Political Violence at Jadavpur University and Threats to Academic Freedoms in India

This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 Special Edition

This article was written in the Fall of 2019 after riots broke out at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. Universities in India have experienced an alarming amount of right-wing violence and state suppression since the election of Prime Minister Modi in 2014. Since this article was written, there has been a meteoric rise of institutional suppression in the wake of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Attacks by right-wing mobs at Jawaharlal Nehru University, police violence against students protesting the CAA at Jamia Milia Islamia University and other schools, the use of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to jail student activists across the country, and numerous other instances of violence have sought to silence educational institutions and eliminate any political dissent. We must continue to passionately defend academic freedoms both in India and around the world from far-right suppression.

There are many similarities between UC Berkeley and Jadavpur University (JU). Both are among the most prestigious public universities in their home country, with a strong atmosphere of curiosity and intellectual achievement. Both institutions are well renowned for their history of activism, forged in a common revolutionary fervor that swept the world in the sixties and seventies – UC Berkeley students had the Free Speech, Anti-War, and People’s Park movements, while JU students were at the frontlines of the Naxalbari rebellion and gained some of their inspiration from the protests here. Both universities are well known for the left-wing tendencies of their campus communities – student union elections at JU are always a contest between the student wings of the left-wing Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the further-left Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. As a result of the political leanings of their student bodies, both universities have been exploited by the far-right as battlefields in a larger culture war.

In 2019 Prime Minister Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was reelected to an overwhelming majority in the federal Parliament. This emboldened his party to pursue a targeted right-wing policy agenda, and inspired the party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), to more firmly push their Hindu-nationalist message on college campuses. On September 19, the ABVP organized a ‘Freshers Fair’ for incoming students to JU. They invited a slate of right-wing figures, including the Union Minister of State for Environment, Forest, and Climate Change Babul Supriyo, who was a famous Bollywood singer prior to his entry to politics. This was unusual because political groups had never held welcoming events at JU. Such events have traditionally been organized by the student union. Furthermore, it became quickly apparent that the event was not primarily intended for incoming freshmen, as most people in attendance were not students of JU at all. The event was met with resistance from JU students, hundreds of whom gathered around the hall where Babul Supriyo was scheduled to speak. When he arrived, he was surrounded by a throng of students, denying him entry to the venue. Supriyo alleges that he was heckled and had his hair pulled by some students, though a majority of the protesters were peaceful. He was initially asked to leave, and denied entry into the building by protesting students. After some altercations, however, he was finally allowed entry, and addressed the ABVP members inside. A magazine loaded with bullets was discovered near the entrance to the auditorium, which was later claimed by one of his guards. When the Minister attempted to leave, the situation grew worse, and the crowd size continued to grow. Hours later, the Governor of West Bengal intervened, and Supriyo was able to leave the building.

“They kicked me, punched me, caught my hair … pulled me from one end to another. These were apparently students. They hit me again with wooden sticks on my hand after I came down from the program.” – Babul Supriyo

A sitting Union Minister should be able to speak in a university campus, regardless of the abhorrent Hindu nationalist views and increasingly authoritarian tendencies of his party. Universities are meant to be forums for the free exchange of ideas and bastions of free speech, which are threatened by speech restrictions imposed by the student body. Nevertheless, far more concerning than the protests by JU students was the response by the far-right. Prior to the Governor’s arrival, individuals affiliated with the BJP and ABVP stormed the university and began a spree of vandalism. They assaulted students, and set fire to the historic Gate Four of the university, a center of campus life not unlike our Sather Gate in its importance. Chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ a religious chant that has become a rightwing catchphrase, they vandalized the Arts Department Students’ Union building and the Undergraduates Arts Building, breaking furniture and painting slogans on the walls. Local shops around Gate Four were also targeted. From that evening onwards, students and groups around campus, and subsequently around the city, were targeted and subject to violence. Such violent destruction of university property had never been seen at Jadavpur University before this incident, and it spread a chilling message to university campuses across the country.

Vandalism of the Arts Department building

Statements made by the BJP afterwards were damning. Party leaders were unanimous in their condemnation of JU students, but none expressed concern for the largescale violence unleashed by their supporters. West Bengal BJP President Dilip Ghosh stated that “The Jadavpur University campus is a hub of anti-national and communist activities. This is not the first time that such an incident has happened there. Just like our security forces conducted surgical strikes to destroy terror camps in Pakistan, our cadres would also carry out the same type of surgical strike to destroy anti-national hubs in JU campus,” referring to the military operations in Pulwama and Balakot carried out by Indian armed forces targeting terrorist outfits on the other side of the border with Pakistan. It is concerning that a senior party leader would call upon his cadres to commit acts of violence against a university, and treat his party base like a parallel legal system. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a volunteer Hindu nationalist organization that is the parent organization of the BJP, has long acted like a paramilitary outfit, and trains its 5-6 million members in violent tactics in its roughly 50,000 centers across the country. Members of the RSS organized the 1992 destruction of the historic Babri Masjid, have carried out numerous religious riots, and assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. As a result, it was repeatedly banned by previous Indian governments. Prime Minister Modi is a proud member.

