by Sushil Aaron
The harassment of liberal and left wing students in India by the ABVP-RSS-BJP cohort continues. Last February, JNU student leaders were wrongfully arrested on charges of sedition. This time it is the forced shutdown of a seminar on ‘cultures of protest’ on February 21 at Ramjas College where JNU student leaders Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid were to speak. An academic who was at Ramjas relates that members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, flooded the canteen area, shoved their way aggressively. Young men stood on the roof of the building, threw branches and dangled “steel buckets in a threatening way” at the dense crowd below. The next day ABVP targeted students protesting their violence and threw bricks and stones at them, thrashing many with total impunity caring little about watching Delhi Police or the cameras recording them. The videos that have emerged tell their own story.
The ABVP denies that it has been violent but it is unapologetic about opposing ‘anti-nationals’. It says it does not want DU to turn into JNU; one of its leaders has said that “Even in the future, if anyone does any such thing, we will raise the issue and protest.” Two conclusions can be drawn from this. The ABVP recognises that JNU student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Khalid and Rashid have emerged as impressive public figures who can speak forcefully on a range of political issues – and thus it wants to oppose them in whatever way possible to limit their influence. These methods of intimidation are also designed to undermine liberal spaces and reshape the (political) imagination of students at colleges and universities across India.
In effect ABVP has set about making any student, activist and academic with a connection to JNU as taboo in university campuses. Having tasted success, it is now in a position to declare any subject it does not like as “anti-national”. This is not only a grave threat to free speech but is a strategy that has the potential to transform the substance of political conversation in India. The ABVP is the student arm of the RSS and the latter is of course closely linked to the BJP. The ABVP’s mode of altering the climate of universities in this manner works very well for the BJP and could constitute the next stage of its ambition to establish political dominance in India. Looking at the pattern of targeting universities it is possible to argue that the BJP is surging into newer frontiers of controlling political conversation in India, after it has conquered other realms in the public sphere.
ABVP activists beat up students of Ramjas college during clashes in Delhi University on Wednesday. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
The silencing of campuses through steady punctuated tactics of intimidation and subterfuge is a grave moment for India’s democracy and its constitutional freedoms. Citizens and opposition parties must come to terms with what India will become if universities are repressed. As noted, free academic debate and student politics are nodes of continuity for democratic activism, universities are the repositories of political memory that compel change and produce future leaders. To realise their worth try imagining an India where the media is largely deferential, social science is starved of talent and resources and (liberal) student politics falls silent. That will be an India that sounds the death knell for other parties as they will have contrive the energy and intellectual muscle mostly by themselves to challenge the BJP. Parties should note that a university system cleansed of social science mettle is the ground on which political competition is eliminated. A country in that state is poised for authoritarianism. It is imperative for that reason that every seminar, conference and student rally is protected.
(The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @SushilAaron)