When Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar walks out of jail on Thursday after being held for more than a fortnight on sedition charges, he will return to a campus with a new charge in the air.

Since the government cracked down on students for allegedly chanting “anti-national” slogans at an event about Kashmir on February 9 , a powerful wave of politicisation has swept across JNU. Students are gathering in the administrative block to #StandWithJNU, they are talking about it in dhabas, they are marching to Jantar Mantar in the heart of Delhi armed with roses. Politics in JNU is no longer the preserve of the various student organisations. It has radiated outside into the larger campus population.

That's evident from the activity outside the ad block. The worn red walls bear the legends “#JusticeForRohith” and “Indefinite Hunger Strike” in sketch pen on chart paper at one end. Murals of a pensive Nehru and Bhagat Singh-Sukhdev-Rajguru are at the other. Presiding over it all, an Indian flag.

This was where the retired General GD Bakshi on February 24 had hollered, “There is no way Kashmir can be cut off from our body. If you cut off one part, blood will flow!” As he made his declarations, students on the steps held up posters saying “Repeal AFSPA”, a reference to the brutal Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and sang Hum Dekhenge, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ode to revolution. This was where historian Tanika Sarkar outlined Gandhi’s ideal of a paternalistic democracy in a cool, measured voice during an open-air lecture series on nationalism. And on February 21, this was also where six students accused of sedition surfaced after days of being on the run and one of them stood up to say, “My name is Umar Khalid, certainly, but I am not a terrorist.”

The right to question

Among those who has been a regular at the ad block is Purnima Singh, a masters student in the School of Arts and Aesthetics who does not identify with any political group. “My right to question the state as a political structure is being questioned here," she said.

The energy has even radiated outside campus. “We are now fighting about issues that are larger than what you can provide if you win elections,” said Souradeep Dey, Singh’s classmate. “It’s not just about books, WiFi, hostel facilities. In the last two or three months, with the Occupy UGC movement and the Rohith Vemula protests, student politics has had to go outside the campus to achieve its goals.”

Shehla Rashid, vice president of the All India Students Association, would agree. The network of protest that was built around University Grants Commission scholarships and the suicide of Dalit researcher Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad in January has been activated once again, in the most intensely political moment that JNU has seen in years. It is a moment that’s being compared to the Emergency, when the university’s student leadership went underground, and to Mandal Commission agitations of the 1990s relating to quotas for people from the lower castes.

Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh

The JNU Act of 1966 established a university committed to the study of “principles for which Jawaharlal Nehru worked during his lifetime, national integration, social justice, secularism, democratic way of life, international understanding and scientific approach to the problems of society”.

Ayesha Kidwai, who teaches linguistics at JNU and was a student of the university in the 1980s, describes a radical academic culture crafted by scholars like Romila Thapar and Prabhat Patnaik in those early days, where “students and teachers were partners in education”. It was also a university that was committed to the idea of representing students from all regions, communities, social and economic groups. “So the politics of the students was not just rooted in the locale of the metro,” Kidwai said. “It took in the rural, the national and the international.”

It was the time of the Vietnam war and non-alignment, of the great student movements of the Left, which swept across the world. In India, it was the heyday of the Naxalite agitation, which seized a generation of students in Bengal, and of the Indian People’s Theatre Association that aimed to take drama to the streets.

Vivek Kumar, who teaches at the School of Social Sciences and studied there in the 1970s, remembers a campus dominated by the Students Federation of India, youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the All India Students Federation, attached to the Communist Party of India. The National Students Union of India, the youth wing of the Congress, faded from campus after the Emergency. Then there were the Free Thinkers, a group formed in 1973 to counter the domination of the SFI-AISF combine.

The politics of the SFI, Kumar recounts, had a strong cultural element that helped draw in even those students who were neutral. It campaigned through street theatre, which became a form of protest in itself, a resistance to “bourgeois” stage theatre that required props and sets and funds. It also had a singing squad. “They felt that poverty could be explained better through songs than through the theories of Marx,” said Kumar. He still remembers some of them. Jane Wale Sipahi Se Puchho Woh Kahaan Ja Raha Hai (Ask the departing soldier where he is going), ran one of them.

“Even the slogans those days were different,” said Kumar. “'Up, up socialism, down, down communalism' was a common chant. And the national martyrs were still claimed by the Left: 'Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh,/ We shall fight, we shall win', a popular radical slogan of the era, was often adapted to 'Rajguru, Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh/ We shall fight, we shall win.'”

A new language

Added Kumar, still remembering the 1970s: “Politics declassed and decasted people. It made them a homogenous, ideological whole.” But for all their grassroots sympathies, leaders of that time could usually be picked out in a crowd – students with the academic brilliance and English-speaking varnish of families long accustomed to education. “Till the 1990s, we had presidents who were fluent in English," said Kumar. “Those who could speak it could also influence.”

The end of the 1980s brought an important inflection point for politics in JNU. Several things happened at the same time. The university had factored its concern for social diversity into its admission policy since the 1970s, introducing “deprivation points” for students from economically and educationally backward backgrounds. In 1983, points for economically backward students were discontinued but in the early 1990s, deprivation points for other backward caste students were introduced.

