The manner in which a student protest against the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University has snowballed into a national controversy, with Central ministers joining in with threatening statements, suggests that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has two clear motives in raising the pitch in this instance.

As a short term objective, the saffron party wants to polarise the country for immediate political gain in the coming assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The BJP’s long term aim is to wean away students from the influence of Leftist ideology and advance its Hindutva agenda among the youth by presenting it to them in the guise of ultra nationalism.

Hyderabad redux

This is not the first time that JNU students have come out in support of Afzal Guru. Their protests usually go unnoticed by outsiders. But this is the first time that a national political party felt the need to raise the pitch and openly pressed action against the students who organised the event.

The unfolding developments on Friday followed a familiar trajectory. In the case of Hyderabad University research scholar Rohith Vemula, the authorities were spurred into acting following consistent complaints by BJP’s Union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya against students indulging in ”anti-national” activities.

Similarly, the Delhi police rushed to register a case of sedition and arrested JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar after BJP Lok Sabha MP Mahesh Girri complained about the protests on the campus. It was the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, the BJP’s student wing, which sought the intervention of their political bosses in both instances.

Home minister Rajnath Singh rushed to warn the students. “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared,” the minister tweeted. Stating that he had instructed the police to take stringent action, the Home Minister made it clear that the government would not tolerate any anti-national activity in the country.

Human resource development minister Smriti Irani’s reaction was equally sharp. Condemning the protests against the hanging of Afzal Guru, she declared, “The nation will never tolerate an insult to mother India.”

“I only want to say that today is the day of worship of Goddess Saraswati. Saraswati blesses every family that whatever they speak is for progress and strengthening the nation. Let Mother India be praised, ” Irani added.

Coming close on the heels of the Hyderabad University episode, the unusually strident reaction of the two Union ministers and the Central government’s brazen intervention in a local campus matter is a clear pointer to the BJP’s strategy. “It is obvious that the BJP wants to stoke communal passions before the assembly elections,” remarked Communist Party of India leader D Raja.

Two-pronged strategy

The BJP has been known to follow a two-pronged strategy in the run-up to an election. While the party leaders stick to the script and focusses on development and local issues, the foot soldiers belonging to its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, fan out into the interior with the primary objective of inflaming communal passions and consolidating the Hindu vote.

As a result, issues such as love jihad, conversion, cow slaughter and consumption of beef are deliberately kept alive to ensure that they dominate the political discourse. This was attempted in last year’s Bihar assembly polls when the Dadri episode in which a man was lynched following rumours that he had consumed beef, was highlighted by the BJP to spark a debate on cow slaughter. Unfortunately for it, the Bihar electorate rejected the BJP’s effort to play the communal card.

However, the BJP is persisting with this strategy in the coming assembly elections. This was evident from BJP president Amit Shah’s recent speech at a public meeting in Assam where he raised the issue of illegal infiltration from Bangladesh and promised to put an end to it if voted to power. In West Bengal, the party is targeting chief minister Mamata Banerjee for her policy to appease minorities. And in Kerala, the BJP has been working on an alliance of Hindu groups, which has even forced the Left parties and the Congress to focus on the Hindu vote bank.

Feeling emboldened after the BJP came to power in 2014, the RSS has been encouraging its political wing to use this opportunity to extend its influence and its world view across the country. While the BJP’s immediate plan is to add to its kitty of state governments, the party’s long term goal is to push its Hindutva agenda and inculcate its ideology among the youth to groom a new generation of supporters.

Universities have, therefore, emerged as the focus of its attention. The ABVP has become particularly active and alert in universities and colleges , RSS functionaries have held a series of meetings with academics and students to explain their activities while BJP leaders are evincing unusual interest in campus developments. The Rohith Vemula episode and the JNU incident are a case in point.

“It is obvious that the BJP is targeting Left-leaning students by portraying them as anti-national and anti-Constitution,” Raja pointed out. He contended that since it is difficult for the BJP to attract the youth with its conservative views on choices in food and clothing, it is using the nationalist card to whip up passions among the young and pull them to the party fold.

With universities emerging as the new battleground, the Left parties and the Congress are obviously fighting back . They are reaching out to the youth by pitching the BJP’s moves as yet another instance of intolerance and a ploy to put down dissenting voices.

War of words

The JNU developments triggered a war of words on Friday with the BJP welcoming the arrest of the JNU students union president while Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury and a group of JNU academics said this was a throwback to the days of emergency. “What is happening in JNU? Police on campus, arrests and picking up students from hostels. This had last happened during Emergency,” Yechury tweeted while the CPI(M) politburo condemned the arrest of students and said that an isolated incident is being blatantly used as an excuse to clamp down on the progressive and democratic student movement. “This has been a long harboured design of the RSS and its camp followers. This anti-democratic authoritarian attack on JNU campus, seen in the light of State sponsored efforts by the BJP central government to silence dissent in premier educational institutions, has serious implications, “ the CPI(M) said.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who made two trips to Hyderabad in solidarity with protesting students following Rohith Vemula’s suicide, condemned the Modi government and ABVP actions and accused them of bullying an institution like the JNU simply because it was not toeing their line. “While anti-India sentiment is unquestionably unacceptable, the right to dissent and debate is an essential ingredient of democracy” Rahul Gandhi tweeted on Friday and then landed up at the university to join the protest on Saturday.

JNU professors have also reacted sharply to the arrest of the student leader and the presence of police on the campus. Expressing concern over the threat to democratic ethos, a statement issued by the academics said “JNU has always been a university where there has been a vibrant culture. Excessive police action is uncalled for and has worsened the situation.”

While maintaining that anybody indulging in anti-national acts be punished, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi also said that whenever the BJP was faced with an economic crisis, it changes the political narrative into communal rhetoric as the human resources development minister did by invoking mother India. Accusing the BJP of intolerance towards dissent, he said this is manifested everyday all over the country, “one day in Hyderabad, one day in JNU.”