of journalists, writers and academics are convinced that he did not get a fair trial. A similar event had been organized at the Press Club of India by a Delhi University professor.
The president of the Student Union was arrested for sedition
India’s TV channels saw the events that day as an attack on the sovereignty of their country, and the government swung into action, slapping cases against the JNU Student Union, Ali Javed, a Delhi University professor, and SAR Geelani, a lecturer at the university’s Zakir Hussain College.
Kanaiyah Kumar, the president of the Student Union at JNU, was arrested and charged with sedition, along with many of his colleagues in the union. Although it could have been a simple case of causing disturbance on the campus, Delhi Police – under direct control of federal home ministry – stretched it to sedition. The move snowballed into a major crisis in the Indian capital.
So far, the government has refused to budge, even as thousands of students rally behind Kumar and demand his release. Unions of teachers at 40 central universities in India have expressed support for the students and teachers at JNU, and a number of political parties have also jumped on the bandwagon, finding it an opportune moment to up the ante against Narendra Modi’s government.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and left-leaning parties have joined the student protests, and the government is facing severe and wide-ranging criticism. The situation is being equated with the state of emergency imposed in 1975 by then prime minister Indira Gandhi. The stand-off has put the BJP government in a tight, and raised many questions about the spaces for democratic dissent in India’s academic institutions.
India is proud of its democracy and tolerance for dissent, which has been the spirit behind its success in the last seven decades. But the BJP government refuses to accept events like that commemorating Afzal Guru as legitimate forms of dissent. JNU has traditionally been the hub of left-oriented politics and its students and teachers have strong positions on many critical issues. Leftist students still dominate the university’s Student Union. And that is one reason why the right-wing party Akhil Bharti Vidayarti Parishad (ABVP) has been violently opposing them on the campus.
While the police was carrying out a crackdown at the university, the campus, ABVP activists were complimenting their work by organizing their own protests. A number of analysts who have been enraged by the government’s extreme actions accuse the BJP of “forcibly creating a space for right wing-politics in JNU”, thus polarizing the campus. Jawaharlal Nehru University – which has produced a number of stalwarts in politics and the academia – has hardly ever moved to the center, analysts say, a sudden move to the right was out of question.
But when the government led by BJP came to power, there was a persistent effort to occupy more and more space previously available to the voices of dissent.
It is interesting that the commotion on the JNU campus has this Kashmir connection. This support for Afzal Guru seems to have been coming from the most prestigious institutions in India. And as Kashmir continues to commemorate him year after year, concerns about his hanging are now also being raised elsewhere in India.
The police crackdown at JNU has come at a time when BJP government is struggling to show that it’s government is delivering. Its ‘Make in India’ slogan has had little impact. Modi’s foreign policy has not achieved the desired results despite the grand shows he has put up abroad. In spite of its apparently cozy relationship with the Indian government, the Obama administration has recently approved a new deal to sell F-16s to Pakistan. Ties with Pakistan are not moving forward either, despite Mod’s surprise trip to Lahore on December 25.
With three important states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal – going to elections soon, the run up to crucial elections in the biggest state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 is likely to witness a charged atmosphere.
Going back to its Hindutva agenda seems to be the only way out for BJP. And the JNU crackdown could be the first step in that direction.
In this situation, how will the BJP government justify its alliance with the People’s Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir – a party that has opposed the Afzal Guru hanging in unequivocal terms, and called it a “travesty of justice”.
The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar and the editor-in-chief of The Rising Kashmir