The role of the police at JNU has raised questions, like in other recent eruptions in university campuses. When students demonstrated recently against the government’s new citizenship law at campuses such as Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, the police used brute force to quell the agitation. By contrast, at JNU — where the ABVP, a right-wing student group affiliated to the ruling BJP, has been accused of perpetrating the assaults — the police simply looked the other way. In the national capital, where JNU is located, the police reports to the Home Ministry. The minister, Amit Shah, is Modi’s all-powerful lieutenant.
There are no explanations from the authorities for the double standard — but it’s clear that excessive force was used when a government policy was being challenged, and abject apathy met victims when the assailants were seen to be possibly on the right side of political power.
The ABVP has blamed left-wing groups for triggering the violence — but the nationwide student protests are clearly part of wider discontent.
India’s students are angry and restless. But the Modi government has doubled down on some of its most contentious decisions instead of showing any interest in dialogue and reconciliation. This despite the fact that the economy is flailing; that should be all that the government is focused on, not needlessly courting social strife and controversy.
Though the JNU mob assault was not immediately triggered by the contentious citizenship law and the proposed National Register of Citizens — both of which put a discriminatory, bigoted anti-Muslim filter on India’s nationhood — these policies continue to form the backdrop to the ongoing national turmoil. Make no mistake, the patterns that run through events across universities are common. When journalists and activists reached the gates of JNU, a right-wing crowd heckled and abused them. “These traitors to the nation, shoot the bastards” reverberated through the darkness as streetlights were mysteriously switched off. These are the exact same slogans heard at rallies organized in support of the divisive citizenship legislation. Whenever BJP supporters want to slander a critic, they call her treacherous or “anti-national.”
This weaponization of hatred and prejudice could dangerously alter the India we know. But there’s a sign of hope: The country — led by its young (two-thirds of the country is below 35) — is fighting back. Students are fighting for the constitution and for the idea of a plural, diverse society. India’s Muslims are fighting for their place in the republic.
The BJP, which makes no apologies for being a “Hindutva” party, has become increasingly brazen and unapologetic about the marginalization of Muslims. By winning a massive mandate in elections last year, it has reinforced that agenda. The dual project of a new citizenship law and a planned NRC could be the final instrument to make Muslims second-class Indians. So Muslims, men and women, carrying the flag, singing the anthem, holding up portraits of Gandhi and other heroes of India’s freedom movement, are staking their rightful claim to Indianness.
Even celebrities and corporate billionaires are feeling the pressure. Usually, the advice of PR managers and fear of online trolls ensures their silence on all policy issues. That and the fear of reprisal by the Modi government. But the wrath and disapproval of Indian students has built moral pressure and urgency. Some of the biggest names in Bollywood — many of them women — have started to condemn what is happening.
This might eventually have no electoral consequences for the Modi government. But with political detentions and a prolonged Internet shutdown in Kashmir, the abrasive insistence on anti-Muslim citizenship legislation and now regular clashes with university students, you have a regime that can clearly no longer silence all Indians into submission. At least some in the administration seem aware of the unraveling narrative, both domestic and global; one official told me that their “international image is toast.”
No one quite knows why a government elected with a historic majority would decide to squander its first seven months on picking fights with its own citizens.
But the pall of fear is lifting. And the intrinsically argumentative Indian is making herself heard again.