At JNU, student ‘flame flickers’ against India’s Modi before national vote | India Election 2024 News

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New Delhi, India – A Bollywood film called JNU will be released across India next week. The tagline on its publicity posters asks: “Can one educational university break the nation?”

The film is only the latest, thinly veiled attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India’s premier public universities that for decades has also been a cauldron of political activism, with admission criteria designed to ensure that students from some of the country’s poorest and most neglected regions get a shot at quality higher education.

The university, a traditional bastion of left-liberal politics that is named after independent India’s first prime minister, has been a central target of political attacks from the country’s Hindu majoritarian right, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule. Like in the film, the university’s critics affiliated with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have described JNU as an “anti-national” hub over its politics. Students and ex-students have been jailed for treason. Teachers have accused the university administration, appointed by the BJP government, of weakening quality standards and processes for appointments to stock the faculty with ideologically aligned professors.

Amid a heated campaign for national elections scheduled for April and May, the university held its own vote last week for the JNU Students Union (JNUSU), which has historically been one of India’s most powerful and influential student bodies. These were the first JNUSU polls in four years, and results came out on Sunday.

JNU India
Students gather to listen to the JNUSU presidential debate in New Delhi [Courtesy of Sunny Dhiman]

Nationally, the BJP is predicted to win. At JNU, it lost.

“This election was a referendum against the right wing,” Dhananjay, the new students union president, said in his victory speech. The 28-year-old student of theatre and performance studies at JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics is also the first Dalit to be elected JNUSU president in nearly three decades.

Located on rocky, forested slopes in southern New Delhi, JNU is often described as a bubble, and there is little evidence that the outcome of its student body elections is any reflection of the national mood. But for many in the institution best known for its pedagogy and research in the social sciences, the win on Sunday of a coalition of left-wing organisations, offered a breather from perceived efforts by the BJP and its allies to take over their oasis.

‘Solidarity and hope’

The JNUSU has been dominated by groups affiliated with India’s many communist parties for decades. However, the rise of Hindu nationalism in the early 1990s saw the emergence of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a pan-India student organisation affiliated with the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP.

The university’s alumni include Nobel Laureates like Abhijit Banerjee, who won the economics prize in 2019, and foreign leaders such as former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and former Nepal Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. Many of India’s top political leaders — from Sitaram Yechury, the leader of India’s biggest communist party, to the current BJP government’s foreign minister S Jaishankar and finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman — studied at JNU.

On Sunday, thousands of JNU students gathered outside their union office to learn the results of the elections held last week, in which the ABVP was a strong challenger. But three of the top four posts were won by Left candidates while the remaining chair went to a queer woman from the Dalit community, which sits at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy.

Yet the national elections coming up could shape the future of JNU as much, if not more, than the students elected over the weekend.

Since Modi became the prime minister in 2014, his government has portrayed the university as a hub of activities designed to break India.

Students and ex-students – especially Muslims, such as Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam – have been arrested and charged with sedition and “terrorism”. Many remain behind bars. Students alleged that the university administration’s failure to hold elections since 2019 was also part of a pattern of actions aimed at stifling campus political activism.

While COVID-19 lockdowns prevented the polls in 2020 and 2021, the subsequent years saw a reluctance by the JNU administration “because it wanted elections to stop forever”, outgoing JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh told Al Jazeera.

JNU election
Outgoing JNUSU President Aishe Ghosh with Dhananjay, right, and another student [Amir Malik/Al Jazeera]

“Conducting the election again seemed impossible, but the students showed solidarity and hope,” she said. Unlike other public universities, the elections at JNU are conducted by students who form an Election Commission to oversee the vote.

“The hiatus in conducting the election was a major challenge as the Election Commission consisted of many new members. But I told the varsity administration that if I begin the process once, I will finish it,” said Chief Election Commissioner Shailendra Kumar, a doctoral student in South Asian studies.

“We have done so successfully and sensitively,” he said, adding that a Braille system for visually challenged voters was introduced for the first time.

‘Punching bag for BJP’s politics’

The JNU vote came weeks before India goes to the polls in a marathon six-week exercise, starting on April 19. And the university is likely to figure into the BJP’s campaign, as is evident by the release of JNU, the film, on April 5.

The movie is part of a slew of similar films produced by a section of Bollywood filmmakers to ostensibly promote Modi’s BJP. The film’s publicity posters, split in half between shades of saffron and red, clearly show a prominent university building with two rival groups of students demonstrating in front of it.

“The Left winning in JNU is not a new thing. It has been winning for many years and has been dominant ever since JNU came into being,” Harish S Wankhede, a professor at JNU’s Centre for Political Studies, told Al Jazeera.

“The new thing is that the central government’s attempts to change JNU, both ideologically and demographically, didn’t affect the campus much. The efforts by the government to malign JNU, defame it, calling it a den of anti-nationals, didn’t bear any fruit to the right-wing student group.”

India JNU
From left, newly elected JNUSU President Dhananjay, Vice President Avijit Ghosh, General Secretary Priyanshi Arya and Joint Secretary Mo Sajid [Amir Malik/Al Jazeera]

Wankhede said it was “surprising” that the ABVP, supported by a political environment for four years, did not win.

“JNU was considered a punching bag for the BJP’s politics,” Amisha Thakur, a doctoral student, told Al Jazeera. Wankhede agreed: “That’s true because no other university was giving an intellectual opposition to BJP with as much fervour as JNU was doing.”

But Govind Dangi, a 29-year-old student and an ABVP candidate in the election, described the Left as a dying force at JNU.

“The flame of a candle flickers before it ends. The Left is that dousing candle,” he said.

During an election debate held a day before the voting, ABVP’s presidential candidate, Umesh Chandra Ajmeera, made a gesture similar to what RSS members do at their meetings — a raised hand that critics of the Hindu right have compared to the Nazi salute.

While the gesture was met with angry protests, Dhananjay thinks Ajmeera may have done it unintentionally. “No one would accept Hitler in India,” he said.

Ajmeera was unavailable for a comment despite repeated efforts to reach him.

Jawaharlal Nehru University campus
The Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi [Courtesy: Creative Commons]

Caste assertions

Priyanshi Arya, the first Dalit queer person to be elected the JNUSU general secretary, belongs to the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA), which derives its names from some of India’s most prominent caste and tribal leaders, including Bhaimrao Ambedkar, the country’s first law minister and the chief architect of its secular constitution.

“The entire nation has its eyes on JNU. A first win for the Ambedkarite movement after 10 years of BAPSA’s inception, has created inspiration and hope coursing through the entire nation. It’s an emotional moment for us,” Arya told Al Jazeera.

Ajay Gudavarthy, also a professor at JNU’s Centre for Political Studies, said that while the university may represent a microcosm of the national politics, the claim that its Students Union election has “an impact on the national vote is an exaggeration”.

Still, he said, “all elections are being fought on the infallibility of Modi’s image. Any loss in an election is a dent on his larger-than-life persona,” he said.

“Somehow the BJP regime does not look confident despite being in power for a decade, … so it creates a hype knowing that its survival is only there till the hype lasts. There’s nothing beyond. But the ones in power live in the fear of losing it. That’s a terrible way of living.”

And what about the JNU film? Al Jazeera asked ABVP’s Dangi if he agrees with the film’s claim that his university is a “nation-breaker”.

Dandi said the film “portrays our university in a negative way and has no truth in it”.

“I personally oppose those films,” he said.

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