Occupy JNU

Posted on: February 21, 2016

Often described as the last bastion of the Left, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is in the middle of a political tug of war. Sonia Sarkar and V. Kumara Swamy report that while the Right is pulling hard, the Left is holding on

  • Imaging: Sabyasachi Kundu

The union leader sits alone on a bench, next to a heap of roses. Students walk up to him, each one carrying a rose which they hand over to him. Saurabh Kumar Sharma chucks them on a table near him.

Flowers, slogans, placards, meetings and marches – Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is in the thick of it all. For 10 days now, the university – often described as the last bastion of the Left – has been in a state of turmoil. Students are out on the streets, classes have been suspended in many of the centres, teachers are in emergency meetings and mass lectures are being held on the campus.

It all started on February 9, when Sharma, joint secretary of the JNU Students Union (JNUSU) and a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), lodged a police complaint about a meeting that had been held on the campus. The police stormed in and arrested JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar – and all hell broke loose.

Sharma’s outfit is backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); Kumar is a member of the All India Students Federation (AISF), led by the Communist Party of India. Sharma alleged that Kumar, along with other students, had shouted “anti-national slogans” at the meeting which marked the third anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, convicted of attacking Parliament. Since then, students and teachers have been condemned as “anti-nationals”, and there have been calls for the closure of JNU.

“At any point in time there are around 8,000 students in JNU,” says former vice-chancellor S.K. Sopory. “It saddens me that one of the finest institutions in the country is being labelled anti-national just because of slogans shouted by 20-odd students.”

Many inside and outside the institute do not view this as a mere fight between two opposing students’ groups. They smell a conspiracy – of the BJP trying to make inroads into what has largely been a liberal institute.

“There is apprehension among students that the BJP is trying to capture JNU and bring the university under the fold of saffron ideology,” former VC B.B. Bhattacharya says.

Some faculty members believe that there is a larger move to portray the university as a den of “anti-nationals”. In November last year, Panchjanya, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) journal, said JNU was home to “a huge anti-national block which has the aim of disintegrating India”.

Former JNUSU president Sandeep Singh believes the BJP wants to “polarise” the country over the JNU issue. “It wants to earn political mileage by telling the country that JNU produces anti-nationals,” he says.

Last September, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy stirred up a storm when he referred to JNU’s students and teachers as “Naxalites”. For a while, JNU was abuzz with rumours, baseless as they turned out, that Swamy would be the new VC after Sopory’s term ended in January.

It was the new VC, M. Jagadesh Kumar, who gave permission to the police to enter the campus and look for Kumar and other students in hostels. “I would never have allowed the police to enter the campus,” Bhattacharya says.

Earlier this week, as thousands of students came out on the streets with placards and slogans, BJP member of Parliament Chandan Mitra called for the closure of JNU.

“JNU has a long history of sedition and anti-national politics and it is not easy to combat it intellectually or through campus politics,” he says. “So the best way is to vacate the hostels and shut the university down. It can be restarted in a different way, with a different curriculum, a different set of students and a different administration,” he elaborates.

Most members of the faculty believe that this is part of a larger plan to stifle dissent. “The BJP government knows very clearly that this is one place where people openly dissent,” says JNU professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy.

But the real battle, for the present, is being fought between student groups. One of the developments in recent years in JNU has been the strengthening of the ABVP. Last September, it made a comeback in the JNUSU central panel after 14 years when it bagged the post of the joint secretary. Sharma believes he was elected because he talked of “real” issues.

“The Left parties talk about war in Syria and elections in the US. We talk about campus issues such as inadequate hostels, inconsistent Wi-Fi connection on the campus and a poor placement cell,” he says.

Trouble has been brewing on the 1,000-acre for a while. In November, an ABVP member and student of Sanskrit organised a havan, a fire-lit ritual, in his hostel room. When wardens stopped him, a complaint was lodged and one of the wardens was questioned by the police.

Some ABVP students did not allow a Kashmiri stall at a food festival in JNU. They protested when the All India Backward Students’ Forum organised a Mahishasur Divas to hail the buffalo-demon slain by Durga. And they have been protesting against Guru being hailed as a martyr.

“We tried to stop them earlier too but they didn’t listen,” says JNU ABVP president Rohit Singh. “It was important to teach them a lesson.”

