JNU Row: Kanhaiya, Umar, Anirban & Co are not backing down
The JNU administration’s vengeful slew of punishments are no more acceptable to the students than the enquiry committee that recommended them was and students and teachers alike are drawing attention to the collusion between the Centre and the administration to derail larger questions
Dhruba Basu Delhi
The decision of the JNU administration to act on the recommendations of the High Level Enquiry Committee, appointed to look into the culpability of the students involved in the February 9 ‘Country Without a Post Office’ event that sparked the uproar on nationalism, has predictably drawn widespread ire and condemnation. The punitive actions called for a range of fines from Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000 to suspensions, rustications and campus bans. Anirban Bhattacharya has been rusticated and banned from the campus for a period of years, starting July 25. Two ex-students have also been banned. Umar Khalid has been directed to pay Rs 20,000 and stands suspended for one semester. Many other JNUSU members, including the current and former General Secretaries Rama and Chintu, councillor Gargi and former President Ashutosh have been slapped with the same fine, while current President Kanhaiya Kumar must pay up Rs 10,000.
Should the relative lull in the media coverage of JNU over the past couple of weeks have given anyone the impression that things had died down, the response of JNUSU, JNUTA and the supporters of the student movement is making it clear that this view is erroneous in the extreme. At a press conference held in front of the university’s Administration Block on April 26, Kanhaiya Kumar and JNUSU Vice President Shehla Rashid Shora held forth on the unacceptability of the report and the course of action to follow. Both reminded the gathered mediapersons, students and onlookers that JNUSU had categorically rejected the committee weeks back on grounds of the undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of its membership. A copy of the committee’s report was burned after this amidst the usual spirited chants.
Some particularly thorny issues that they repeatedly touched on was the exclusion of women from and inclusion (as head, no less) of Rakesh Bhatnagar, who is the treasurer for the anti-reservation Youth for Equality organisation, in the committee. As an index of the administration’s neglect of the interests of the deprived sections and communities that most of the students under scrutiny hail from, the committee’s constitution speaks for itself, as does the fact that it expects students who pay Rs 250 per semester to submit fines that are 40 and 80 times that amount.
Even more worrying, though, is the fact that this is very much in keeping with perceived patterns of increasing conservatism and government influence that are threatening to change the very nature of JNU’s ethos through the takeover of its administration, a process that Vice-Chancellor Jagdesh Kumar and Registrar Bhupinder Zutshi are seen as prime agents of. Representatives of JNUTA who were present at the press conference to show their support stressed on this aspect, too. One need not be a paranoiac to feel suspicious of the freakish eagerness to take action against the students. The administration has not left anything to the imagination, imposing penalties on the students for allegations that they have not been proved guilty of yet in court (where the case is pending judgement), allegations for which much of the evidence submitted was established to have been fake, allegations that several of the accused students were not even in a position to defend themselves against on account of being in prison during the ‘enquiry’. In addition, the committee did not care to link any of the penalties to specific crimes, which effectively means that the differentials between them are arbitrary.
No haste has been shown, meanwhile, in reinstating Assistant Professor Burton Cleetus, accused by ABVP members of disrespecting the religious sentiments of some students who were asked to disperse after they were found conducting a havan inside one of the rooms of Jhelum Hostel and, further, of verbally, physically and sexually abusing the students. The accusations have been discredited in court and by a university fact-finding committee. Speaking of the ABVP, though, it bears mentioning that one member of the party, Saurabh Sharma, who holds the post of JNUSU General Secretary and was one of the original complainants in connection with the February 9 event, has been fined Rs 10,000. The party’s fury at this is a sideshow at the Administration Block. A handful of its members can be spotted protesting in the portico against the injustice of punishing someone who was, they say, defending the integrity of the nation in accordance with his Constitutional duties when he tried to stop the event from taking place.
Announcing its decision at a time when students are preparing for exams and summer holidays are around the bend seems a move calculated to weaken the backlash, but the torch-lit protest march from Ganga Dhaba to Administration Block on April 27 was by no means lacking in strength. At the end of the march, Kanhaiya took centre stage for 20 minutes on the steps of what is snidely referred to as the Vice Chancellor’s ‘Pink Palace’. He lambasted the Centre, the VC and the ABVP to cheers, cries of ‘Shame!’ and laughter from the large number of people who turned up to participate before announcing, as per the plan detailed at the press conference, the commencement of a hunger strike that will continue until the punishments are retracted.
The feeling, repeatedly expressed by Kanhaiya, Shehla and others, is that they are being targeted by the government at the Centre for their opposition to its policies. Shehla called it, in fact, a ‘proxy war’. The HLEC report is another attempt to divert attention from the issues that were being highlighted by them, issues like the HRD Ministry’s decision to discontinue non-NET fellowships last year and the JNU administration’s resolve to provide relaxation in admissions standards for OBCs at only one level, which flies in the face of a Delhi High Court order mandating relaxation at two levels. The students have responded the same way the students of FTII did: by putting their lives on the line. One may reasonably suspect that this causes no great consternation to the government, which allowed the FTII hunger strike to go on for over three months before suggesting the possibility of discussions, or the administration, which seems hell-bent on repeating the blunders of persecution that led to Rohith Vemula’s suicide, but there can be no confusion about whom to blame for the consequences from here on out. The tragedy of our recent history cannot be allowed to be repeated as farce.