What Has Gone Wrong at JNU?

Grist Media

On Sunday night, August 4, the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) held a public meeting on campus.

It was held to discuss how, a few days before, a student called Roshni was almost fatally axed by her classmate Aakash, following which the attacker 'friend' killed himself by consuming poison. They were both studying at The School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies.

Among the various students who spoke at the meeting was another student from The School of Language who described how she had been assaulted earlier that very day on campus by a former JNU student called Abhinandan Verma. He had apparently developed an unhealthy obsession towards her.

Students immediately helped her file a police complaint and ensure the man was arrested; he has been reportedly barred from the university campus for the next 10 years.

"Anywhere else, the woman would have been questioned first, people would have asked her what she was doing," says Abhiruchi Ranjan, the student representative to the GSCASH. "In JNU, we stood up in solidarity with her."

But many students at this famously liberal university increasingly doubt that narrative of progressiveness.

The plot was drearily familiar: a young man, his advances rejected by a woman, launches a murderous attack on her. But the location wasn't half as familiar: JNU prides itself on being a campus where women can safely walk the streets past midnight - no mean achievement in Delhi.

As news filtered through that a student had hacked a classmate between lectures, the sense of disbelief was palpable. It was the last day of admissions at the university and student activists were shuttling between the administrative block, the hulking sandstone building insiders irreverently call the Pink Palace, and the various schools as they helped new candidates complete their registrations. It was through this relay that the first rumours of the attack seeped into everyone's consciousness.

Fights and fisticuffs are common among the undergraduates of The School of Language, where the attack occurred, and several of the seasoned activists at the admin block presumed it was yet another of one of those. Then more disturbing news came: there was a pistol involved, the woman was lying in a pool of blood in a classroom, the attacker had apparently slit his own throat after the assault.

"My first reaction was a complete blank. How is it possible to be so violent in JNU?" asks B Jenny, a student at The School of Language, who was at the administrative block that muggy morning. "You can imagine it happening in Munirka [a neighbourhood just outside the university], but never in JNU."

Both Roshni, 22, and Aakash, 23, were studying for a BA in Korean at The School of Language. There are both from Bihar. He died soon after taking poison while she remained critical for many days in hospital and is now stable.

In the aftermath of Aakash's assault, there has been much soul searching inside and outside the campus about the loss of its progressive culture. The conversations have been emblematic of a generational shift, as a cohort born after liberalisation and the depoliticisation of the student's movement across the nation, enter the university and are seemingly unaffected by the discourse around them.

JNU's culture was a product of an active student movement that mobilized the campus on issues of gender. Shortly after the Supreme Court ordered institutions in 1997 to take steps to prevent sexual harassment, the students' union agitated for the implementation of that order. The movement led to the formation of the GSCASH at JNU, which was then adopted as a model for universities around the country.

More recently, the JNU students' union sprung up to mobilize students and people outside the campus after the 16 December 2012 Delhi gang rape, which occurred barely a kilometre outside the university. For days on end, JNU students marched with others on the streets of Delhi, braving tear gas and police batons and forcing the government to come up with a tougher law against rape.

Ruchira Sen, who was the-then GSCASH student representative and emerged as a leading face of the December protests, credits these intensely political moments in forging the culture of JNU. But, she fears, there are also scores of students who remain untouched by all the politics.

"What makes JNU safe, what makes it different, is that the public will not tolerate what is patriarchal. JNU people have been changed by the GSCASH movement. That movement has shaped the minds of people. I can't say the movement has died - there was the Nirbhaya [December 16] movement too - but it has not drawn everyone," she says.

Four months after the December protests, a post appeared on the hugely popular JNU Confessions page on Facebook. The writer, claiming to be a student, described how he had persuaded a junior to come to his room and then date-raped her. Whether it was truth, parody or fantasy was never confirmed, but the banal tone of the post and of the responses to it were a worrying sign.

"You have someone bragging that they have raped someone," says Sen. "Even if it didn't happen, there is someone who someone who is propagating rape culture. We're very complacent about our politics. We think because we have a progressive campus we are sanitised of patriarchy. But that's not true. It's not measuring up."

In 2012, the GSCASH was faced with a case where a doctoral candidate attempted to rape a friend in a hostel room. Posters came up demanding swift action. But few of those were by political organisations.

Some saw in this silence an attempt to shield the accused on account of his political and ethnic ties, and later pointed it out as a contrast to the vocal stance the union took during the December 16 protests. The GSCASH recommended that the accused be barred from the campus; the case has gone on appeal to higher authorities, according to a committee person who declined to be named since the proceedings are confidential.

Ranjan, the current student representative of the GSCASH, declined to speak about the specificities of that case. She says that she saw in it, nevertheless, a success story: the system did work, even without fanfare. "You must understand why we decided to remain silent," he says. "What you do when you take out a protest is that you jeopardise the victim's identity. The woman was under a lot of pressure already, she was harassed to withdraw her complaint. That's why the campus political organisations unanimously decided to remain silent."

