Political activist Shehla Rashid Shora has been at the forefront of various student movements for around two years now. Visibly since what many described as the ‘institutional murder’ of University of Hyderabad PhD student Rohith Vemula in January 2016 and the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition the following month.
While the protests to provide justice to Rohith Vemula and free Kanhaiya Kumar were going on, she was the vice-president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (2015-2016) as a member of the All India Students’ Association, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
Currently, she is independent, has a huge digital presence and is unapologetic about voicing her opinions against the current Narendra Modi government both online and otherwise, in protests all across the country.
Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with Shehla where she talks about the role she plans to play in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the brutal rape and murder an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Kathua, the shortcomings in the current higher education system and much more.
Amrit Mahapatra (AM): You’ve been at the forefront of student politics. Do you think student politics prepares you for the world of outside electoral politics better or do you think it is a handicap of some sort?
Shehla Rashid (SR): Student politics teaches you how to stand up for what you believe in. It also teaches you how to form your own opinions. As far as politics – of any sort – is concerned, that is what defines a leader. As a leader, you have no one ahead of you. You have to imagine a political possibility and take a call. Student activists have this quality by virtue of being independent in their thinking.
AM: How do you think you will be involved in the 2019 general elections? Any chance of you perhaps going the Jignesh Mevani way and contesting independently or perhaps even with a political party? Or do you see yourself being involved in any other way? Do elaborate.
SR: I’ve made it clear that I’ll campaign against the BJP, on various issues such as their disastrous economic policies and their anti-women ideology. Before May 16, 2014, I wasn’t aware of my identity. The day Mr Modi got the mandate as PM, I felt like a Muslim for the first time in this country. I remember that day so clearly. I was hoping that Mr Kejriwal would become PM! If it weren’t for my election to the student union, and my escalation as one of the main opposition voices in the country, I would have felt very, very powerless.
As a student, as a woman, and as a Muslim, I have experienced a lot of pain and injustice in the last four years. There have been so many occasions when I cried. I cried when my colleagues in JNU were being hunted down and arrested. I cried when Kanhaiya was beaten up in court. I cried when Akhlaq was lynched. I cried when Najeeb went missing and we were protesting outside the Vice-Chancellor’s house. BJP has brought tears to the eyes of the people of this country. I want this anti-people government to go. I want to impact all Parliamentary seats, not just one. That’s a priority. This might not leave a lot of time to focus on one constituency. But, let’s see.
AM: What is your political affiliation at the moment? Are you independent or associated with any organisation?
SR: I’m currently independent. When the JNU movement took place, we received love and support from people across affiliations, communities, regions, even countries. People from ABVP and RSS would call us and tell us that they have left their organisation. Even those who didn’t leave RSS would meet us in different cities, take selfies with us, admire our efforts, etc. During demonetisation, many BJP-affiliated people told us that they now relate to our politics. We have received a lot of love and support. I feel that we owe it to the people of this country, across barriers of caste, community and political affiliation, to raise and highlight their issues.
AM: What is your take on the Kathua incident and what response/action do you expect from the government at this time?
SR: First of all, we have been demanding sacking of the cabinet ministers that didn’t come till yesterday*, until there was international outrage over it.
The fact that the first female CM of the state has to wait until everyone in Bollywood and media outrages and then remove the ministers involved. They should have been sacked the day they participated in the rallies.
The second point is, Ashifa’s family to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been given any compensation or relief by the government. They have been forced to flee their village and neither they nor their lawyer has been given any security.
What is the whole point of having a female CM and what is the point of having a party (PDP) which says they’re here for healing touch?
The third thing is, we are demanding the shifting of the case from Kathua to somewhere else like Delhi or somewhere. In 2005, there was a sex scandal, and top people were accused. But then the HC bar association of Srinagar said that they won’t defend the accused on moral grounds.
The case was then shifted to Chandigarh. So the present case should be shifted likewise, to Srinagar or Delhi. Deepika (the lawyer) wants the case to be shifted to SC, and we all support her for her courage.
The government should heed to her demand. Who knows tomorrow the lawyers won’t attack the witness or Deepika? After all, Kanhaiya was attacked, and we demand the shifting of the case outside Kathua.
