India: Modi government declares war on students, democracy

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Photo: Kavita Krishnan.

The article below is abridged from an editorial in ML Update, published by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is waging war on campuses and on the right to dissent. If one young life — that of Rohith Vemula — has been snuffed out in this war, several other young students charged with “sedition” are facing vilification, arrest and custodial violence.

But two historic mobilisations on the streets of Delhi — mainly by students and youth — offered a remarkable resistance to Modi's war on campuses.

On February 18, defying the TV channels whipping up a frenzy against “anti-national” students on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), thousands of students and young people, supported by working class men and women, intellectuals and citizens from all walks of life, marched on the streets of Delhi to show solidarity with JNU.

They demanded the release of the JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar and withdrawal of all sedition charges against students. Protesters demanded that JNU revoke the arbitrary suspension of eight student activists. They insisted that shouting slogans was not sedition and demanded the repeal of the anti-sedition law.

Above all, the protesters asserted that true patriotism lay in willingness to dissent, to care for the rights of people and to speak truth to power.

On February 23, students from across the country gathered in Delhi in response to the call by the Joint Action Committee for Justice for Rohith Vemula. Thousands who marched in Delhi asserted that they would not allow the Modi government to shrug off its responsibility for the suicide of the Dalit scholar and activist.

In his suicide note, Rohith wrote about how the “value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity” — his caste. Rohith was expelled from his university based on fake allegations of causing injury to a leader of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student group.

He was branded “anti-national” based on slogans he and his comrades raised in a protest against the hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted over a 1993 bombing.

Eight students charged with sedition have also been thrown out of their university — based on fake videos, tweets and “intelligence reports”.

As in Rohith's case, their slogans condemning the hanging of Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru have been branded “anti-national”. The vilification and expulsion of Rohith and the JNU students was incited by ABVP and led by MPs from the governing right-wing chauvinist Indian People's Party (BPJ).

Far from learning its lesson from the tragic consequences of the witch-hunt of Rohith, the Modi government has repeated the witch-hunt of student activists on an even more vicious scale at JNU.

The courageous student and youth movement in support of Rohith and JNU students has effectively ripped off the cloak of the government's “nationalism”. It has exposed its authoritarian agenda of cracking down on constitutional liberties, crushing voices of dissent against its Hindu chauvinist and pro-corporate agenda, using assaults and murderous attacks by Sanghi thugs as well as the might of the police machinery.

This student movement has also thoroughly exposed the role of certain media channels in inciting hatred and violence against JNU students, using fabricated videos and other materials. This shameful conduct is in contrast to the courage shown by some journalists, including one young journalist who resigned from one channel and exposed its role in manipulating videos to incite an anti-JNU and anti-left frenzy.

The BJP and ABVP are unable to hide their hatred and disgust for the Indian constitution. By allowing “lawyers” and a BJP parliamentarian to beat up students, teachers and journalists unchecked inside court premises, the Modi government is sending a message of contempt for the constitution.

One of the most prominent pro-BJP figures, actor Anupam Kher, has called the crackdown on campuses “pest control”. Leaders of BJP and ABVP have called for campuses to be “purged” and “sanitised” of leftists and progressive activists.

Was Rohith Vemula one of the “pests” that the BJP purged to sanitise campuses? Such dehumanising language is reminiscent of Hitler's Germany, and also of more recent remarks by BJP leaders comparing Dalit and Muslim victims to dogs, puppies and so on.

In the meeting of vice chancellors convened by minister for human resource development Smriti Irani, there was conspicuous silence on the burning issues of Dalit suicides on campuses and the recommendations of the Thorat Committee report — including moves to curb caste discrimination on campuses.

There was also silence on the move to slash scholarships and impose WTO rules on India's higher education.

Instead, the minister shamefully sought to hide these burning issues under the diktat to fly the Indian flag on all campuses — ignoring the fact that it already flies on most campuses.

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