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Students of the year

In 2016, discontent erupted across campuses, cutting across political lines

Hyderabad university students demanding justice for Rohith Vemula. Photo: PTI
Hyderabad university students demanding justice for Rohith Vemula. Photo: PTI

The year is ending on a grim note. Najeeb Ahmed, a student of biotechnology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, went missing on 15 October. The 27-year-old remains missing, reportedly after an altercation with students alleged to be from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Multiple appeals have gone out; Ahmed’s mother, Fatima Nafees, moved the Delhi high court, member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal spoke up, and the Delhi Police increased its reward for information from Rs50,000 to Rs10 lakh.

The year began on a grim note too.

On 18 January, Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Dalit PhD scholar at Hyderabad central university, hanged himself in a hostel room. Vemula was owed Rs1.75 lakh—fellowship money for seven months. He was one of five Dalit students at the university who had been suspended for allegedly beating up an ABVP student leader in August 2015; the Cyberabad police contested this in an ensuing case at the Hyderabad high court. Vemula’s suspension, and that of others, was revoked but, in December 2015, the university’s executive council barred them, all members of the Ambedkar Students Association, from the hostel and the administrative building, and said they couldn’t contest university elections. Student groups termed these measures a “social boycott"; the university said these steps were not extraordinary.

What seemed to be out of the ordinary, though, was that Union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya wrote a letter to the parent Union ministry, of human resource development, saying the university had been “a mute spectator" to the alleged clash between Dalit students and the ABVP student. After Vemula’s suicide, a criminal case was filed against Dattatreya and others. Protests erupted in the university, with political leaders like Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, and former Manipur chief minister, the late P.A. Sangma, joining in.

In February, a case of sedition was filed against a number of people after students from ABVP protested against an event that had been organized in JNU to question the hanging of Afzal Guru. Kanhaiya Kumar, then president of the students union, and one of those arrested, was imprisoned for 20 days. This incident, like Vemula’s suicide, triggered a national debate, even reaching Parliament. Home minister Rajnath Singh and then HRD minister Smriti Irani—under fire from the opposition—maintained that anti-national activities would not be tolerated.

Shehla Rashid, vice-president of JNUSU at the time, says it was this language of intolerance that saw students from around the country, cutting across political lines, coming together to protest. “On 9 February, even students who are centrists stood up for the liberal value of letting people protest. That is why there were so many sedition cases on that day.The whole campus united," she says. Her own speech against Kumar’s arrest went viral on the Net.

This unity was cemented when a group of lawyers in Delhi’s Patiala House court complex attacked Kumar, JNU students and teachers, and journalists present there. Protests spread across campuses, such as Jadavpur University in West Bengal and Fergusson College in Pune.

If caste, free speech and dissent were some of the issues that students raised, so were patriarchy and gender injustice. Women students in Delhi had started a campaign called Pinjra Tod in August 2015 to fight gender policing—starting with different timings for men and women in campus hostels. Women from Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University, National Law University and JNU came together for this campaign. In May, the Delhi Commission for Women, issued notices to all 23 registered varsities in Delhi, to examine the different rules for men and women. The University Grants Commission also issued a circular to all colleges, warning them against discriminatory rules for both sexes. In September, they penned a letter to new HRD minister Prakash Javadekar, who was set to inaugurate a women’s hostel on the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, pointing out the irony of how they would face disciplinary action if they didn’t attend the inauguration—symptomatic of the administration’s control over their movement and choice.

At a time when dissent is readily termed anti-national, student activism has carved out a space for the language of doubt. The events of the past year also prove that the students have been able to come together on key issues. Queer student groups joined in the protests against the sedition charges on Kumar, and expressed solidarity with Hyderabad university students protesting Vemula’s death. In November, Kumar and other students from JNU joined the queer pride march in New Delhi. In Hyderabad, students from various colleges joined the queer pride march led by Dalit hijra community members. It is this equitable heterogeneity that seems to have flourished across campuses this year.

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