JNU Attack: How Did India’s Unarmed Students Become the Country’s Biggest Threat?

Social Commentary

JNU Attack: How Did India’s Unarmed Students Become the Country’s Biggest Threat?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

T he biggest worry a student should have is failing an exam, but in India’s universities, students are weeping over the state of our democracy. Nowhere was this more apparent than in viral images from Sunday evening where we see a masked mob armed with sticks attacking students and teachers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. Questions have raised once again on the role of the Delhi police as students allege inaction. Some complain that street lights were switched off during the attacks, others say the police did not act promptly to stop the attacks.

The news comes a fortnight after the crackdown on students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia who were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. On yet another Sunday (Dec 15), a few weeks ago, the police entered the Jamia campus and lathi-charged students, lobbed tear gas shells. They barged into the library and hostels and allegedly beat up every student they could lay their hands on. Back then, a viral video of a young student sobbing with rage at the cameras trained on her, asked a pertinent question: “Yeh democracy hai.”

Since the Jamia horror, students across the country are up in arms, organising demonstrations and raising voices against police brutality and an apathetic government. Like Jamia, the harsh measures used against the students at JNU were meant to suppress dissent among India’s students; it instead has sparked off another wave of solidarity that is surging across India’s campuses. Around 500 Delhi University students and alumni gathered outside the old Delhi police headquarters on Sunday night, alleging that police in plainclothes assaulted students and at Aligarh Muslim Univesity a candlelight vigil was held. In Mumbai, students started gathering at Gateway of India at midnight and the protest is expected to continue all day. Within hours of the attack on JNU students, the agitation spread to FTII in Pune and Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

JNU Protests

Police gather outside a gate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) following alleged clashes between student groups in New Delhi on January 5, 2020.

Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

The widespread agitation is long overdue. Because students, despite being quite literally the future of this country, have been on the receiving end of a sustained vilification campaign for years now. And as the treatment meted out to those at JNU and Jamia starkly underlined, this might be probably the worst time in Indian history to be a student.

Spend even a week watching TV news channels, and you’ll find that the only thing the media loves as much as glorifying soldiers is demonising students. Perhaps it’s resentment at those benefiting from subsidised education, but the student bodies of central universities are often depicted as a lazy, hedonistic, and rebellious lot majoring in manufacturing anti-national sentiment. Who can forget the comical BJP MLA keeping a meticulous count of empty booze bottles and used condoms on the Jawaharlal University campus in 2016? This was nearly four years ago, and the character assassination has continued unchecked, complete with fake news and out-of-context pictures. This unfair depiction has resulted in widespread apathy toward how students are treated by authorities, and not even the shocking images of violence emanating from Delhi are capable of breaking the trance regular people have willingly called upon themselves.

Students, despite being quite literally the future of this country, have been on the receiving end of a sustained vilification campaign for years now.

Students, despite being quite literally the future of this country, have been on the receiving end of a sustained vilification campaign for years now.

Of all the central universities that have been vilified, perhaps none has been painted with as black a brush as JNU. The students of JNU are on the receiving end of more insidious accusations than just being called perverts or drunks; their student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Shehla Rashid were among the first people to be accused of belonging to the made-up “Tukde-Tukde Gang” (another favourite boogeyman of right-leaning news channels like Republic TV) and being “anti-nationals”. Doctored videos were released, with the intention of tagging outspoken, opinionated young students as traitors to the country. It’s a pattern that seems to be repeating itself. In less than 12 hours since the attack on JNU students, #ShutdownJNU has been trending on Twitter. A video from November 2019 in which Subramanian Swamy says that the university should be closed for two years is being widely shared on social media. Another video doing the rounds purportedly shows the President of JNUSU Aishe Ghosh, who has been admitted to hospital with serious head injuries, in the same compound as the masked attackers. Far from “leading a pre-planned mob”, the video clearly shows her being as surprised by the masked men as the other students around her.

Fake news continued to be circulated even after the recent JNU protest against the fee hike. A picture of a woman holding a placard saying “RSS Murdabad” that went viral was from three years ago. But fiction spreads faster than facts, and as a result our resentment toward students only seems to be growing.

At the fee hike protests, once again the students were lathi-charged. At the same time as the peaceful students’ stir, lawyers in Delhi got into violent confrontations with the police over an unrelated issue. The lawyers beat up policemen and passersby, with their actions caught on camera, but the police force still came down harder on the students. This contrast, as well as the way Sunday’s development of the violence in Delhi showed masked goons attacking students, makes it clear how entrenched this anti-student line of thinking is in society. For the rest, check out the bile on Twitter.


Demonstrators shout slogans outside the Delhi Police Headquarters to protest following alleged clashes between student groups at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on January 5, 2020.

Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has remained mum on the JNU attack and Home Minister Amit Shah has ordered an inquiry into it. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a JNU alumnus, said, “This government, regardless of what has been said the past few weeks, wants universities to be safe spaces for all students.” Her statement seems ironic as WhatsApp messages that trace the attack to ABVP activists, the students’ wing of the BJP, are now reportedly emerging.

Maybe the ruling party needs a quick reminder of history. Modi himself participated in student protests in Gujarat in 1974, and the BJP can trace its genesis to the nationwide student protests against the Indira Gandhi government in that same year. Modi and the BJP’s debt to student agitation is outlined in a piece by journalist Raghu Karnad where he points out that “Narendra Modi’s own website dedicates a page to the Navnirman Movement – in which student protestors brought entire cities to a halt with its ‘extremism’ in 1974 – and Modi’s own role in it.” Even Arun Jaitley made his foray into politics as a student leader.

Politics and protests have always been a part of student life in India. But what has changed over the years? How have we gone from patting the back of our students to beating them with batons?

Today, any student with an opinion, especially one that is against the establishment, is branded dangerous. Not only are they regularly demonised, but they also seem to be neglected by the Centre when it comes to allocating funds, as the recent slashing of the education budget showed – as if it’s teaching them a lesson. But maybe it’s time to not quell their protests but address their anger. We owe India’s students that much – because even though we promised them an education, this country threw them into a revolution.