Tank is an excuse to turn JNU into war zone

It is not meant to 'instil patriotism' or 'honour the Army', but to bait JNU students and faculty into making statements that allow you to paint them as traitors.

 |  11-minute read |   26-07-2017
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I didn’t hear about the tank until Monday afternoon.

I had given the Tiranga march on Sunday to celebrate Kargil Vijay Divas a miss, preferring instead to watch the Indian women’s cricket team come within sniffing distance of victory in the most exciting World Cup final I have ever seen. I didn’t read the newspapers Monday morning because I was too busy running through the administrative wringer that accompanies the registration process every semester. Neither did I find out over Facebook; what little internet time was available was devoted to following the political machinations of Westeros.

It was only when I went to the convention centre after lunch to put in a shift at my organisation’s admission assistance desk that I noticed something was off — there were more journalists showing up than there were new students. When I found out the reason, my eyes rolled into the back of my head.

It turned out that in a speech following the march, in which some 300 people — a few students, ABVP cadre, university administrators, union ministers, and fellow travellers of the Right, including that warmongering blowhard, retired General GD Bakshi, and that most jingoistic of cricketers, Gautam Gambhir — walked while holding up a 2,200-foot Indian flag, JNU vice-chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar had asked former army chief and minister for the development of the Northeast, VK Singh, and minister of state (independent charge) for petroleum and natural gas, Dharmendra Pradhan, “to help us procure an Army tank so that we can put it in a prominent place in JNU. The presence of the Army tank will constantly remind thousands of students who pass through this university about the great sacrifices and valour of the Indian Army.”

tank_072517091713.jpgVice chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar and Maj Gen (retd) GD Bakshi at the Tiranga March organised on the JNU campus on Sunday. [Photo: Hindustan Times]

This wasn’t the first time the university administration had made this suggestion. Last year, hours before Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya surrendered to the police during the witch-hunt over “anti-national” sloganeering on campus, Kumar met with a group of veterans, including Bakshi. After the meeting, JNU registrar Bhupinder Zutshi told the press that the administration was actively considering such an installation.

At the time, it was part of a conscious effort on the part of the university’s mandarins to distance themselves from the dissenting students, an attitude evident in the decision to allow the police inside campus, the arbitrary and excessive punishments meted out by the enquiry committee they instituted, and tacit support for the right-wing campaign to #ShutDownJNU, ie close the very institution they were meant to nurture.

The entire saga over JNU’s patriotism, or lack thereof, is, for me, one of the most infuriating episodes in recent Indian history. It demonstrates the rot that has set into our body politic — how easy it has become to misguide the Indian people, how far along we are on the march to outright fascism, how nuance is always the first casualty of that road.

How inconceivable is it, really, that among a student body of over 8,000 there might exist diversity of opinion on whether Kashmir is an integral part of India?

At this point, a disclaimer is necessary: I speak here for myself, not as a representative of JNU. I believe in Kashmir’s right to self-determination, and that Afzal Guru was wrongly murdered to satisfy some abstract notion of collective conscience. I believe people take up arms only as a last resort. I believe that the Indian Army and paramilitary forces have committed a wide range of human rights abuses in conflict zones all over the country, and that these crimes cannot be excused by citing those of the non-state actors they are fighting.

I believe that the Indian state has always been a tool of the ruling classes to further their own ends, and is an accessory to the systematic theft of national assets and resources that we celebrate as economic liberalisation.

I believe that those who never cease to lecture us on patriotism and nationalism are also the primary enablers of a new imperialism, through which the working people of India find their hopes and dreams shackled by the bottom line of the multinational corporations they serve.

I believe that my love for my country does not have to imply my consent to my government’s war with my people. There are many students and teachers in JNU who will agree with these beliefs, either wholly or in part. There are many who will bitterly disagree. There are many more who will be apathetic.

tank-2_072517092313.jpgPhoto: DailyO

At the same time, I do not believe that JNU is an idyll of peace, love, and harmony. I believe that no matter what some might have you believe, the institutions of caste, race, religion, or gender do not cease to exist at the campus gates, that casteism, racism, communalism, and patriarchy are alive and well inside.

I believe that although the university developed one of the most inclusive admission processes in Indian public education, these gains were fought for against bitter opposition from the administration and must be protected, not merely celebrated. I believe that for a first-generation learner, negotiating a university education at JNU can be just as difficult as making it in the first place. Again, many agree, many disagree.

The frustrating thing about this patriotism debate is that it created this false dichotomy, where one either had to take the position that JNU is a hotbed of anti-nationals or that it is a paragon of progressivism. The middle ground was scorched away; you were either with us or against us. Student activists bent over backwards to refute the charges of treason being thrown at them. There was unending debate over azadi within India, or from it.

Those who criticise the functioning of student politics on campus were often lumped together with the ABVP, even if their radical politics are diametrically opposed to that of the Sangh Parivar. Some of them responded with the slogan, “Laal-bhagwa ek hain!” — red and saffron are the same.

In any case, none of this debate was playing out in the national media, which only focussed on the sensationalism of the witch-hunt, pronouncing judgement on the entire student body based on doctored evidence.

