On the wall is a painting of a beaming Rohith Vemula. Below his face is a poignant engraving: 1989-Forever. Under the painting on the floor are sprawled around 20 mattresses, on which groups of students sit in clusters, work on their laptops, or stretch out listlessly. The days are unbearably warm, and at night sleep is difficult because of mosquitoes (also because of the blaring of patriotic and religious songs by a rival bunch of students a few metres away).

This is the site of the hunger-strike by 20 students of the Jawaharlal University in an open veranda next to the stairs leading to the Vice Chancellor’s office. The official name of the building is the Administrative Block. But the students call it Freedom Square, ever since this became the hub of protests in the wake of the criminal and administrative action mounted against a set of students in February. The students, belonging mainly to Left student organisations, are under fire for their participation in a programme to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri man charged with abetting the attack on India’s Parliament in 2001.

The facts of the dispute that for a while held the country in thrall are well-known. The stand-off is between a set of JNU students on the one hand and both the national government and the JNU administration on the other. A student protest meeting was organised by Left student unions in JNU on February 9, the anniversary of the day Afzal Guru was hanged. Television channels a few days later mounted a shrill unrelenting campaign, alleging that slogans for Kashmir’s freedom and against the Indian nation were raised in this student meeting. The Vice Chancellor permitted the police to enter the campus and arrest the President of the JNU Students’ Union Kanhaiya Kumar, and two other student leaders Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, under dire charges of sedition.

Public opinion was roused to be sharply, even bitterly divided across the country, between those who were deeply troubled by the criminalising of youthful dissent, and others who were equally agitated by what they perceived to be impermissible acts by the students against the nation. An enquiry by the Delhi government established that the television channels had deliberately doctored the videos and mischievously superimposed on the soundtrack of these videos some of the most offensive slogans.

Chaos in court

The three students were finally released on bail, but not before a mob of lawyers beat up student union president Kumar on the court campus. In sharp contrast to the criminal action against the students which could, if proved, result in their imprisonment for life, there was belated, reluctant and perfunctory criminal action initiated against the violent lawyers, and none so far against those responsible for doctoring the videos to inflame and polarise public opinion.

The students returned to their campus, their spirits defiant and upbeat. Thousands of students gathered to hear their fiery speeches in defence of their freedom to protest and dissent, their fervent opposition to the communal politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government, and the advancement of social and economic equality. Their speeches were first circulated widely on social media and then on live television, and captured the imagination and hearts of people across the country.

This brief Delhi spring, however, passed rapidly into an early, unusually hot summer. The university administration established a High Level Enquiry Committee to enquire into February's events. It has still not placed its full report in the public domain. But it chose to rely at least in part on video evidence that is established to be maliciously doctored, to conclude the guilt of the student leaders, and slap on them a number of major penalties. The Committee did not follow elementary processes of just procedure before reaching its adverse inferences against the students, such as sharing with them the evidence presented against them and giving them a fair chance to defend themselves. Some students were in jail even as the Committee undertook its enquiry.

The Committee charged that the office bearers of the JNUSU acted irresponsibly and that "acts of indiscipline were committed and certain norms of conduct violated by the organisers of the event", with "a deliberate attempt to mislead the administration about the real nature of the proposed event" and "wilful defiance" which "if it had further escalated could have led to a law and order situation".

It goes on to state: "It is most unfortunate that the organisers allowed the event to be taken over by a group of outsiders who created a charged atmosphere by raising provocative slogans. This act by the outsider group has brought disrepute to the entire JNU community."

Severe punishment

Based on these conclusions, the Committee proposed – and the Vice Chancellor approved – a range of high fines for 20 students. Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and a Kashmiri student, Mujeeb Gatoo are rusticated for varying durations. The highest punishment is for Bhattacharya, who has been disallowed from any association with the University for five years. Saurabh Kumar Sharma, the only member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in the JNUSU was also punished with a fine of Rs 10,000, but his offence was stated to be merely one of "blocking traffic".

The JNUSU decided to reject the punishments and demand their withdrawal by launching an indefinite hunger strike from April 28 at Freedom Square. The ABVP students also launched a parallel hunger strike at the same venue, just a few metres from where their rival Left students sat. They withdrew their strike after assurances from the Vice Chancellor, but they continued to occupy the same space, loudly relaying devotional and patriotic film songs.

The spirit of the protesting students was high, but in a while the heat and unaccustomed food denials began to take their toll. The university administration at first was petty enough to deny the striking students – including women – the use of toilets in the administrative building, but it relented on this after a while. Teachers of the university went on a solidarity one day hunger strike on May 3. I joined them for two nights, on May 5 and May 6, with singers, poets and intellectuals who were not from JNU but wanted to stand by their side, to communicate their solidarity and support for the striking students. Examinations were underway at this time, so the presence of students at the protest site was much thinner than in the heady weeks after the arrest of the students on charges of sedition.

The Vice Chancellor never came out to meet the students. On May 4, he sent them a notice in which he stated that the JNU administration "is greatly concerned over the worsening health of students who are on hunger strike", and appealed to them "to be mindful of their health in view of the extreme heat conditions in Delhi". But he soon shifted from this briefly conciliatory tone to sternly describe hunger strikes as unlawful, urging them instead to use constitutional methods of protest, as though hunger strikes are unconstitutional.

They students finally met him in a delegation with their demands that he withdraw all punishments. I am told that the first question Kanhaiya Kumar asked the Vice Chancellor was what he had eaten that morning for breakfast. The discussion became bitter after a while. Umar Khalid writes in his post, that the Vice Chancellor "while defending the HLEC [High Level Enquiry Committee] 'advised' the students to be law abiding citizens".

Khalid added: "We too have decided to fight this back. The hunger strike is not going to be withdrawn till all punishments are taken back." He observed that "they have decided to leave no stone unturned to make an example out of us, so that no student involves herself or himself in activism in the future".

A sharp decline

As the health of some of the students began to decline alarmingly, five were persuaded to drop out from the hunger strike. On the morning of May 5, when I visited the students, Kanhaiya Kumar was almost inert as he lay on the mattress. I joined his comrades and teachers to urge him to allow himself to be transported to hospital. He returned to the campus on May 7, but has been persuaded to give up his fast, even as he continues with his protest.

As I write this post, I have no idea where the protest is going to go in the next few days. The students are young, spirited and brave, and confident about the justice of their battle. Even eight days after their fast had begun, when we joined them for our solidarity vigils over two nights, they shouted slogans with enormous gusto, their voices ringing across the university.

But I worry deeply for the health of the students, as I do for their futures. One by one, the students will impair their health. If their punishments are upheld by the university, this will damage not just their careers, but also strengthen the case of the state against them in the far graver proceedings in the criminal cases of sedition filed against many students.

I worry also when I observe the way the persecution of the students in JNU has disappeared from the front pages of newspapers and television debates. But most of all I worry for the future of our democracy. This is not simply an internal dispute between some students and their university administration. There may be many who disagree with what some students are alleged to have shouted on that fateful February evening outside Ganga Dhaba in JNU. But do even these persons believe that students should be jailed and rusticated, and their careers and futures destroyed, only for raising their voices in support of what they believe?

Umar Khalid is right when he says the true purpose of this action by both the university and the state is to crush student dissent in universities across the country. It is a move to intimidate and silence youthful voices that oppose communal politics, corporate-led economic growth, caste and gender oppression, labour exploitation, and hunger and unemployment. The battle that the students in JNU are fighting is not their own. It is a battle for all of us. This is surely not a moment for us to turn our faces away.