Spring Comes to JNU : Love, Laughter and Rage
February is a beautiful time of the year in Delhi. It inaugurates Basant, spring, the season for love. And it is made more beautiful by an incandescent, insurgent spirit, that spreads in the air like a loving contagion, especially around what the Hindu Right rehearses for months on end to spoil – the new found festival of Valentine’s Day.
Traditionally (or at least since as long ago as the late twentieth century CE), on Valentine’s Day, the loony Hindu right goes looking for lovers in the parks of Delhi and tries to ply its own line in the extortion trade. This time, they have been joined by some big guns. The Delhi police descended on some young people belonging to a theatre group who had stepped out to have tea during a poetry reading at the IGNCA on the grounds that they ‘looked like they were JNU students’. Meanwhile, their boss, the Honorable Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh (who deserves a Bharat Ratna all by himself for skills as a performance artist) regaled a press conference with a poker faced comic act – his revelation of the Lashkar e Taiba’s links to the JNU protests on the basis of the discovery of a fake twitter handle. The fact that Rajnath Singh still has his job is because his boss Narendra Modi, our ‘dear leader’, is the chief architect of the ‘Fake in India’ campaign.
One needs love, and laughter, plenty of laughter, to survive these times, and the antics of these men. Over the last two days, it is love, laughter, sorrow and rage, in equal proportion that have been most evident in the JNU campus in Delhi. Their signs were evident again, appropriately, yesterday, on Valentine’s Day. A student population of thousands has been able to transform its rage at the capitulation of the recently appointed vice-chancellor and his cronies to the diktats of an incompetent home minister and his minions in the Delhi Police apparatus into a deep and abiding sense of good humoured solidarity. This is demonstrated by the support that they have readily offered Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of their students union, who is currently detained, facing ridiculous charges of sedition, and several other students, including some JNUSU office bearers, who the police are still reportedly hunting for. The hashtag #StandwithJNU has gone viral, spreading, connecting, bringing people together like the sudden awakening of spring after a cruel winter. What better way can there be of celebrating Valentine’s Day than to declare, en masse, a love for liberty, and for learning?
Within a day of the police raid in JNU that resulted in the arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar on the 12th of February, the campus was able to shake off the sense of shock at the invasive presence of the police and gather in very large numbers, setting an example of peaceful, dignified and disciplined protest, despite the many provocations that they have had thrown at them from a venal regime and its corrupt clients in the mainstream media.
On the evening of the 13th of February, there was a massive public meeting in front of the administration block in JNU. This was addressed by several political personalities, D. Raja of the CPI, Sitaram Yechuri of the CPI(M), Kavita Krishnan (former JNUSU president and from the CPI-ML-Liberation), Anand Sharma, Ajay Maken and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress. While the irony of the fat cats of the erstwhile Congress regime that actually hung Afzal Guru offering solidarity to students in JNU who are under attack from the BJP for being accused of mourning his execution was not lost on me, it was still an impressive show of force, at least for a few teflon television moments.
Meanwhile, at one margin of the immense crowd, a token number of ABVP goons shouted themselves hoarse – offering ‘peaceful’ slogans such as – ’Naxaliyon ka Kabar Khudega JNU ke Dharti Pe’, (The Graves of Naxalites will be dug on JNU’s soil), ‘Jo Afzal ki Baat Karega, Woh Afzal ki Maut Marega’(He who talks about Afzal Guru will die his death) and ‘Desh Hai Pukarta, Pukarti Maa Bharati, Khoon se Tilak Karo, Goliyon Se Aarti’ (The Country is Calling, Mother India is Calling, Anoint Yourselves with Blood, And Worship with Bullets).
Naturally, calls for violence by self-certified Indian nationalists in the present circumstances can never be thought of by television anchors and the powers that be as disruptive of peace. This is the way the national fabric is maintained by its current custodians. ‘Make in India’ happens by breaking Indians, especially those who are young and vulnerable. But the young are resilient. They have stamina. They have love and laughter on their side. And it is better to rely on love and laughter than it is to depend even on the fickle attentions of princes and patriots, however charming they may be.
The prince was charming, (as princes tend to be, when in opposition). He said some basic, useful and necessary things about Adolf Hitler, the 1930s in Germany, intolerance and other such matters. He asked the students not to let themselves be bullied, and then left as suddenly as he had arrived, to the relief and bewilderment of the ABVP, who now could give their tired voices some rest.
It was left to Kavita Krishnan, former JNUSU General Secretary, to rescue the meeting from the thicket of rhetorical platitudes that the meeting had seemingly found itself waylaid into.
Kavita Krishnan reminded the students of the tradition that JNU has of dealing with difficult questions through dialogue, and the importance that this democratic, questioning spirit had in the formation of the character JNU students. While unequivocally condemning the irresponsible sloganeering by a minuscule fraction of those assembled for the ‘Country Without a Post Office’ event on the 9th of February organized by some JNU students, she insisted that these situations could have, and have been in the past, been dealt with dialogue and debate, not through detentions, charges of sedition and police action.
What impressed me most about the 13th evening were not so much the speeches as the evident resolve of the students. Their patient, orderly, serene presence, their respectful attention to when they were being addressed, their utter disregard for the lumpen presence of the ABVP, and their palpable love for each other and for their teachers, and their pride in their university.
In a remarkable demonstration of inter-generational solidarity, the students of JNU have found their strongest allies amongst their teachers. On the evening of 13th February, a chain of professors formed a protective cordon between their patient, impeccably disciplined JNU students and the unruly circus of ABVP thugs. The JNU administration played its comic part, appearing briefly, at the beginning of the programme, to disconnect the microphone. This is what Vice Chancellors have become reduced to these days – to becoming the obedient orderlies who switch off the power supply to their universities.
