An Anniversary

Chant of the Masked People–I

Nirmalangshu Mukherjee

[Slightly shorter version of the piece was published earlier in EPW. Since the anniversary of those events are going on, it may be interesting to look at the original piece.]

Some significant events took place in recent months in the Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. As the dust on these events is beginning to settle, reflective evaluations have started. According to one historian, these were 'tumultuous events that have convulsed the subcontinent' ('From Institution to Mechanism', The Hindu, 8 April). According to another, they signaled a 'coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution' as 'soaring chants' 'rang out on the streets' ('Appropriating Ambedkar', The Hindu, 21 April).

From a less charitable perspective, there indeed were chants by both masked and unmasked protestors: as the official unmasked chants 'soared', they drowned the masked ones, as if by design. In the process, the ruling reactionary regime got what it wanted.

So what happened? According to reports, on 9th February last year a small demonstration took place inside the JNU campus to commemorate the third death anniversary of Afzal Guru. Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri muslim, was hanged and buried inside the Tihar jail in New Delhi for his alleged involvement in the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December, 2001. As the evening shadows lengthened, some young people reportedly made speeches and shouted slogans to protest Guru's hanging; allegedly, they also engaged in slogans and chants demanding freedom of Kashmir.

Specifically, it was alleged that, within the collection of young persons, some people masked their faces with cloth. It was also alleged that, during the demonstration, some people shouted slogans that wished the dismemberment of India; they also pledged the continuation of the struggle for freedom until the destruction of India. It is important to note that that is all that happened. No arms were displayed and no specific plans for turning these slogans into material action were mooted. At worst, it was a rather strong expression of indignation at perceived massive injustice in Kashmir.

Apparently, a rival student group in the campus protested about what they perceived to be "anti-national" slogans and speeches. As a clash was likely to happen, the Delhi police was informed. Subsequently, after preliminary investigation, three JNU students—Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya—were arrested. The JNU authorities also proceeded to take disciplinary action against 21 students including the ones just named.

The police action was located in a politico-historical context that has nothing to do with JNU per se, the community of students as a whole, the university system, the caste system and tragic suicide of Rohit Vemula in Hyderabad, teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar, etc. In so far as this police action was concerned, it was not directed specifically to crush 'what JNU stands for', the 'alternative kind' of students, if any, it nurtures, and the idea of "liberal education". To think otherwise is to unduly glorify the intellect governing the Delhi police system.

The police action was specifically directed at what in fact was the case : public display of support for Kashmir and Afzal Guru. The site of JNU was merely incidental. For example, on the same day, a small demonstration to protest Guru's hanging was also organized in Jadavpur University in Kolkata, and the police wanted to take action. However, the vice-chancellor of the university did not allow the police to enter the campus and a crisis was averted. As protests on Afzal's hanging refuse to die, it is conceivable that many such meetings took place across the country, especially in Kashmir, often in small public forums outside the university system.

More significantly, a very similar event took place in Delhi itself on the next day, 10th February, at the Press Club of India where people gathered to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru. Here as well there were songs, recitations, speeches, and much chanting and sloganeering for nearly three hours. Incidentally, the speakers seated on the dais were associated, not with JNU, but with Delhi University.

This meeting was formally reported to the Delhi police. The speakers were interrogated at length for days, and Dr S A R Gedani, a teacher in Delhi University, was arrested for conducting the meeting. Importantly, the entire focus of the interrogations was to seek information about connections of people in Delhi, such as Geelani, with the resistance in Kashinir. Since this writer happened to be one of the speakers, the police showed much initial interest in his work on both the parliament attack case and the maoists in India. Here was the juicy prospect of unearthing the shadowy 'mass-front' of a terror network linking maoists and militants in Kashmir with intellectual coordination from universities in Delhi under the very nose of the union home ministry. Unfortunately, the fervent prayers of the police remained unanswered.

Unlike the JNU arrests, Geelani's arrest was not interpreted as an attack on what University of Delhi stands for and the kind of teachers it nurtures. The atrocious arrest of a university teacher on sedition charges—for organizing an open public meeting in a very prominent place with due permission—barely found mention in the months that followed. Even though the JNU and the Press Club events were concerned with identical issues, the former was relentlessly highlighted in the public domain while sustained efforts were made to sideline the latter. Why?

The sketched perspective on the arrests—with Kashmir at the center—was largely missing from the very impressive public protests that ensued after the arrest of the JNU students. Consider for example, an otherwise fluent and representative recent article in The Hindu on the apparent rise of Ambedkarite politics in some campuses ('Appropriating Ambedkar", April 21). This is how the author, who appears to be a witness to the protests, describes the student movement in one rousing sentence :
Anyone who participated in the multiple marches, teach-ins and demonstrations that took place in Hyderabad, Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and elsewhere throughout January, February and March, following Rohith Vemula's suicide and the arrest and subsequent release of JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, will recall immediately the visually arresting sight of red and blue flags raised, waved and carried by thousands of citizens, and the soaring chants of a coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution that rang out on the streets, in the squares and on university campuses for the first three months of 2016.

