Vemula and Kanhaiya: Tale of 2 Indian student activists

Student unrest in India, as elsewhere in the world, had serious political consequences. In the 1970s, it even led to the imposition of ‘Emergency’ (1975-77) by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Kanhaiya Kumar (L) and Rohit Vemula

Kanhaiya Kumar (L) and Rohit Vemula

Student unrest again led to the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations on reservations in government jobs and admissions to educational institutions for the so-called Other Backward Classes. Such reservation already exists for marginalized ‘Scheduled Castes’ and ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (‘Dalits’– oppressed — and Adivasis — indigenous people — as they are popularly called).

The student unrest in the neglected north-eastern state of Assam in the 1980s transformed politics in the region as never before.

Recently, two major universities witnessed student protests against the government’s political interference in their internal affairs despite the autonomy they enjoy.

On 17 January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a ‘dalit’ and Ph.D student, was forced to take his own life (described as ‘institutional murder’) in the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) in south India.

What drove him to this extreme step was the caste-based discrimination and mental torture inflicted on him by the university administration for being a ‘dalit’.

Vemula, who got university admission on his own merit, was treated with contempt by caste-minded university authorities. Things took a serious turn when two central ministers started meddling over what they thought was his alleged ‘anti-national’ activities as a member of the radical Ambedkar Students Association (ASA).

ASA is named after Dr. BR Ambedkar, a dalit icon and social reformer who campaigned against social discrimination.

The so-called ‘anti-national activities’ by Vemula boiled down to a demand for social justice and equality of treatment mandated by the democratic, republican Constitution of India.  In his searing suicide note, Vemula deplored his treatment as a ‘thing’ rather than as a human being endowed with a ‘mind’.

The Ambedkar Students Association in the HCU has matured over the years and has begun to deal with not only ‘dalit’ issues but also those affecting other deprived communities. This was perceived as a threat by caste-oriented power structure in the university administration and more importantly by the right wing  student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP), affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A massive protest march demanding justice for Rohith Vemula took place in New Delhi on February 23. Students and teachers of the JNU and other universities joined the protest.

On 12 February 2016, another student unrest erupted, this time in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) when a ‘dalit’ (in a slightly larger sense) student leader and president of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and detained by police on charges of sedition and conspiracy under the colonial and repressive Indian Penal Code, 1860.

A complaint was made against Kumar by a lawmaker of the ruling party charging him with indulging in ‘anti-national activities’ by participating in a campus meeting in which, among other things, slogans favoring independence for Kashmir were raised.

Kumar is also a member of the All India Students Federation (SFI) of the Communist Party of India.

The university authorities had initially given permission for holding the event organized by another students’ group in which Kumar had taken part. However, on learning the exact nature of the event and its purpose, the permission was later withdrawn.

Kumar was not guilty of raising the alleged ‘anti-national’ slogans. In fact, he had publicly opposed them. The video footage of him shouting slogans at the meeting was fabricated by interested elements.

Students belonging to the ABVP had gathered near the venue to protest against the “anti-national” nature of the controversial meeting. Hearing about this, those of other groups like the All India Students Federation came out to support the organizers. The groups clashed and the police were called in to restore order.

According to the JNU Students’ Union, their leaders and left organizations opposed some of the ‘regressive slogans’  raised at the event. At the same time, they also objected to the cancellation of the program by the university administration acting “under ABVP’s pressure to silence any kind of differing view point.”

The union also questioned the role of police who failed to act when ABVP students began attacking their members.

ABVP, with the support of like-minded students from the Delhi University, beat them up while the police stood mute spectators, the union said.

Kumar was arrested based on the evidence cooked up with police connivance. He was later beaten up by some ‘lawyers’ while being taken to a court for hearing. The ‘lawyers’ were allowed to go scot-free.

These two incidents led to massive student protests.

While the protests were raging in the two universities, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained silent because of his loyalty to BJP and the Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of which he had been a devoted ‘propagandist’ before joining the government.

Opposition parties tried to whip up public sentiment against the government as ministers took an aggressive stance on the two student issues and even blamed them for their ‘anti-national’ activities.

Instead of responding positively to the situation, BJP bigwigs began whipping up ‘nationalist’ sentiments to distract public from the real issues.

The lesson from these developments is that the institutional design and autonomy of public universities in India have successfully provided room for independent thinking enabling the survival of the intellectual tradition of radical thought.

Marginalized groups have gained access to universities impacting the larger political field.

But the emerging new forms of solidarity are perceived as a threat by the ruling circles which mount attacks on university and its institutions.

The following trends have to be  noted: i) Rise in violent attacks against students for presumed insults to Indian culture and Hindu religion; ii) brutal police repression against alleged ‘anti-national’ and ‘seditious’ activities; iii) criminal role of elements in the media and others who fabricate evidence, flout legal norms and subvert police impartiality; iv) public announcement by BJP-friendly elements of a cash reward for anyone willing to kill student leader Kumar; v) apparently instigated threats of violence against JNU inmates by outsiders and v) random attacks by some against the so-called ‘subsidized anti-national students’ in public universities.

While the BJP is busy erecting a personality cult around the prime minister, an alarming decline in governance and development is noticeable.

According to Human Rights Watch, Modi’s government has undermined democracy, restricted free speech by using colonial sedition laws and harassed human rights activists. It has advised the government to take immediate steps to help marginalized communities, ‘dalits’, tribes and religious minorities.

Bibliography

  • Deshpande, Satish and Mary John, 2016, ‘Emptying the Idea of India’ The Hindu, March 2, p. 10
  • Deshpande, Satish, 2016 ‘The Public University after Rohith-Kanhaiya’, Economic and Political Weekly, March 12, pp.32-34.

The writer is a former official of the central government’s Home Ministry in New Delhi and is the author of ‘Political Violence and the Police in India’ Sage 2007; ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge, 2016 and others

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