How do we stand up to India’s far right?

March 3, 2017

The threat of the fascist right was revealed in violent attacks at an Indian university, but there is a determined resistance by students and faculty, writes Pranav Jani.

"IF YOU are planning to fight fascism, wait no longer. The time is now. The place is DU."

This tweet from Shehla Rashid Shora, former vice president of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and a well-known student activist in India, called for solidarity with students and faculty at Delhi University (DU), where a right-wing student group rioted in opposition to free speech on February 21-22.

Over 3,000 people gathered for a vibrant march at DU on February 28. Certainly, there were many left student groups, but also first-time protesters from colleges and schools around Delhi who were simply angry that their universities could be targeted in this way.

Shehla Rashid's comment captures the resilient mood of students on Indian campuses across the country in the face of a far right that has only become more confident after the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi is not only a representative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu right's political arm, but a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its core cadre group.

Several thousand students from around Dehli came out to oppose right-wing violence
Several thousand students from around Dehli came out to oppose right-wing violence (Bonojit Hussain)

Against these odds, Indian students have been moving rapidly into struggle. In standing up to the emergent fascist threat in India in campus after campus, they are giving the rest of us a picture of the kinds of courage and organizing it will take to confront the global emergence of the right.

ON FEBRUARY 21 the student group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), affiliated with the BJP and RSS, spearheaded actions to shut down an academic seminar called "Cultures of Protest" organized by English Department and Wordcraft, its literary society, at Ramjas College at DU.

As angry crowds gathered outside the venue, some brandishing lathis (long clubs) according to a student organizer of the seminar, police asked the university to disinvite their JNU guests, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid Shora. Both speakers were prominent in the massive JNU protests and clashes with police in February 2016 after federal authorities had arrested Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar under the Sedition Act.

But even after these talks were canceled, the ABVP kept on the offensive, continuing to harass attendees and raise nationalist slogans. Soon, the conference was interrupted by the sounds of shattering glass as rocks were hurled through windows.

From the accounts and photo evidence of many students, the police simply allowed all of this to take place--either letting the ABVP to stand on police cars and throw rocks, or joining in with lathi-charges and even assault of protesters.

The next day, ABVP activists stopped a planned march to the police station by blocking the gates of the college for five hours, as documented under #RamjasUnderSiege and #DUFightsBack.

Outside, students and activists who had gathered in solidarity were physically attacked, including Prasanta Chakravarty, a professor of English at DU, who sustained serious internal injuries and broken ribs from being thrown to the ground, kicked in the stomach and almost strangled.

Rather than drawing attention to the growing willingness of the Hindutva goons to physically attack those with whom they disagree, the corporate media repeatedly has chosen to portray the events as a "clash" between rival student organizations: the ABVP and the All-Indian Students Association (AISA), affiliated with the leftist CPI (ML) Liberation.

Hindutva trolls have been also been working overtime and en emass. Gurmehar Kaur, a DU student and daughter of a slain Indian soldier, bravely began a #StudentsAgainstABVP social media campaign that quickly became popular. But she was smeared with such misogyny and hatred that she had to step back.

And yet, as the February 28 mass march shows, the opposition to ABVP's actions has only grown, with many new students deciding to take sides, and to enter into the demonstrations with their own creative and thoughtful slogans.

Rather than a "clash" between student groups, what we are seeing is the blossoming of a whole new generation of activists who take education and ideas seriously, and are willing to defend them.

IN A perceptive statement on the violence, the Delhi branch of the group New Socialist Initiative (NSI) noted two specific aspects of the ABVP attack in Delhi.

First, Narendra Modi's Home Ministry directly controls the Delhi police, which helps explain some of their reluctance to interfere in the rioting. Second, unlike other recent sites of ABVP mobilization like JNU and Hyderabad Central University (HCU), DU and its student union have been open to influence from ABVP for decades. All of which has prepared the ground for this sort of direct violence.

As NSI puts it, the Hindutva right now has "a group of storm troopers, ready to terrorize and physically assault in open daylight anyone who does not agree with...RSS and BJP."

What threatens the Hindutva forces so much about seminars and conferences? Why put so much emphasis on college campuses?

Despite being institutions that perpetuate social hierarchies, colleges and universities--in India, in the U.S. and elsewhere--are key places where alternative thinking and radical politics continue to thrive. In order to win the ideological battle, the right wing knows it can't allow thinking and access to knowledge.

Indian campuses have increasingly allowed young people to meet across caste, class, gender and regional lines. To quote NSI again, "[T]he recent expansion of higher education in the country has seen millions of first generation students from the oppressed castes, minorities and women joining universities like DU."

Indeed, many of the recent campus struggles have been around fighting Islamophobia, raising the questions of Indian occupation in Kashmir, Bastar and the Northeast, and challenging caste and gender hierarchies--and the ABVP has particularly targeted Dalit groups and Muslim and left leaders.

The institutional murder of HCU student activist Rohith Vemula and the disappearance of JNU student Najeeb Ahmad after an altercation with an ABVP activist reveal the deadly threat of right-wing mobilization.

In all of these cases, the term "anti-national" gets thrown at students and faculty who dare to speak about politically controversial topics, from Islamophobia and terrorism to Kashmir to anti-Dalit violence to sexual assault and rape.

The claim of "anti-national" is a calculated effort to silence all critics. "For right-wing groups," writes Mohinder Singh, "the obsessive invocation of the unity against external enemy is nothing but a strategy of perpetuating existing social hierarchies and dominance."

Going beyond the slur "anti-American" in the U.S. context, "anti-national" in India carries with it the threat of the Sedition Act (Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code), a colonial-era law which actually abrogates free speech when regarded as a threat to national integrity.

An example of the mentality generated in this context was given by BJP Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, speaking at the London School of Economics at the time of the Ramjas College incidents. After an obligatory criticism of violence, Jaitley effectively defended the ABVP, chastising campuses for being sites of "subversion":

If somebody speaks about breaking India into pieces and thinks that is part of free speech--don't forget, under Article 19 (2), sovereignty is an exception to free speech--assuming you wanted that right, be liberal enough to believe that within the democratic framework, a large majority will stand up to you and counter your free speech.

Clearly implying that the ABVP response was the voice of the "large majority," Jaitley subtly gave a green light to further escalations of this sort, even beyond the use of the Sedition Act to muzzle dialogue.

DEMONSTRATIONS AND counter-demonstrations continue to be planned through early March, with political figures of the left and right joining in. DU has joined JNU and HCU at the center of a national struggle over whether free speech and democratic rights will continue in Modi's India or not--as well as the possibilities for rebuilding the left.

In a recent Facebook post, Prasanta Chakravarty articulated the work ahead of building the fight against forces of chauvinism and hate:

There must be a broad coalition now, silently building up. And years of work lie ahead. A painstaking job. The Right is in ascendancy today because they have done and are doing this painstaking job of hate-mongering effectively, at the grassroots level, for decades. We have to take on that kind of a might. I have no clue how. But we must rise above our silos and egos and come together--students, teachers and everybody else who wish to see a different climate from the one we find ourselves in today.

DU and Indian students are showing that this coalition is possible, and already in the making.

Further Reading

From the archives