No Country for Dissent

Published: Tue, 03/22/2016 - 11:30 Updated: Mon, 03/28/2016 - 08:12

The JNU saga has shown that the spaces for dissent are shrinking fast
Shruti  Jain  Delhi

I write this even as my fellow students are in jail, while Kanhaiya Kumar has been denied bail day after day, even while all kinds of hate speech goons and violent lawyers stalk the landscape. The students, teachers and well-wishers of JNU are spending sleepless nights, worried as we are about the threat that shadows the campus and its students. However, the truth is, and we are proud of it, it is a campus that did not cower.

The turmoil that we are feeling has led to endless discussions, apprehensions, anxious quips, night vigils, hopeful singing and full-throated slogans. Individuals who were earlier given a cold shoulder or who were not on talking terms, have hugged each other like long-lost friends. Even the ‘passive or sceptical’ students from among us came out for the protests in large numbers, again and again. Teachers have stood with students shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, drawing strength from each other. Those who advise the students to rather study are being gently ignored, with the belief that the political and scholarly convictions need not stand in contradiction.

These are protests not led by any particular political party or leader. They are a spontaneous expression of our angst against the targetting of JNU and our comrades on false pretexts, on their being branded ‘anti-national’ without any evidence and booked under still existing colonial legislation and violated by what we are convinced is unjust and unjustified police violence. All of us have hoped, expected and demanded that all the individuals who can think freely, including the Left parties and their respective student organisations, stand united in addressing this issue. The urgency and longing among individual students to be part of this collective action and the resultant momentum that the movement has gained has put a great onus on Left organisations to stand united and act with utmost responsibility in this struggle that appears at present to be a long-drawn one.

Why is this nationalism that appears to be shaken by a few slogans, not affected by the unprecedented damage to life and property caused by Jats in Haryana

The slogans are resonating in our minds from shouting them out aloud endlessly over these last weeks. Again they bridge party lines. “Kanhaiya Ka Comrade Kaun? Umar Khalid. Umar Khalid… Kanhaiyawala, JNU. Umar wala, JNU. Anirbanwala, JNU. Rama wala, JNU. Ashutosh wala, JNU. Anantwala, JNU. We are, JNU. We are, JNU…”

Amid the protests, students are getting frenzied calls from their parents and relatives who are worried about their physical security and fearful about their future since the university has suddenly been proclaimed, albeit, wrongly, as a breeding ground for anti-nationals. Even people from the field area of my research called up to know what the truth of the matter is. Some genuinely wish to know the true story. Others demand explanations for the anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans that our campus has been accused of raising. 

However, have not the slogans already been condemned enough? Has everyone forgotten that nobody knows who really raised the ‘slogans’, and that the slogans are in all likelihood doctored, that the life of innocent students is being threatened? What is this tendency of putting people in the dock that a section of media is so shamelessly indulging in?

A neighbourhood aunty who hardly knows me, harassed me breathlessly, “Your Kanhaiya has defiled his name,” she said. “How can he commit such a ‘crime’ carrying the name of Kanhaiya”?  I could not go into the details of how unconventional even the earlier Kanhaiya was, but I tried to explain about ‘our’ Kanhaiya. Not ready to listen, she charged on as if with a burden of moral responsibility to abide by the version that has been catered to her by media channels. “How can you defend him?”  It was much more difficult to talk about Umar.

This is the middle class we have today, who carry the opinions formed and stamped by media. They are not interested in checking, rethinking, or even in communication, and certainly not in the first-hand information that I could provide them with. Why is this nationalism that appears to be shaken by a few slogans, not affected by the unprecedented damage to life and property caused by Jats in Haryana, where no one was held accountable; or by the handing over of the nation’s resources to multinationals; or when its upholders scorn it and harbour dreams of escaping abroad at the first possibility? Compared to the middle class, the autowallahs were less conservative. They were willing to listen. They could understand when it was explained how and why public universities like JNU in which their own children could afford to come and are indeed getting the best, are being targetted. Those who have themselves being demonised and targetted could understand with ease how it is working in our case, as we are also in a better position now to glimpse and have insights into what actually happened in 2002 in Gujarat.

