JNU: Why the United Left?

Subin Dennis September 8, 2016

"More than at any point in the past, today is the time when we should unite to hand out a massive defeat to the ABVP, and give a clear mandate to send out a powerful message to the country that we are united in defence of democracy, secularism, social justice and gender justice, and in our determination to carry forward our struggles for students’ rights."


The JNU Students Union Elections 2016-17 are scheduled to be held on 9 September 2016. For the first time in history, two left organisations - the Students' Federation of India (SFI) and the All India Students' Association (AISA) which used to be bitter rivals have come together this year to contest the elections in JNU under the banner of Left Unity.

A lot of friends from all across the country have been asking how this came about, and what the meaning of this unity is.

Left Unity in JNU has been forged in the fire of united struggles in the recent times, when AISA and SFI joined hands to fight the assault on our public universities, to rebuff the attack on our democratic rights, and to resist the onslaught against the deprived sections of the student community in the country. This unity was reflected in struggles such as #OccupyUGC which began in October 2015 when the UGC moved to scrap the non-NET fellowships for research scholars in central universities, the powerful upsurge demanding #JusticeForRohith after the institutional murder of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula of Hyderabad Central University in January 2016, and finally in the massive #StandWithJNU movement in defence of the democratic ethos of our campus following the #ShutDownJNU campaign in February 2016 by the RSS-BJP-ABVP alleging that JNU is a hub of so-called “anti-national” activities and the subsequent witch-hunt of student activists in the campus.

While these have been explained several times during the past few weeks, I believe this unity has a meaning which goes beyond the immediate reasons for the alliance.

Firstly, this alliance should be the harbinger of more powerful struggles to advance students’ rights in a concrete fashion. There are long-pending, core student issues in the campus. Among the most important of these is an acute hostel crisis, the demand for increasing scholarships, the demand for making our admission policy more inclusive and so on. The time since the implementation of the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations which imposed draconian restrictions on students union elections saw the balance of forces within the campus tilting in favour of the administration. The unity of the Left forces must reinvigorate our students’ movement to wage intense struggles with mass mobilisations of students powerful enough to force the administration to act upon core student demands.

Second, the RSS’s assault on our public universities and all critical spaces of thinking, its effort to communalise society, its moves to sell out the country to corporate interests, are all organised. More than 3.2 million students are studying in RSS-run schools! This monstrous force cannot be resisted and defeated without we ourselves getting organised. The organised Left in the country has been the most consistent voice and force against communalism, it has been the bulwark of the resistance in defence of public education, and it has been, in spite of shortcomings and limitations, the most reliable force fighting against anti-people economic policies and in favour of alternative economic policies. The mandate in favour of AISA-SFI will be a mandate in favour of the organised movement for a more just, democratic, secular and egalitarian society.

In the last few days, some individuals from certain outfits which had distanced themselves from the #StandWithJNU movement had gone around claiming that the #ShutDownJNU campaign was an empty threat. (Now they are back to claiming that they were also part of the movement, but the students know who were there and who were not.) This brings us to the question, was the #ShutDownJNU campaign not a dangerous one? Why was JNU under attack in the first place?

Many people do not know that what happened in February 2016 was not the first attempt to shut down JNU. A look at the history of the JNU students movement will make it clear to us why the ruling classes have attacked JNU in the past, and why that attack continues even now. After all, JNU is most well-known, along with its rigorous academics, for its powerful students movement led by the Left.

A Union Set Up by Students Themselves

The JNU Students Union was created by the students themselves, without any intervention by the University administration, which gave it a unique autonomy of character. It was for the first time in the history of the students’ movement in India that the students set up their own Union, formulated the Union’s constitution through widespread discussions, and forced the administration to recognise it. The Left played a crucial role in shaping the JNU students’ movement from its very beginning. Comrade Prakash Karat was one of the three students who moved the resolution calling for the formation of a JNU Students Union, in a GBM of the SIS Students Association on 31 August 1971. The JNUSU constitution, written by the students themselves, was ratified in September 1971. Prakash Karat went on to become the JNUSU President in 1973-74 under the united banner of SFI and AISF.

A Path-Breaking Admission Policy

In 1972-73 itself, the JNUSU advocated an admission policy which would enable students from poorer backgrounds and backward regions to enter JNU. It was the first major struggle led by the JNUSU, and it resulted in a path-breaking admission policy being adopted by the university, according to which weightages were given for students from deprived socio-economic backgrounds and those hailing from backward regions. The deprivation point system awarded a maximum of 20 deprivation points based on social, economic and regional backwardness. The final touch was given to this policy in 1974 when the Academic Council approved the union president's resolution for reservation for SC/ST students. Student-faculty committees (SFCs) were also set up with elected students in each centre. During the term of the 1973-74 union led by SFI-AISF, the admission procedure was regularised with the students having a say through the SFCs, which would scrutinise the entrance tests and finalise the results. Members from the SFCs used to be present when the viva voce was held to ensure that discrimination or harassment did not occur. A very important upshot of this admission policy was that the representation of students from the deprived sections was more than the proportions mandated by the Constitution later on.

