Police in riot gear stand guard inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) after students were attacked in one of India's most prestigious universities on January 5, 2020 Image Credit: Reuters

In a beautiful world, students will not end up breaking each other’s skulls. On January 5, in Delhi, it was proven yet again that beauty is not a political ideal. On that day, under the leadership of a first-year JNU graduate student in French, Akshat Awasthi of ABVP (a student organisation affiliated to the Hindu right-wing RSS), beat up several students, including the leftist JNU student union leader, Aishe Ghosh.

The sad silver lining was that it was not a Hindu Vs Muslim clash. This is small if petty detail of mercy in a year that is likely to prove even more violent than 2019; more violent, more virtuous, and more ugly.

The ABVP assault, masked students carrying iron rods and unleashing terror in the university hostels, trended on social media and, ironically, added to the admittedly peace-loving Mark Zuckerberg’s bank balance; but that’s the world we have shaped into being: your tragedy is my career, your tears, my riches.

ABVP engineered-terror

The ABVP engineered-terror was triggered by the Student Union’s vandalising of the server room so winter semester registration would not take place. A few weeks before, the JNU had been in the news for protest strikes against a proposed hostel fee hike. The semester registration would have validated the fee hike. As the ABVP rampaged, the police stayed neutral. In Delhi, the police come directly under the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry, headed by Amit Shah. The lights on the campus were helpfully turned off.

 JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh is seen injured after being attacked at JNU
JNU Students Union President Aishe Ghosh sustained a fracture during the attack on the university Image Credit: PTI

WhatsApp messages and call histories showed the students had many times contacted the local police for help. But only weeks ago, the police had been accused of stepping into Delhi’s Jamia Millia University, where the students were protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (considered discriminatory to Muslims), without permission and taking aggressive action.

So the police excused themselves this time, they said, until the JNU administration formally made a request. This came late after iron met its match in bones, and new heroes of the day — Aishe Ghosh, for example — were forged in the evening’s fire, and another night crawled away, beaten and bleeding, into the deep lairs of the winter-night.

Delhi is going to polls on January 20. The incumbent chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal (AAP), is likely to win if forecasts are to be believed. In terms of perception, against the unceasing tidal wave of violence and unrest, he comes across as a saint. He is anything but.

In short, the national Vs anti-national debate in all its bloody glory is about to seriously start. It’s a dread prospect. If the BJP is aware of where it is taking this country, the lights going off in JNU on a cold Sunday is in keeping with the long spells of darkness in store.

- C.P. Surendran

Anti-popular bills

Still, with the BJP government at the Centre actively sabotaging itself with anti-popular bills in parliament and unbridled violence unleashed on the ground, Kejriwal has a fighting chance to stay on in power. That he is an unabashed populist — free rides for women in Delhi buses, frequent attempts at free supply of power and water, the kind of things an advanced state like Finland or Norway may nonchalantly consider — has helped to queer the pitch anyway in his favour. And there is no love lost between Kejriwal and Modi.

The last fortnight in Delhi must make an observer think. Why would a strong government that has everything going in their favour — except the economy, of course — repeatedly allow themselves to be caught in unfavourable situations? The JNU incident clearly showed there had to be some measure of tacit understanding between the police and the home ministry to slow down the degree, scale, and the timing of their intervention. Is Amit Shah losing it?

Political agenda

Shah himself would not agree to this conclusion. He believes he sees things clearly in terms of his political agenda. Perhaps too clearly. But the trouble with clarity often is that it is shaped like a tunnel. You cannot see what is outside the tunnel.

The Jamia Millia protests against the CAA resulted in a kind of secularisation of the Muslims. This was the first time young Muslims came out holding Indian flags and copies of the constitution and wearing burqas. The ongoing urban militancy on campuses has helped mobilise the youth — the next generation of active voters, decision-makers.

Masked miscreants armed with sticks roaming around campus, at JNU, New Delhi, Sunday.
Outrage spread throughout India after masked goons attacked students in JNU on January 5, 2020 Image Credit: PTI

If despite this trend, Modi and Shah ram through hard right-wing ideas, the polarisation might help achieve the consolidation of Hindu votes. But demographically speaking, it would be the older votes that the BJP would be netting. The young are on the other side. Which is another way of saying India’s future is not likely the saffron light at the end of the tunnel that Modi and Shah are so assiduously digging? In other words, their clarity could well be the result of partial blindness.

Goodwill hunting

Last week, the Modi government took a group of foreign ambassadors to the Kashmir Valley in a goodwill hunting exercise. The diplomats came back, luckily, unscathed. But such shows will be of no consequence when Kashmir assembly elections will be held sometime in the course of this year.

It is a safe bet that the unwitting mobilisation of the youth and the secularisation of the Muslims will come together to endorse a certain kind of Free-Kashmir politics. The degree of that freedom could be debated. But the debate itself is certain to happen in terms of the votes and image perception.

Since Kashmir in many ways is the crucial question — by way of religion, sub-nationality, separatism, minority issue etc — that India faces as a democracy, the polarisations are likely to be brought to a head. In short, the national Vs anti-national debate in all its bloody glory is about to seriously start. It’s a dread prospect. If the BJP is aware of where it is taking this country, the lights going off in JNU on a cold Sunday is in keeping with the long spells of darkness in store.

— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India

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