This change in admission policy, which diversified the student body, had an impact on its politics. For one, it altered the language that was spoken on campus. In the classroom, Kidwai recounts, teachers had to respond to the challenge of communicating with students who could not speak or understand English. Outside the classroom, it gave rise to a new kind of student leader, someone who was a good organiser, who did not need to have a stellar academic record or speak in English. A large part of student politics was now conducted in Hindi.

The social diversity also brought in new strands of thought to politics on campus. “For instance, we hardly had any Yadavs before, “ said Kidwai. “OBC reservations brought them into campus and its politics now articulated the concerns of all sections of society.” Groups such as the Bahujan Students Front and the Chhatra Janata Dal made a short-lived foray into the university, and the United Dalit Students Forum was formed around this time, though it did not contest elections.

Second, the different strands of the Left separated. “The established Left was losing ground in Bengal, Kerala, Russia and China,” said Kumar. “The CPI(M) was declared the official Left and the need for a new radical Left was felt.” The All India Students Association was formed in 1990, a student organisation linked to the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), which has pools of support in Bihar, Jharkhand and among the Karbis of Assam. From 1992, it emerged as a significant force on campus.

“Their initial slogans used to be those of the ultra-Left,” said Kumar. “I remember they used to chant ‘Bhukhe ho ya nange ho,/ Kandho pe bandhook ho.' There used to be something gentle about student politics before but AISA changed that. With its slogans and hunger strikes, AISA blurred the distinction between student politics and mass politics.”

Piyush Raj, a member of the organisation and a PhD student in Hindi literature, said that AISA stands for the democratisation of the campus and the democratisation of society. “We work for the poor and the landless," he said. "In the years when there were no elections in JNU, AISA started a movement against corruption, from the Left perspective, because Anna Hazare was not speaking about all the issues that were related to corruption. We stand for women’s liberation and against caste oppression. We don’t see campus politics and outside politics as separate things.”

The rise of the ABVP

The third important development at the close of the 1980s was the advent of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, on campus. “There had always been rightwing people on campus but the organisation was started in 1989,” said Pankaj Srivastav, a first year PhD student of Hindi literature and a member of the ABVP. “In 1991, we started contesting elections and won one seat.”

The ABVP started out mobilising support on the major issues that shaped national politics in the early 1990s: Mandal and Mandir. It worked. In 1996, it won three posts in the student council and lost four others by a narrow margin. In 2001, the ABVP had its first JNU students union president in Sandeep Mahapatra. After that, the party saw a lull for about a decade. Current members of the ABVP attribute it partly to the rise of Youth For Equality, a group formed in 2006 that was ranged against caste-based reservations. It fragmented the ABVP’s support base, they feel.

“There was also a perception that the ABVP was patriarchal, that girls didn’t join,” said Alok Singhal, president of the ABVP’s JNU unit. “But we dissolved those issues.”

From 2008 to 2012, there were no elections on campus, which struggled to come to terms with the newly implemented Lyngdoh Committee report which aimed to curb money and muscle power in university polls. But in the last three years, the ABVP has made rapid gains. According to ABVP members, their presidential candidate won 350 votes in 2012, 550 in 2013, 800 in 2014 and around 1,000 in 2015.

“When other people talked of Syria and Palestine, we’d bring it down to local issues,” said Singh. The organisation takes credit for introducing ATM counters, WiFi and a job placement cell that brought multinational companies to campus to recruit students. “We also increased the money you get for the junior research fellowship and did away with Delhi University’s FYUP [the four-year undergraduate programme],” said Singh.

The resistance

The emergence of AISA and the ABVP saw a hardening of student politics and a break with the cultural mobilisation of the SFI. The wider audiences that the songs and street theatre had once commanded melted away. Politics was mainly restricted to those affiliated with the various student organisations. To appeal to the disaffected student body, elections were fought and won on local campus issues rather than larger political ideas.

The Lyngdoh Committee report, which sought to separate campus elections from political parties, depoliticised the student body further. Over the last few years, campus politics has shrunk in terms of both ideas and participation. Until now.

“I used to support the Democratic Students Union [a group that has sympathies with the CPI(Maoist)], but I grew disillusioned with the internal politics” said a final year PhD student at the School of Social Sciences who did not want to be identified. “I have not attended a rally in two or three years but now I’m trying to be as active as I can. It has made me reaffirm all that I believe in. This kind of attack shows how the state is trying to instil fear. The more oppressive it becomes, the more it politicises students in resistance.” She mentions the backlash to the Dadri lynching and the Rohith Vemula protests.

On the day that General Bakshi and other retired army officers arrived on campus to address an ABVP meet entitled “Ek Shaam Shaheedon Ke Naam”, she was helping make posters that spoke of the pity of war. War killed the poor soldier who was sent to the frontlines, not the generals who planned operations, was the drift of the posters. “This is a major moment for the Left,” she said.

Left who?

