What beating up an ABVP supporter taught me about student politics

Omair Ahmad
Omair AhmadJan 23, 2016 | 19:52

What beating up an ABVP supporter taught me about student politics

I was introduced early on to student politics when I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for a Masters in International Studies. The various political parties had their stalls set out near the registration centre, with vibrant posters on the walls, and volunteers willing to help you fill out your forms.

It was amusing, and for me, slightly different.

I had just finished my BA (Hindi medium) from DAV Degree College, in Gorakhpur, after flunking out of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) for missing my classes and exams. I had not seen much of politics, but what I had seen involved countrymade pistols, foolishness, and a great deal of violence.


AMU had been, in the mid-1990s, deeply influenced by the criminals associated with Uttar Pradesh (UP) politics, in particular DP Yadav. Gorakhpur's students had very less prospects for jobs as industries were closing down, and the thuggish gang politics of VP Shahi, Amarmani Tripathi, Harishankar Tiwari, and the newcomer, Yogi Adityanath, marked the scene.

AMU's politics was more show than anything else, while Gorakhpur's involved bombs and Kalashnikovs. I remember a scene at my college where one group of boys beat another with cricket wickets until the wickets broke.

Having had my fill of running with the wrong crowd, and having the paid the price, I looked at JNU as a chance of salvation. Having secured 7th place in the general category, I had no desire to endanger my education a second time.

Nevertheless, politics intruded.

At first it was relatively benign. Since I did not fall under any quota, even a 7th place meant that I was not eligible for a hostel room for a few months. A member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) offered to host me - and a few others - in his room.

It was like an overfilled railway compartment at night, but hey, we got a place to sleep. I did my studying in the canteen, not realising I was freaking out people when I lugged half a dozen books and spent hours reading them in a place where people were more busy socialising.


While I was grateful to the SFI person, I was not willing to join a political party merely for kindness. Nevertheless it created a certain bond. A year later he went on a hunger strike with other JNU students to protest the lack of hostel accommodation. I dropped by to see him, and wish him well, as the Vice-Chancellor's office was on the way between my hostel and the library. I thought the strike was a bit foolish as his health deteriorated.

The NDA government had been in power barely a year, and the corruption cases, Kargil and other issues had worn the veneer of a "party with a difference" off of the BJP. JNU had become a site of resistance, and in a confession of how terrified the government were with peaceful protest, close to 500 police and paramilitary personnel were sent to arrest my friend, and 62 other students of JNU in the dead of the night.

Three out of four members of the Students Union were sent to Tihar, with only Albeena Shakeel, who the security forces could not find, remaining free.

Like other students, I was a bit shocked at the use of unnecessary force and the use of armed men to drag away students to jail - none of them guilty of anything except peaceful protest and sloganeering. I was much more upset a few days later when I came back to campus to find dozens upon dozens of police personnel deployed in front of the main gate, with canes, guns and a water cannon.


I told my teacher in the "China in the World Economy" class that I felt I had more important things to do, and dragged a few friends along to protest. None of us were members of any political party, and if I remember correctly, there were, initially, seven of us at the gate, facing off more than 70 policemen - most of them who had the grace to look incredibly ashamed.

Slowly more and more students joined us, and as the momentum grew, I left, leaving space for the more politically professional.

The shock of being under police occupation for a few weeks made a lot of us realise how much we loved our freedom, and how disturbing it was to have it encroached upon.

The Leftist parties had little response. They had spent years blindly obeying the commands of the CPI and CPI-M, that they were the only bastion keeping the communal BJP at bay, that now that the BJP had won, they had few answers.

The ABVP happily gloated over the mess, delighted that their people could wield the truncheon. The NSUI was presided over by lots of non-entities, but Amit Jogi, the son of the then CM of Chattisgarh, Ajit Jogi, was the mover and shaker on campus, but let's say, he did not inspire the greatest of confidence.

A group of us tried to revive the Freethinkers Party, an organisation that had been created in the School of International Studies decades ago, but had withered as the bigger political parties, and new money had come to dominate the campus. Our efforts were unsuccessful.

I ran for the post of president of the students union and received a pathetic 77 votes, but my questions during the debate - what did the Left parties have to offer while the Left parties across the land had nothing new, and what did the ABVP have to offer other than obedience to the BJP - apparently struck a chord.

The idea that campus politics might be somewhat liberated from the politics of the main political parties resonated with a number of students, especially those that had resented having to see policemen sprawled all over the campus greens.

This earned me the dislike of the Left parties and the abuse of the ABVP. While older ABVP students and I got along all right, it was often the attention of younger students, those from the School of Languages doing their BAs, that was difficult.

I was told I was not an Indian, because of my religion. I was told I had an identity crisis, and then one night, after an argument with some ABVP supporters, a group of them attacked me while I was on a telephone call at the gate of hostel - we didn't have cellphones those days.

It was not much of a fight, as the attackers ran away after landing a few blows, leaving me furious, but the ruckus ended up getting the hostel warden involved. Trying to use my anger as an excuse, the warden tried to be "even handed" by blaming me as well as those who had attacked me.

Like a number of administrators with little in the way of spine, he was keen not to alienate the ABVP, and through them the BJP.

Unfortunately for him, as the rest of the hostel heard about the incident, a number of people came out in my support, and he ended up having to follow the rules of the hostel - which meant that the people who attacked me lost the privileges of having their hostel room, and were asked to leave the campus. One of them was not even a student of JNU, and so he got off scot free. Or so he thought.

JNU had an institution of "hostel nights", which involved a dinner and a dance, and these were the high social events of the year. I spotted this chap at the Sabarmati hostel night, and took some pleasure in beating the living daylights out of him in the middle of the dance floor where he had been wriggling his hips to impress some girl or other.

This, of course, led to more threats of violence, although, again, the older ABVP student leaders did not really have a problem with me, especially as they knew I had been attacked by a non-student within the campus.

All of this ended up taking a severe toll on my academics, and one day the acting head of the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, the most prestigious centre at the School of International Studies, in which I was doing my MPhil, called me in for a chat.

At the end of it, he sighed, and said, "You know, you are a poster boy of how JNU ruins a good student."

The criticism stung, largely because it was true. I applied for a few courses overseas, and receiving admission in a good one, I left JNU and India, to get back to studying.

In my time at various campuses I realised how empty campus politics had become as the major political parties used the students for the purpose of recruiting and not much else. Academic interests, or even the interests of universities, were sidelined to score cheap political points.

Instead of imbuing students politics with ideas and supporting their autonomy, the parent political parties - whether the Congress, the BJP or the Left parties - preferred quiescent drones, who trotted out the familiar and sterile party lines, while administrators were put under tremendous pressure to kowtow, and surrender their autonomy.

And independent thought - the precious gold that turns a student into a scholar and thinker - was something that all the institutions hated, and tried their best to snuff out. It is no surprise, then, that the Indian educational system is in shambles, and that the best minds find some means of going to study outside the country, or are crushed.

Today, when politicians, from the prime minister to ministers from regional parties, talk about the tragedy of Rohith Vemula's suicide, they say nothing about the autonomy of the universities. Not one will support the strengthening of campus politics in a way that it can be insulated from external politics, even a little.

They will shed their crocodile tears and leave in place a system that destroys the best of youthful India, left as it is at the mercy of politicians as bereft of talent, achievement or education, such as our current minister of human resource development.

Last updated: January 25, 2016 | 14:15
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