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Authors: Arundhati Roy

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Attention had to be diverted. Another crisis was urgently required. The gunsights swung around. The target had been marked a while ago.

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), long known to be a “bastion of the Left,” was the focus of a front-page story in the November 2015 issue of
, the RSS’s weekly paper. It described JNU as a den of Naxalites, a “huge anti-national block which has the aim of disintegrating India.” Naxalites had been a long-standing problem for the Sangh Parivar—Enemy Number Three in its written doctrine. But now, evidently, it had another, more worrying enemy, too.

Over the last few years, the student demography in JNU has changed dramatically. From being in a small minority, students from disadvantaged backgrounds—Dalits, Adivasis, and the many castes and sub-castes that come under the capacious category known as Other Backward Castes (OBC), formerly called Shudras—now make up almost half the student body. This has radically changed campus politics. What troubles the Parivar more than the presence of the Left on the JNU campus, perhaps, are the rising voices of this section of students. They are, for the most part, followers of Ambedkar, of the Adivasi hero Birsa Munda, who fought the British and died in prison in 1900, and of the radical thinker and reformer Jotirao Phule, who was a Shudra and called himself a
, a gardener. Phule renounced, in fact denounced, Hinduism—most trenchantly in his famous book
(Slavery), published in 1873. In much of his writing and poetry,
hule deconstructs Hindu myths to show how they are really stories grounded in history, and how they glorify the idea of an Aryan conquest of an indigenous, Dravidian culture. Phule writes of how Dravidians were demonized and turned into
, while the conquering Aryans were exalted and conferred divinity. In effect, he frames Hinduism as a colonial narrative.

In 2012, an organization of Dalit and OBC students in JNU began to observe what it calls Mahishasur Martyrdom Day. Mahishasur, Hindus believe, is a mythical half-human, half-demon entity whom the goddess Durga vanquished in battle—a victory that is celebrated every year during Durga Puja. These young intellectuals said that Mahishasur was actually a Dravidian king, beloved of the Asur, Santhal, Gond, and Bhil tribes in West Bengal and Jharkhand. The students declared that they would mourn the day Mahishasur was martyred, not celebrate it. Another group, that called itself the “New Materialists,” began to hold a “free food festival” on Mahishasur Martyrdom Day, at which it served beef and pork, saying these were the traditional foods of the oppressed castes and tribes of India.

OBCs make up the majority of India’s population and are vitally important to every major political party. It is for this reason that Modi, in his 2014 election campaign, went out of his way to foreground the fact that he was an OBC. (Most people think of “Modi” as a surname associated with the Banias.) OBCs have traditionally been used by the dominant castes as henchmen, to hold the line against Dalits (just as Dalits have been used as foot soldiers in attacks on Muslims, and Adivasis are pitted against Dalits—as they were in Kandhamal in 2008.) These signs of a section of OBCs breaking rank with Hinduism set off the RSS’s extremely alert early-warning system.

If this were not trouble enough, a tentative conversation (or perhaps just an argument that was prelude to a conversation) had started between some young communists—who seemed to have begun to understand the past errors of India’s major communist parties—and the followers of Birsa Munda, Ambedkar, and Phule. These groups have a vexed history, and had every reason to be wary of each other. As long as each of these loose constituencies remained hostile to the others, they did not constitute a real threat to the Sangh Parivar.

The RSS recognized that if what was going on in JNU was not stopped, it could one day pose an intellectual and existential threat to the fundamental principles
and politics of Hindutva. Why so? Because such an alliance proposes, even if only conceptually, the possibility of a counter-mobilization, a sort of reverse engineering of the Hindutva project. It envisions an altogether different coalition of castes, one that is constituted from the ground up, instead of organized and administered from the top down: Dalit-Bahujanism instead of Brahminism. A powerful movement, contemporary and yet rooted in India’s unique social and cultural context, that has people like Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Periyar, Ayyankali, Birsa Munda, Bhagat Singh, Marx, and Lenin as the stars in its constellation. A movement that challenges patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism, that dreams of a casteless, classless society, whose poets would be the poets of the people, and would include Kabir, Tukaram, Ravidas, Pash, Gaddar, Lal Singh Dil, and Faiz. A movement of Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujans in the sense championed by the Dalit Panthers (who, in the 1970s, took “Dalit” to connote “members of the scheduled castes and tribes, neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion”).
A movement whose comrades would include those from the privileged castes who no longer want to claim their privileges. A movement spiritually generous enough to embrace all those who believe in justice, whatever their creed or religion.

