By Shiva Chopra
violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) a few weeks ago is a disgrace to any democratic society. Goons from outside unleashed havoc on the campus for hours, brutally beating up students and teachers, men and women alike. As the violence unfolded, a mob gathered at the university’s main gate, inciting violence against JNU students, disturbing and even beating journalists and activists.
More than 50 masked men, armed with rods, sticks and sledgehammers, have reportedly entered the campus. They ran amok, attacked teachers and students and destroyed property. More than 30 students have been wounded including the students ‘ union president of the varsity. Several faculty members suffered injuries, too.
The attack last month took JNU’s intimidation to a completely different level. This spiral started three years ago, when police arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the then president of JNUSU, and two others, on a sedition charge. A charge sheet in the trial is still to be filed. JNU has since been met with relentless vilification, bullying and sporadic aggression. The attack last month was the biggest, but not the first. While the so-called nationalists have attempted to portray JNU as a hub of “anti-nationals,” the JNU administration has continuously pushed students and teachers against the wall while undermining all democratic forums within the university.
The latest in this cycle is the fee hike declared last year, which caused massive protests both in and out of campus, so much so that the Human Resource Development Ministry (HRD) had to set up a committee to speak to the JNU Students ‘ Union (JNUSU). The Vice-Chancellor has not conversed with the faculty for quite a long time now. The statement made by the JNU administration about last month’s incidents is a cynical attempt to portray the anti-fee hike protesters as the villains behind the violence, which is completely against most students and teachers ‘ version.
The attack on JNU has stirred up a vigorous debate on law enforcement at our colleges and other higher learning institutes. Under the current arrangement, police can not enter a university’s premises without the express permission of their vice-chancellor or functional head. Many views have been expressed against this restriction, given the delay it could cause in stopping violence. However while strict enforcement of the law under the watchful eye of officers may seem like a fix, it would be unwise to have police personnel on campuses. By definition, Varsities are intellectual enclaves that give freedom of speech and open debates on any and every issue that thinkers can wrap their minds around. If security fortifications give them a regimental smell, students might become uncomfortable. These are places for these young men and women to think and speak without caring about adverse consequences, and it is vital that everyone is at ease for serious discussions to take place and ideas to arise.
One can judge a democracy’s efficiency by the strength of its academic culture— the more argumentative it is, the stronger. Based on this, the JNU excels and ranks among the country’s top performers. But if the university is to retain what it seems most proud of, the opportunity it provides to young Indians to participate in debates with diverse perspectives, the students need to take the lead in upholding its values.
Everyone doesn’t always have to agree with everything JNU students say and demand. But as long as they are democratic and non-violent, which JNU has always been, they should always have the right to say what they want. The treatment of JNU students last month is proof that we are living in an age in which ideological differences in places of learning will be crushed with brute force and the state will remain a bystander at best. A society that condones violence against its universities is just accepting the destruction of its future.