It is not easy being a student in India.
A top Indian educational institute — Jawaharlal Nehru University, universally known as JNU — has become the melting pot for a brewing political slugfest in the South Asian nation.
The controversy started earlier this week when members of ABVP — the student wing of current ruling party BJP — filed a complaint with Delhi Police about alleged “anti-national” activities taking place inside JNU.
The alleged activities, it would be useful to point out here, referred to a small batch of students of the university organizing an event to commemorate the death of Afzal Guru, who was convicted of terrorism for his role in December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and subsequently hanged in 2013.
ABVP members allege that the students organized the event despite not being given the permission to do so by the University authorities. They also allegedly went on to sing “anti-national” slogans that vilify the integrity of the nation.
In the aftermath of the complaint, Kanhaiya Kumar, the elected president of the university’s student union, was arrested by the police and booked for “sedition.”
The entire saga has sparked a fierce debate in India, where some believe that JNU is being targeted for its culture of dissent, while others believe that the university has become a hotbed for alleged “anti-national” activities.
— Heena Kausar (@heenakausar19) February 13, 2016
Ironically, this is the same JNU which has provided India with some of its finest historians, social and political scientists. This is the same JNU which held the baton when urban India was reeling with some of its most-introspective moments in recent history. This is the same JNU which has taken upon itself to give voices to the oppressed, to fight battles for those who cannot imagine waging a war against the higher echelons of Indian political and administrative bureaucracy.
So what has changed this time?
Well, for one, the ruling party seems a lot more menacing, and bent on the idea of shutting down places of dissent. The ruling party’s tryst with another premier Indian institution, the Film and Television Institute of India, is already well-documented.
Second, it appears the current government is distracting the Indian media — and by extension its people — from the main issues at hand. By painting a motley group of students as the real “enemies” of the state, the Narendra Modi led government is seeking to evade questions of unemployment, inflation, infrastructure development, and is in fact attempting to completely shut down channels of dissent. The message by the government to Indian people, as the Indian Express wrote in its editorial, is simple: “Do not disagree.”
Third, right-wing student cadres have been emboldened by the protection extended to them by the ruling government. So there are complaints when earlier there were none. JNU has been functioning for more than fifty years and has held innumerable protests in all these years, spanning virtually every conflict one can think of. Does it not appear a little strange that, out of the blue, it has suddenly started being dubbed as an “anti-national” institution?
Sedition for stupid slogans puts India in the league of greatest democratic giants like Putin's Russia, Erdogan's Turkey, China & Egypt #JNU
— Shekhar Gupta (@ShekharGupta) February 12, 2016
To be honest, to charge a student or a group of students for a charge as serious as “sedition” for holding an event and sloganeering appears extremely infantile. If anything, the government should welcome dissent, and especially by students. For a government so obsessed with its image, it will only bode well for it not to stand up in-arms against a bunch of students.
There is a lot of hate and name-calling spawning the walls of India’s higher educational institutes these days. It is time the government acted its age.
These are worrying times for the Indian republic. Hopefully its government can move towards a resolution which is both mature and not high-handed.
[Image via Altaf Qadri/AP]