Both students and city-based student unions raised their voices against the brutal attack on students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which took place last Monday. The JNU students, mainly left-leaning and protesting against fee increases on campus, were targeted by masked men with iron rods and sticks. The violence injured around 34 people, according to the police.
Amongst the injured was Aishe Ghosh, president of the university's student union, who was beaten over the head with iron rods. During a press conference on Monday, Ghosh accused the student wing of the country's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – known as Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – of organizing the attack. Experts say the attack fits a pattern of intimidation by Modi’s government and its Hindu nationalist allies against universities, which have always been bastions of progressive thought, but now feel increasingly out of step with the country’s prevailing political climate of religious nationalism.
In May 2019, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a massive mandate to continue to govern India for another five years, with an increased majority in national elections. Amid a faltering economy, his re-election campaign tapped heavily into the Hindu nationalist politics held by his party’s base. Such politics tend to encompass the belief that India is a Hindu nation, bitter rivals with Pakistan, and purporting the scapegoating of Muslims (who make up 14% of India’s population).
The group many students blamed for the attack, the ABVP, is the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the ideological powerhouse of the Hindu nationalist movement, which in turn is the parent organization of the ruling BJP. The RSS was founded in 1925 and was heavily influenced by European fascist parties, including the Nazis in Germany. Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, along with many other top members of the BJP, attended RSS camps as an adolescent and continues to be close to the organization. In the latest development, Hindu Raksha Dal, a far-right fringe group of Sangh Parivar, spawned by the RSS, has claimed the responsibility for violence in JNU. There have been threats of more attacks of those involved in ‘anti-nationalist activities’ in India, but no actions by the police or government have been taken.
Since his ascension, Modi has delivered some of the Hindu nationalist goals such as rooting out ‘infiltrators’ in Assam, an Indian state bordering Bangladesh, and revoking the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashir. However, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – a law that would offer streamlined asylum applications to members of all South Asia’s major religions except Muslims, India’s largest minority community and a regular BJP target – has recently been introduced and has since caused massive political instability.
The attack on JNU students was seen by many in India as an attempt by supporters of the BJP to intimidate protesters at a time when it is struggling to keep them off the streets more generally. This is not the first time that attacks on universities have occurred; in December 2019, police stormed two leading universities in Delhi and the northern city of Aligarh, amid anti-CAA protests. It is clear that police behaviour depends solely on who is protesting and where, and that they seek to fulfil a political agenda, rather than serving as simple custodians of law and order. If India wishes to continue to call itself anything other than a banana republic, someone must be held accountable in the police, whether that is the Delhi administration or the government.
More than 1,000 people have held vigil in Mumbai, while demonstrations have also been held in Bengaluru, Kolkata and other major cities, as condemnation of the attacks continues to spread. The attack on Sunday reveals a few things about India’s current political situation. Firstly, it demonstrates the slow deterioration of law and order in New Delhi, India’s capital. While unprecedented violence was going on in the campus, the police, stationed outside the main gate of the campus, did nothing to prevent it. Police didn’t even try take anyone into custody while the assailants walked out of the campus after the attack, said onlookers. If mobs can enter one of India's best universities, whose campus is said to resemble that of a fortress, with security guarding entry and exit points, and the police fail to protect students and teachers, then who exactly is safe?
Secondly, the government's response to the violence has been minimal: it has refused to engage with protesting students. India seems to be failing its young people, as students’ constant demonstrations and protests continue to be ignored by the government. What is more worrying is that India's opposition has failed to take up the cudgels on behalf of students. Modi’s government continues to hold power, despite having faced massive criticism from opposition, actors, activists and business leaders.
Lastly, both the spread and effects of false information are prevalent. Those who claim that all parties or student groups indulge in violence must be challenged, not least as the group that was video-recorded calling for people to be shot is not the same as the group singing the national anthem and waving the Indian flag.