Angry campuses become more volatile after JNU attack

Anger was expressed across universities in India over violence that swept India's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on Sunday 5 January as dozens of masked men and women assaulted students – including women students – and teachers inside the campus with wooden batons and metal rods.

With members of a student group affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) widely suspected to be behind the attack, many students and academics said they now expect an intensification of anti-government protests, already ignited by the passing of a new citizenship law in December, which is seen as discriminating against Muslims in the country.

Thousands of students protested on Monday 6 January in cities including Aligarh, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad and several southern cities, demanding government action against the JNU attackers.

The situation at JNU and other campuses was described by students as “highly volatile” in the aftermath of Sunday’s JNU attacks. With the build-up of anger, students are worried that campuses that have traditionally been safe spaces can no longer be considered secure.

For more than four weeks, many campuses around the country have been the focus of large-scale protests against the citizenship law which led to a widely-condemned police invasion of the New Delhi campus of Jamia Millia Islamia in mid-December.

Professors thrashed while shielding students

Eyewitnesses said the 50-odd attackers entered the campus on Sunday evening and even thrashed professors trying to shield students. At least 35 students, including two office-bearers of the JNU Students' Union (JNUSU), one of them JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh, were injured, some seriously.

Ghosh’s father told News 18 TV: “The situation of the entire country is volatile. We are afraid. My daughter has been attacked, tomorrow someone else will be beaten up.”

Hostel rooms and lobbies were vandalised while several vehicles parked on roads were damaged by unidentified people.

A JNU student, Chitra Aiyer, said: “They were not only wearing masks but some of them were wearing helmets also. They were shouting and attacking all the way in different hostels.

“We were beaten and abused by the goons of the ruling party. It shows how much government cares for students in this country. Their only motive is to destroy this reputed university,” she said, referring to the ruling BJP’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which JNU students blame for the rampant violence on the campus.

However, ABVP denied any involvement in the violence, according to an ABVP statement, and said the left-wing JNUSU was to blame.

JNU, whose alumni include 2019 Nobel Prize winner Abhijit Banerjee, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, is known as a centre of left-leaning politics.

Sitharaman and Jaishankar condemned the violence. Jaishankar said such incidents are against the tradition and culture of JNU.

Criticism of police

The JNU administration and political leaders, cutting across political lines, have denounced the attack on students and asked the police to take action against the perpetrators.

“Attacks on colleges and campuses are highly undesirable,” said Sharad Baviskar, a JNU executive council member.

He questioned “how the masked goons entered inside the JNU campus although the police were deployed outside. What were the university authorities, including the vice-chancellor, doing? The miscreants indulged in violence and remained on the campus for three hours. Where were the police?”

JNU student Aiyer said police who had been outside the campus gates for the past two months had not come when needed. JNU has seen unrest in November and December over a rise in campus accommodation rents and later over the citizenship law, with police frequently stationed outside the campus.

Other students said police had failed to prevent the attacks or to protect them from the mob when the attack was underway. Amit Thorat, who teaches economics at JNU, said he called the police a little after 7pm on Sunday but they didn’t come until an hour later.

Police said they received distress calls and maintained positions outside the campus gates but were awaiting “written approval” from the vice-chancellor to enter the campus. The police have been severely criticised for entering Jamia Millia Islamia in December without permission.

Opposition Congress party leader P Chidambaram, a former finance minister, said the Delhi police commissioner should be held accountable for the attacks on JNU students.

“It has taken place in the national capital in India’s foremost university under the watch of the central government, the home minister, the LG [Delhi's lieutenant governor who heads the capital’s administration] and the commissioner of police. This is the gravest act of impunity that we have seen in recent times. Nothing can be more shocking and shameful.”

A JNU administration statement released on Monday said that on 5 January the administration contacted the police to maintain law and order on the campus but by the time the police came, students who wanted to register had been beaten up by students opposing the registration. It added that a police complaint “is being filed to bring the culprits to book”.

Rival student groups blamed

The JNU administration claimed Sunday’s tensions were caused by “a group of students opposing the university’s registration process” for the winter semester from 3 January, some of them wearing masks.

“Since 5 January afternoon the campus has witnessed scuffles at the schools [buildings] as well as inside the hostel premises between the groups of students who wanted to stop the registration and those who wanted to register and continue their studies,” the JNU statement said.

Those trying to “disrupt the peaceful academic atmosphere of campus will not be spared”, it said.

“It is unfortunate that a group of students with their violent means of protest are preventing thousands of non-agitating students from pursuing their academic activities,” it read. “The JNU administration stands by every student who wants to continue their academic programmes peacefully in the campus.”

However, other students and faculty have disputed the administration’s version of events. Several students said the attackers were not from JNU, disputing a police statement that they were all from JNU, even though many attackers had not been identified.

The JNU Teachers' Association (JNUTA) claimed the attack was planned, seeing it as part of a perceived government vendetta against the university known for its left-leaning political bias, with students and faculty frequently speaking out against government policies.

“What happened in JNU is not a law and order problem or a clash between two groups. It was a planned attack,” JNUTA Secretary Surojeet Majumdar claimed on Monday. Majumdar said the association has demanded a judicial inquiry since the police or JNU administration cannot be “trusted” with a fair probe.

JNUTA and JNUSU also demanded the resignation of Vice-Chancellor (VC) Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar for not protecting the campus. Academics said the VC “at the very least” had a moral responsibility for what had happened.

“The JNU community demands that either this VC resign or the Human Resource Development Ministry as the competent authority remove him. Those who are trying to malign and destroy this university will not succeed,” JNUSU said in a statement on Monday.

The VC and university administration have been under fire for months, with calls for the VC’s resignation as a stalemate has continued between the students and the administration over the increase in hostel fees. JNUSU and JNUTA accuse the university administration of ‘creeping privatisation’.

Protesting JNU students say the hike has increased their monthly costs three-fold and have been asking for a rollback. The JNU administration defended the hike saying room rents have not been revised in 30 years, despite rises in electricity, water and service charges.

Campus tensions will become worse

But staff and students say Sunday’s attacks will make campus tensions much worse.

“The universities must remain places of education and learning. Such incidents scar students and there is a feeling of insecurity and anger among students, not only at JNU but also at other places,” a JNU student said. Other students said it felt unsafe to return to the campus.

And the tensions have spread elsewhere in the country, in solidarity with the assaulted JNU students and staff, including at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University and Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh.

These come on top of the citizenship law protests. In December students reacted angrily against the amended Citizenship Act, which aims to make it easier for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to become Indian nationals.

Students of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in New Delhi were brutally baton-charged by the police during a protest against the new citizenship law, sparking more campus protests around the country against alleged police brutality at JMI. Protests were held at many campuses including Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, Jadavpur University, Hyderabad’s Maulana Azad National Urdu University and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, among others.

Police have now registered a case and said that the situation on the JNU campus is under control.