He’s known as Khaki in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Sabarmati hostel . A Kashmiri student, Khaki likes playing badminton in the open spaces of the university’s sprawling campus when he is not studying. He rarely bothered about the ideological differences amongst his friends in JNU’s politically charged atmosphere . His friends used to point out to him that he was quite popular on campus with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh, but Khaki would dismiss them. “No, yaar ,” he would say. “I am friendly with all sides. Politics means nothing to me.”
But on January 5, Khaki could not afford to be apolitical or ignore what was happening on campus. He was in his hostel when, all of a sudden, a group of people broke into his room with rods , he recounts to a group of psychiatrists assembled in Sabarmati hostel on December 9. They scattered on the floor all the neatly laid books is his room, he says. Despite his cries, they stomped on the blankets and broke the glass panes. Khaki is emotionally bruised and this is why the psychiatrists have come: to help the deeply divided university cope with the latest trauma.
Fee hike protest
It all began when protests broke out against the revised fee structure that the JNU administration under Vice Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar drew up in 2019. These protests dragged on as neither the university authorities, led by the Vice Chancellor, nor the Human Resources Development Ministry could meet the core demand of the students: to roll-back the steep increase in fees. Towards the end of October, the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) called for a “complete university strike” against the draft hostel manual which was part of the fee hike project of the university. The campus had been non-functional since the fee was raised.
The reopening of the winter semester was getting delayed as neither the JNU administration nor the JNU Teachers’ Association had managed to come up with any solution to the problem. Registration is a JNU-specific issue. Every six months, all the students in the university enrol themselves afresh for the courses that semester. This is also when the faculty give them feedback on their work.
To register or not to register for the winter semester was the main issue on campus. JNUSU opposed the registration process. It believed that simply doing so would mean surrendering to the revised fee structure. “We marched towards Rashtrapati Bhawan in December to register our complaint when we were lathi-charged by the Delhi Police. The whole world watched as this happened,” says Sucheta Talukdar, a student.
On the other hand, students say, teachers, mainly from the right-leaning JNU Teachers’ Federation, had been pushing them to register. Gathering at the State Bank of India to pay the fees, the students consulted one another on the issue. Many were not sure what to do.
The see-saw continued on January 3 and 4 when several rounds of heated discussions and spats took place between the JNUSU and the ABVP, which wanted to roll out the admission procedure. ABVP’s posters on campus read: “By preventing and threatening bonafide students willing to register for the winter semester, the JNUSU has lost its legitimacy, morality and cause of its very existence.” JNUSU maintained that registering would amount to acceptance of the higher fee structure that it had been protesting over the last five months. JNU has a ‘zero semester’ system, which means that a student can opt out of a semester citing health or family issues. If all students refused to register, reasoned JNUSU, it would make the semester a ‘zero semester’ for everyone, a welcome scenario for the protesting students.
On January 4 morning, students say members of the JNUSU, led by JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh, marched to the main server of the campus and forcibly disconnected it. This led to a scuffle outside the server room, a sign of things to come. As Ghosh was leaving the server room, she and others were stopped and beaten up by some students, Sucheta says.
However, ABVP activist Shambhavi Jha, a Russian language student from JNU , says WiFi on campus had become nonfunctional even before January 4. “We believe that JNUSU disconnected the servers even before January 4. We were unable to access WiFi needed for admission-related work,” she says.
The final confrontation
These events snowballed into the final confrontation of January 5. On the afternoon of that cold Sunday, teachers and students gathered together at Sabarmati T-point, ironically for a peace march. “We had been planning to gather at Sabarmati hostel to initiate a dialogue among the students. We gathered at Sabarmati T-point with placards and posters,” says Amit Thorat, Assistant Professor at the Center for the Study of Regional Development.
Around the same time, says Chandan (name changed), a student at the School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, a large group of students had congregated at Mahi-Mandavi hostel and then dispersed at 3 p.m. There was a murmur going around that the long-standing tensions between the ABVP and JNUSU would blow up. Students were apprehensive and nervous: it seemed like something terrible was going to happen. Chandan took his scooter and rode around campus. He says he did not want to miss out on any of the “action”. Chandan was also concerned about the safety of a woman friend; he wanted to ensure that she was safe in case a fracas broke out. He rode around for a while and then went to Periyar hostel near the North Gate, an area known as Dakshinapuram. Even as he was talking to fellow students, Chandan says he saw a teacher belonging to a right-wing political group hand out sticks and rods to some youngsters near the entrance of the hostel. “Some of the rods appeared new and shiny and drew my attention. I was stunned to see this young Assistant Professor distributing these to students,” he says. “The teacher kept saying ‘ jaldi karo (act fast)’ while distributing the rods and sticks,” he says. The teacher had found himself in the midst of a controversy earlier as his appointment had drawn flak in the academic circles.
A group of students rushed to inform the teachers at Sabarmati T-point that an Assistant Professor was busy arming some students with sticks and rods. By then a mob had quickly arrived, their faces covered with dupattas and masks. They were armed with sticks and began to assault the teachers, multiple students say. Professor Sucharita Sen was hit on her head repeatedly. Thorat says he had reached the backyard of Periyar hostel by then, where he was assaulted by the masked members of the gang for taking their photographs on his phone.
