The “JNU Row”, as Indian print media have deemed it, has been swallowing urban India whole for every day of the last two months. After a student protest on the campus grounds of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) resulted in the incarceration of the protest leader Kanhaiya Kumar, student activists and ‘liberals’ across the nation raised an outcry in the name of free speech and liberty. The issue has become aggressively polarized across political lines—particularly against the incumbent BJP government. Indeed, Kanhaiya Kumar has branded himself as the foil to the BJP’s choreographed suppression of secular and diverse voices in India and considers his imprisonment emblematic of the rise of an omnipotent BJP super-state. The opposition party, the Congress Party of India, has pounced on this opportunity to amass political capital and further mobilise the masses against the incumbent BJP government. The painting of the issue as BJP against Congress is folly, however. The politics of national and territorial identity that the JNU Row has created has thrown Indian liberals out into the political cold, leaving the Indian masses in a political vacuum that many aren’t entirely aware exists.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s Incarceration
Events unraveled quickly on February 9th, 2016 at the JNU campus in New Delhi, where Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar led an impassioned student protest against the hanging of Afzal Guru—a Kashmiri separatist who was hanged back in 2013 for attacking the Parliament House of India. Guru’s 2013 hanging took place amid a whirlpool of controversy. Many human rights activists and notable public figures alleged that corruption and mistreatment—including inhumane torture techniques and malnourishment—marred the fairness of Guru’s trial, undermining the integrity of the justice system as a whole. Meanwhile, other journalists and political commentators spoke out in sympathy of Kashmiri angst against the central Indian government.
On February 9, what was intended as a peaceful student protest to highlight the lack of democratic rights in Kashmir and the nuances surrounding Afzal Guru’s controversial hanging eventually derailed into a public indictment of the federal union of India. The protest devolved into calls for ‘Bharat ki barbadi’ (Destruction of India) and ‘Pakistan zindabad’ (Long Live Pakistan) from various students in the crowd of protesters. This prompted the ABVP—a Hindu-right-wing student group on campus notorious for their aggression and strong ties with to the BJP—and BJP minister, Maheish Girri, to file a police report against Kanhaiya Kumar. Kanhaiya was charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy, and jailed—plunging Indians across the nation and the world into bottomless dialogues on free speech, federalism, political polarisation, and the territorial identity of the subcontinent.
Kanhaiya Kumar has since disavowed all ‘anti-India’ slogans and provided proof that he was not party to the pro-Pakistan/separatist sloganeering (those were the responsibility of more radical Kashmiri students who joined in the protests of their own accord), and Kanhaiya has now been released on bail. In a speech to thousands of Delhi students after his release, he reiterated his commitment to the Indian Union and the need for larger discourse on freedom and equality within the nation, which according to Kanhaiya has been suppressed by Modi’s new government. He has now become the beacon of student politics and a force to be reckoned with amongst India’s increasingly disillusioned youth, who still suffer from low employment rates and who increasingly disdain the incumbent BJP regime’s tendencies toward anti-secular activities and often socially regressive policies and views.
Between BJP Ministers making ridiculous comments about Hindu superiority over other minorities, Muslims not being allowed to be employed as Yoga instructors, and millions of taxpayer Rupees being thrown behind conferences and festivals that celebrate the power and purity of the Hindu community, the incumbent party’s credibility as the representative of the masses is quickly disintegrating. Just a month earlier, a Dalit student in Hyderabad University was found dead in his dorm room from committing suicide. He was being persecuted by the BJP and the ABVP chapter in Hyderabad for alleged assault and had not been given his student scholarship stipend for months. He has become a martyr in Hyderabad University, uniting almost all other student groups against the ABVP—and by extension, against the BJP. Indeed, Kanhaiya Kumar’s speeches directly accuse Prime Minister Modi’s government of casteism, stifling liberty, and being ‘Hitler’-like in furthering its extremist Hindu agenda. The Kanhaiya movement has divided much of the country into ‘Bhakts’ (Devotees) and ‘Liberals’, and the Congress party has wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon to gain political points. And yet, neither this liberal base, nor Kanhaiya Kumar, has pledged any allegiance to the Congress party, or any other party for that matter. While calling Modi Hitler, Kumar refused to align with the current Congress government or its leader Rahul Gandhi. Indeed, the lines that have been drawn by many political commentators and the media between Congress and BJP as a result of this fracas are misguided—and dangerous.
Who Defines India’s Identity?
The first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru writes in his magnum opus ‘The Discovery of India’ about his struggles in putting the first Indian Union together. Using military pressure, war, and the involvement of the United Nations Special Forces, Nehru managed to cobble together an unlikely union of heterogeneous populations and states that he envisioned would all hold together under the auspices of secularism, free speech and democracy. This, along with heavy government intervention in the market and widespread social welfare, was the legacy that was passed down to today’s Congress party, the President of which today is Nehru’s great-grandson Rahul Gandhi. This is the future Kanhaiya Kumar looks to when he imagines a utopian India, yet neither Nehru, Modi, the current Congress party, nor any other political outlet truly espouses the values Kanhaiya is looking for—indeed the liberal base in India has no political salvation to turn to.
The oppression in Kashmir that JNU students have so vehemently called to abort has been allowed and espoused by countless central governments headed by the Congress party as well as coalition governments in Kashmir in which Congress had a hand. The casteism that students blame for the suicides of their friends has been reinforced by Congress’ affirmative action and social welfare policies which are contingent on caste lines. The absurdity of these policies is unparalleled in a modern democratic polity—have you ever heard of welfare policies being named and designated specifically and exclusively for black Americans? Congress’s politically-motivated and caste-based policies drive deep wedges between many different caste communities, the ramifications of which we have seen in various riots that have taken place just this year. The Congress party has additionally not been a pure bastion of free speech either, having banned Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the name of maintaining communal peace, and Javier Moro’s The Red Sari in the name of respecting the whims of Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi.
We see, then, that while the series of unfortunate events following from that fateful day in JNU are reflective of the rise of more extreme right-wing politics. They are also indicative, however, of the unravelling of the tenuous Indian Union that Nehru and the Congress party have been cobbling together while dipping in and out of power for the last 60 years. The geographic identity and unity of India have been held together by weak bandages designed by the old order. The new BJP government’s challenge to this through increased calls for Hindu rights and socially conservative views may have pushed many of their newly gained voters back across the political aisle. However, the infamous ineptitude of Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, the corruption within his party, Congress’ failed economic policies and failure to effectively create the utopian state that Kanhaiya and Nehru envision, means that masses of Indian voters today stand without representation. Student protests surrounding issues of separatism and the tangible geographic identity of the Indian federal state have thrown up larger issues of what political and social values the geography of the Indian union encompasses—creating a political vacuum in Delhi where no party is credible or viable enough to capture the borders of those values.