Friday, 13 January 2017

Chant of the Masked People--Part I

[Last May, after SAR Geelani and the JNU students were released and the first phase of the agitation at JNU was over, I submitted a piece with the above title to Economic and Political Weekly to present my views on the events. EPW promised to publish the piece in June, but delayed publication till end-August. Also the submission was heavily edited. Since the anniversary of those events are approaching, it may be interesting to look at the original piece. The portions edited out by EPW are marked in colour.]

Some significant events took place in recent months in the Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. As the dust on these events is beginning to settle, reflective evaluations have started. According to one historian, these were ‘tumultuous events that have convulsed the subcontinent’ (‘From Institution to Mechanism’, The Hindu, 8 April). According to another, they signaled a ‘coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution’ as ‘soaring chants’ ‘rang out on the streets’ (‘Appropriating Ambedkar’, The Hindu, 21 April).

From a less charitable perspective, we will see that there indeed were chants by both masked and unmasked protestors; as the official unmasked chants ‘soared’, they drowned the masked ones, as if by design. In the process, the ruling reactionary regime got what it wanted.

The Arrests

So what happened? According to reports, on 9th February this year a small demonstration took place inside the JNU campus to commemorate the third death anniversary of Afzal Guru. Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri muslim, was hanged and buried inside the Tihar jail in New Delhi for his alleged involvement in the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December, 2001. As the evening shadows lengthened, some young people reportedly made speeches and shouted slogans to protest Guru’s hanging; allegedly, they also engaged in slogans and chants demanding freedom of Kashmir.

Specifically, it was alleged that, within the collection of young persons, some people masked their faces with cloth. It was also alleged that, during the demonstration, some people shouted slogans that wished the dismemberment of India; they also pledged the continuation of the struggle for freedom until the destruction of India. It is important to note that that is all that happened. No arms were displayed and no specific plans for turning these slogans into material action were mooted. At worst, it was a rather strong expression of indignation at perceived massive injustice in Kashmir.

Apparently, a rival student group in the campus protested about what they perceived to be “anti-national” slogans and speeches. As a clash was likely to happen, the Delhi police was informed. Subsequently, after preliminary investigation, three JNU students—Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya—were arrested. The JNU authorities also proceeded to take disciplinary action against 21 students including the ones just named.

Since the matter is under examination by the courts, in what follows I will not be concerned with the veracity of the reported facts, details about who was present during which part of the event, and who shouted which slogan etc. I will also not comment on the latest disciplinary actions enforced by the JNU authorities; this is a matter internal to the administration of JNU. I am concerned with the larger political significance of 9th February.

To proceed, let me note that the police action was located in a politico-historical context that has nothing to do with JNU per se, the community of students as a whole, the university system, the caste system and tragic suicide of Rohit Vemula in Hyderabad, teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar, etc. In so far as this police action was concerned, it was not directed specifically to crush ‘what JNU stands for’, the ‘alternative kind’ of students, if any, it nurtures, and the idea of ‘liberal education.’ To think otherwise is to unduly glorify the intellect governing the Delhi police system.

The police action was specifically directed at what in fact was the case: public display of support for Kashmir and Afzal Guru. The site of JNU was merely incidental. For example, on the same day, a small demonstration to protest Guru’s hanging was also organized in Jadavpur University in Kolkata, and the police wanted to take action. However, the vice chancellor of the university did not allow the police to enter the campus and a crisis was averted. As protests on Afzal’s hanging refuse to die, it is conceivable that many such meetings took place across the country, especially in Kashmir, often in small public forums outside the university system.

More significantly, a very similar event took place in Delhi itself on the next day, 10th February, at the Press Club of India where people gathered to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru. Here as well there were songs, recitations, speeches, and much chanting and sloganeering for nearly three hours. Incidentally, the speakers seated on the dais were associated, not with JNU, but with Delhi University.

This meeting was formally reported to the Delhi police. The speakers were interrogated at length for days, and Dr. S. A. R. Geelani, a teacher in Delhi University, was arrested for conducting the meeting. More on Geelani later. Importantly, the entire focus of the interrogations was to seek information about connections of people in Delhi, such as Geelani, with the resistance in Kashmir. Since I happened to be one of the speakers, the police showed much initial interest in my work on both the parliament attack case and the maoists in India. Here was the juicy prospect of unearthing the shadowy ‘mass-front’ of a terror network linking maoists and militants in Kashmir with intellectual coordination from universities in Delhi under the very nose of the union home ministry. Unfortunately, the fervent prayers of the police remained unanswered.

Unlike the JNU arrests, Geelani’s arrest was not interpreted as an attack on what University of Delhi stands for and the kind of teachers it nurtures. As we will see, the atrocious arrest of a university teacher on sedition charges—for organizing an open public meeting in a very prominent place with due permission—barely found mention in the months that followed. Even though the JNU and the Press Club events were concerned with identical issues, the former was relentlessly highlighted in the public domain while sustained efforts were made to sideline the latter. We need to understand why.

(To be continued)

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