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JNU row: And they march

pankhuri zaheer dasgupta | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 19, 2016

Through it together: And when there is nothing to do, we sing songs of protests, we make creative posters, we recite poetry, we laugh and we rage. Pic: Shanker Chakravarty

After Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest, life in JNU is characterised by hostel raids and police presence while the students try to keep the morale up

On February 15, I had decided to go to court to see my friend Kanhaiya Kumar so that I could tell him that he needn’t feel alone, that there are thousands on campus protesting for the right to dissent, and free speech and for his immediate and unconditional release. As I was getting dressed, I reached out for the first sweatshirt I could get my hands on. By chance, it was the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) sweatshirt. I paused and I put it back. Wearing a JNU sweatshirt in the city can also be a provocation now, you see. Looking back at the violence that ensued at Patiala House that day, I don’t think my fear was unwarranted.

In the past few days, the campus has been under severe distress because of random hostel raids, police questioning, lumpens entering campus and hurling abuses at teachers, the apathy of the administration, and false facts being circulated both by the media and the home minister. Additionally, JNU students have also been subjected to an atmosphere of complementary terror in the city. After being thrown out of his rented room in Munirka, a frustrated JNU student stood for an entire day with a placard saying, “I am a JNUite and I’m not a terrorist”. Another was asked by his auto wallah, “Should I take you to JNU or directly to Pakistan”. A girl travelling in the train was immediately branded a “JNU slut” by co-passengers after they discovered that she was a JNU student. Parents, friends and acquaintances are constantly calling up to ask if we have become anti-nationals. They are worried, but also voyeuristically curious.

However, the situation is not all bleak. On the day of Kumar’s arrest, after the initial and justified nervous lull on campus, students started pouring in front of the administrative block. They were soon joined by indignant teachers still in shock at the brazenness of the Delhi Police. About a thousand students and teachers marched in protest from the administrative block to the north gate. Since then every day, we are marching, protesting, resisting and we are staying strong. The day after the arrest perhaps saw the biggest public meeting in the history of JNU; around 2,500 participants and speakers who ranged from politicians to academics to ex-JNU Students Union (JNUSU) presidents. As student activists, we thought, surely nothing bigger can be done. We were proven wrong the next day when the call for a solidarity human chain saw 4,000 participants. Every day, students are gathering in front of the administrative block in hundreds. We wait for our teachers to tell us about the progress in Kumar’s case or about what the vice-chancellor said in the most recent meeting with them. We wait for student leaders to make speeches and keep our morale up. And when there is nothing to do, we sing songs of protests, we make creative posters, we recite poetry, we laugh and we rage.

In JNU, as in every other campus, I’m sure, students frequently try to outsmart their teachers. Last minute emails for deadline extensions, parroting Wikipedia instead of reading the essays on the reading list, making up dramatic stories of family tragedies to escape work are things almost everyone has indulged in. Sometimes we are successful, mostly we are not. But an underlying assumption is that we respect our teachers. And this respect is not blind; it comes from the atmosphere of openness, of freedom and of fearless debate the teachers have created for us in the classrooms. Which is why my experience at the court that day left me shaken. Almost 50 lawyers barged into the courtroom, as I was sitting with the JNU teachers who had come to show their support for Kumar. While the one male teacher got badly beaten up, the rest, who were women, were pushed, hurled abuse at and told, “you breed traitors”, “scoundrels”, “this is not a JNU classroom”. I remember vividly a teacher screaming at the police to protect us as it was apparent the goons would beat us up any second. One of the lawyers walked up to her and in a menacingly calm voice told her, “We have not started beating you up now, we soon will”. I will never forget the physical threat that the right-wing goons in lawyer coats posed to me and my teachers that day. I will also never forget the bravery of my teachers who, in the face of impending mob violence, were more worried about Kumar’s safety than their own.

Let me finish by perhaps admitting what these teachers and student activists ‘are’ breeding on campus. Today, more than ever, there are students demanding the right to free speech and the right to dissent. Students who will not cow down before the JNUSU president is released, before all charges on JNU students are dropped, before the witch-hunting stops and before Delhi Police leaves campus. Young men and women are taking inspiration from each other and their teachers to ask sharp questions in the face of brute force and propagandist rhetoric.

(Pankhuri Zaheer Dasgupta is an MPhil student at the Centre for Women’s Studies, JNU)

Published on February 19, 2016
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