A year ago, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union presidential debate became the unlikely stage that launched a firebrand figure who would soon become a household name (and be remixed into a dubstep tune).

After being arrested by the Delhi Police in February for an event on campus at which allegedly anti-national slogans were shouted, the JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar turned his newfound fame to a call for progressive Indians to come together to demand freedom from casteism, communalism and a variety of other social ills.

With JNU's students set to vote once again on Friday, that call for unity lost much of its urgency. As the ground was readied for a presidential debate on Wednesday evening, ahead of the student union elections, the divisions were even more evident.

At one corner of the venue was a ring of supporters of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association, at the centre of which were three youngsters beating daflis and shouting slogans cheering on the group’s lower-caste candidates.

Closer to the stage were supporters of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad which, after winning one spot on the four-member central JNUSU panel last year, are counting on the support of freshers to make being them success in the Left bastion that is JNU.

A semblance of the unity sought by Kumar could be seen in one corner of the venue, the Jhelum lawns, where the Left coalition of the All India Students Association and the Students Federation tried to yell "lal salaam" (literally, red salute) louder than everyone else.

Absent from the Left alliance were two outfits that had been in the eye of the storm in the aftermath of the February 9 event: Kumar's All India Students Federation and the Democratic Students' Federation.

While the All India Students Federation has not fielded a candidate for the upcoming elections, the Democratic Students’ Federation is contesting separately.

United front

The latest push for Left-Ambedkarite unity at JNU – the latter are loyalists of BR Ambedkar, Dalit icon and architect of India's Constitution – came after Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide on January 17 had galvanised a similar banding together of students at the Hyderabad University.

At the Hyderabad University, the Left groups, the Congress-linked groups as well as Dalit groups had come together against the ABVP.

The dynamic was set in play after a complaint lodged by an ABVP member against the Ambedkar Students Association resulted in a group of students, including Vemula, being suspended in September 2015. Though the action was later revoked, the students were barred from their hostels in December and from voting in the university elections. Vemula’s suicide in January 2016 highlighted the alleged discrimination against Dalit students at the University.

In JNU too, Vemula’s suicide followed by the February 9 event, where it was the ABVP who had complained about the alleged anti-India sloganeering, had brought the Dalit and Left groups together in protest.

In the intervening months, however, this solidarity gave way to the handful of disparate but powerful camps that one sees today – the Left coalition; a strong Ambedkarite front; the Congress-connected National Students Union of India; the Student Front for Swaraj, linked to Aam Aadmi Party's breakaway group Swaraj Abhiyan; and the ABVP.

Students offered varied explanations about what has what changed since March, when the unity between the groups was at its peak.

“It was never meant to be [just] an All India Students Association and the Students’ Federation of India coalition,” said departing JNUSU general secretary and All India Students Association member Rama Naga. “The call was for a united front. When the others did not join because of several differences, it ended up being these two. A united front was the need of the hour, which demands saving the place of debate, the campus, the existence of which is being targeted by the right-wing groups.”

The alliance between the All India Students Association and the Students’ Federation of India is considered an uneasy one, he said. It has met with criticism ever since it was announced earlier this month. Students have viewed it with scepticism as the two outfits have previously been at loggerheads on various issues.

While the All India Students Association is linked to the ultra-Left Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, the Students’ Federation of India is connected to the CPI (M). The CPI-backed All India Students Federation was supposed to be a part of this coalition too, but Naga said it stopped rendering active support after its candidate was rejected by the other two.

Friendly Fire

Naga said the Democratic Students' Federation, an offshoot of the Students’ Federation of India, did not express much interest in joining the united front. V Lenin Kumar, a former JNUSU president from the Democratic Students' Federation, however, disagreed.

“Things were going smooth and there were talks of alliance till the campus rape incident happened,” Lenin said, referring to rape case filed by a PhD student at JNU against Anmol Ratan, All India Students Association’s former Delhi president, who was arrested in August. “We strongly condemned that incident, which I feel changed the political dynamics and All India Students Association no longer wanted our support.”

Lenin said the differing opinions among students on the February 9 event could not be blamed for the failure to form a united front.

At the event, some students protested against what they called the judicial execution of Afzal Guru, given the death row for his role in 2001 Parliament attack, apart from shouting allegedly anti-India slogans.

“We [Democratic Students' Federation] had specifically condemned the slogans to divide India and the martyrdom of Afzal Guru and later, the JNUSU also later condemned this,” Lenin said. Despite this, however, he said a united front had still seemed a possibility and was only ruled out once the alleged rape by an AISA member came to light in the last week of August.

However, Lenin claimed that the Democratic Students' Federation had chosen to contest only one of four positions in JNUSU's central panel, as a gesture of tacit support. “We do not want the votes to get divided among progressive fronts, which the ABVP will take advantage of, like they did last year,” he said.

Red and blue 

Soon after his release from jail on March 3, Kumar, in a powerful speech, had sought the coming together of red (communists) and blue (Ambedkarites) against oppression and injustice.

While one of JNU's Ambedkarite fronts, Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organisation, have been campaigning for the Left coalition, the more prominent Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association has put up its own candidates for all four posts. Presidential hopeful of the group, Sonpimple Rahul Punaram, said there was no question of joining hands with what he called the "Left savarna".

“If you [Left] want to fight for the cause of the Dalits, adivasis, minorities and other oppressed sections, why don’t you support them in fighting their problems themselves?” he asked. “Why is there no Dalit or Adivasi in the Left’s list of central panel candidates? There is an inherent class divide within the Left.”

The Left-Ambedkarite divide was prominent even among the audience of the presidential debates, when supporters of both groups indulged in aggressive counter-sloganeering as their candidates on stage sparred on ideological grounds.

Justice for Rohith

Differences between the Left and Ambedkarite groups had also emerged in July, when the various outfits were attempting to form a Joint Action Committee to draft a Rohith Act against caste-based discrimination in educational institutes.

“With them [Ambedkarites], things changed during talks about the formation of the committee,” Naga said. “We were confronted with allegations of JNUSU [which is dominated by the AISA] trying to hijack the issue."

Similar charges were leveled against the Left soon after the February 9 incident, with Ambedkarites insisting that the JNU student leaders were trying to make everything about Kanhaiya Kumar, instead of focusing on the aftermath of Vemula’s suicide.

Now, any hopes of the two sections coming together will have to be put on hold till after the election results are announced next week.

"No Joint Action Committee for the Rohith Act could be formed in JNU," Naga said. "Now the new students union will have to start [this process] from scratch.”