In Retrospect

A Varsity that won't stop bleeding and an adamant V-C

Despite the entire nation and global academic community erupting in protest over the attacks inside one of the world’s top universities, JNU continues to have a Vice-Chancellor whose stubbornness does not let him meet protesting students, leading to a dangerous deadlock affecting the registration process of hundreds who are eager to appear for their exams. Abhinay Lakshman & Nikita Jain report

What started with a democratically elected student union president, Aishe Ghosh leading a protest against the enormous fee-hike announced in mid-2019, ended last week with a brutal, planned and merciless assault on the students and faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University by a masked mob of men and women armed with sticks, iron rods, axes and even fibreglass batons, usually used by cops during a lathicharge.

Known for being one of the best universities in the world, JNU has a track record of churning out students who have — to be modest — excelled in their respective fields, including our current Union Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Foreign minister S Jaishankar and Abhijeet Banerjee, who won the Nobel in Economics recently. And there is a reason why the culmination of the fee-hike agitation in last Sunday's attacks led to institutions and academic communities across India and the globe erupt in protest against it.

Given the faculty and research that is done in such institutes, academicians at JNU are at any point of time working or collaborating with several other researchers in several of the other esteemed universities in the world and the way students have been treated by the current administration under Vice-Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar does not bode well for academic collaboration.

V-C Kumar's obdurate position on negotiating with those protesting over the fee-hike has revealed a varsity head who is unwilling to speak to his students and hundreds of others (both supporting and opposing the cause) who have not been able to register for their semesters peacefully. The V-C's choice to not meet protesting students even once has led them to have an opinion of him such as the one Akash, a PhD student, has. "Personally, it is mental torture for me to wait for this V-C to show up one day and have a dialogue with us," he said.

Furthermore, it continues to remain a mystery as to why despite choosing not to follow the government's advice multiple times, he is empowered enough to continue with his non-negotiable stance on engaging with the students and at his position as the varsity head. For instance, reports surfaced since the attacks have shown that the HRD Secretary had given the V-C an ultimatum to resolve the deadlock by engaging with the students or resign but the Secretary was shunted out weeks later.

So, the question at the end of the day remains as to what will make the V-C budge on his position, that is of course if he does not buckle under the calls for his resignation growing louder by the day.

But as CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar said on Friday that there could be no justification for violence inside the campus and if such a situation arises, "It is a matter of law and order. Home Minister is Amit Shah so we will look to him for answers. The Union Home minister is, either way, answerable to why Delhi Police did not intervene earlier."

And as the V-C continues to claim that the campus is a secure environment and that "his door is always open" to students, his apathy towards the fee-hike dialogue with the democratically elected students' union might just lead to a situation where students wishing to register for their exams may have to drop a year, unless of course if the V-C decides to come to the table.

But then again, a central demand from JNU students has also become the V-C's removal over what they called his "complicity" in the attacks. And after the HRD Ministry refused to agree to that demand on Thursday, subsequently leading to another clash between students and police, that demand has now become something to hold him accountable for administrative lapses that resulted in the entry of masked outsiders with deadly weapons into the campus.

Despite this, Kumar refuses to engage with the students, if only to assuage doubts of his purported partisan behaviour.

Moreover, as the violence led to a flurry of meetings with the MHRD officials, the V-C and the students; the Delhi Police decided to postpone the probe in the main attacks at Sabarmati hostel and instead alleged that Aishe Ghosh and other members associated with Left groups had first attacked students at Periyar hostel.

In response to being named as a suspect in the attacks where she was brutally beaten with iron rods, the Ghosh-led JNUSU said that the Delhi Police was also speaking the V-C's language, by allegedly favouring ABVP students. And as far as the negotiations go, while the MHRD has partially agreed to one of the key demands of the students on the fee-hike, the JNUSU has maintained that their demand for the V-C's removal will not subside.

In such a situation where a premier institute with a rich history of promoting not just seeking answers but asking questions is found to be in a deadlock, there are only three options that could show the way and the Central government might just be aptly positioned to set a precedent. The first is to set aside the stubbornness and engage with students so at least a reasonable dialogue may be started; the second is for the varsity chief to succumb to the students' demands and finally, the third is for the Centre to take the decision it is so poised to take.

3 hrs of dread & a bloodbath

When news broke of JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh being severely attacked inside the campus with photos of her profusely bleeding head, it was impossible to imagine what was happening at the campus. Information trickled in that a "masked mob" armed with iron rods, sticks and other weapons was attacking students and faculty inside hostels.

By 6 pm, the police had arrived outside the campus where a large gathering of ABVP supporters blocked the main gate and stopped ambulances from going through. Till the police entered the campus with full force at around 8:45 pm, the mob inside the campus ran riot beating up anyone and everyone they could find. Inside Sabarmati hostel, rooms except for those of ABVP members were vandalised, including the one of a blind student. By the time police "controlled" the situation, the mob had dispersed from a different gate, injuring around 30 students and two senior professors in their rampage, who received treatment at AIIMS Trauma Centre. Some eye-witnesses said policemen watched as the "masked mob" left the campus.

