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Student dissent, media hype and the space for free speech

Universities across the world have been witnessing an increase in student-led resistance to rightwing politics. However, this is not a new phenomenon says PhD student, Rahul Ranjan.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s shock election win, students across the US protested against the victory and any form of intolerant policies they believed rightwing politics are bound to make.

But before the reports of these demonstrations in American universities were brought to our attention, India’s story of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the whole ‘anti-national’ fiasco had already been highlighted in the world’s media. In the register of student protests, the JNU episode, which took place in 2016, is both unique and spectacular.

The trouble began when, on 6 February 2016, JNU students held a protest on campus against the capital punishment meted out by the Supreme Court to Afzal Guru who was convicted for the 2001 Indian parliament attack, and Kashmiri separatist, Magbool Bhat. During the clashes that followed between various student groups, a small number were filmed shouting anti-India slogans. This drew widespread criticism, including from JNU students and political leaders. For days the media lined up crews and equipment inside and outside the university.

Whether or not those slogans were raised by the university’s students is still disputed, and the court has yet to reach a decision. If they were raised, who were the students responsible and where did they come from remains unanswered. By invoking the colonial-era sedition law, the case generated a series of discussions on the antiquated Section 124a in The Indian Penal Code.

Arguably, something that should have been in the court’s jurisdiction was taken over by social media, and the very next morning, JNU students woke up to the hashtag ‘#shutdownJNU’. Overnight approximately 8,000 of them were branded over the web space as ‘anti-national’.

It took a while for the students to understand what was taking place on their doorstep. This is not to suggest that they blindly accepted or approved of what had happened on campus, but they were surprised that such powerful charges we made against them on the basis of videos, some of which were later found to have been ‘doctored’. Several thousand people stood against the responses they received. Within less than a week JNU, a university that was viewed as a place where one was at liberty to discuss and engage, even in contentious issues, was blanketed in silence and shock.

Meanwhile the media, which was regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy, showed its political interest. On the one hand was a group of media organisations lining up to inflame opinions against the university, while on the other were those inspired by nationalist themes. This served to effectively filter out the true purposes of the debate.

Media reports targeted the students. It was reminiscent of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, which, interestingly topped Amazon’s best sellers list soon again after the US election. Students who had never participated in campus politics were now afraid to speak out.

However, JNU, now seen as a site of historic student upsurge, drew worldwide support with the hashtag #IstandwithJNU. Faculty members and students held a series of lectures on nationalism, which has been published in a must-read book entitled ‘What the Nation Really Needs to Know: JNU Nationalism Lectures’.

By supporting its students the university and the JNU Teachers Association, which also had to deal with reprehensible accusations, stood by their students. This was unusual and unique in the history to the campus and, while the university does not represent any ideal space, it is remembered with nostalgia by people who were once a part of the JNU family.

In 2017, despite all the negative publicity, Jawaharlal Nehru University won the Pranab Mukherjee Institution Visitor’s Award for ‘Best University 2017’. The award was created in 2015 to encourage healthy competition among the country’s universities.

 Rahul Ranjan is a PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His research focuses on ‘oral history, Adivasi and the land question in Jharkhand (India)’.

2 Comments

  1. Neha Jaswal says

    A very different take from the one displayed on our home screens. Coming from a student of the same JNU family makes it more convincing as a reader to believe. He was brave enough to bring out that whatever happens or will happen, JNU will be a prestigious and democratic university all around the world.

  2. Rahul Ranjan says

    Thanks to hear that, Neha. I am glad that you liked the article. I hope that the collective of student across the world, who are increasingly witnessing a massive crackdown on academic space find an outlet to build solidarity and resist the cycle.

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