Communist students’ alliance clinches victory at India’s premier university

The much celebrated students’ union elections witnessed a series of violent attacks by ABVP, the country’s largest right wing students’ group, including attempts to disrupt counting of votes

September 17, 2018 by Muhammed Shabeer
From L-R: Amudha (Jt Secretary), Sagrika (Vice President), Aejaz (Gen Secretary), Balaji (President). (Photo: Subin Dennis)

“The victory is a strong message to the right-wing forces that the future has no place for such regressive politics,” said N. Sai Balaji, newly elected president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU). The elections were held on September 14. The university, located in India’s capital city of New Delhi, is known for its progressive academic outlook and strong Left-leaning political culture. For the same reason, it has also been the target of a concerted right-wing offensive over the years. The current elections were held at a historic juncture, in the aftermath of a series of administrative measures, backed by the ruling far-right Indian government that resulted in restricting space on campus for debate, discussion and academic freedom.

The four communist students’ organizations – Students Federations of India (SFI), All India Students Association (AISA), All India Students Federation (AISF) and Democratic Students Federations (DSF) – formed a joint front called the United Left Alliance. This formation was a means of putting forward a strong and united opposition to the challenges posed by India’s largest right-wing students’ group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). ABVP is also the students’ front of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and is backed by the conservative ruling establishment in India.

In the election, Sai Balaji from AISA secured the president’s post, winning by a margin of 1,179 votes. Sarika Chaudhary from DSF won the post of vice-president, obtaining 1,680 votes more than the closest challenger. Aejaz Ahmad Rather from SFI won the post of general secretary for the United Left Panel by a margin of 1300 votes, and Amudha Jayadeep from AISF bagged the post of joint secretary, leading by 800 votes. In all the four primary posts, the United Left candidates defeated ABVP nominees. The Ambedkarite student movement, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), and the student’s wing of the Indian National Congress party, the National Students Union (NSUI), were the other groups contesting these elections. 19 United Left candidates were also elected as councillors in different Schools (academic departments), with the ABVP suffering severe setback in the Science schools, traditionally the group’s strongholds.

The victory is considered historic as it is for the first time that all four winning candidates have polled more than 2,000 votes.

During the counting, the ABVP barged into the room where the process was taking place and then laid siege to it for more than 12 hours, forcing the election commission to suspend the process. The cadres of the right-wing group also allegedly attacked students activists and security guards. Satarupa Chakraborty, former JNUSU general secretary, along with another JNU student, was dragged out of an autorickshaw and brutally beaten up just outside the campus gates by alleged supporters of ABVP while returning from a police station after lodging a complaint against an earlier attack on them.

On Sunday night, after the declaration of results, ABVP cadres went on a rioting spree. They assaulted Pavan Meena, a student who had not voted for them. Balaji, Geeta Kumari, a former JNUSU president, Kaushik Raj, ex-JNUSU councillor and Abhinav, a former student of JNU were attacked by ABVP members when they tried to save Pavan.

The student community responded fiercely to these cowardly attacks by ABVP members. On Monday evening, a large number of JNU students came out to protest the right-wing violence on the campus and demanded action against the ABVP activists involved in the assaults. In the march, the students reiterated that violence and hatred had no place in JNU’s campus politics. In the aftermath of these attacks, students, who were annoyed at the refusal of the campus security and administration to take any action, gathered in large numbers on the premises to ensure no such incidents took place.

Assault on academic freedom and dissent

JNU has been a target of right-wing forces since the 2014 general elections, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to power, led by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For conducting an event commemorating death row convict Afzal Guru on February 9, 2016, the radical students’ groups on the campus faced massive state repression and attacks by the country’s right-wing groups and the ruling BJP. Several pro-BJP right-wing media outfits branded JNU as ‘anti-national’ and ran a vicious campaign called ‘Shut Down JNU,’ demanding the immediate closure of the prestigious university. Then JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar and students like Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested and got remanded in Tihar jail on charges of sedition. The aftermath of this event witnessed a massive show of solidarity among students and teachers, who together spearheaded a movement against the state-sponsored hysteria and attempts to close down the university.

Since then, a series of anti-student incidents, and the university administration’s support for the perpetrators of crimes against students and women has created considerable anger among students, who have been demanding the resignation of the vice-chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar.

Najeeb Ahmed, a student from JNU, went missing from the campus on October 15, 2016, after ABVP activists assaulted him on his hostel premises. The JNU administration and the Delhi Police have been widely criticized for failing to find Najeeb and bringing to book the perpetrators of the attack.

Last year, students and teachers were in a constant state of struggle,  protesting various measures passed by the administration, including imposition of compulsory attendance, scuttling of reservation [affirmative action rules], seat cuts and shielding of teachers accused of sexual harassment, such as Atul Johri of the School of Life Sciences.

JNU is counted amongst the best higher education institutions in south Asia and provides an affordable and high-quality learning experience. JNU used to have an inclusive admission policy with a system specially designed to enable students from the country’s backward districts to secure admissions, institutionalized mechanisms for gender sensitization, etc. The students’ politics in JNU and the activities of the students’ union have been widely regarded as emblematic in sustaining a democratic political culture, nourished through debates and discussions. JNUSU has a history of leading several struggles against regressive state policies and on issues such as globalization and communalism.

The attack on JNU is considered to be part of the larger assault on the higher education system in India. It is understood that using such techniques, the state is attempting to dismantle the country’s public education system and spaces of academic freedom, and push forward its neoliberal agenda of privatization of education.