I met a 95-year-old person sitting in a roadside shop in Delhi. We started talking about what is happening in JNU. He told me that although he had been a member of the RSS for many years, he had seen enough since the 1920s, the time of his birth, to understand what is going on. He had one word to describe it: ‘fascism’.

Those in the Right-wing who cannot understand this freedom, still ask the feudal question: what is the need for the girls to be out late anyway, equating freedom with a symbol of loose character

Here was a person who has seen independent India come into being, seen it getting the identity of a nation, adopting democracy and its consequent functioning. Here was also a Right-leaning person who was ready to listen, to talk. I think the ABVP has a lot to learn from people like him. Why can they not enter into debate and discussion based on their readings of nationalism, instead of inviting army generals to the campus? Nationalism cannot be merely flinging quotes of ‘known’ thinkers out of context, and whipping up crass emotionalism to cover the neglect of real issues that ought to concern the nation. In fact, in commendable action that testifies to their courage, three office- bearers of the ABVP  JNU unit voluntarily resigned from their organisation. Amongst the reasons for their differences with the ABVP, they cited their own observation of the unfolding of violence and the attack on JNU, saying, “Hooliganism is not nationalism”.  

Showing unusual strength of character and integrity, Zee News producer Vishwadeepak resigned, choosing to dissociate with the video that has formed the basis of an FIR against the students and that according to him has been systematically and deliberately tampered with from the start. Still, other AVBP members’ conscience does not bother them. I wonder where  their sense of studentship and belonging to JNU is? How could they support the hysteric crowds that stand at the JNU main gate, baying for the blood of its students? They became a medium and mediators of a pre-planned schemed attack on the university. They joined the slogans of bringing the army inside the campus and shooting those they decide and name as anti-nationals.

At the ABVP’s behest, the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) president was arrested and falsely booked for sedition. His Facebook page was defaced by the dirtiest of abuses posted by the people from the ‘BJP IT cell’, bearing names such as Jai Shriram. Here are the ‘sons’ of ‘Bharat Mata’ ready to rape, abuse and throw acid on other matas and behans. Now these ‘Bharat ke laals’ are openly threatening the teachers of JNU for daring to stand against the defamation and targetting of their campus. They are openly pronouncing the name of the next campus they will target.

Labelled a ‘terrorist’ via an openly biased and unobjective media trial, we heard our president’s speech again and again. His speech was easily available on social media sites but the news channels showed snippets of it after muting the voice. Yet, most in the audience did not feel the need to hear the voice, drowned as we get in the irrational frenzy of the anchor-executioner’s noise.

The churning within the campus as a result of this attack and the changing scenario every day will hopefully see us unified and give us the opportunity to look within. It is also leading to brilliant open academic classes on nationalism and discussions about freedom, democracy and laws like that on sedition. Gathering at the administrative block daily in large numbers since February 13, peacefully, in solidarity, is the way for the campus to counter the atmosphere of threat and injustice that still prevails inside. There are moments of doubt when we feel uncertain and afraid, yet it is a space where individual voices of sanity are listened to and prevail.

What ensued was beautiful. While the army generals were talking of bringing tanks inside the campus, students were writing posters and singing their songs, the songs of the end of the dark times

For example, when the ABVP announced its ‘meeting’ with army generals at what has now become the protest space at the administrative block, the students were cautioned to empty the space, to prevent any confrontation that might get thrust on them. It was a day when many students were not present as they were taking part in the Mandi House to Jantar Mantar rally (February 23) demanding justice for Rohith Vemula, yet those who were present did not hand over the space to ABVP. What ensued was beautiful. While the army generals were talking of bringing tanks inside the campus, students were writing posters and singing their songs, the songs of the end of the dark times.

