Latest phase of student movement draws new centres and sections into ideological battle
Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s latest claim to ideological victory in the nationalism debate seems to have a more timid tone than his earlier assertion of triumph. Earlier, while speaking at the National Convention of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) on March 6, he claimed, rather grandiosely, to have won the “ideological war”. His claim, made just three days after JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar’s release from jail, was based on the Jai Hind slogan Kanhaiya raised and the tricolor that was waved at JNU during his release speech. Interpreting these acts as acceptance of defeat, the BJP ideological general’s proclamation had the degree of finality one normally associates with the adversary signing a document of surrender.
Just 20 days later, Jaitley’s claims had been considerably scaled down. While addressing the Executive Committee meeting of Delhi BJP Jaitley continued to claim “victory”, but this time he merely said that it was the first round that had been won and that the ideological battle would continue. A very significant section to call Jaitley’s bluff was within his very camp.
The lieutenants in his army had been quick to realize that the students’ movement was far from defeated. As Jaitley was speaking to the BJYM, one of its district chiefs had even announced a five lakh reward for Kanhaiya’s tongue; another organisation offered eleven lakh for Kanhaiya’s head. Such calls and the wide applause they received from the Sangh Parivar foot-soldiers on the social media battlefield, could hardly have emerged from victorious ideological warriors. They rather resembled the reactions of the school bully who resorts to strong-arm methods to recover ground lost in an argument.
Violence on students continues and grows
Strong-arm has been and continues to be an inseparable part of Jaitley’s ideological war against the students. In the earlier phase in the University of Hyderabad (UoH), when the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was in constant retreat in the face of the growing ideological influence of Rohit Vemula’s Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), the power of government was brought into play to punish the students with a central minister branding them as casteist, extremist and anti-national. Students later protesting for #JusticeForRohithVemula were physically attacked by RSS members in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and other places. The JNU phase saw a cocktail of coercion: FIRs and arrests based on doctored videos, violence by BJP affiliated lawyers, Sangh mobilisation of surrounding neighbourhoods to attack JNU student residents. The latest upsurge of student agitation following last week’s re-installation of the UoH Vice-chancellor has seen brutal use of police, not only in Hyderabad, but also in Kozhikode, Chennai, Mumbai and elsewhere.
The widespread and growing use of violence by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar organisations, both directly and by deploying the government’s coercive apparatus lays bare the lie of the Jaitley claim to victory in the clash of ideas. No ideological victor needs to resort to armed might to seal an argument from which s/he has emerged triumphant.
It is obvious that the Sangh Parivar and its government is experiencing an unusually high level of insecurity in the face of the rising tide of the students movement and the unsettling stirring of ideas it has generated. Challenges to caste discrimination in academia, outright rejection of Dronacharya and Manu and the audacious dream of annihilation of caste; interrogations of nationalism and assertions of the right of nations to self-determination; determined defence of dissent and radical redefinition and re-imagination of existing premises and promises of democracy are all ideas which have, in the last two and half months, broken free of the narrowness of small group discussion behind university walls and have forced themselves onto the streets and into public spaces in ways they have not done before in recent times. It is this churn that the ruling party and its government are trying to violently put down.
New centres and issues of struggle
The physical violence is viciously one-sided with only one receiving end – the students. The numbers too are definitely stacked up heavily against them, with only a minority in the country being today supportive of ideas of caste annihilation, azadi and dissent. The David-Goliath face-off should have, by all conventional ruling class calculations been a walkover. Something however went horribly wrong (for those in power) and the students succeeded in turning traditional wisdom on its head. Rohith Vemula’s death became a historical rallying point that brought in an extremely wide ranging coalition of forces to demand #JusticeForRohith. While the motives of some supporters like the Congress were largely suspect, the Rohith movement generated genuine, active participation of a wide spectrum of students and youth from various regions, classes, castes and communities who are ready to not only fight against the immediate injustice, but also to carry it ahead towards the goals of social justice and annihilation of caste.
The movement seriously impacted the Sangh Parivar plans to make inroads into Dalit communities and appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar in his 125th Birth Anniversary year. The BJP, whose Central ministers were the prime focus of attack, was thrown on the backfoot and found it impossible to effectively tackle the challenge head on. The Parivar therefore chose the path of diversion by selecting what they thought would be an easier battle-ground – that of nationalism and the question of Kashmir. Their elaborate plan complete with doctored videos by crony media and sedition cases by a compliant police commissioner however had not taken into account the determination of the average JNU student and teacher and of the student and teaching community across the country to stand up in defence of dissent.
Broader and deeper student unity
After some initial “success” in using the bogey of anti-nationalism to divert and divide those standing for #JusticeForRohith, the Parivar plan was beaten back by a student unity that refused to see any difference between the anti-national branding of Rohith Vemula and the anti-national branding of the JNU students who organised the programme on Afzal Guru. At universities across the country, the sight of red flags mingling with blue amidst cries of Jai Bhim-Lal Salaam became the new nightmare of the Sangh Parivar. As azadi became the new war cry resounding at every student protest meet, it became the slogan uniting those fighting for various types of azadi – from azadi from poverty and caste oppression to the azadi to choose one’s own nationalist slogan or not at all. The green flags of Muslim student organisations are also being raised in protest as they join in significant numbers.
The latest phase of this ongoing Student Spring has followed the attempt by the vice-chancellor of the UoH, an accused in the death of Rohith Vemula, to sneak back to his seat in the early morning of March 22. The ones who planned this from the seat of government grossly underestimated the intensity and unity of the resistance to the VC’s return. Despite tough police action and even arrests in Hyderabad, solidarity demonstrations have been a daily occurrence in several universities across the country, often resulting in clashes with the police or Sangh Parivar organisations.
In fact more centres, more universities, more organisations and students have been adding their voices in support. The increase in numbers has also meant wider differences in ideological orientation with an increase in the criticism on each other within the movement. This criticism, often conducted openly on social media sites, does not seem to have however hampered the unity and expansion of the students’ movement. In fact openness of criticism and openness to criticism can actually have helped to cement a more mature and wider unity.
Meanwhile the responses from the other side have been marked by a lack of credibility and coherence. Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu have both recently tried to debunk the ongoing student movement as the work of a handful of ultra-leftists and a few Jihadis or separatists in two-three universities. Considering the impact the student movement has had on the country’s political discourse over the last two and half months these statements seem to be quite an exercise in self-delusion.
Just a week after the BJP National Executive passed a resolution stating that refusal to say Bharat Mata ki Jai was unacceptable, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of its parent organization, the RSS made a statement that the slogan cannot be forced upon the people. These confusions and general disarray in the face of an advancing students’ movement can only be expected to increase in the coming weeks.
By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira