India has been hit by a wave of student unrest, centred on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which has been spurred by government attacks. These attacks include demonising protesters and arresting activists simply for criticising the actions of the Indian state. JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar is among several activists charged with sedition.
Sucheta De is the national president of All India Students Association (AISA), a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation and an ex-JNU student union president. Green Left Weekly's Robin Mayo spoke to her about the student struggles rocking India.
A recent article by the CPI (M-L) Liberation said the Modi government was “waging a war on campuses and the right to dissent”. What is the background to this conflict?
Ever since the [right-wing chauvinist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi] came to power it has been deeply uncomfortable with dissenting voices, especially those coming from young people. And the tendency of the government, backed by the Hindu chauvinist organisation RSS, has been to immediately label these voices as “anti-national”.
One of the prime motives has been to interfere in the working of the universities, including dictating the syllabuses of various courses in the university. It is this drive to control the workings of universities that explains why the RSS has targeted educational institutions.
This particular trend can be seen in the way the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a student discussion forum at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, was banned because the government considered its activities to be “anti-national”.
Then came the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the head of India's best film school, the Film and Television Institute of India. Chauhan has absolutely no credentials to head a film school. He was appointed because he was close to the ruling circles and the RSS, and he had used many public appearances to sing paeans to Modi.
The government also proposed to cut research fellowships to students, which generated a huge backlash. This cut was part of the government's huge education cuts. Then came the “institutional murder” of [University of Hyderabad student] Rohith Vemula and the crackdown on JNU.
Before the crackdown on JNU, the government made it clear that those who dissent or disagree with it are anti-nationals. This is the background that led to the confrontation between the government and the students.
The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges on February 12 led to a huge mobilisation on the streets of Delhi on February 18. What are the reasons for such widespread reaction and solidarity with the university students?
I think there was huge participation in the February 18 march for two reasons. Firstly, for a lot of people who had been observing the government's dealings with universities with discomfort, this was the tipping point. It forced many who had been ambivalent to come out on the streets and take a position against the government's actions.
Secondly, JNU has a special place among various social and democratic movements in the country. Historically, JNU students and teachers have expressed solidarity and taken part in many key movements. Many people who took part in the march felt that since JNU has always stood with various movements, it was time for everybody to stand with JNU.
One of the slogans used by students is: “We don't want any nationalist lecture from the communalists”. Can you explain the term “communalist” and its relation to nationalism in India.
The incidents at JNU brought a tirade of abuse from the Hindu right wing, especially on social media. The Hindu right has used the axis of nationalism to claim that the left is anti-national, as it allegedly believes in abusing the nation.
For us on the left, these slanders are not new and have been thrown at the left by fascists across the world. But in India, nationalism has historically been understood vis-a-vis colonialism and as opposition to British imperialism. The RSS and its affiliate organisations have a history of siding with the British rather than struggling against colonialism. They in fact exhorted people to keep away from the movement against colonialism.
Rather, from its inception the Hindu right tried to drive a wedge between Hindus and other religious communities. It openly propagates its demand for a “Hindu nation”, which will not have space for other religious communities. It is this understanding of society and country of the Hindu right that is “communalist”.
So the slogan “we do not want any nationalist lecture from communalists” rejects the extremely exclusive vision of the nation of the RSS.
There was another mass mobilisation on February 23 largely directed at the Modi government and its role in the events leading to the suicide of Rohith Vemula [a student from the oppressed Dalit community]. What demands are being made against the Modi government and the RSS-affiliated pro-BJP Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student group?
In January, Rohith Vemula committed suicide in Hyderabad University after being hounded by university administration and the fascist ABVP-RSS-BJP. He was branded an “anti-national”, “casteist” and “extremist”. The entire RSS, as well as the state machinery, ensured he and his friends were harassed, intimidated and finally kicked out of their university hostels.
BJP members of parliament, as well as the Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD), in fact wrote several letters demanding that the university administration take action against Rohith. After Rohith's suicide, campuses across the country erupted in protest, and the BJP government was sent on a back foot.
The main accusation being made against the ABVP and the Modi government is that they abetted the suicide of Rohith Vemula by actively directing university officials to punish him — even though the university's internal enquiry cleared him of wrongdoing.
The demands are that the implicated government ministers resign and the government use this opportunity to enact legislation to ensure that discrimination on the basis of caste in university campuses ends.
How serious is the situation of caste discrimination and Dalit suicides in university campuses?
Discrimination against Dalit students on university campuses in India is quite widespread. There have been at least nine suicides in the past decade alone. But focusing solely on the suicides doesn't reveal the deep-seated nature of the discrimination experienced by Dalit students.
From when they gain admission into educational institutions until they graduate, Dalit students are discriminated in various ways. It can range from outright social ostracism from campus spaces to very subtle forms of discrimination.
How successful have the protests been from a political perspective? Based on these recent mass mobilisations, what openings and opportunities are emerging for the CPI (M-L) Liberation and other progressive forces in India?
One of the most heartening things to see in the recent protests has been that people from all walks of life have joined in. The surfacing of doctored videos showing that Kanhaya's whole case was based on faked evidence has caused a severe loss of face for the government.
The impact of the recent mobilisations has been crucial in creating a considerable anti-Modi and anti-RSS space. CPI (ML) Liberation and other progressive forces will use this opportunity to further expand this space.
What level of solidarity is there from student activists and lecturers of universities outside JNU? Do you expect to see further expansion of protests to other universities and wider society?
The movement at JNU has received support not only from within the country, but also from the global academic community. We feel that this movement will spread to other universities because other universities also suffer a stifling atmosphere.
Right now, we are getting news that the student union president at Allahabad University, who is also the first woman president at the university, is being threatened with expulsion.
A recent CPI (ML) Liberation editorial said prominent BJP supporters are calling the crackdown on campuses “pest control”, and demanding campuses be “purged” and “sanitised” of leftists. What level of violence has been experienced by the protestors in confrontations with the police and BJP supporters? Are there any other students being targeted for sedition charges and how are they coping?
Over the past two months, there have been many student demonstrations attacked by the police and subjected to water cannon and baton charges. Apart from this physical violence, the government has been using sections of the media who are pliant to run a vicious slander campaign against left activists, often inciting violence against them.
In fact, it is sections of the media leading the charge for the government and RSS in their “pest control” operation.
Apart from Kahaiya, who is now out on bail, there are two more students who are right now in jail. Apart from them, there are eight JNU students who have been suspended. These suspensions are on spurious grounds and the students were not even told about the charges against them.
The movement is at a juncture where it has to ensure that these suspensions are revoked and sedition charges are dropped against all JNU students.