As they went around brutalising students, some kept calling reporters outside with horrors of students being singled-out and attacked with iron rods. According to many, students did not return to Sabarmati till around 4 am the next day out of fear. Eventually, many left the hostel for safer lodgings and the others started sleeping on beds bolted to their doors. The assailants also went to the faculty quarters and New Transit House to beat up teachers and also vandalised Professor Sucharita Sen's car inside the campus.

JNU is 'secure': V-C

With no end in sight to calls for his resignation, V-C Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar spoke out about the JNU attacks a few days after and claimed that everything in the campus was back to normal despite the eerie calm mixed with anxiety among the students of the varsity that has resulted in several of them finding lodgings outside the campus out of fear. The administration has maintained that the January 5 attacks were perpetrated by students who destroyed the server room, despite which the V-C has said he does not want to "politicise" the issue. However, the V-C had retweeted a video posted by Prasar Bharti, adding the narrative of "Left students attacking ABVP members". The video was later fact-checked, which showed that the attacker was from ABVP and was assaulting an AISA member.

While he answered some questions, there was no talk on why the administration never lodged a complaint with respect to the attacks last Sunday where more than 30 students and 2 professors were injured but has lodged two naming JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh. He also did not speak about why he had not engaged with the JNUSU and faculty over the fee-hike issue as advised by the HRD Ministry.

Why were the police not called immediately?

V-C: The campus has its own security. However, if there is a law and order situation here, we don't rush to the police immediately. We see if our own security can handle it. On Sunday, we did the same thing and when we saw there was aggressive behaviour among the students, we immediately contacted the police after which they came to the campus.

What is the JNU admin going to probe?

V-C: Whenever we form a committee in such cases, we look into all aspects. Students were immediately admitted to AIIMS and first aid was provided. Many are back. Don't want them to be injured or affected. There is a given process at the university. Situations are rapidly evolving. Appropriate help is needed. We want to meet everybody. It is a long process and we are forming a security committee as well.

Why the complaint for server room after a day?

V-C: Clear intent of stopping the Registrar. For us, all students are same. If there is act of vandalism, it is a criminal act and a clear case of indiscipline. This is the first time we see that protesting students come with their faces completely covered. From whom are they trying to hide?

'Tudke Flashback'

The Delhi Police naming Ghosh as a suspect in the attacks based on certain footage has brought back memories of the past when CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar, the then JNUSU president, faced sedition charges based on a video purportedly showing him chanting slogans of "Free Kashmir". However, after several news channels ran the video as "proof" of Kanhaiya's seditious behaviour, it so turned out that the video, also aired by reputed English news channels, was doctored. There was also an attempt a few years back to make it look like JNU students were celebrating the death of some Indian soldiers, which also turned out to be a fabricated claim.

Probe so far

A s the JNUSU dismissed the Delhi Police probe in the JNU attacks after it named president Aishe Ghosh as one of the suspects including six other students affiliated to Left groups and two ABVP members; it is pertinent to note that there is also an independent fact-finding committee of the Delhi Police looking into the matter in addition to the university's internal probe. However, the Delhi Police investigation in the case so far has raised more questions than provided answers. For instance, questions as to who attacked Ghosh and professors inside the campus and how outsiders entered the campus remain unanswered. Moreover, the probe has not revealed who switched-off streetlights in the area while the mob ran wild and neither has it shown on whose authority were the lights put off.

While the alleged attacks at the server room, which the police seem more interested in, had not resulted in any serious injuries to anyone, the police have largely decided to postpone the probe into who the masked mob was and even chose not to mention two of the suspects who belonged to ABVP while naming all the Left organisations. And after having earlier denied the role of outsiders in the attacks, police sources have reportedly stated that 10 of the 37 identified members of the "Unity Against Left" WhatsApp group were outsiders. The group was formed by Yogendra Bhardwaj, an ABVP member and JNU student, identified as one of the suspects. Further, a sting operation showed ABVP members admitting to being part of the attacks, despite which cops have not identified any suspect as affiliated to the BJP-linked students' group. Police have clarified that probe is on to establish the entirety of events and the named suspects will be asked to join the probe.

A Planned Attack

Buckling under pressure, the Delhi Police named Aishe Ghosh as a suspect but a few hours after news of the JNU attacks broke, screenshots started surfacing on social media chat groups showing WhatsApp groups like "Friends of RSS" and "Unity Against Left", where people seemed to be discussing a plan to organise an assault on "Left students". Interestingly, one of the groups was created on the day of the violence itself and after the screenshots were leaked, users started abandoning them. The groups had texts from people confirmed to be ABVP members and students which included ways to enter the campus with outsiders and weapons. The group members discussed how they would like to beat up the "Left students", all corresponding to the hours before the attacks.