February 14 saw a three-kilometre-long human chain wherein people, and former students, came from different institutions to defend what for all of us matters as a space of free thinking, imagination, debate, of possible and more beautiful futures. Letters of support from universities across India and all over the world were extended. Distinguished alumni from the fields of arts, culture, history, humanities, media, politics, international relations, civil services, academics, who symbolise this university’s unparalleled contribution to the nation, wrote and lectured in support. They joined the rallies in Delhi and all across India, and in some of the most prestigious campuses in the world.

February 18 saw a march of over 15,000 people at Jantar Mantar in the heart of Delhi, with almost the entire JNU campus joining. It is the biggest protest I have seen in Delhi in my life. The slogans were innovative and the posters creative. Who could plug the unbridled rage and energy? And this belief that nationalism is not about mere sloganeering, and also that the slogans should come out of one’s lives, creativity, political convictions and ideological beliefs and thus are mostly constructive and thought-provoking and not a call to cause physical damage to ‘others’. And the thought that it is indeed important at times to break out of old forms of society and of nation, in order to preserve its genius and its spirit, as Aurobindo says. 

A wise man of our campus says that anything that restrains and restricts is damaging to life. That freedom with an easy and gentle anarchy is the ideal condition to live in, but the most difficult one. It puts a responsibility on the individual to work much harder in order to realise and practise what one believes in and to bear the consequences, to maintain self -discipline without any dictation and to take the difficult route of deciding and thinking on one’s own. This campus encourages some of this openness.

Without any mandatory attendance requirements, students attend classes, and not only as mute listeners. Teachers, karamcharis and students inhabit a close-knit campus. It is one of the selected university campuses in India where women can walk freely at any time of the day and night, without fear of eve-teasing, molestation and rape which pervade the atmosphere of Delhi and many parts of India. This security inside is not dependent on any surveillance cameras or police booths, but is natural and dependent on principles of co-existence and mutual regard for dignity and space.

There are moments of doubt when we feel uncertain and afraid, yet it is a space where individual voices of sanity are listened to and prevail

Those in the Right-wing who cannot understand this freedom, still ask the feudal question: what is the need for the girls to be out late anyway, equating freedom with a symbol of loose character. It is also asked why the students should be political or ideological or vocal, again equating it with trouble-making. Always a minority on the campus, they were never threatened. It is precisely because of the tradition of open debates, free thinking and co-existence of different ideologies. It is a university where the fee structure does not restrict students from very modest backgrounds from coming to realise their potential and flourish along with students from more privileged backgrounds. It bridges class, caste, religious and ethnicity divides that otherwise isolate us in categories and break up India.

It is perhaps one of the few green cover areas in Delhi that offers a sanctuary to its neighbourhood, accommodating hundreds who come for walks, for breathing fresh and free air which is becoming rarer otherwise. It is a space that invites relaxed and open disagreements and interactions across ideologies, disciplines, thinkers,and political beliefs. It is also a campus where mess talk amongst youth is not just about body weight management, latest mobile phones or automobiles, or about settlement and jobs, but also about what is going on in the country and in the world and how we could contribute and stand up with people struggling for their lives and rights.

JNU today is not alone; most of the ‘indepndent’ public institutes with promise are being attacked. Such brutal violence and unjust action against students who are merely debating ideas will shrink and strangle spaces of creativity, beauty, free thinking, debate. It will curtail our imagination and possibilities in the long run, threatening to stifle India’s contribution to social sciences and humanities that have been some of the subtle but powerful contributions of the Indian intellectual community in the global academic sphere. 

In unison, thus, we hope and sing,

Bezaarna ho, bezaarna ho, ye sara fasana badlega….    

The JNU saga has shown that the spaces for dissent are shrinking fast
Shruti  Jain  Delhi

Read more stories by No Country for Dissent

This story is from print issue of HardNews