Guest Post by Pallavi Paul
As I comb through the deluge of responses and opinions that have been circulating on television, social media, newspapers and conversations over the arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, there is one particular fear that sticks out repeatedly. The fear of JNU being a ‘transformative’ space. Where young and innocent minds are changed. The question that follows then is- changed into what? Even as we see ABVP students vociferously defending police action on all media platforms, the Sanskrit department continuing with classes in spite of the call for strike in support of Kanhaiya and faculty members like Hari Ram Mishra (CSS) issuing media statements against the student agitation currently underway- the simple formula that JNU transforms its students into ‘anti-national’ elements (going by the current interpretation of the term) begins to appear erroneous. In addition to having a culture of critical thinking, debate, questioning and radical left politics – JNU has also had an equally dynamic history of Hindutva and Brahaminical politics. For every protest on Afsal Guru there is a Guru Dakhshina Karyakram, for every Sitaram Yechury addressing students there is an Ashok Singhal (who visited the campus in 2002 even amidst intense protests). This fear then, if seen clearly begins to appear more and more abstract. It bases itself on a ‘sense’ of the campus- rather than its actual political fiber. Infact if one hears carefully it is the larger fear of things changing, things changing irreversibly.
As a JNU student, I have to admit that things do change on this campus, however, in very different ways than what is imagined in the venal outpourings of television anchors, BJP leaders and senior police officers. In a an interview Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan who has also recently been identified as anti-national owing to his comments on intolerance in the country, had said- “There’s no place to romance in Mumbai…in Delhi you can go to Jawahar Lal Nehru University”. On valentine’s day even as several thousands of us from distinct political affiliations, generations and histories made the most glorious human chain extending from Ganga Dhaba to Chandrabhaga hostel, I couldn’t help but think about the many forms of love that were threading through this multitude. As parents, children, lovers, former lovers, friends, rivals, peers locked their hands in a show of support against repression, the atmosphere lit up with warmth and hope. This campus has changed how I see love, having been both embraced by some loves and abandoned by some others- it opened up for me the most disruptive of all forces. It is this love that vapourizes, becomes one with the air and creates a ‘sense’ of what JNU seems to be. When two lovers (who may not even be JNU students), have no other safe haven in the city other than Parthasarthy rocks and enter JNU gates after 10pm they see not ABVP, AISA , NSUI or SFI, but young men and women engaged in animated conversations. They see a space of freedom, where there is no one to police them or ask them questions about their whereabouts or intentions. They see a space where they can stop worrying about outer perceptions and think about their inner lives, over hot chai, noodles, momos and paranthas all within a budget of a hundred rupees.
In other words, JNU still reverberates with life. This would have been impossible if just one brand of politics would have been legitimized without any questioning or challenges. Both the radical left and the radical right have to campaign hard in every election, they all have to hold several public meetings, fight for their agendas and pressurize the administration to give into demands, paint their posters, circulate their ‘parchas’, make and remake their slogans, and keep them echoing across the university- without this culture of debate, where no ideology can presume its own dominance- there would be no place for love to blossom.
Today as we see the campus on the brink of militarization, with police raiding hostels on one hand and the likes of Sadhvi Prachi trying to enter the campus on another- it is the space for love which has become most vulnerable. The lack of love or “disaffection” towards the state with a view to incite violence has been made the grounds for Kanhaiya’s arrest. In a recorded speech made shortly before his arrest Kanhaiya is seen explicitly talking about love- love for the poor, for the weak, for toiling majority of this country. He is seen saying that we all belong to this land, and that we will continue to fight for the rights of those who too belong here. These words did incite violence, but not from the students he was addressing. The violence came from the Delhi Police, from the lawyers who beat up and manhandled JNU teachers and students at Patiala House courts as the police simply watched on, from the BJP MLA who openly declared on television that it would be perfectly acceptable not only to beat but also to kill all those standing in support of Kanhaiya Kumar. The violence came from the Home Minister himself who made unsubstantiated links between Hafiz Saeed and JNU students and even when proved wrong, did not tend as much as an apology to the country. The violence came from those goons who attacked the office of the Communist Party and are now sending threatening messages and calls to those leaders who had expressed solidarity with the students.
Finally whether or not slogans in support of Afzal Guru and Kashmiri people were made by any JNU student remains wholly unclear in the absence of any concrete evidence. Not being able to pin Kanhaiya down on any other account, the question being flung around is- why did he not gag those chanting these slogans? This expectation of censorship from the leader of a student’s body that always made space for debate and dissenting voices, can only come from those who are unable to see beyond hate and vengeance. Gagging any opinion, no matter how contrary to his individual political beliefs would be a miscarriage of the democratic ethos of the campus. ABVP which is currently demanding an explanation for Kanhaiya’s inability to gag ‘anti- national’ slogans , should be asked whether they would have accepted the JNUSU president gagging slogans like -“Pukarta hai Bharat, pukaarti maa Bhaarati/ Khoon se tilak karenge, goliyon se aarti” [India calls out, Mother India calls out, We will anoint our foreheads with blood and worship our mother land with bullets] which he would have found equally objectionable?
Universities are spaces where everyone, no matter how extreme or radical in their beliefs should be allowed to voice their opinions or concerns, without the fear of being lynched, jailed or persecuted. It is only then that a healthy atmosphere of debate and discourse can be created. It is only then that people can find themselves deeply transformed and not repressed – not ticking time bombs waiting to explode into violence and hatred at the slightest provocation.
Clearly it is this transformation and not any other kind that terrifies those that have jailed Kanhaiya and are on a witch hunt for the rest.
Pallavi Paul is a filmmaker and a PhD candidate at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.