And there lies one of the problems of the current awakening. The entire opposition to the sedition arrests has been bracketed as “the Left”, a characterisation that seems to be encouraged by the Centre. It has resulted in a loss of nuance that allowed the government to lump political dissent with terror, communism with religious fundamentalism.

“No one has the patience to find out whether you are with the CPI or sympathise with the CPI(Maoist),” agreed the PhD student from the School of Social Sciences. The politics of a Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU president who belongs to the AISF, is very different from the politics of an Umar Khalid, a former member of the DSU. The latter didn’t even believe in electoral politics. While Kanhaiya’s organisation would never admit the possibility of a Kashmiri secession, Khalid would say it was a matter of self-determination, a choice that Kashmiris would have to make. But who’s listening?

The anger around the sedition charges have also been folded into the Rohith Vemula protests, which had led to a conversation on Dalit politics on campus. On February 23, students in the Capital marched in anger against Vemula’s death but it segued into protests about the recent arrests of JNU students. Many see no problem with eliding the two issues: suppression of an identity and the right to dissent . They feel the situation needs the forces of opposition to unite under the Left umbrella.

“And I don’t agree with the distinction you’re making,” said Shehla Rashid, the student union leader. “How did the Vemula incident begin? They were trying to screen [the documentary film] Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai on the Hyderabad university campus and were called anti-national.” Piyush Raj, her colleague in AISA, would agree. The government was caught on the backfoot with the Vemula issue, so it used sedition charges to brand all opposition anti-national. Besides, Left politics was aligned with Ambedkarite politics, since both fought against systems of oppression. And wasn’t Vemula himself an Ambedkarite Marxist?

But it is not a simple consensus. Members of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association, an Ambedkarite organisation formed in 2014, attend the sessions at the ad block to show their support. They are not happy, however, about the Vemula protests being taken over by the Left.

“It was an Ambedkarite movement,” said Chinmay Mahanand, who heads the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association and is a third year PhD student at the School of Russian and Central Asian Studies. “When it became visible to the media, the Left tried to capitalise on it. Vemula himself was part of the SFI but he left the organisation. We have major problems with the way the organised Left functions. It is dominated by upper castes who follow Left ideology but ignore the real Left. Dalits, tribal people, adivasis, these groups are organically Left.”

Many Dalit leaders were attracted to Marxist ideology, he explained, but had found that the organised Left was dominated by the same Brahmanical forces that they had set out to resist. And JNU, for all its radical politics, is not post-caste. It is felt in hostels, where students often choose roommates according to their caste or religion, and in the classroom, where teachers treat Dalit and non-Dalit students differently, said Mahanand. The university administration was also much harder on BAPSA than on groups like the ABVP, he said.

Kidwai had said that identity politics got short shrift in JNU; you entered the political sphere through your ideology rather your identity. Mahanand disagrees. “You are attracted to an ideology because of your identity,” he objected. “If politics were really free of identity, why don’t more upper caste people join Ambedkarite groups?”

But he agrees that the current protests have forged Dalit-Muslim unity across campus. Both, after all, felt targeted by the Brahmanical politics of the BJP.

What is a university?

As student politics journeys outside the campus, it finds itself changed and vulnerable, forced to make compromises with a hostile environment. Few people, for instance, have talked about Kashmiri students fleeing campus out of fear, or about their freedom to chant “azadi”. The forces of attrition have blunted the radical edge to JNU politics, some feel. “They have won the battle of ideas,” said Souradeep. "They have pushed us back. You cannot question the nation.”

Sitting at the other end of campus, members of the ABVP are in agreement. “It had become fashionable for students in JNU to hold a certain kind of programme,” said Pankaj Srivastav of the ABVP. “They will now fear holding these programmes. We hope the discourse will change a bit and they will distance themselves from these ideas.”

But then he is expansive. “We can debate capital punishment, but if you call it judicial killing then there is no argument,” he said. “We can debate the legality of Kashmir’s instrument of accession and the United Nations’ position on the issue, but we cannot have people say ‘Pakistan zindabad’ and ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’.”

With political parties jumping on the JNU bandwagon, there are still more compromises to make. Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal had addressed the rally on February 23, and both have now been slapped with sedition charges. “Without political parties backing us, we could be arrested in five minutes,” said Souradeep. “We need their support at one level, but at another level, it defeats our politics.”

Still, it isn't as if everyone on campus has been swept up in the protests. In the university’s science block, it was classes as usual. Anuja Gopi, in her second year of a masters in Physics, said their teachers would like to isolate them from the currents of campus politics. Their curriculum followed the IIT model and the gruelling schedule left no time to attend protests or lectures on nationalism. Teachers did not talk politics, she said, and students had also stopped discussing the protests.

But this encounter with the outside world could still be the coming of age for a new political generation. “It has forced everyone to take a stand on the freedom of speech issue, if not the rest of it,” said Hannah Johns, who has just started a PhD in the School of Social Sciences. “Students have begun to analyse, what is this space? What is a university?”

Correction: This article originally said Kanhaiya Kumar is a member of the SFI. He is in fact a member of the AISF. The error is regretted.