April 13, 2018 - Kolkata, West Bengal, India - All India Students' Association (AISA) and All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA)protest against the brutal rape at Kathua and Unnao. Saikat Paul/ Press Association. All rights reserved.At a time when Narendra Modi's Hindu supremacist leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India is moving towards full-fledged fascism with its rampant attacks on Muslims, Dalits, and critics of the regime, the question of what it means to be a citizen in India today is complex, and the answers frightening.
But on a recent visit to India, I had the opportunity to interview several student activists about the main issues currently facing students across the country as a result of the changes implemented in universities by the government. How are students challenging the regime?
The fundamental change they told me about was a nationwide move towards so-called ‘greater autonomy’ for universities, which has affected 60 institutions so far, and is set to continue. This essentially involves cuts to government funding of universities much like the austerity UK students have been experiencing on a wide scale since 2010. Under the pretext of 'autonomy' a host of measures are being imposed which are likely to transform, and even threaten, well-known universities with a progressive reputation like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.
JNU has a long history of left-wing activism, primarily due to the strong presence of AISA (All India Students Association), the student wing of the CPIML (Communist Party of India – Marxist-Leninist), in the university. Chintu Kumari, a student there and a leading member of AISA, told me about the resistance to the dismantling of the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), which was set up in the late 1990s and includes representatives from different political organisations across the university.
What made GSCASH so effective, Chintu explains, is that it worked on a number of different levels: not only did the body serve as a support system for survivors of gender violence and sexual harassment, it also held well-attended, public talks which aimed to raise awareness of the complexities of sexual harassment, and give students a much-needed clearer understanding of how it could operate.
But these initiatives have faced hostility from JNU’s recently appointed pro-BJP Vice Chancellor, who is also a member of the BJP’s parent organisation, the openly fascist RSS. Last year, the Vice Chancellor replaced GSCASH with an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), which has been framed as a resource for victims of harassment to report their experiences. In reality, however, the ICC is neither effective in this respect, nor does it cater towards students’ needs on any wider level. The members are solely appointed by the Vice Chancellor and are thus all affiliated to the BJP and/or the RSS – organisations with a blatantly patriarchal ideology. Chintu describes the ICC as a ‘puppet body’ for the Vice Chancellor, a way for him to maintain maximum control over the students’ response to harassment.
But the students are not taking this lying down. Two days before I spoke to Chintu, a major protest - in which the police used water cannon and baton charges to attack and disperse the students – took place at JNU around a range of related changes which are severely affecting students’ lives.
Beyond these structural changes, individual cases of harassment involving university staff are rife. Chintu tells me about the shocking scandal around Atul Johari, a professor of life sciences with close links to the BJP. Recently, nine female students – all in the final year of their PhD – filed a joint complaint against him for sexual harassment. All these students were members of the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), the student organisation affiliated with the BJP – indicating that this abuse of power in universities takes place within such Hindu rightwing circles as well as across political divides.
The ‘saffronisation’ of education – the imposition of the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ ideology upon the syllabus – is another phenomenon which is negatively impacting on student experiences across the country. Chintu tells me how this has particularly affected arts and humanities students, as their fields of study are often deprioritised and – more importantly – seen as a threat to this ideology. One example of this is an entrance exam for an MPhil course at JNU, which included a question on the recent, highly controversial feature film, Padmaavat. The film openly embodies Hindutva values through its denunciation of marriages between Hindus and Muslims, amounting to blatant Islamophobia. Students were asked to give their opinion on this film – a clear indication that they were being judged on their political leanings rather than their aptitude and passion for their subject.
Another key aspect of the move towards so-called 'autonomy' is the government’s attempt to undermine the hard-won system of 'reservations', which reserves places at top universities like JNU for students from deprived and underprivileged sections of society, including Dalits, Adivasis and oppressed caste students, and those from remote and backward regions. Only 20.75% of places were reserved at JNU in 2017-18, compared with the constitutionally mandated 50%. It is no surprise that most of the student activists at the forefront of the current wave of resistance are from these backgrounds, and many are the first in their families to go to university.
JNU is, of course, not the only university in which tensions are running high between student activists and RSS-backed administration. Sunny Kumar, a student activist who is also currently teaching at Delhi University (DU), told me about the cuts there. ‘The best institutions in India today are government funded,’ he tells me. But this funding is rapidly decreasing. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, government funding towards DU has dropped from 90-95% to only 70% in the guise of granting the university more freedom.
But the situation at DU is not entirely negative. AISA, the most prominent Left students' organisation on campus, organises, among other things, study groups on Marx and Bhagat Singh, the Indian Marxist and atheist revolutionary hanged by the British. At a time when the government is desperately trying to prevent students’ access to such progressive thinkers in fear that this will mobilise them politically, this type of activity is a crucial aspect of resistance and self-empowerment.
However, at DU too, AISA does not simply function on this educational level. Practical gains have been made especially around gender issues. Last Valentine’s Day saw them organise the ‘Love without Fear’ protest, which challenged the government’s Islamophobic ‘Love Jihad’ ideology, and the physical attacks on couples openly expressing affection – all-too commonplace in university settings – have been significantly curbed since AISA gained prominence in DU’s last students’ union election.
Talking to these students leads me to think about the connections between student experiences and the wider political climate in India and the UK. The issues faced by students, namely those stemming from austerity and neoliberalism, have been festering for several years now in the UK too – the crucial distinction is that, in India, they have escalated under the current far-right, Hindu-supremacist government and been characterised by open ideological warfare.