Undeterred, a student produced a battery operated microphone connected to a portable amplifier. Both devices had seen better days. And the voice they rendered was tinny, barely audible. And yet, the thousands of students gathered to listen gave everyone a patient hearing, alternating between what teaches in Indian class rooms like to call ‘pin drop silence’ (a much valued commodity in our noisy land) and regular bouts of wild, exultant, celebratory cheering, or cries of ‘shame’ when a speaker pointed out a particular foible of the government or the university administration, or when the ABVP got a little too noisy for their own good.
As is usual in these cases, the Television Crews had more time and energy at their disposal for Prince Charming and his retinue than they had for the remarkable sight of thousands of peaceful students assembled to express their anger. Nothing will change the ways of paid for TV. But that is another sad story.
The next day, I was at JNU at four in the afternoon, to witness a press conference addressed by JNUTA (JNU Teachers Association) office bearers, and representatives of the Federation of Cullege and University Teachers Associations (FEDCUTA), Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) and the Ambedkar University of Delhi Teachers Association (AUDTA). Each speaker talked about the increasing incidence of assaults on university autonomy in the BJP regime, attacks on students and teachers. Once again, a majority of TV correspondents interrogated the teachers speaking to them as if they were intelligence bureau operatives or special branch officials
At around five pm, the assembly dispersed, to gather again and take the form of what was described as massive human chain, (perhaps one should stop calling such gatherings ‘chains’ and call them human garlands instead), so lets say, a human garland, that stretched several kilometers long from ‘Ganga Dhaba’ (not far from the JNU main gate) to Chandrabhaga Hostel (deep within the interiors of the campus). This alive, ebullient thread of people, mainly young, some older (alumni, teachers, friends), was like a river in spate. I could not help thinking as I passed the hostels with their beautiful riverine names – Ganga, Sutlej, Kaveri, Mahi-Mandavi, Lohit and Chandrabhaga – that we, all of us assembled were like a tidal bore, surging upstream from the ocean to deep inland territories, irrigating wastelands, laying the foundations of a new civilization, a new civility that the RSS-ABVP hordes will never be able to come to terms with. The ebb and flow of this mighty river carried the evening.
Finally, we reached a confluence, again the administration block. Students sat once again, quickly, with a profound sense of internalized order. Once again there was no microphone. Once again there were calls for silence, and a hush descended on the students like a gentle protective blanket.
Then the gentle, exhausted but firm voice of Shehla Rashid Shora, the Vice President of JNUSU found a way of reaching way into the back of the crowd. She spoke of what it means to be in an inclusive, open, public university and why that is so terrifying to the regime in power. She spoke of the university as a space of dissent, of the celebration of doubt and thought. She spoke of the way in which the BJP government seems paranoid about the young and their spaces. She spoke of the defamation, the lies, that are being peddled by the government and sections of the media about students everywhere. She spoke of the desperate circumstances that drove Rohith Vemula to suicide because of an ABVP led witch hunt. She spoke at length about the ‘Occupy UGC’, formed as a response to the BJP regime’s planned assault on democratic and equitable access to higher education. She spoke about how there is an increasing intensity of discrimination based on caste, religion, gender and sexual preferences. She spoke of the intense desire that young people all over feel for freedom – azaadi – of freedom from patriarchy, from capital, from draconian laws like the AFSPA, from Khaps and Casteism and from all forms of humiliation and indignity, She spoke, not once, but several times about ‘desh-prem‘, about what it means to love a land and the many kinds of people who inhabit it, and how that was different from the hatred that the regime purveyed through what it defined as nationalism. She declared that the students have resolved not to co-operate with the inquiry committee set up by the University Administration on the incidents of February 9th because it has shown its biases by having already declared a number of students ‘guilty’ and has suspended their academic rights and privileges even before an investigation has had a chance to begin. She declared that (today) Monday, the 15th of February will be observed as a strike throughout the university.
Something has changed in our city. Ever since the terrible rape of Jyoti Singh on the 16th of December, 2012 brought thousands of young people out into the streets of Delhi, something fundamental has shifted in our sense of who we are as citizens, and as political actors. This was palpable in the mobilizations by the young workers of the Maruti-Suzuki factory. It was evident in the ‘Occupy UGC’ movement, and in the continuing protests in solidarity with Rohith Vemula, and the spontaneous marches on the RSS headquarters, (as part of the ‘Kiss of Love’ protests, and more recently, to express anger at the RSS-ABVP’s abetment of Rohith Vemula’s suicide). This stupid government thinks that it can arrest this momentum by scaring students in JNU with a dose of shock treatment, or workers at the Maruti factory with a spell in prison. It has no idea how much it has damaged itself by presuming that it could frighten students, and more generally, the young. If this government thinks that it can solve the mounting social crises that it is itself generating by putting workers and students in prisons, then, it really has no idea of the kind of bonds that it is helping to form in what it thinks are spaces of confinement between a new generation of, and new kinds of political prisoners and their friends, comrades, families and allies. The state and its thugs have fresh blood on its hands, the blood of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, and a young man called Danish, and a young woman called Shaista Hamid, (both unarmed civilians) in Pulwama, Kashmir. It has the growing weight of prisoners chains around its neck.
Now it is Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani’s turn to be terrified.
They have awakened a tsunami of anger in the young. In the coming days, this wave of connections, between what is happening, and is likely to happen next, in Hyderabad, Delhi, Kashmir and elsewhere, like the dance and collision of the wounded cores of of distant stars meeting in deep space, (of the kind that Rohith Vemula loved to think about) may well transform itself into a massive gravitational force that can alter the structure of our social universe. And because we know this, February has once again become a beautiful time of the year. It’s time for love, laughter and rage.