The First #ShutDownJNU

The alarm of the ruling classes in the increased empowerment of the deprived sections led to the scrapping of the Old Admission Policy (OAP) in 1983, when there was a brutal police crackdown on student activists in an attempt to break the back of student militancy, and the university was closed down sine die. In 1983, no students were admitted into the University. The OAP was replaced by the New Admission Policy (introduced with effect from 1984), according to which the system of deprivation points was eliminated. The NAP eroded the national character of the University, and the students’ movement suffered a serious setback. The infamous ‘EC Norms’ were introduced to restrict the rights of protest, and were repeatedly invoked in the 1980s to initiate disciplinary action against JNUSU office bearers. The deprivation point system was partially restored in 1993-94 during the term of an AISA-led Union.

The students under the leadership of the AISA-led Union of 1994-95 fought a decisive battle to defeat the move to impose fee hikes and to implement privatisation following the Raja Raman Committee recommendations.

The Progressive Admission Policy (PAP) initiative by the SFI-led JNUSU of 1998-99 was the first attempt by the Union to fully integrate the Mandal Commission recommendations with JNU’s admission policy by introducing 27% OBC reservations. The ABVP denigrated PAP by terming it ‘paap’ (sin), and the reactionary sections led by ABVP joined hands to seek a secret ballot in a UGBM called to decide the fate of the Progressive Admission Policy. While the casteist, reactionary forces managed to stave off this momentous initiative, the larger agenda of the reactionary combine – that of fundamentally altering the character of our students movement by rallying the reactionary sections – could not be fulfilled.

OBC reservations were finally implemented in JNU from 2008 onwards. While the administration went back from its promise to implement reservation in one go and instead chose to implement it over three years, the Union fought to ensure that reservations were implemented correctly.

Struggles for Democracy, and Against Authoritarianism

The Internal Emergency was declared in India on 25 June 1975, and there was a widespread crackdown on democratic rights. There were several police raids in JNU to pick up student activists — 69 students were arrested in the very first raid on 8 July 1975. There was even the notorious episode of an SFI activist (Prabir Purkayastha) being kidnapped by the police (which was among the six incidents shortlisted by the Shah Commission which later looked into the charges of Emergency excesses). Com. Prabir spent the rest of the Emergency in jail. The JNUSU President from SFI was also arrested, and the Union was forced to function underground. The fact that the university administration had absolutely no say in the conduct of the Union or in the conduct of the Union elections meant that the administration could not “ban” the Union. The JNUSU acquired such a reputation during this time that despite the police clampdown, the meeting of the university court, which was to be held in JNU was shifted to Vigyan Bhavan, so that Indira Gandhi, as the Chancellor of the University, did not have to face the protest. Following the revocation of the Emergency and the defeat of the Congress in 1977, every single democratic right denied during the Emergency was restored through a series of struggles launched by the JNUSU. A powerful movement was launched to punish those officials (including the VC) for their overzealous implementation of the Emergency rules in the campus. Even as such struggles progressed, various facilities such as bus routes, banking, postal facilities etc. were also established during this time.

The #StandWithJNU movement is yet another brilliant episode in the history of our students’ movement. I wouldn’t dwell upon it now because it is far too well-known to be recounted at the moment.

Struggles for Hostels, Scholarships

Just like today, there was a big hostel crisis in JNU during the second half of the 1990s. The SFI-AISF-led Union of 1997-98 led a powerful struggle which led to the provision of alternative accommodation outside the campus to studebnts who did not have hostel rooms. The administration was forced to provide rented temporary accommodation in Mahipalpur and to provide transportation facilities to the campus. The struggle, however, did not stop there. The permanent solution to a hostel crisis, after all, is to build more hostels. <>The protracted struggles launched by the JNUSU of 1998-99 culminated into a massive agitation during which, after 14 days of indefinite hunger strike, 63 students were arrested and 14 students including three office-bearers of the JNUSU were illegally detained in Tihar jail for three days. There was massive outrage at this authoritarian response of the administration, and all sections of the JNU community rose in unison against the administration, which was forced to back down and accept the demands of the students. Temporary accommodation was provided at Mahanadi hostel, and four new hostels — Mahi-Mandavi, Lohit, Chandrabhaga and Yamuna, apart from one more wing to Tapti hostel came up as a result of this historic struggle.

