By AHMED KHAN
On Feb. 9, several students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi organized a protest in support of the self-determination of the people of Kashmir and the memory of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri who was controversially convicted on charges of terrorism and hanged in 2013.
Shortly before the event, students from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student group associated with hard-right nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently in control of the Indian government, complained to the university adminstration. Fearing the implied threat of violent confrontation, the university acquiesced and banned the event.
Subsequently, the university erupted into protest; several campus groups and university faculty and administrators denounced the ban. In response, the Delhi police initiated a brutal crackdown on left-wing students in general; they targeted activists including those not even present at the Afzal Guru event. Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students’ Union, was arrested on Feb. 12 and charged with sedition, criminal conspiracy, and unlawful assembly after giving a speech in support of the student protesters that was deemed “anti-national” (the video evidence this was based on was later revealed to have been doctored).
This precipitated a frenzy across India; Kumar was beaten twice, once by pro-BJP lawyers and policemen immediately preceding his trial, and once inside the courtroom itself. Two other JNU students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharjee were also arrested. The BJP took this opportunity to drum up nationalistic fervor surrounding “anti-national speech” being promoted under the guise of academic freedom.
The events at JNU are part of a much broader assault on dissent by Narendra Modi, the BJP, and their associated right-wing nationalist formations. The protests followed the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad. Vemula was a member of the Dalit community and an activist for the cause of rights for Dalits, a historically marginalized caste group in India. After participating in several campus protests, the ABVP wrote a letter to the university administration accusing him of “anti-national” and “caste-ist” activities. As a result, he was suspended from the university. He was found dead later, an apparent suicide by hanging.
The BJP embraces the twin doctrines of extreme right-wing Hindu nationalism and neoliberal capitalism; it often uses the former to prop up support for the latter. It is no coincidence that the event that sparked the events at JNU was a protest in solidarity with the Kashmir independence movement. The BJP made its name stoking the fires of communal violence and repression; the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, sparking months of rioting was presided over by BJP officials.
Narendra Modi himself was accused of doing nothing to stop the communal riots in Gujarat when he was Chief Minister there in 1992. Islamophobia in India is reaching levels not seen since the 1990s; several states have passed laws restricting the consumption of beef, which is targeted directly at the Muslim minority communities that live there. Caste oppression is on the rise as well, in the name of Hindu nationalism, as seen in tragic relief through the suicide of Rohith Vemula, whose mother was arrested by Delhi police at Vemula’s own candlelight vigil.
Neither is it any coincidence that it comes at a time when theliberalization of the economy has reached a fever pitch; despite massive privatization and deregulation, the Indian economy is still suffering from slowing growth and massive wealth inequality. The university system itself has become a target, with massive cuts to education funding in the name of “competitiveness;” here, as it was in the United States in the 1970s, the first step is crushing the student movements, and the next silencing the voices who are speaking out against the failure of the BJP’s neoliberalization of India.
Photo: Students rally at Jawaharlal Nehru University on Feb. 15.