To respond to the violence of 15th September in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in a dispassionate manner is perhaps uncalled for. We are aware of the pitfalls of demonizing the actions of a political adversary. As much as it drives us to a feeling of horror at what we have seen, we must not deny the social character of its existence. The impetus of violence in this case is an expression of a social force, demonizing it or morally dismissing it might make it more pathological than it already is. As much as it goes against our instincts at this moment- we are shocked and are in a moment of disbelief- this event calls for a critical reflection on the conditions that made it possible, and the modes through which these possibilities have been able to actualize themselves inside the university.
The counting of votes in the 2018 Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) election was stopped after an act of brazen violence put up by the members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Its representatives were barred by the Election Commision (EC) from joining the counting process because of their non-compliance of the EC’s orders. ABVP did not send its representatives to the counting process even after the EC had made three customary announcements.
This was followed by a brazen show of hooliganism by the activists affiliated with ABVP against the protesting students as well as the security personnel of JNU. The hooliganism of these activists is on open display in photo and video evidence. Previously, another activist of ABVP and former General Secretary of the JNUSU Saurabh Sharma was video-taped (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Agb2lCbaXVk) breaking the glass windows of the office of Dean of Students as well as threatening and abusing its officials. Such brazen impunity was again on display when ABVP members thrashed Najeeb Ahmed, resulting in his disappearance. While there exist eye-witness accounts of this event, today’s violence and Saurabh Sharma’s hooliganism has been caught on video for everyone to see. Yet no action was or will be taken against them by the authorities inside the University.
What does today’s violence by the members of the ABVP tell us about its motives and modalities inside the University? Besides the demand of unequivocal condemnation, their actions also call for some critical reflection.
It is clear that ABVP cannot advance in JNU on the back of democratic legitimacy. The Students’ Union elections that are held every year have categorically rejected ABVP’s politics inside the campus. The modes through which they seek to advance in this university have tested the limits of these democratic mechanisms. Hence, it is important to remember that while ABVP might be invested as a political organisation in the process of democratic elections, it has other “fronts” (like the Vivekananda Vichar Manch and the Ambedkar Vichar Manch) which routinely engages in activities from the point of view of furthering and consolidating its ideological grip within JNU. These fronts also get the active support of some faculty members (many of whom have been recruited or promoted recently by the current Vice-Chancellor M. Jagadesh Mamidala) to create the impression of staying away from the business of electoral politics (which is the domain of ABVP). The activities that they organize are purely of a provocative character which anticipates protests by the left-progressive sections, which has often resulted into acts of violence. The logic of these violent actions, which it would be a mistake to call “spontaneous”, is that far from trying to increase its legitimacy for the purposes of student elections, it seeks to de-legitimize the nature of student politics in JNU itself.
In other words, the impression that such violent actions of the ABVP gives ‘the outside world’, with active doses of prejudice from some media outlets, is that student politics in JNU is of a “degenerate”, “chaotic”, and “violent” character, where “clashes” and “confrontations” between student activists regularly break out, where the ‘environment of research’ is frequently vitiated by “politics”, and where parents worry for the future of their children’s education for reasons of “safety” and “unnecessary disturbance”. The image of JNU’s politics that such a narrative portrays is enabled by the deliberately planned violent tactics of ABVP and its fronts. The “degenerate” nature of student politics that it portrays is patently that which the ABVP itself practices. This organisation seeks to advance its grip through the very means of its own demonization.
It knows that as much as it indulges in these violent attacks, as much as it is able to demonize itself in the eyes of students, as much would it create the image of an overall “dysfunctional” university.
The existence of JNU for the past two years has faced precisely this manner of de-legitimization of students’ politics- by blaming it for the university’s “dysfunction”. The lack of the need to gain democratic legitimacy through elections and the presence of institutional sanction through a puppet Vice Chancellor has only meant that this right-wing organisation has been able to advance itself precisely through measures which disturb and shock the sensibilities associated with democracy. They do not practice it simply because they do not need to. They have learnt the crucial lesson of de-legitimizing the very democratic process which has so far given them next to no space. Their sheer dependence on violence and the shock-value it generates is not intended to gain legitimacy from students in preparation for the next elections. It is rather towards portraying JNU’s student politics itself in a degenerate light in an attempt to de-legitimize it.
The cancellation of students’ union elections in universities happens on the back of a narrative of hooliganism, violence and a degeneration of academic environment. Today’s violence is one among many such acts by right-wing organisations in the campus which lend credibility to such a narrative. And what is this narrative aiming for? It aims for an overall administrative takeover of the university itself, so that political organisations which are closer to the administration can call the shots in crucial decision-making. Such an administrative takeover has already been nearly achieved in JNU, where the students coming from the marginalized sections have suffered the most. Such decisions have been embroiled in the process of facilitating the scuttling of reservation policies and of privatizing this public university. Acts of violence by ABVP should be understood in this context- they are aimed towards the elimination of the only mode of resistance against this administrative takeover, which is the democratic mandate of organised students’ politics.
Ankit Kawade is a student of politics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.