Ranjan also wouldn't answer questions on the number of cases that have come up to the GSCASH this year, citing rules that prohibit them to be revealed before the annual report is finalised.

A year in JNU costs less than the price of two coffees from the Starbucks outlet just outside campus, and the university's admissions policy works to include students from 'backward regions'. These measures have ensured that a diverse group of candidates are able to find places in JNU every year.

The standard route of socialising newcomers into JNU is through the various political organisations on campus. Membership, sympathy or even curiosity can give you a healthy dose of exposure to debates and meetings, all of which throw students of various backgrounds together. It is these organisations that form the institutional memory of the campus, passing down their culture from one generation to another.

And yet, there are people who fall between the cracks. JNU can be a confusing place for a large section of students, unaccustomed to the responsibilities that the liberal environment requires to maintain itself. Without that socialisation, the diversity can become a stage for wrong messages to be read in another's actions. As probably Aakash did, when he felt that his assault was justified for what he felt was Roshni's 'betrayal' of his affections.

"Because we do the same kind of politics that is done everywhere, it works like politics everywhere," says Sen. "A small elite group is the most vocal. People judge JNU and its politics by them. But politics and JNU is not only Lenin Kumar [JNU union president], it is also Aakash. People like Aakash are the underbelly of JNU."

This 'underbelly' is strikingly observable each time 16 of the hostels host their cultural nights. Across three months or so in the beginning of the year, student committees in hostels plan nights with names like 'Stellanti Nocte', events that many on campus argue serve to connect diverse people in an informal setting.
An activist who didn't want to be named describes the evening as venues free of the political correctness that characterises JNU's public spaces, where people can have "mindless fun." He seems to see them as an occasion where students can shed the burden of having to conform to JNU's formal discourse.

The biggest draws at these hostel nights are the Bollywood item numbers that students perform. Accompanying these dances are catcalls and hoots from men, emboldened by the darkness, the crowds and the anonymity.

To others, though, these events are only the most visible manifestations of a broader malaise. "The hostel nights aren't the only places where these incidents occur," says Anagha Ingole, a student of international relations. "It happens at the dhabas and around the campus. It's always there. What happens is that in hostel nights it becomes very visible."

Ingole, who contested the student union vice-president's post two years ago, points to the manner in which activists approach the problem. "Our gender discourse is very patronising. We just rule out certain kinds of people. To an extent we are elite," she says. "It is all about what women's rights are. There is no attempt to engage with men and masculinities. Men feel very alienated from the GSCASH. After the GSCASH movement (of the 1990s), we have been unable to catch up with the concerns of a new generation."

The men Ingole mentioned include those on whose faces embarrassment is palpable when, early morning, they run into a woman in the men's washroom. It is not uncommon and not against regulations for women to stay over in men's rooms overnight (but men are not allowed to enter women's hostels). Little has been done by organisations to reach out to men uncomfortable with the idea of sharing spaces with women.

A male student who did not want to be named spoke of his first days on campus. "For me, coming from a village, this was the first time I interacted with female classmates. It took time to adjust to that. Even now, I feel that JNU is skewed towards women and that men are overlooked."

There are also the men who haven't engaged with women or ideas of gender justice. For many, the GSCASH is little more than an administrative body for women; as the former GSCASH representative Ruchira Sen herself put it, it seems "a complaints redressal body rather than a body responsible to the student community."

"[Last week's murderous attack] may have been an exception," says Chandrabhan, a student of history. "But these mentalities exist. People come with their baggage and you can't expect them to change overnight, or even in a year."

This divide is not one of elite versus subaltern, as some have attempted to brand by pinning the blame for his attack on Aakash's rural upbringing or the culture of his home state Bihar.

As Aashique Iqbal, a history student, points out, "We must recognise the constraints of JNU's 'exceptionalism'. We're living this life on the vestiges of a past revolution and not because of any present movement. Our gender discourse is still stuck in the 1970s. We must understand that gender problems are not always sexual; but in JNU there is a tendency to sexualise them, as if everything can be explained as a result of misdirected male frustration."

There is a growing realisation that the university's culture and politics have done little to engage with those on campus who have been left behind. At the heart of the matter lies the challenge of forging a new gender discourse on campus, one that engages equally with the anxieties of feminism and masculinities.

Aakash's suicide note talked about his hurt ego after what he perceived as Roshni's indifference towards him - and as the implications of this emerge in our political discussions, there is a need to bring in men to talk about themselves and their relationships.

"There is a cultural gap. People come with certain ideas about caste, about women. Some people change. Then there are people who never change, who will never engage with anything," says B Jenny, the languages student. "It's not enough to say they are people who have old fashioned thoughts. It's time to make them talk about why they think that way. The question is: How are we going to make them feel that they are part of this community and that they have a responsibility to make this a safe place?"

CJ Kuncheria is a research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was formerly a New Delhi-based correspondent for an international news agency.

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