Small wonder, then, that the
story went on to say that JNU was an institution where “innocent Hindu youth are lured after being fed wrong facts about the Varna system, which is an integral part of Hindu society.” It wasn’t really the “disintegrating” of India that the RSS was worried about. It was the disintegration of Hindutva. And not by a new political party, but by a new way of thinking. Had all this hinged on a formal political alliance, its leaders could have been killed or jailed. Or simply bought out, like any number of
, and other charlatans have been. But what do you do with an idea that has begun to drift around like smoke?

You try and snuff it out at its source.

The battle lines could not have been marked more clearly. It was to be a battle between those who dream of equality and those who believe in institutionalizing inequality. Rohith Vemula’s suicide made the conversation that had begun in JNU more important, more urgent, and very real. And it probably brought forward the date of an attack that was already in the cards.

The ambush was built around an obstinate old ghost that refuses to go away. The harder they try to exorcise it, the more stubbornly it persists with its haunting.

The third anniversary of the hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru fell on February 9, 2016. Although Afzal was not accused of direct involvement in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, he was convicted by the Delhi High Court and given three life sentences and a double death sentence for being part of the conspiracy. In August 2005, the Supreme Court upheld this judgment and famously said,

As is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no direct evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy. . . . The incident which resulted in heavy casualties had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.

The controversy over the Parliament attack, over the Supreme Court judgment, and over Afzal’s sudden, secret execution is by no means a new one. Several books and essays by scholars, journalists, lawyers, and writers (including me) have been published on the subject. Some of us believe that there are grave questions about the attack that remain unanswered, and that Afzal was framed and did not receive a fair trial. Others believe that the manner of his execution was a miscarriage of justice.

After the Supreme Court judgment, Afzal remained in solitary confinement in Tihar Jail for several years. The BJP, which was out of power at the center during those years, made frequent and aggressive demands that he be pulled out of the queue of those awaiting execution and hanged. The issue became a central theme in its election campaigns. Its slogan was:
Desh abhi sharminda hai, Afzal abhi bhi zinda hai.
(The country hangs its head in shame because Afzal is still alive.)

As the 2014 general election approached, the Congress-led government in power at the center—weakened by a series of corruption scandals and terrified of being outflanked by the BJP in this contest of competitive nationalism, one that the Congress is doomed to lose—pulled Afzal out of his cell one morning and hurriedly hanged him. His family was not even informed, let alone permitted a last visit. For fear that his grave would become a monument and a political rallying point for the struggle in Kashmir, he was buried inside Tihar Jail, next to Maqbool Butt, the Kashmiri separatist hero who was hanged in 1984
(P. Chidambaram, who served the Congress-led government as home minister from 2008 to 2012, now says that Afzal’s case was “perhaps not correctly decided.” When I was in Class IV, we had a saying: Sorry doesn’t make a dead man alive.)

Every year since then, on the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging, the Kashmir valley shuts down in protest. Leave alone the Kashmiri nationalists, even the mainstream, pro-India Peoples Democratic Party, currently the BJP’s coalition partner in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, continues to demand that Afzal’s mortal remains be returned to his family for a proper burial.

A few days prior to the third anniversary of his death, notices appeared on the JNU campus inviting students to a cultural evening “against the Brahmanical ‘collective conscience,’ against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and
Maqbool Butt” and “in solidarity with the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination.”

It was not the first time JNU students had met to discuss these issues. Only this time, the February 9 anniversary fell three weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide. The atmosphere was politically charged. Once again, the ABVP was the cat’s paw. It complained to the university authorities, then invited the Delhi police to intervene in what it said was “anti-national activity.” A camera crew from Zee TV was on hand to record the event. The first batch of footage in that Zee broadcast showed two groups of students confronting each other on the JNU campus, shouting slogans. In response to the ABVP’s
Bharat Mata ki jai!
(Victory to Mother India!), another group of students, most of them Kashmiris, some of them wearing masks, began to chant what Kashmiris chant every day at every street-corner protest and at every militant’s funeral in Kashmir:

Hum kya chahatey?


