On Thursday, as Union minister Babul Supriyo entered Kolkata’s Jadavpur University on an invitation from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the campus burst into disorder. Some students heckled the minister. Both sides blamed each other for provoking violence.
The fracas ended with Supriyo being escorted out of the complex by the state governor and his security detail, even as members of the BJP student wing set fire to cycles and tyres in front of the university gate and ransacked the student union office.
Worse was to follow. The next day, Dilip Ghosh, the West Bengal head of the BJP, threatened the students of Jadavpur with violence. “The Jadavpur University campus is a hub of anti-national and communist activities,” said Ghosh “Just like our security forces conducted surgical strike to destroy terror camps in Pakistan, our cadres will also carry out the same type of surgical strike to destroy anti-national hubs in JU campus.”
Other BJP leaders stoked the tension. “Leftist mercenaries of Jadavpur University should be beaten up black and blue,” General Secretary of the BJP in West Bengal Sayantan Basu said.
No matter what the provocation, it is a sign of how ugly politics has become in India that the BJP – the ruling party at the Centre and the main Opposition party in West Bengal – is now equating college students with terrorists from Pakistan and threatening to assault them.
This is not the first time this has happened. In New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016, for example, the BJP and media outlets sympathetic to it accused students of sedition over claims that allegedly anti-national slogans had been chanted during an event. Among those alleged to have shouted this slogan was student union president Kanhaiya Kumar.
While the actual charges were never proved, the BJP used the incident to push a hard, muscular form of Indian nationalism that would brook no dissent. The Jawaharlal Nehru University fracas gave the BJP and modern Hindutva one of its most popular coinages, the “tukde tukde gang” or “Breaking India gang”, a facile handle with which it tarred its opponents as people who wanted to balkanise India.
This narrative was a political success, helping the party lay claim to being the only real protector of Indian nationalism, which is now defined by a stark rightwards tilt. Three years after the Jawaharlal Nehru University incident, the BJP fought the 2019 Lok Sabha election on this same jingoist platform and swept the polls. Emblematic of how thoroughly BJP had won the narrative war, the Hindutva party’s candidate crushed Kanhaiya Kumar by more than 4 lakh votes in the Begusarai Lok Sabha seat.
While this strategy might have helped the BJP electorally, it is dangerous for India. If the ruling party refuses to allow free thought and dissent even in universities, our democracy is in trouble. The BJP should do its politics but allow students to question everything – especially its policies.