JNU students believe that they are also being singled out because they took on the Centre late last year. JNU students were prominent in sit-ins outside the University Grants Commission office in protest against a move by the ministry of human resources and development (HRD). The ministry had announced that it planned to scrap fellowships granted to research students who had not cleared an examination that was required by those seeking a lecturer’s job.

“JNU students were at the forefront of the ‘Occupy UGC’ movement. The Centre has been targeting us since then,” says N. Sai Balaji, councillor, School of International Studies, JNU.

Indeed, JNU students have been at the centre of many movements in recent times. They organised two all-India mobilisation marches to express support for striking students of the Film and Television Institute of India. They rose in protest when the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a student outfit in the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, was de-recognised for being critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And they led marches against the death of Hyderabad University’s Dalit student Rohith Vemula.

“Our voice and strength always irk those in power,” JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid says.

But can a handful of students trouble a government so much that an entire administration ends up hounding them for raising slogans? Many believe they can, because JNU has been for long a red rag for RSS-led groups.

The university was set up in 1969 with, among other things, the objectives of “national integration, social justice, secularism and the democratic way of life”. It came up at a time when the Communist Party of India swayed policy in the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government. Over the years, many of the faculty posts were held by Left or liberal academics.

“The Left always dominated the campus. It is only recently that the Right wing is also making its presence felt,” says JNU registrar Bhupinder Zutshi.

Not surprisingly, people such as political scientist Yogendra Yadav believe that the present crisis is “a well thought out attempt” by the BJP to capture JNU. “The BJP has political and economic power but it doesn’t have the control of any intellectual establishment,” Yadav says.

“Given the prominence of JNU, its identification with the Left and its questions on nationalism, JNU becomes a soft target,” he holds.

So, every now and then, efforts are made to open small doors in JNU. When the National Democratic Alliance-1 was at the Centre, the then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi set up the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies in 2001. “Left-wing groups accused him of saffronising JNU,” says former JNU student and ABVP worker Navneet Kumar.

Old-timers recall that in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when the BJP started gaining ground, meetings were held in JNU, convened by party ideologues such as Govindacharya. In 1991, the ABVP won its first seat as joint secretary in JNUSU. In 1996, it bagged three central posts. “It established us firmly on the campus,” says former ABVP leader Shiv Shakti Bakshi, executive editor of Kamal Sandesh, a BJP mouthpiece.

Watch out for more. “We will make further inroads into JNU with this anti-national stance taken by some groups,” BJP MP Tarun Vijay says.

That is, of course, if the teachers and students at JNU allow them to do so.

The teachers have been busy. Instead of a sit-in, they have organised a “teach-in” to protest against the arrest of Kumar and related events. The mass lectures, open to all students, have been dealing with issues such as nationalism, regions and civil liberties. Next week, the topic is Gandhi’s nation. Nationalism, anyone?


From hostel accommodation and admission fees to protests against the Emergency and nuclear tests, JNU students over the years have agitated on a wide range of issues. Some of the campaigns:
1975: The Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi led to massive campus unrest. Several student leaders were jailed

1983: A protest in favour of “deprivation points” for other backward classes during admission snowballed into a huge protest. Around 350 students spent two weeks in Delhi’s Tihar Jail

1993: Massive protests were held for the restoration of deprivation points and against proposed fee hikes. Both were successful

2015: Led by JNU students, huge demonstrations were held under the  ‘Occupy UGC’ movement


JNU was where many leaders cut their political teeth. Among them were:

D.P. Tripathi: The Nationalist Congress Party member of Parliament was an Students’ Federation of India, or SFI, member. As JNUSU president during the Emergency, he went underground. Still remembered for stopping Maneka Gandhi, then a student of German in JNU, from entering a classroom

Prakash Karat: The former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) was president in 1972-73, but lost the next year to the Free Thinkers’ Anand Kumar, ex JNU professor and a former member of Aam Aadmi Party

Sitaram Yechury: The CPI(M) general secretary was thrice president. A postgraduate student in economics, he had been jailed during the Emergency

Chandrasekhar Prasad: President for two terms in the mid-90s, he led several agitations. He was shot dead in 1997 in Siwan, Bihar, while addressing a meeting

Kavita Krishnan: She was elected joint secretary in 1995. She spent time in jail after organising protests against Prasad’s murder. Was on the forefront of the Nirbhaya protests in Delhi

Nirmala Sitharaman: The minister of state for commerce and industry did her PhD from JNU and was a Free Thinker.

Additional reporting by T.V. Jayan in New Delhi

Published in The Telegraph on February 21, 2016.



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