The point to note is that the author mentions the arrest and release of three JNU students in the context of a "coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution" that apparently started with the dalit student Rohith Vemula's suicide in Hyderabad in January. The remark gives a distinct impression that the JNU students were arrested for their involvement in widespread protests on Vemula's suicide.

The author is not alone. Many writers and speakers have so depicted these events. For example, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU students’ union who was arrested along with two others, repeatedly asserted after his release that the JNU students were "targeted" by the government for protesting on Vemula's suicide and for sustained agitation—the occupy UGC movement—on the withdrawal of non-Net fellowships by the UGC. While making fiery speeches in the parliament, Mr Sitaram Yechury, on more than one occasion, directly linked the arrest of the students with Vemula's suicide to illustrate the government's repressive policies towards the student community.

Neither the Hindu piece under discussion nor Kanhaiya Kumar nor Sitaram Yechury in parliament ever mentioned Geelani's name while commenting on the arrest of JNU students. It was interesting to observe the leader of a communist party, wedded to the ideas of justice and equality, maintaining a deafening silence on the appalling arrest of a university teacher while loudly protesting the arrest of JNU students for exactly the same 'crime'.

Geelani's case was also systematically ignored in the dozens of 'teach-in' lectures in the JNU campus that continued for many weeks apparently as a form of protest against the arrests of students. The lectures were organized in the evenings in the open area in front of the JNU administration block. The area was temporarily designated 'freedom square'. The topics discussed in these lectures included concepts of nationalism, theory of Aryan invasion, Gandhi on Swaraj, Tagore on humanism, Ambedkar's vision of an inclusive India, lessons from Nehru's Discovery of India, contribution of Bhagat Singh and others in the Indian freedom movement, history of fascism in Europe, linguistic diversity of India, history of the Hindu right, neoliberal world order, political economy of communalism, feminism and the caste system, and much else. There was much fanfare, radical chants, and clarion call from the freedom square to change the world. It reminded people of the legendary sixties, at Berkeley and San Francisco.

The dark Kashmir issue was mentioned exactly once, and the spirited speaker was hounded for her 'aberration' for weeks; the case of Afzal Guru was not mentioned at all to this writer's knowledge.

It is also pertinent to note that the Delhi University Teacher's Association (DUTA), which is currently dominated by the Congress-Left forces, promptly issued a strong letter of protest after the arrest of the JNU student, Kanhaiya Kumar, S A R Geelani, a DUTA member, was arrested four days after Kumar. DUTA maintained a studied silence on the arrest of its own member for nearly a month before it issued a note of protest following persistent petitions from groups of DU teachers. Significantly, the JNU teachers’ association, JNUTA and JNU students’ association, JNUSU, issued statement after statement protesting the arrest of JNU students; they never mentioned the arrest of Geelani.

Except for a small group of students in JNU, a handful of democratic rights activists, and some teachers of Delhi University, Geelani's arrest was essentially ignored. It is difficult to miss the elaborate planning and careful management of the protests to keep the case of Geelani unmentioned and separate from those of JNU students. One report suggested that, despite demands from a small group of students, the executive body of JNUSU deliberately decided not to shout slogans for Geelani. The handful of brave students went on to carry a few posters and shout occasional slogans for Geelani anyway, especially during the third rally. The main 'soaring' chants, however, maintained systematic silence on Kashmir, Afzal, and Geelani. Interestingly, much of the mainstream media obeyed the restrictions.

Why did the otherwise strongly motivated left-liberal sections of the intelligentsia in Delhi prefer silence on Kashmir, Afzal Guru, and Geelani? Why did the regime crack down severely on events commemorating Afzal Guru. The answer to the two questions is virtually the same, in effect.

Since the present government assumed power nearly two years ago, it has been clear that, armed with a formal majority in Parliament, its aim is an authoritarian government embedded in a strong state. There is no space here to elaborate on the complex, evolving topic. The basic reason is that this regime has been catapulted to power to serve an inherently unpopular economic agenda. To serve the interests of domestic big business, rich Indians abroad, and imperialist powers, the regime will be compelled to further escalate the existing obscene concentration of wealth and the atrocious inequality thereof. In a formal democratic order, this can only be done by dividing and effectively disenfranchising vast sections of people to prevent popular revolt. Hence the need for a strong state under the supreme command of one chosen individual.

The Home Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, and the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, gave rather definitive indication of the intentions of the regime in public remarks around the events of 9th February. In one public address, Singh said,
"Anti-national activities and forces won't be tolerated. Anyone raising anti-India slogan or questioning India's integrity won't be spared. Government will take tough measures".

It is well-known that, in the context of a formal democracy, authoritarian regimes initially introduce their project with the widest available public approval. As this government has already seen, overtly divisive communal and fundamentalist actions have a tendency to backfire.

[To be concluded]

Vol. 49, No.35, Mar 5 - 11, 2017