Chheen ke lengey—


What do we want?


We will snatch it—


There were also some less familiar slogans:

Bandook ke dum pe!


At gunpoint if need be!


Kashmir ki azadi tak, Bharat ki barbaadi tak,

Jung ladengey! Jung ladengey!

Until freedom comes to Kashmir, until destruction comes to India

War will be waged! War will be waged!


Pakistan Zindabad!

Long live Pakistan!

From the Zee TV footage, it wasn’t clear who the students actually chanting the slogans were. Sure, it riled viewers, but winding people up about Kashmir or getting them to rail at unknown students who looked and sounded like Kashmiris was not the point, and would have served no purpose. Especially not when the BJP’s negotiations with the Peoples Democratic Party about forming a new government in Jammu and Kashmir had run into rough weather. (That problem has subsequently been resolved.) In the JNU ambush, Kashmir was just the trigger-wire. The real goal was (and is) to tarnish the reputation of JNU, in order to eventually shut it down.

It was an easy problem to solve. The soundtrack of the confrontation was grafted onto the video of another meeting that took place two days later, this one addressed by Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students’ Union. Kanhaiya belongs to the All India Students Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India. At the meeting he addressed, the refrain of “
” was the same, only the slogans raised were completely different. They demanded
from poverty, from caste, from capitalism, from the Manusmriti, from Brahminism. It was a whole other ball of wax.

The doctored video was broadcast to millions by major news channels, including Zee TV, Times Now, and News X. It was shameful, unprofessional, and possibly criminal. The broadcast set off a frenzy. First Kanhaiya Kumar, and then, two weeks later, two other students accused of organizing the Afzal Guru meeting, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, formerly members of the left-wing Democratic Students Union, were arrested and charged with sedition. Posters went up across Delhi putting a price on these students’ heads. One even offered a cash reward for Kanhaiya Kumar’s tongue.

The Kashmiri students who were actually seen raising slogans in the Zee TV footage remained unidentified. But they were only doing what thousands of people do every day in Kashmir. Can there be separate standards for sloganeering in Delhi and Srinagar? Perhaps you could say yes, if you argue, as many Kashmiris do, that all of Kashmir is a giant prison, and you can’t arrest the already incarcerated. In any case, did those students’ slogans really deliver a mortal blow to this mighty, nuclear-powered Hindu nation?

Matters continued to escalate in ever more ludicrous ways. Based on a joke on a parody Twitter account (“Hafeez Muhamad Saeed”), the home minister Rajnath Singh announced that the protest at JNU was backed by Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba and India’s equivalent of Osama bin Laden. Television channels began to suggest that Umar Khalid, a self-declared Marxist-Leninist, was a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist. (The hard evidence this time was that his name was Umar.)

Smriti Irani, the unstoppable minister of human resource development, who is in charge of higher education, said the nation would not tolerate an insult to Mother India. The saffron-robed Yogi Adityanath, a BJP Member of Parliament (MP) from Gorakhpur, said that “JNU has become a blot on education,” and that it “should be closed down in the interest of the nation.” Another self-styled man of god, the BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, also clad in saffron, called them “traitors” and said they “should be hanged instead of being lodged in jail for life or they should be killed by police bullet.”
Gyandev Ahuja, a BJP member of the Rajasthan legislative assembly and an empiricist extraordinaire, informed the world, “More than 10,000 butts of cigarettes and 4,000 pieces of
are found daily in the JNU campus. Fifty thousand big and small pieces of bones are left by those eating non-vegetarian food. They gorge on meat . . . these anti-nationals. Two thousand wrappers of chips and
are found, as also 3,000 used condoms—the misdeeds they commit with our sisters and daughters there. And 500 used contraceptive injections are also found.” In other words, JNU students were meat-eating, chip-crunching, cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling, sex-obsessed anti-
nationals. (Does that sound so terrible?)

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