In fact, the police had identified ABVP member and PhD student Yogendra Bhardwaj as the leader of the WhatsApp groups where the alleged planning went on and named him as one of the two ABVP suspects in the case. The other ABVP suspect identified by police is Vikas Patel, who was also active in these chat groups in addition to being seen with a fibreglass baton in his hand in the hours leading up to the attacks. Even the Delhi Police FIR in the case has called the attacks deliberately planned with the common intention of rioting. This put together with the time during which a separate group of ABVP supporters gathered outside the main gate point towards a coordinated and planned attack. As the "masked mob" wreaked havoc, the ABVP supporters outside blocked the main gate. Meanwhile, a fact-checking website reported that the images released by Delhi Police implicating Ghosh and other left students were picked exactly from tweets of ABVP members five days earlier.

A sinister plot?

In the midst of all the national attention that JNU and its V-C have got over the last week and clamour for the varsity chief to resign getting louder, why is Jagadesh Kumar so obstinate to continue at the university? According to some faculty members, Kumar has purportedly twisted the recruitment process of the varsity in an attempt to consolidate all appointment decisions — one way or the other — to his office with the aim to allegedly appoint teaching faculty with a certain ideology.

One senior faculty even went as far as saying: "The integrity of the faculty recruitment process under the current Vice-Chancellor has been compromised." Another professor, wishing to remain anonymous, told Millennium Post that the current administration had made around 40 appointments, of which most were initially excluded by the Screening Committee for want of required qualifications.

Professor Surajit Mazumdar, a JNUTA office bearer, added that the University Recruitment Cell, which is a record-keeping body had been overruling the Screening Committee to shortlist candidates who were already disqualified. Another senior professor maintained that there have been professors appointed to teach Computer Science classes with a degree in Computational Biology and there have also been appointees to the Korean Studies department who have little or no knowledge of the language.

He said at the beginning of Kumar's tenure, several members of the Executive Council were not allowed to put their dissent on record. Being a former member of the EC, the professor added that there were times when subject experts would not agree on the V-C's choice for a position and even instances when these experts refused to sign the meeting minutes to show dissent.

Mazumdar added that following this, the V-C started to circumvent procedures to pick his own members in the Screening Committee, Academic Council and the Executive Council, which "allowed him to pick and choose appointees indirectly". While the former EC member added that Kumar's administration had appointed up to 40-45 teachers, Mazumdar said advertisements for at least 250 positions have been put up, "which are being filled rapidly", in flagrant violation regulations, he said.

The former EC member added that the accelerated recruitment process is an attempt to replace the "liberal" faculty with ones who will "culturally change JNU" before Kumar's tenure is over.

The fire spreads

W ithin hours of the JNU attacks, students across the country mobilised to stage demonstrations and protests against the violence inside the varsity campus. The fire spread as the high and mighty of Bollywood and numerous eminent personalities stepped up to take a stand. Protests soon took the form of condemning the alleged police "inaction" and eventually gave way to calls for V-C M Jagadesh Kumar's resignation.

And days after the attacks, actor Deepika Padukone showing up at the university to silently stand in solidarity with the students of JNU became the defining image for many.

Eminent directors, producers, actors, screenwriters and musicians came out to protest against the government's treatment of its students. Directors including Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Zoya Akhtar; actors like Swara Bhaskar, Tapasee Pannu, Dia Mirza, Rahul Bose; and writers like Varun Grover along with many others of the film industry hit the streets, contributing to the cause through their art. Some even wrote poems and spoke at the protest meets.

However, at the same time, enormous demonstrations led by students were seen in Kolkata, Hyderabad, Aligarh, Bengaluru, Jaipur, Kerala, Mumbai and many other cities.

Universities and institutes known for not indulging in political causes joined the demonstrations, including students and teachers of St Stephens College, who boycotted classes in a "very, very rare move" to join a protest for the first time in almost 30 years. Even students of Delhi School of Economics and other colleges of the Delhi University took part. So far, the protests have spread through Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute and Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Aligarh Muslim University, Ferguson College, ILS Law School, Hyderabad University, National Law University in Bengaluru and many other esteemed universities and institutes. The solidarity marches and demonstrations also reached many universities abroad. In fact, even engineering institutes like the IIT Madras and research institutes such as the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru saw students and academics register their protest against the JNU attacks.

In fact, the Mumbai protests saw hundreds mobilise and gather for a midnight meet on the night of the attacks which ran through till the next morning. In Hyderabad, more than 200 Hyderabad University students took out a rally in their campus shouting slogans against the government and right-wing groups for the attacks in JNU.

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