On 22 February, students who had gathered to attend a public lecture at a college in Delhi University were severely beaten and assaulted by alleged members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
The event was to feature two students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of whom had been arrested last year on charges of “sedition” for the “crime” of organising an event where “anti-national” slogans were raised by demonstrators. (In India, “sedition” remains a statutory offense, punishable with up to a lifetime of incarceration.)
At the event last week, attending students (many of them belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-affiliated All India Students Association (AISA)) and professors were assaulted, and the event was prevented from taking place. On 27 February, further protests and counter-protests by ABVP on the one hand, and AISA and other groups on the other, roiled the university. A febrile atmosphere has descended on campuses around Delhi.
Groups like the ABVP use violence, intimidation and harassment to stifle political discussions on university campuses. They create an atmosphere of strife and indulge in blatant fear-mongering to provide cover and justification for the violence they routinely inflict on people who do not share their worldview. As seen in the aftermath of this most recent incident, politicians and police often condone this violence, both directly and indirectly.
The core message that comes through the ABVP’s demagoguery and politicking is that the “nation” is in grave and imminent danger; that vile “anti-nationals” are out to destroy everything that they hold dear – “peace”, “unity” and “development” (even if each of these notional attainments is fraught with contradictions); that only the paragons of the ABVP can defeat this implacable evil, this profound danger and existential threat that is “anti-national” thought.
But the first question that comes to mind is – what exactly are they claiming to defend?
What or where is this nation that is so imperilled by the calumnious voices of the so-called "anti-nationals"? Where is this fragile nation that, we are told, is on the verge of irreversible disintegration? Where is this nation that is irredeemably on the verge of collapse? Where is this nation that is so in danger of being overcome and overrun by destructive forces that even the slightest criticism of its actions or policies should be stifled and nipped in the bud?
What or where exactly is this nation, and why is it that the groups like the ABVP are claiming to be its defender/saviour/only hope?
The logics of national ownership and representativeness that animate these groups and formations have long prevented others from feeling like they have a say in politics.
The exclusionary, us-against-them Manichean thinking that has long been the staple of right-wing Indian politics – indeed, the staple of Indian politics in general – engenders a siege mentality that obviates and makes impossible any lateral thinking, lateral engagement and rational discourse.
You are either with us or against us. You are either for development or you are against development. You are either for culture or against culture. You are either for the army or against the army. You are either for peace and harmony, or against peace and harmony (they say, completely oblivious to the irony of the statement).
The warlike rhetoric and exhortations to “defensive” onslaughts that demagogues routinely indulge in make any kind of nuanced dialogue impossible.
So steeped in self-righteousness, and so dependent on other-hatred, is this whole political culture that nuanced dialogue is simply impossible.
So mired in irrational dogma is this whole political culture that thinking critically about issues is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Taking political persuasion out of the whole equation, what’s going on now cannot be excused. Irrespective of where your sympathies lie, there is no way that the hooliganism that we have recently seen can be justified.
The fact that some political formations refuse to evolve – from hooliganism and barbarism to something resembling civilised disagreement – is unacceptable.
The harassment of individual students and professors is reprehensible. It is completely antithetical to the democratic ethos that is supposedly meant to underpin student politics at Indian universities – the systems of student representation that allow groups like ABPV to exist in the first place.
The fact that violence against “political opponents” continues to erupt on Indian university campuses should compel young people to confront more seriously the question of what kind of educational environment (and ultimately what kind of society) they’re allowing their so-called “student representatives” to build.