The Left-led Unions have fought consistently to keep fees low in JNU – the annual tuition fee for research scholars today is Rs. 240, while for Bachelor’s and Master’s students, it is Rs. 216. The Unions have also fought to establish scholarships for students from deprived backgrounds. Time and again, they have waged agitations to increase the scholarship amounts in keeping with increases in living expenses. Low fees and scholarships, along with the provision of hostel accommodation at low rates have enabled students from the poorest backgrounds from all over India to come and study in JNU.

One major agitation in this regard was fought in 2006, for the enhancement of the Merit-Cum-Means (MCM) scholarships. In the face of stiff opposition from the administration which claimed that the students of JNU are all well-off, the office-bearers from SFI-AISF did a campus-wide survey among students to conclusively prove the need for enhancing the financial assistance to students. The survey showed that 59% of students faced financial problems, and that 65% of research scholars faced financial constraints. It also showed that 75% of SC/ST/VH/PH students faced financial problems. The agitation found massive support among the students, who rallied behind the JNUSU on university strikes, writing of mass protest letters, massive protest demonstrations, relay hunger strikes and finally, an indefinite hunger strike that lasted for nine days. Following the agitation, the administration was forced to enhance the MCM scholarship amount from Rs. 600 to Rs. 1500. (In 2013, the administration increased the scholarship by another Rs. 500, but our demand to double the scholarship remained unfulfilled and would form part of the agenda for the next Union to fight for.)

Firm Resistance Against Communalism

The communal-fascist forces which gained strength in the country during the 1990s and the early 2000s were resisted in the campus by the Left-led Unions. Attempts to saffronise education, reflected in moves like the proposal to introduce courses such as “Human consciousness” as part of the X Plan Proposals in 2001, were defeated by the movement led by the Union. There was even the attempt by the RSS to target JNU and the JNUSU as a den of “ISI agents”. There was an incident of violence during an Indo-Pak Mushaira held in JNU on 29 April 2000, where three drunken disruptors (one of whom brandished a revolver) were beaten up only to later find that two of them were Army officers. The Sangh Parivar then demanded that the ‘ISI activities’ in JNU be investigated, and the ‘Bahri Commission of Enquiry’ was set up in pliant response to this absurd demand. Such targeting, however, was defeated by the steadfast resistance of the students’ movement led by the Left-led JNUSU.

Struggles for Gender Justice

The struggle for an institution to deal with cases of sexual harassment gathered pace in JNU in 1996-97, as the ABVP winning a majority in the JNUSU Council that year led to a steep rise in instances of violence and sexual harassment in the campus. The entire gender-sensitive, secular and democratic minded student community rallied behind the SFI-AISF-led JNUSU in protests and a protracted fight for justice, and the Vishaka judgement of the Supreme Court in 1997 bolstered the struggle. On the eve of the International Women’s Day in 1998 on behalf of the JNUSU, a state level convention (inaugurated by Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal) was held, where the Union presented a students’ draft for a Committee Against Sexual Harassment. After discussions and agitations that lasted for many months, the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) (the name having been given by Com. Vijoo Krishnan, the JNUSU President of the time) was set up on March 8, 1999, making it the first such body set up in an educational institution in India.

The Fight to Restore Elections as per the JNUSU Constitution

In 2008, the Supreme Court stayed the JNUSU elections, citing the excuse that we had not implemented the draconian Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations (LCR), which put in place restrictions that are fundamentally undemocratic and exclusionary (particularly adversely affecting students from deprived sections). The Left fought to restore the JNUSU elections through a protracted legal and political battle, and managed to bring back the elections in 2012 after winning a few concessions from the Supreme Court regarding the implementation of LCR. The agenda of restoring the elections as per the JNUSU constitution, however, remains unfulfilled, and would be a crucial part of the agenda for the new Union.

#ShutDownJNU – a Long-cherished Dream of the RSS-BJP-ABVP

The ruling classes have always hated the fact that JNU is a bastion of student resistance against anti-student, anti-people policies pursued by successive governments. The fact that students from deprived backgrounds are coming here and arming themselves with ideas and the organisational strength to carry forward this resistance have only angered the ruling classes further. The communal forces in India, led by the RSS, have understandably considered JNU as space that needs to be crushed, as the JNU students movement has always stood up in defence of democracy and secularism.

In 1996-97, LK Advani was invited as the Chief guest for an official academic programme in the Spanish Centre in JNU. In an emergency JNUSU council meeting called to discuss the issue, the ABVP members assaulted the JNUSU President (Battilal Bairwa of SFI). The massive student mobilisation and protests that followed forced Advani to cancel the visit. The media responded with Swapan Dasgupta writing an editorial in the Indian Express, saying it is “Time to Crack the Whip on JNU” because it was producing “Stupid Marxists”, and that the time had come to convert JNU into a management institute!

The Gujarat massacre of 2002 led to a massive, spontaneous reaction from the JNU community, with students participating in continuous protest programmes in large numbers for over two months. JNU students and teachers went on fact-finding missions to Gujarat, collected relief funds and material, and went in teams to provide legal aid to the pogrom victims staying in relief camps. This emphatic response from JNU against the Gujarat carnage led to calls by the likes of Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia to close down this university which had so steadfastly risen up in defence of secularism.