AM: You stated in an interview with Kunal Kamra that you wanted to be in a position where you could affect the educational policies of the country.What do you think are the shortcomings in the current higher education system?
SR: Before pointing out the problems, I would like to say that we have excellent institutions like AIIMS, JNU, IITs, IISc., IIMs, NITs, etc. that are doing a wonderful job. These need to be saved from the present government. The government is doing everything to destroy some of these institutions. These are models that need to be replicated everywhere. There needs to be an AIIMS in every district of this country. People from different countries will come here to get treatment if our healthcare system is robust. This will generate a lot of revenue that can subsidise healthcare for the poor population.
The Modi government has introduced fellowships to the tune of ₹80,000 per month for IITs and other technical institutes. This is a welcome step, but such funding for higher education needs to be provided across sectors. The level of higher education that people get is inversely proportional to population growth rate and crime rate. Therefore, education needs to be seen as a social good in its own right. An educated citizen is an asset to the society. The government should change its step-motherly attitude toward social sciences.
Right now in India, a university student is one in a million, numerically speaking. This creates cut-throat competition for seats which also results in social tensions, as certain distressed sections of the population lose out in the highly competitive process. There is a very urgent need to ensure college and higher education for everyone who wants to go for higher studies. There should be enough seats, enough universities for everyone who wants to study. Fees should be affordable and quality of education should be competitive. The government should have an innovation policy to create an ecosystem for a knowledge-based enterprise, even in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities.
Social justice, proper implementation of reservation policies, and more generally, inclusive education are the need of the hour. Once women, Dalits, or minorities reach the universities, it is very important to ensure that they aren’t discriminated. This can lead to situations like the unfortunate and untimely demise of Rohith Vemula – an incident rightly called ‘institutional murder’.
Students from Kashmir and Northeast often complain of discrimination and harassment. If this continues, how will they come into the mainstream? If they feel that there is no space to discuss their issues, this can further the sense of alienation. If students have a voice, they won’t resort to desperate measures. Therefore, having an environment for free and fair university elections and student politics is a must. Many university students from such regions are first-generation learners. If they perceive a continued sense of injustice at the university too, their hopes of a better system are shattered. This applies as much to Kashmiris as to women and Dalits.
AM: You actively took part in the protest which demanded the suspension of professor Atul Johri. You have been very critical of the current Vice-Chancellor of JNU? Do you think Atul Johri has been/is shielded by the administration in some way? If yes, how?
SR: Oh, absolutely! Atul Johri is the face of the JNU administration. He would physically attack student union members in academic council meetings, in a bid to suck up to the VC. His unwelcome advances toward female students is an open secret in JNU. Women do not dare to speak out against him because he is so powerful. He should have been suspended from his post as a professor the day the first woman spoke out against him. This is because he is directly in charge of the PhD research of the complainants. He should have been arrested because he is in a position to influence the complainants, destroy evidence and seek revenge academically. JNU administration did not even condemn the incident. Forget condemn, they didn’t even acknowledge that there were complaints of sexual harassment. I was so angry when I saw the administration’s press note saying that ‘few students had grievances which were resolved’. This trivialisation of sexual exploitation is shocking. I wonder how the JNU VC faces his daughter.
Not only are the police and the JNU administration shielding Atul Johri, the BJP IT Cell did everything that it could to defame student protests by peddling lies, fake news about complainants, fake screenshots, etc. It is being said that Atul Johri is being targeted because he’s from RSS. This is utter nonsense. Six out of the 8 complainants are registered members and voters of ABVP – student wing of RSS. Atul Johri’s lawyer revealed the name of the main complainant on live TV, leaving the complainants further traumatised. There has been no action against him either.
I so clearly remember December 2012. On the first day of protests at India Gate against Nirbhaya gang rape, I happened to be in Delhi and went to India Gate alone with a handmade placard. Meenakshi Lekhi walked up to me and said, ‘very good placard’. Today, she’s holding press conferences that vilify anti-rape protesters. BJP has forgotten all about #BetiBachao and it is all about #RapistBachao now.
*The interview was conducted on April 14, Saturday, a day after two Bharatiya Janata Party ministers in the Jammu and Kashmir government submitted their resignations to the party.