India’s biggest student protests in 25 years have spread to 18 campuses. Hindu nationalists are calling everyone else traitors, and this may just be the beginning of bad days to come, writes Shivam Vij.
The government of India is at war with university students. The latest arena of tensions is inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.The Delhi police have arrested its student union president and charged him with sedition. The last time the university's student union leader was put in jail was when India imposed an authoritarian emergency in 1975, suspending constitutional rights. Protests at the arrest have now spread to 18 universities across India, the biggest student unrest in 25 years.
There is no evidence to back the charges against Kanhaiya Kumar, the student leader, and the police say they picked him up simply because he was there while anti-India slogans were being shouted. The government even tried to link the leftists at JNU with terrorists in Pakistan.
The controversial event in JNU was discussing the hanging, in 2013, of a convicted terrorist, Afzal Guru. Guru had been found by courts to be involved in a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. However, many felt that Guru had been wrongly convicted. His hanging was kept in abeyance and finally took place when the government of the day found it to be politically expedient.
Questioning Afzal Guru’s hanging is, no doubt, anathema to Hindu nationalists. Some at the JNU event also allegedly shouted slogans calling for India’s destruction and disintegration. It is not clear who these were, but certainly not the student leader who has been arrested. It has been alleged that it was Hindu nationalists who shouted those slogans so as to discredit the leftists, but others say the slogans were shouted by students affiliated to an extreme left organisation.
Political affiliation is key
Regardless of whatever was said at the event, the use of the sedition law itself is an overreaction. A leftover from colonial times, the law was used by the British to jail Indian freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi. The Indian Supreme Court read down the law to make it applicable only where there was a danger of violence.
In the absence of the use of violence, Indians must ask whether the country is so weak so as to be threatened by a few people allegedly shouting anti-India slogans.
Both the government and its political supporters are upping the ante with overblown and anti-leftist nationalism. Virtually every institution and individual is being marked as either traitorous or nationalist. Since JNU is considered a leftist bastion, Hindu nationalists are demanding on Twitter that the university be shut down, and the demand to arrest "traitors" is trending on Twitter. One section of the political divide has assumed the monopoly over the power to issue certificates of patriotism.
It has long been a grouse of Hindu nationalists that intellectual spaces in India, such as academia and English-language media, are dominated by leftist elements. Since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the government has tried to install right-wing heads in many such institutions, the key criterion being political affiliation and not talent. This in itself caused protests.
But now the nationalists seem to have decided to go a step further, turning students into political prisoners and taking to vigilantism and violence with impunity, as the police often stand by and do nothing. On Monday, journalists, academics and activists were attacked by lawyers close to the ruling party. "We'll break your phones and your bones," they said. Journalists were punched, slapped and abused, called terrorists and asked to leave.
The JNU fracas has come in the wake of protests over the suicide of a Dalit (formerly "untouchable") student in the south-central city of Hyderabad. He took his own life after the Hyderabad Central University expelled him and stopped paying his fellowship, for "political reasons." The university had acted under pressure from a Hindu nationalist youth organization, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which is closely involved in controversies across many universities.
Distraction from failure?
The growing anti-leftist rhetoric and vigilantism is disturbing, but not surprising. It has been on the rise since the Modi government came to power, and has experienced a surge lately. The opposition and critics say the government is trying to shift public attention from its failure. The economy is showing no signs of a great turnaround, as many had expected with Narendra Modi coming to power. Despite historic low prices of fuel, of which India is a net importer, the GDP growth rate has increased only marginally. The stock markets have fallen to the levels that prevailed under the previous government, which was battling high inflation and low growth. The Modi government's "Make in India" campaign has not resulted in the hoped-for manufacturing revolution.
Defeated in a key state election in Bihar last year, the Modi government seems to have lost its sheen. Despite the prime minister's accent on foreign policy, relations with neighbours Nepal and Pakistan are poor. While the Hindu nationalists used to call for attacking Pakistan and accuse the then government of being soft on terrorism, the current administration has been able to do precious little in response to a recent terrorist attack blamed by Indian authorities on Pakistani militants; the Indian air force base in Pathankot was attacked just a week after Modi made an unscheduled trip to Pakistan to improve relations.
There has generally been a decline in freedom of speech and expression in India. Rationalists have been killed, the media assaulted and threatened, and now student voices are being muzzled. The government and its supporters blame the media for building an anti-government narrative, but the government has only its own actions to blame.
In his election campaign, Modi promised that India would see "good days." Now, it seems the bad days have begun instead.
Shivam Vij is an independent Indian writer and journalist based in New Delhi. He writes for a number of international journals including DW.com. https://twitter.com/DilliDurAst