Why is Kanhaiya Kumar so famous

Attack on free thinking

The Hindu nationalist government wants to plow up the educational landscape and is also fighting with the universities. That is not without contradiction.

By Anja Suter, Delhi

"I think they are trying to destroy us." Jayati Ghosh, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, speaks quickly and without frills. Her sentences are sharp, and yet the economist appears calm and friendly. By "they" Ghosh means the Indian government, by "us" the JNU. As in Turkey, Hungary and Russia, educational institutions in India are also coming under fire. The JNU is particularly hated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu Nationalist People's Party (BJP). "The open and critical questioning is a great threat to any government that wants to establish a uniform social order," said Ghosh.

The JNU was already committed to asking critical questions when it opened: founded in the mid-1960s under the sign of decolonization as an autonomous and public university, it was legally mandated to promote and promote research in the humanities and social sciences To make the form of education accessible to everyone - regardless of class, caste, religious affiliation or origin. The social complexity of the subcontinent should be reflected at the JNU in research and teaching as well as in the student body. At least that's the idea. Today the JNU is one of the most renowned universities in India.

What does “anti-national” mean?

In the summer of 2015, Narendra Modi launched a nationwide educational reform: the schools are now accessible to almost all Indians, and the government announced that work must now be done on quality. In the past ten years there have been investments in schools - primarily in private ones. These are only accessible to a thin upper class. Studies on the Indian school system show that the barriers for Dalits, Muslims or the indigenous group of the Adivasi are still very high. Even in public institutions like the JNU.

To date, the concrete plans for the educational reform have not been published. But it has long been taking place: the heads in the ministries and commissions that are central to education are continuously being replaced by people who are loyal to Modi. You decide on subsidies for the universities and can influence their admission requirements. And they can determine their governing bodies.

"Premier Modi and his people want to infiltrate the educational institutions in order to change their character from within," says Jayati Ghosh. In the JNU, the Academic Council, which is composed of representatives of the students and lecturers, has far-reaching legal powers: The council can oppose decisions of the government bodies if they contradict the principles of the university. However, in January 2016, the Ministry of Education appointed M. Jagadesh Kumar as the new Vice Rector. The election caused displeasure among many students and lecturers at the JNU, which is known as the “left bastion”: Kumar's political proximity to the paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the ruling BJP was widely known. "That started the attack against us," says Ghosh.

Two events, which happened almost simultaneously, caused an uproar in early 2016, shortly after the new Vice Rector took office. On the one hand, it was about the death of Rohith Vemula. Vemula was a PhD student at Hyderabad Central University. As a Dalit activist, he was known for his criticism of Indian caste society and its discriminatory policies, which he too felt daily at the university. In early 2016 he was suspended from the university for his activism - shortly afterwards he committed suicide. The news of Vemula's death led to violent reactions at several universities, including at the JNU: Dalits and sympathizers denounced the discrimination and caste violence, which is also intensifying at the universities.

On the other hand, there is the question of what is "Indian" or "anti-national". In February 2016, shortly after the new Vice Rector took office, a group of students organized an event critical of the government on India's Kashmiri policy on the JNU campus. The JNU Student Union (JNUSU) helped to organize the evening. The student organization ABVP, which is close to the RSS, posted videos that same night in which the students were portrayed as terrorists. And the next day the big media companies threw themselves on the story: The JNU was a refuge for anti-Indian propaganda and the JNUSU was its spearhead.

Three days later, the new Vice Rector had the police search the campus: Kanhaiya Kumar, President of JNUSU, was arrested, and five other students were put out to be searched. Kumar and his colleagues were accused of “anti-national incitement” - with reference to an article of the law dating from the colonial era.

Unexpectedly much resistance

The Rectorate of the JNU and the BJP government apparently hoped to make an example of Kanhaiya Kumar. But they miscalculated enormously: in a very short time, websites and hashtags popped up calling for the defense of free thinking and solidarity with Kumar. Poems, songs and comics were passed on at demonstrations and rallies - and something happened that nobody had expected: professors together spontaneously organized a teach-in, an open series of lectures. Under the title “What the nation should really know”, questions were discussed such as: “What is a nation?”, “Is there an inclusive nationalism?” and finally more specifically: “What is anti-national? Modi's politics or the struggle for peaceful coexistence? »

The teach-in should take about a week - it turned out to be a whole month. Activists, students, professors and writers traveled from all over the country to hold lectures and participate in discussions in the open air. The square in front of the JNU administration building was quickly renamed "Freedom Square". Many of the “open lectures” were filmed and posted on the “Stand with JNU” website. Today you can buy the articles bundled in one book.

Thanks to its strong presence in social media, the teach-in had a signal effect far beyond the subcontinent: world-wide personalities from science and culture showed solidarity with the protesters; the "New York Times" headlined: "India's crackdown on dissent". After three weeks of protests, Kanhaiya Kumar and his colleagues were released on parole. With a hefty fine and since then daily death threats.

At the beginning of this year, the Vice Rector of the JNU struck another blow: he "added" two minutes of a meeting of the Academic Council that had already been held with a "message" each. It stated that the rectorate would in future be authorized to appoint the selection committee to determine new faculties with sole power of attorney, and that a significant reduction in the number of study places had been decided. These were massive interventions in the educational policy of the university, and they contradict the principles of the JNU. Therefore, they would not have found a majority in the council, which, according to the JNU law, is responsible for making such decisions.

The protesting teachers and students reorganized and in mid-May filed a complaint with the Delhi High Court against the Vice-Rector's illegal actions. They organized strikes and demonstrations and wrote an open letter to the President of the Republic. And again they made their resistance public on the Internet.

Advance of the Hindu nationalists

But the lecturers and students at the JNU know that they will have to prepare for a long struggle: In the regional elections at the beginning of the year, the BJP and its allies continued to gain power. This also gave the student organization of the Hindu nationalists a boost: The ABVP appears increasingly militant and self-confident. In March, a series of lectures on forms of protest, which also covered the JNU protests of 2016, was attacked by ABVP people at Delhi University. They beat students and lecturers and pelted them with stones. At the JNU, the Muslim student Najeeb Ahmad has been “missing” since February - it is no secret that, shortly before his disappearance, he was molested several times by supporters of the ABVP. Neither the university management nor the government are seriously concerned about solving the case.

The economist Jayati Ghosh writes regularly for the British “Guardian” and for the left-wing Indian magazine “Frontline”. In doing so, she often goes harshly to court with Modi's government. Is she afraid of Modi and his henchmen? "I have not yet been arrested, I have not yet been attacked directly, but I am clearly standing in line," she says with a bitter smile. Would the international reporting and the expressions of solidarity have made any difference? “I think so, because Modi also depends on the international community. Neither the rectorate nor the government wanted headlines like this. The article in the New York Times made them really angry, ”she continues.

Ghosh tilts his head slightly to the left, thinks for a moment and says: “But we must not forget: The BJP and RSS have always pursued a long-term strategy. You are not thinking for the next five but for the next thirty years. You have a lot of money and a huge propaganda staff. We haven't recognized the size of this monster for too long. What we also need is a long-term strategy. "

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