The attack unleashed by the RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya in November 2015 against JNU by calling it “anti-national” and the #ShutDownJNU campaign by the RSS-BJP-ABVP in February 2016 were nothing but a continuation of the communal-fascist forces’ attacks against our university which have been continuing for decades.

This brief account (which has no claims to be comprehensive, of course) of the JNU students movement and the Left’s role in it gives some pointers as to why it becomes crucial for the students to give an unambiguous verdict to carry forward our struggle to preserve the democratic ethos that we have stood for, and to strengthen the fight to advance students’ rights.

Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the stances of various other organisations. Let me mention a few of those before I conclude.

Many have been asking why the AISF has not fielded candidates as part of the United Left alliance. Discussions were going on with the AISF till the last minute, but due to certain technical difficulties, one of their candidates could not file the nomination. AISF had then one remaining candidate whose nomination was withdrawn them in support of the left alliance.

What about DSF? As has been pointed out in releases by SFI and AISA, the DSF wanted AISA out of the alliance from the very beginning. This was not a position that SFI agreed with. SFI and AISA were in discussions regarding an alliance for quite some time following the experiences of united struggles, and the best chance for strengthening our fight against the assault on public education would only be weakened by keeping out AISA in JNU. DSF’s sectarianism led them to abstain from voting on the Report tabled by the Convenor from AISA in the GBM of the School of Languages, while in the School of Arts and Aesthetics, DSF voted against the report. The Reports tabled by Convenors from SFI in the School of Social Sciences and the School of International Studies, on the other hand, had been supported by all left organisations. The distrust that developed by this time culminated in the breakdown of alliance talks with the DSF.

BAPSA – the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association hardly played any role in the #StandWithJNU movement. Their presence in the movement was token at best, with BAPSA even peddling the “theory” that the #ShutDownJNU campaign was a conspiracy hatched by the ABVP and the Left to divert attention from the movement demanding Justice for Rohith! The fact of the matter is that organisations like the BAPSA with their counterparts and “role models” outside the campus have never been serious in fighting communalism. Leaders such as Mayawati, Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale, Jitan Manjhi and Udit Raj have all allied with the BJP at various points of time. BAPSA in fact even hosted Jitan Manjhi in a public meeting in JNU after his hobnobbing with the BJP! Therefore it is no wonder that the BAPSA did not take the #StandWithJNU movement as an important one.

BAPSA’s stand on the recent Dalit assertion in Una, Gujarat is in fact quite interesting. During a recent public meeting, BAPSA leaders were seen claiming that the land reform agenda that the Una movement has put forward is irrelevant, exposing BAPSA’s thorough alienation from the Dalit masses. The Una struggle made the demand for land for the Dalits the prime focus of its attention, because the social oppression of Dalits is inextricably linked to their economic exploitation – Dalits were historically not allowed to own land, and they were always used as a source of labour which can made easily available to the ruling classes to make surplus extraction possible. The recognition of this fact, however, would militate against the position that ideologues of identity politics have often taken that in India, class struggle doesn’t matter!

BAPSA’s claims that “we are neither Left nor right” and their slogans such as “Laal, Bhagwa ek hai, saare comrades fake hai” (Red and Saffron are one, all comrades are fake) are equally ridiculous. If one is neither Left nor Right in any given society, that means one is in favour of perpetuating the status quo at least as far as the economic structure is concerned. Thus, objectively speaking, if one claims that he/she is neither Left nor Right in a capitalist society, that would amount to being right-wing by default. The claim that Red and Saffron are one is puerile, of course. One only needs to take a look at Kerala to realise the hollowness of BAPSA’s claims. Kerala has had the second largest number of RSS shakhas in India after Gujarat for quite some time, and in spite of that, they haven’t been able to make inroads sufficient for them to take power. Kerala is not a communal cauldron in spite of continuous efforts by the RSS which has been pumping money to bolster its activities because the Left in the state is far more organised and powerful enough to defeat the machinations of the RSS. The frustration of the RSS in its failure to be the leading force in the state is manifested in its continuous, murderous attacks on Left activists. There are Left activists in JNU who have themselves been attacked by the RSS, one of them from SFI having been stabbed by an RSS goon once (I cannot reveal the name due to obvious concerns).

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, said George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher. As people who are conscious of history, we should draw the correct lessons from history, recognise our shortcomings, mistakes and limitations and work to overcome them. More than at any point in the past, today is the time when we should unite to hand out a massive defeat to the ABVP, and give a clear mandate to send out a powerful message to the country that we are united in defence of democracy, secularism, social justice and gender justice, and in our determination to carry forward our struggles for students’ rights.

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