The masked lot then moved to the girls wing of Sabarmati hostel and targeted the rooms of Kashmiri students, like Khaki, and other minority students, says Jyoti Priyadarshni, a student. Three students stood up to the attack. As the gang went from room to room, Monica Bishnoi, Priyadarshni, and Raashi stood outside and confronted the gang members. Alerting the women of the hostel even as they chased away the attackers, these young students emerged as the saviours on the long night of terror in Sabarmati hostel.
Fear of new trouble
The night came to an end but fear and trauma have only begun, say students. They are afraid as they continue to share hostel space with those whom they suspect were among the masked men and women. Thorat and others are aware that gang members from outside could not have targeted faculty without help from insiders.
Chandan explains the lingering mental trauma and after-effects of the violence. “A courier delivery man knocked on my door on Tuesday. The knock was loud but I could not bring myself to open the door. My heart was beating fast and I told my roommate that this could be a trick; maybe some people were planning to assault me,” he says. The courier man eventually went away. Following the violence, the dhabas and small eateries on campus are slowly returning to normalcy, but assaulted students continue to wear broken spectacles, injuries on their head and face, and anxiously scan their surroundings, anticipating another round of assault. No amount of assurance makes them feel comfortable. “Our outdoor activities have drastically reduced. Many of us are so tired that we sleep for more than 12 hours. We have stopped our morning walks,” says Krishan Takhar of the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, indicating that students who usually spend hours at the famous central library of the university are unable to study.
Apart from the presence of some of the key members of the masked gang among the students of the right-wing student bodies, the battered activists also fear the security agency of the campus. The agency, Cyclops Security and Allied Services, took charge a month before the complete university strike was called by the JNUSU students. In a notification issued on September 18, JNU’s security department was asked to remain “extra vigilant”. The note said, “They have been instructed to verify the identity of the person entering JNU Campus/building, to their full satisfaction. All residents are requested to carry their ID cards... Together we can make JNU a secure campus.”
Once the strike and sit down protest began, the students realised that the guards intended to assault them. “On one occasion we spent a night protesting at the administration block. Some girls were huddled together early in the morning. Suddenly a guard came and snatched away our razai (thick blanket),” says Sucheta. She also claims that the guards slapped her and others some time between January 3 and 5.
The security agency boasts of appointing ex-servicemen for security assignments. However, visitors to the campus say they noticed a subtle change in the rules for entering the campus soon after the agency took charge. In the old system, guards gave plastic tokens to outsiders entering the campus. Thorat noticed one day, when he was being driven into the campus by a friend, that the guards were not always asking for the tokens to be returned. But students also add that they are not wary of all the security guards. They are friendly with many of the previous security guards, who even called them after the January 5 incident to enquire about their well being, they say.
So far, a controversial tenure
Ever since Kumar took charge in January 2016 from Sudhir Kumar Sopory as Vice Chancellor of JNU, there has been trouble. In March 2018, eight women accused Professor Atul Johri, at the university’s School of Life Sciences, of sexual harassment. Subsequently, the Delhi High Court stopped him from accessing his office and the school premises. Despite the restraint order from the court, Johri continued to teach and access his room and laboratory even as students continued to protest against his presence. The breakdown of the Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment, or GSCASH, which used to be at the forefront of protecting students against sexual assault on campus, has also been a major issue during Kumar’s tenure. GSCASH was dismantled and replaced with a new outfit called the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), set up by the administration. In 2018, The Wire reported how the ICC leaked a complaint from a student to the ABVP. This jeopardised the identity of the complainant. As a result, the ICC could not gain the trust of the students. The JNU administration guided by the Vice Chancellor replaced the more representative GSCASH with the ICC. JNUSU claims that the ICC is staffed by the administration’s “loyalists” and lacks the transparency required for deterring sexual harassment on campus. Apart from the complaint against Johri, several cases of sexual harassment that raise disturbing questions about gender fairness on campus remain unaddressed.
The dream of unity
The hostels in JNU are named after the rivers of the country to represent the unity of India. However, students and teachers on campus say that the university is deeply splintered today. In such a polarised campus, where a student protest against fee hike has taken the form of an anti-government movement, the biggest victims are the students who want to remain removed from campus politics and intellectually curious. “There is no way a student can maintain his academic and personal freedom. We are constantly reminded that to remain safe we must align with one group or the other,” says Krishan, a student. Apart from the students, the teachers are also divided. The JNU Teacher’s Association has held many protest rallies against the Vice Chancellor. Its members were brutally assaulted on January 5. The JNU Teacher’s Federation has accused the JNU Teacher’s Association of disrupting academic life on campus. A group called JNU Commons has emerged to safeguard the intellectual autonomy of students and scholars and provide space to those who want to maintain a distance from all these issues and yet show commitment to justice and fairness on the campus.
As the police investigation continues, questions hang in the air about the future of the investigation itself. Students claim that they saw police in civvies inside the campus even as the assault and heavy stone-pelting targeted female students of the Left. It was only several days after the traumatic day, on Thursday night, that the police removed large posters near the university. These had been pasted by a self- proclaimed Hindu Sena leader, Surjeet Yadav, and accused student leaders of being “ balaatkaari (rapists)”, “pro-Chinese” and “anti-national Leftists”.
Meanwhile, the administration is still pushing for students to register. “There were concerns among some of us about whether or not we should register but after the attack of January 5 more students feel that it’s better to stay united and avoid registering this semester. January 5 was the last day of registration but only a fraction of students had registered by then. Now the admin has extended the registration process but this option is not yet popular,” says Deepak Kumar, senior research scholar at the Centre for Law and Governance.