That was, after all, the real purpose behind the manufactured controversy: to discredit the student body of the university before embarking upon the real attack on JNU. This attack was carried out not through lynch mobs or Twitter trolls, but through an imaginative use of red tape. The goal was not to have Kanhaiya, Umar or Anirban hanged as traitors, but to dismantle the structures that enable young men and women from all backgrounds to come to the national capital and obtain a world-class education as well as gain the confidence and consciousness to engage with the biggest issues facing the nation.

It was to demolish the bonds of solidarity that have been forged over the years, to alienate students from faculty and from each other. It was to snuff out one of the last means of social mobility in this vastly unequal nation.

The neoliberal political class that governs us today — whether through the Congress or the BJP — cannot tolerate the notion of universities as centres of resistance to the excesses of their rule. They cannot fathom of an education system that is not designed to create consumers or pliable labour. They definitely don’t want to be paying for it. The budget is not meant to fund health and education, silly, it’s meant to enable a transfer of wealth to the rich.

Private universities, many of them owned and run by some of the most powerful people in the country, have been growing at a rate of 1,000 a year, even as public universities find themselves perennially short of funds. That is how neoliberalism works: you defund, then criticise, then privatise.

At JNU, this attack was multi-pronged.

First, in anticipation of the dissent their policies would invariably generate, draconian measures prohibiting protests near the administration block were passed and surveillance of key areas enhanced. Then, a controversial UGC notification that promised to drastically reduce intake of research scholars as well as threatening many of the progressive admissions procedures formulated at JNU was implemented through a farcical process, with the VC unilaterally declaring them passed without meaningful debate — first by fudging the minutes of a previous academic council meeting, then by simply reading out the proposals over the protests of students and teachers.

Some students who were demonstrating against the measures were suspended without any inquiry. Further protests were sought to be allayed by the VC quite literally lying through his teeth. No, seats wouldn’t be cut, he told the media. Neither would deprivation points or reservations be touched. The weightage for the oral interview, which has been proven to be a site of much discrimination in the past, was originally slated to be raised from 30 per cent to 100 per cent, until the ABVP claimed they had managed to reverse the decision through a hunger strike.

Once the Delhi High Court rejected a legal challenge to part of the provisions, however, the administration quickly reversed itself — MPhil intake was cut by some 87 per cent, the affirmative action measures were junked, viva-voce was back at 100 per cent of the score. The fees for the admission exam have been raised, and further hikes are in the offing.

And over the summer vacation, the administration block became a notice-printing machine, with dozens of proctorial enquiries being instituted, in some cases for “offences” that are three years old, and fines being handed out left and right.

The administration has announced that it will fill the 300 vacancies in faculty positions, the major reason for the seat cuts, but only after tweaking the appointment rules to allow the VC to have greater say in the selection process. The positions, inevitably, are being filled by unqualified RSS accolytes.

In a vindictive measure, all dhabas and cafetarias on campus have been ordered to shutter down by 11pm, while CCTVs are being put up wherever possible.

None of this managed to institute a national debate. Even when the administration block was occupied by students for almost a month, one did not find a fraction of the media attention that resulted from the tank comment, or the February 9 incident last year.

Sure, we students were partly to blame for the national apathy to our cause. We never managed to bridge over the fault lines that had opened up between us, and present a united front.

But the last six months have reminded us that the minutiae of education policy aren’t nearly compelling enough copy for the media as is hyperventilating about imagined slogans. That is, after all, how neoliberalism has always managed to push its destructive agenda, by slipping it between manufactured culture wars over religion or nationalism.

The tank war is one such distraction.

It is not meant to “instil patriotism” or “honour the Army”, but to bait JNU students and faculty into making statements that allow you to paint them as traitors and keep this false narrative going.

More than anything, it is a signal to the right-wing base that their government is keeping the sickular anti-nationals in line. Major General (Retd) Bakshi, after all, claimed that JNU had now been captured, as if it were Tiger Hill, and that Jadavpur University and the University of Hyderabad were next.

It is bravado that allowed an ABVP member in my hostel to tell the caretaker on Monday that he would get his room changed by pressuring the warden because their government is now in power and they can do what they want. It is bravado that has already been seen in action, whether through the impunity with which Najeeb Ahmed was assaulted last October, leading to his disappearance or in a similar attack on a guard earlier this year. The perpetrators escaped with slaps on their wrists on both occasions.

Whether it was the subjugation of the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 or the assault on striking students at Athens Polytechnic in 1973, tanks and students are not supposed to go together. Such a symbol of state power and violence has no place inside a university.

If the administration ends up actually spending money on this exercise at a time when fellowships and scholarships are not being delayed due to the paucity of funds, it would be a criminal waste. But every breath we expend arguing over this non-issue is a breath that could have been better spent fighting to save the idea of a public university.

If only that battle would draw a few more TRPs.

Also read: BJP is eyeing Mayawati's Dalit vote bank by playing up Kovind card in 2019


Ajachi Chakrabarti Ajachi Chakrabarti @marcopolar

The writer is a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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