“JNU to bahana hai, Rohith ko bhulana hai.” JNU is just an excuse, the idea is to forget Rohith.
The slogan rings out at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, drawing a potent link. It insists that the travails on the Delhi campus – the sedition charges against students, their arrests – are a distraction from the trouble at the Hyderabad Central University.
In a quiet way, the chant is also a reminder of an inconvenient truth: that the JNU movement has been far more effective in articulating dissent and gathering support than HCU. For many, the agitation following the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula still remains a local matter, something that is evidenced by the sporadic media coverage of it.
While academics from around the world expressed solidarity with both HCU and JNU, the support for JNU (as well as its criticism) was wider. Almost two months after the JNU row started in February, the insinuations of anti-nationalism against it and its constituents are still strong in public memory. Even now, the Delhi Police is reportedly keeping a watch on JNU’s left-leaning teachers.
Some of this, of course, has to do with the greater prominence of JNU and its position in the national capital. But, equally, this is about the different approaches adopted by the agitating students in the two varsities.
At HCU, trouble began with a scuffle between members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group aligned to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Vemula’s Ambedkar Students' Association. The 26-year-old Dalit scholar was expelled from his hostel after the central government intervened. And on January 17, Vemula committed suicide, sparking trenchant protests on the campus.
Just a few weeks after this, while the Modi government was still under fire for its handling of the Hyderabad University issue, the JNU row erupted. Sedition charges were slapped against six JNU students after an event commemorated the execution of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.
News channels and the BJP used jingoistic rhetoric to attack JNU, leading to incidents of brazen violence. Meanwhile, thousands came out, on campus and off it, to back the students who had been arrested.
JNU managed to stay in the limelight for weeks, partly owing to the Delhi Police’s ham-handed crackdown, the fake tweets and the doctored videos. But the Delhi students were also cannier in their management of the national media.
The students organised well-attended protest rallies as well as a series of well-publicised and easily-accessible public lectures on nationalism. They also mobilised scores of their teachers as well as prominent well-wishers from universities around the world. What also worked to their advantage was that a larger number of students were already engaged with politics.
In contrast, at HCU, the majority of scholars identify themselves as apolitical”, say agitation leaders.
“They think that the struggle for Dalit rights or our call for an Act protecting students against discrimination is a political match between two parties, so they choose to distance themselves,” explained a student with links to the Joint Action Committee, the group spearheading the HCU agitation. “This is so different from JNU where politicians, lawyers and their own students stood up for rallies.”
Added Nabeel Shah, a student at Hyderabad: “JNU teachers played an important role in sharpening their movement, but many of our teachers don’t really support us as vocally. We can barely mobilise 500 people on a campus of 5,000 students, which is what the administration is capitalising on and muzzling our voice by blocking entry to the campus for outsiders.”
While the Hyderabad students started off with a great deal of public sympathy after Vemula’s suicide, some of that disappeared over the last fortnight. A group vandalised the residence of Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile on March 22 when he returned from a two-month-long leave. Even though they faced a brutal crackdown from the police in the aftermath of this, the students were roundly criticised on TV channels for attacking property.
This is something JNU students had assiduously avoided. After JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar was jailed in February, union vice-president Shehla Rashid insisted the movement had to be peaceful.
“Our faculty, leaders and students who led the struggle kept reiterating that the movement should be peaceful and violence-free, no matter what the provocation,” she told Scroll.in. “What happened at Hyderabad needs investigation but reports of violence are unnerving especially when you consider the brutal police crackdown on students in the aftermath.”
JNU students who participated in the protests and continue to organise marches for HCU claim the Ambedkarite movement at the Hyderabad University is “too democratic” for its own good. While the JNU agitation was largely spearheaded by the student’s union, at HCU, this job is being done by a Joint Action Committee.
The Joint Action Committee is a representative committee of student organisations on HCU campus. It is coordinating protests, response and all legal work for those who were accused or arrested in the agitations.
As compared to the JNU students’ union, which has clear hierarchies, the Joint Action Committee has members with no specific designations. JNU students say that the JAC model isn’t the best way to drive a students' movement.
“The JAC model never works,” said a senior leader of All India Students’ Association, a left-wing student group, at JNU. “We were also considering going for a JAC which gives equal representation – which is very important for democracy – but we realised there is a need for leaders too. If most of our time is going in planning moves and convincing people, our response becomes too slow or too tame. The students’ union at HCU has been completely sidelined from the protests, which is not an ideal situation when you are fighting against the state apparatus.”
On their part, Ambedkarite circles at Hyderabad University are wary about the role Left parties are playing on their campus. They say the Left parties are trying to capitalise on their tragedy by sending Kanhaiya Kumar there to campaign.
A student of journalism who has been a part of the HCU movement from the beginning says there are clear differences between the Left outfits and the Ambedkarite community on the campus.
“The Students’ Federation of India is trying to hijack the movement after the Rohith Vemula incident,” he said. “The Ambedkar Students Association is trying hard to maintain its presence as a key player of the movement. We often see blue flags and blue ribbons being sported by Ambedkarite students as a counter to the Left politics and their ideology. But, more often than not, SFI also fights back with counter-sloganeering.”
The fault lines are visible – even to those watching from the side-lines. Those at HCU express resentment against JNU’s leftist tinge, while teachers who led protests at JNU say that the Hyderabad University needs to up its game of rebellion if it wants the Rohith Vemula movement to achieve something more tangible than some news coverage.
Even as they use different approaches, students from both campuses – and around the country – are sharing notes and experiences to figure out where this unique moment in Indian student politics will go next.
To be sure, there were differences in the JNU movement, but students say JNU was able to provide its strongest response because the attack was on a few students.
“There are institutional fissures in all universities and student movements come up all the time but we need to differentiate Hyderabad from JNU because it’s a case of complete crackdown,” said Avipsha Das, an MPhil student at JNU. “We were targeted largely by the media and we rose up to it because JNU has been moulded like this due to multiple fissures in the past.”
Das adds that the HCU struggle is an uprising of students who are discovering for themselves the “idea of a university”.
“We need to continue to support and stand up for them at every step because out there every student right now seems to be facing this fight from within about rights and wrongs of standing up for an idea,” she said. “They are perhaps at different levels of the process and this battle within is a stronger and more challenging fight than just solidarities that we are able to pass on.”
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