Indian Students Protest Attacks At A New Delhi University

On Sunday 5 January, a mob of masked men attacked students and staff at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. 42 people were injured in the attacks, which started at about 7 PM that night. According to TIME, the attackers barged into “previously identified” rooms, brandishing glass bottles, sticks, and bats. Liberal activist voices on campus were targeted, as were Muslim students. The attackers could be heard yelling “Hail Lord Ram”—India’s far-right ‘battle cry,’ and a reference to the Hindu god, according to The New York Times. The students and journalists who were present say that police in riot gear stood by and watched but did not intervene. The attacks and the apparent apathy of police have prompted nationwide student protests in cities such as Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Pune and Chandigarh. Another similar attack happened recently at Jamia Millia Islamia, another university. 

The attacks come after student protests at the university regarding raised fees and a meeting held that day by teachers and students over these fee disputes. They also coincide with protests held by Indian students in the last few weeks about a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims from expedited pathways towards citizenship for those facing religious persecution. It is unclear at the moment who is responsible for the attacks, but many students blame Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group associated with Modi’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party. Active critics of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies, such as the citizenship ban, were targeted during the attacks, including Aishe Ghosh, the President of the Student Union. Attacked students were even forced to chant nationalist slogans. Some critics of the party assert that the polarizing actions and words of the government, which have increasingly labeled dissent as anti-nationalist and traitorous, have created a climate that encouraged violence over discourse. 

The BJP has condemned the attacks, calling it, according to The New York Times, a “desperate attempt by forces of anarchy who are determined to use students as cannon fodder.” Government officials across party lines have denounced the attacks, but opposing party leaders blame the BJP: Rahul Gandhi, an Indian congressman, tweeted “The fascists in control of our nation are afraid of the voices of our brave students. Today’s violence in JNU is a reflection of that fear.” Leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), Sonia Gandhi, stated that there was “active abatement of government in the attack” and blamed the government for trying to “stifle and subjugate every voice of dissent.” The INC also alleged that the attacks were “state-sponsored terrorism.” The BJP responded by accusing the INC of encouraging anarchy and riots.

 According to The Hindu, a Congress fact-finding committee has also called the attacks “state-sponsored,” and accused the now-former Vice-Chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar of being responsible. According to Congresswoman Sushmita Dev, there was sufficient evidence that the attacks were from right-leaning factions, such as the cry of “Hail Lord Ram” and the students who were targeted. Police officers on campus were largely passive; one journalist for TIME reported “police in riot control gear looked in the direction of the mob and stood still. I asked a senior official to control the mob that was going after an innocent student. He looked at me and said it was too dark for them to ascertain what was going on.” This, along with the power outages reported across campus, lead the committee to believe that there was without a doubt premeditated government involvement. Whether or not the BJP masterminded the attacks remains to be seen.

The JNU attacks are concerning in that they demonstrate a tendency for political discourse to become violent, and for criticism of the government to be met with brutality. These attacks are a symptom of the growing polarization of parties and identities in India. Modi’s party has been accused of rampant Hindu nationalism. They have been criticized for allocating money to find a river described in Hindu religious texts, which has been called an extremist Hindu priority. This attempt to stifle protest is a sign of an increasingly fascist party. That said, the immediate jump on the part of all parties to blame each other is also a worrying sign of polarity within Congress. Moreover, the labeling of dissent as anti-nationalist or “not Indian” is a step in line with the policies of other international leaders to accuse critics of inciting anarchy and a trope of fascist governments in general.