The kind of violence that Indian universities have witnessed in the recent times poses a serious threat to the freedom of speech and expression in university spaces. Last year, the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were targeted. This year, it’s Delhi University (DU). These are some of the finest universities in the country where students have maintained the space for discourse and debate through constant struggle.
However, since the past few years, this space has been captured by ‘nation lovers’. In the name of patriotism, they have even become flag-bearers of violence. This intolerance towards the culture of discussion is justified through their ‘ultra nationalism’ and everything that doesn’t fit in their definition is dealt with outright violence.
The recent incident in Delhi University is one such example of the restlessness of the right wing. Ramjas College became a platform for open violence and hooliganism when the literary society of the college organised a seminar on ‘Cultures of Protest’ (which was scheduled for February 21, 2017). Umar Khalid, a PhD scholar from JNU, was supposed to present a paper in the seminar where he was going to talk about tribal resistance in Bastar. But the entire programme was disrupted when goons from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) entered the college, shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai! (Glory be to Mother India!)” and proceeded to vandalise the seminar. They threatened the faculty members to cancel the event and when the students raised their voices against this threat, the goons became violent and threw stones and chairs at the students and the professors. They abused, assaulted and locked them in a room for hours, while the police remained silent onlookers throughout.
This incident created a furore among the students and they decided to hold a peaceful protest march the next day (on February 22, 2017) from Ramjas College to Maurice Nagar Police Station. A large number of students and teachers turned up to protest against this hooliganism, because they wanted to reclaim their university space and rise against the constant humiliation by the ABVP.
The protest started with discussions and sloganeering. However, the peaceful protest soon turned into a riot-like situation, as the students and teachers were brutally beaten up by the ‘sons of Bharat Mata’. The goons pelted stones, bricks, eggs and slippers on the students and obstructed the march. Once again, the police were mere observers. Neither did they stop the goons from attacking, nor did they protect the protesters from being attacked.
The students somehow managed to reach Maurice Nagar Police Station (amidst regular stone pelting from ABVP members). There, every single protester demanded action against the vandalism and hooliganism perpetrated by the ABVP. They demanded action against the ABVP for the violence and injuries caused to the people, as well as for their threats against the Freedom of Expression.
The day-long violence continued due to the blatant police inaction, which made the state’s bias even more evident. The FIR was not lodged and the station house officer (SHO) ordered the protest to be stopped and dispersed within five minutes. This was the most horrifying phase of the protest when I saw both ABVP goons and the police ruthlessly beating the students up. The kind of violence which was witnessed that evening was no less than what is witnessed in a riot. This must have terrified students across the nation. The police pushed everyone into different busses and took us for a ‘city ride’, so that the protest would end and everyone would disperse.
A large number of students and teachers gathered at the ITO Police Headquarters the following day (February 23, 2017), where they again demanded that FIRs should be lodged. After hours of delay, the police came up with a ‘common FIR’ in which the entire incident was ‘narrowed’ down as a clash between two political outfits, ABVP and All India Students Association (AISA). Portraying this ‘xenophobia’ as a ‘clash’ is another strategy of the state to misrepresent this episode as a minor conflict between two student organisations – and nothing more! It will indeed be a gross injustice to tag this incident as a ‘clash’.
Will such incidents stop after all the bloodshed, dissent, complaints and FIRs? No. These events are not going to stop, rather they are going to take an even more violent and uglier form in the coming years. Fascists are in power, and they are scared of radical minds in university spaces who can pose a threat to them. The intolerance towards the culture of discussion, the ‘ultra nationalism’, the use of violence to suppress voices of dissent and the limiting of democratic rights are all strategies of ‘saffronisation’. These fascists are feeling insecure due to the ongoing protests in the country. So, they react by attacking progressive ideas and institutions.
This jingoism will continue as long as the state wants to suppress all voices of dissent and secure its power. These chauvinists will continue to glorify violence in the name of religion, culture and nationalism. We can recall various events in the recent past where people have been killed in the name of ‘Bharat Mata’.
It was not the existing, false charges of ‘sedition’ on Umar Khalid which provoked ABVP students. Rather, they feared that Khalid would expose the fascist forces, the condition of the tribals in Bastar and the state’s atrocities. They also feared that Khalid would enlighten the students on possible ways of protesting.
So, we can say that the state was petrified by the idea of the spread of radical thoughts among the young generation. When seen in this manner, the entire episode emerges as a reaction to the act of dissent by the students.
In this reign of terror, students across the country will have to unite and raise their voices against this ‘pseudo-nationalism’. Only then can we save our universities from getting ruined by such ‘gundaism! (hooliganism!)’