At JNU, protest to further Left agenda hurts students from deprived backgrounds

Sandeep Mahapatra

The impression created by the “tukde tukde” has coloured the perception of the protest over the fee hike as well.

Binoy Viswam, Rajya Sabha MP from the Communist Party of India, in the context of the ongoing protest at Jawaharlal Nehru University, has made references to the RSS in unsavoury terms without any basis (‘Bastion of humanism’, IE, November 29). The propensity to link the RSS with anything and everything happening in educational institutions has become the hallmark of the reasoning of left-leaning politicians and academics.

Post the February 2016 “tukde tukde” episode, the reasons for JNU being in the news has worried an alumnus like me. In the age of social media and 24X7 news media, all kinds of labels have been heaped on the varsity. JNU has been vulnerable to criticism ranging from being called a “den of anti-nationals” to the university being accused of being a “waste of public money”. The negative campaign has gone to the extent of demanding the “shutting down” of JNU by some.

The impression created by the “tukde tukde” has coloured the perception of the protest over the fee hike as well. The counter to such a reaction has various facets, from extolling the virtues of JNU to bringing in the argument of its contribution to our national life, which are justified and need to be articulated at all available platforms. At the same time, we must also analyse the role of those who have considered JNU their fief and anointed themselves the sole arbiter of what is good for the varsity.

We cannot sidestep the role of these “JNU fieftains”, both inside and outside the campus, in causing the current perception deficit about the institution.

Protest and agitation by students in JNU has been a common feature. But a certain unwritten decorum has always been followed, even during a highly-charged atmosphere. Students always refrained from taking teachers, who are invariably manning administrative positions, as hostages to further their cause.

The fee hike protests saw this understanding breached. The right to protest turned ugly and some examples prove this beyond doubt: A woman teacher was unable to leave for 30 hours and videos have surfaced seemingly showing her being pushed and shoved by female students, a hostel warden was woken up in the dead of night and surrounded by hundreds of students professing the ideology of the Left. Such incidents bring a bad name to JNU, and many may even agree, rightly so.

What is even more worrisome is that the teachers body, JNUTA, otherwise a highly vocal union, chose to remain a mute spectator. So, the issue that needs to be examined is whether these so-called students of the “left persuasion” are being prodded to take this inhuman approach by the “JNU fieftains” who cannot think beyond the motivation of their writ running large in the campus. The country’s premier university has been shut and academic activities have come to a halt with these “protesters” locking the schools/departments with brute force. This has put a question mark on conducting the end semester examinations, supposed to be just days away.

Whether these protestors are helping the cause of the students, largely from the deprived section of the society for whom a degree from JNU could well be a ticket to come out of such deprivation, is something no “JNU fieftain” seems to be bothered about. It seems that all the “protesters” and that their handlers are interested in is to further their cause, clearly at cross purposes with the issue of a fee hike being detrimental to the deprived students. And it is this Gordian knot that needs to be unravelled soon.

What comes out clearly from the protests is the time-tested methodology of alluding to a higher cause to divert attention. If it was “struggle against imperialism” from the Seventies till the late Nineties, it is now the illusory “machinations of the RSS” that are set to “destroy the ethos of the varsity”.

Reams of newsprint have been devoted to this newfound justification for the protest without realising that facts prove otherwise. The RSS, through its many social activities, has been instrumental in providing education all over the country and thousands of its volunteers, many of whom are JNU alumni, have devoted their entire lives for this noble cause. Having been at the forefront of student activism in JNU, I can proudly claim that right-wing student activism in JNU was always independent and self-motivated and in the worldview of the RSS, this campus was and still is like any other institution of higher learning.

Let’s look at the facts. The UGC and HRD ministry have rolled back the fee hike and the powerful committee set up by the MHRD has asked the authorities to take decisions only after consulting the stakeholders, including students. Why are these students still agitating?

Being an erstwhile student leader myself, I am not against student activism or justified agitations. But one must also move ahead with classes once demands are met.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 7, 2019 under the title "The Left’s last gasp." Mahapatra is an advocate, and former president, JNUSU.