Fire at Gate 4 Source: Sourav Banerjee

The BJP’s response to the riot at Jadavpur fits into a broader concerning theme of the suppression of academic freedom, and the portrayal of universities as unpatriotic leftists havens, that has swept across India since their ascent to power in 2014. The word ‘anti-national’ is thrown around by members of the BJP, and even by prominent news outlets, with abandon. Left-wing intellectuals are repeatedly referred to in the mainstream media as ‘Urban Naxals,’ spuriously tying them to a decades-old armed Maoist guerilla insurgency, if their views differ from the BJP line. The goal is to enforce a Hindu-nationalist worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the liberal environment necessary for a university to function as an intellectual hub. UC Berkeley students should be wary of the similarities with developments over the past few years on our campus. A large part of why far-right personalities like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have been invited to speak on campus by groups like Berkeley College Republicans is not in order to initiate academic debate, but to stir sentiments and provoke a response from the campus community. This response wins these groups valuable airtime on cable news channels. Events like Milo’s aborted “Free Speech Week,” and the “No Marxism in America” rally, where Trump supporters and Antifa members clashed, have cost the university and the city millions of dollars in security costs. Right-wing media outlets like Fox News have used UC Berkeley as a synonym for everything that they see wrong with colleges in this country, and exploit the largely fictional issue of free-speech on college campuses in order to delegitimize institutions of higher education as a whole – just as the Indian far-right spreads the myth of ‘antinational’ activities in order to extinguish the institutions of knowledge that conflict with their totalitarian mindset.

“My experience? My experience was seeing and experiencing, for the first time, the slowly growing grip of the saffron right in this state. This was just one of their initial, smaller interventions.”

Abhimanyu Roy, 1 st Year Grad Student, Film Studies

The violence at Jadavpur mirrors an intensifying trend of political violence and inter-party turf wars in Bengal. After the BJP’s impressive gains in the state during the recent federal parliamentary elections – it won 18 out of 42 seats after winning 2 last time – it senses that it has a strong chance to win the upcoming state assembly polls, and dethrone the corrupt and incompetent Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) which has ruled since 2011, as well as eradicate the ailing Communist Party which ruled from 1977 to 2010. As the TMC’s support wanes it resorts to violence in order to maintain its grip on power, and the BJP is more than willing to engage, with its growing number of party workers across the state. After years of demonizing leftist students and themselves regularly attacking the institutional autonomy of JU, the TMC now finds it politically expedient to champion the university. The American right knows that if it can incite unrest at campuses like ours, it can turn them into epicenters of our culture wars, and unite its base around a common sense of cultural grievance.

“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view– NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

– Donald Trump, Twitter

The day after the violence, JU students took to the streets for a massive march of more than 6000 people including students and concerned general citizens alike, in a spectacular display of solidarity and defiance. They chanted slogans of resistance, and sang songs like ‘We Shall Overcome’, indicating that their university was not to fall to the manipulation of immoral political groups. The march morphed into a broader protest against the policies of the Modi government and the rise of intolerance under the BJP. Student unions at universities across the country expressed their solidarity with JU students.

“It was clear from the beginning that the march, though brought about by the immediate attack on campus, had garnered general voices of protest against the current government. There was a large LGBTQ+ flag that headed the march, a banner which opposed the NRC, and other placards that criticized the government’s policies”

Maninee Maity, 4th year English Literature

With the arrival of the Durga Puja festival, the atmosphere sobered as it did in Berkeley in the months after the Milo and Coulter affairs. This relative calm should, however, be taken with a grain of salt. If the BJP wins state assembly elections in Bengal, they could do serious damage to the rich academic environment in the state. Recent protests for institutional autonomy in other countries have often been unsuccessful, as we saw recently with the forced closure of Central European University in Hungary by the right-wing Orban government. All around the world, what were once empty threats against academia have begun to materialize into explicit suppression. Similarly, the calm that has settled on our campus could be disturbed in the coming months as the 2020 election becomes more vitriolic and President Trump ramps up his efforts to exploit cultural wedges. A second term for Trump may embolden him to take drastic actions like making good on his threats to defund our university. The incidents at JU serve as a warning for us, and for universities around the world. We should watch the developments there carefully, and provide solidarity to students defending liberal values against the creeping influence of fascists at JU and elsewhere.

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