Over the last few years, Jawaharlal Nehru University has seen a struggle for control. Rightwing student groups pushed back against the left, traditionally popular on campus. Meanwhile, the Centre moved in, tightening control on the administration. It introduced changes that were seen as an attack on the culture of the university, which has historically been committed to social justice, diversity and intellectual freedom.

The storm clouds had already started gathering in late 2015, when students marched against the University Grants Commission’s proposal to scrap fellowships granted to MPhil and PhD candidates who had not taken the National Eligibility Test. Soon afterwards, JNU played a major part in protests against the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at Hyderabad University. Vemula had committed suicide after allegedly being targeted by the campus administration, which was seen as sympathetic to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP.

Creating the ‘tukde, tukde gang’

But the first major conflagration can be traced back to February 2016, when a group of students gathered at an event to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, hanged for his alleged role in the Parliament attack of 2001. A number of students from leftwing groups, including then Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, were booked for sedition for allegedly shouting “anti-national” slogans. Television channels soon aired video clips that appeared to show students chanting slogans that the government considered seditious.

At least three of these clips were later found to be doctored. But that made little difference in the public discourse generated by primetime hype – Jawaharlal Nehru University became known as the hub of the “tukde, tukde gang” that wanted to “break India into pieces”. It was the start of a conspiracy theory about a shadowy network of leftists working to undermine government and fuelled a trend of criminalising political dissent.

JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar addresses a crowd at Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi on March 3, 2016, after being released from jail. Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP.

Later that year, Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU student, disappeared after a scuffle with members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The case was investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation and then closed. Three years later, there is no information on what happened to Najeeb, although rightwing politicians frequently spread misinformation that he joined terror groups.

Administrative scuffles

These tensions were followed by administrative confrontations which usually divided the staff and student body on political lines. In 2017, the JNU implemented University Grants Commission rules that restricted the number of MPhil and PhD students a faculty member could supervise at the same time. It entailed massive seat cuts in the university, leaving many masters’ students at a loose end and triggering fresh protests against the administration.

Then the row shifted to attendance. The university management suddenly issued a circular mandating 75% attendance in all courses, which included MPhil and PhD students who have few taught classes. Both students and teachers called the rules unreasonable. In an abrupt decision, the administration removed seven department heads and a coordinator who had opposed the move. Departments went into lockdown for weeks, before the Delhi High Court reinstated five of the department heads.

As 2019 drew to a close, students and teachers found themselves at loggerheads with the administration and, by extension, the government, again. This time, the point of contention was a steep fee hike. For weeks, students protested against a “whopping 999%” proposed increase in charges for hostel rooms and other facilities. After protests, which were quelled by force, the government announced a “major rollback”.

But this apparent concession applied only to students below the poverty line, who form 40% of the student body, according to some estimates. And even they would have to pay Rs 150 and Rs 300 for rooms that had previously cost Rs 10 and 20, respectively. They were also expected to pay 50% of the Rs 1,700 now charged for services and utilities that were previously free. This for students who live on less than Rs 32 a day in urban areas and Rs 27 in rural areas.

The move effectively meant excluding some of the poorest students at the university.

JNU students protest against the increase in hostel fees in November. Credit: PTI

Blaming the students

Most of the student body opposed it, even members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. But on January 5, a scuffle reportedly broke out between members of the rightwing group and other students protesting against the fee increased. Later that day, an army masked goons raided hostels on campus and beat up students, including Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Aishe Ghosh, a member of the leftwing Students Federation of India.

Questions have been raised on the identity of the masked marauders. But at least three numbers on WhatsApp groups planning the attack have been traced to Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists, none of them currently students at the university.

The university administration as well as the vice chancellor, however, were quick to blame the violence on students agitating against the fee hike.