A year since a protest turned Kanhaiya Kumar into a household name, the premier university is hobbling through a misadventure of ideas
Rahul Dass | February 9, 2017 | New Delhi
Few knew who Kanhaiya Kumar was before February 9, 2016, a day that saw a protest at Jawaharlal Nehru University which spawned a tsunami which ruthlessly tried to flatten the ideals of tolerance and truth.
The university, a rocky island of knowledge in the midst of snooty South Delhi, witnessed the protest by a group of students against capital punishment to the 2001 parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Anti-India slogans were allegedly raised. The protest got the goat of the ABVP.
It was enough to charge the political landscape, with accusations flying thick and fast.
Strict action will be taken against anti-national elements, thundered home minister Rajnath Singh.
Four days later a stunned nation watched as Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on sedition charges. Two more arrests followed quickly. Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were also portrayed as the devils. No one wondered why young men with a devil’s mindset will enrol in an exhausting and rigorous PhD programme.
The mob mentality took over and it crushed all that JNU stood for. Freedom, a priceless value for which many have laid down their lives, was the biggest casualty. You dare not speak up and if you do, then better be prepared to be muzzled.
India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on whom the varsity is named, had said it stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. He had got it all wrong. Instead of moving towards higher objectives, JNU had managed to turn back the hands of the clock. It seemed JNU was not a centre of higher learning, but a mountainous tribal area ruled by the ‘jirga’.
Protests intensified at JNU, which anyway has a rich history of boisterous politicking. Classes were hit. Even those who are bookworms shouted themselves hoarse.
The JNU stir was not a simple protest. It was a fierce battle of ideas. Those who held liberalism dear feared that they were being virtually squeezed out. The JNU students and teachers stood their ground, firm in their belief that their ideals will stand the test of time.
They were proved right.
Investigations later revealed the anti-India slogans, which had set into motion a string of cascading events, had in fact been raised by outsiders and not the students. It was an I-told-you-so moment. What's more, the chargesheet has not been filed even after a year.
Kanhaiya Kumar, on March 3, 2016, gave a rousing speech to a packed auditorium on the JNU campus. He said he was seeking, not freedom from India, but freedom within India. The applause was thunderous and the words reverberated across the length and breadth of the country.
JNU had in a way been the last bastion of the liberals, who have been condescendingly looked down upon by those who believe that ‘either you subscribe to our views or you are anti-national.’
Some likened the protest to India’s Tahrir square.
JNU proved that no force can squash an idea that is being championed by those who believe freedom, truth and tolerance are still alive and kicking.
“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds”. JNU showed how.
Fire on the Ganges: Life among the Dead in Banaras By Radhika Iyengar 4th Estate / HarperCollins, 348 pages, 599
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