Punitive Purges of Student Activists

- Kavita Krishnan

The public lynching of Prof. Sabharwal on an Ujjain campus is the symbol of ‘student politics’ at its worst – and it is this image that University authorities evoke as justification for punitive strikes and purges of student leaders. But recent punitive purges of student activists on campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Kashi Vidyapeeth in Varanasi indicate that rather than criminal elements, it is socially committed student movements that are at the receiving end of a crackdown. 

A speech by the JNU Vice Chancellor Prof. B B Bhattacharya to bankers in Chandigarh in October 2006 long before the agitation that allegedly led to the punishments reveals a clue to the actual agenda. Here he had declared that politics ought to be kept away from university campuses. In an explicit reference to the students’ union polls that were round the corner, he refuted JNU’s ‘leftist’ image, and claimed that the presence of small fringe of ‘students with a leftist bias’ on the campus was inhibiting JNU’s pursuit of ‘excellence’ and ‘growth’. This sentiment is in tune with a previous statement by Montek Singh Ahluwalia that unions were an impediment to growth in universities, and also with World Bank recommendations that student politics on third world campuses needed to be ‘restricted’.

In both Kashi Vidyapeeth as well as JNU, it is notable that the students ‘outlawed’ for being disruptive and unruly are, in fact, struggling to ensure that their campus complies with the law: in Vidyapeeth’s case, the 1997 Supreme Court Directive (Vishaka Judgement) on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace; in JNU’s case, the Contract Labour Act and minimum wage laws. In both cases, it is the University authorities who are most certainly culpable for non-compliance with these laws. Yet it is students who have been punished.

Protecting Sexual Harassment, Punishing Protest

On 21 February a Kashi Vidyapeeth, a student in the first year of her Masters programme in Music was subjected to sexual harassment by a teacher who was known to have similarly harassed other students. Women students on the campus complained to the Vice Chancellor and to the campus Women’s Cell. The Women’s Cell at Vidyapeeth is not constituted according to Supreme Court guidelines; it has no independent members from outside the campus, but instead consists of three appointees of the Vice Chancellor. The Head of this cell also happens to be the Warden of the Women’s Hostel. On receiving the complaint, this Head, far from initiating an enquiry, pressurized the complainant to withdraw her complaint, threatening otherwise to ruin her career. Women students held several protests, demanding action against the offending teacher; and also an enquiry into the role of the existing Women’s Cell and the constitution of a fresh Complaints Cell based on the Supreme Court directives regarding sexual harassment at the workplace. Receiving no response, they announced a relay hunger strike and dharna to begin on 26 February. The VC then debarred the accused teacher from the campus, but refused to consider reconstituting the Women’s Cell. At this point, a large number of students (mostly women but including some men too) marched to the VC’s office. Here, the VC himself slapped one of the leading organizers of the protest (Sarita, an activist of the All India Students’ Association who is also a former Vice President of the Students’ Union) and snatched her mobile. He also snatched and smashed cameras belonging to mediapersons. This was followed by severe lathicharge on the protestors as well as mediapeople.

The women students along with mediapeople gheraoed the thana and succeeded in getting an FIR filed against the VC and the Proctor; the Proctor and the teacher accused of sexual harassment were both arrested. The Vice Chancellor publicly apologized for the violence on the students and set up an enquiry committee into the incident. It was assumed that the students stood vindicated.

However, it turned out that the Enquiry Committee’s brief was not to enquire into the incident of sexual harassment, nor into the role of the Women’s Cell in threatening and pressurizing the complainant, nor into the lathicharge – the Enquiry was instituted purely to turn the protesting students into culprits.

During the summer break, several students who had completed their graduation were informed that they were debarred from giving entrance exams to post-graduate courses. No reason was given for this action; even the Enquiry is yet to come up with any report. Students filed an RTI but are yet to receive any explanation as to what process was followed to penalize them. Eventually the students were summoned and told that if they gave an undertaking that they would never contest elections nor participate in any movements, they might be allowed to appear in the entrance exams. Those who complied were allowed to appear in the exams. Those who did not included some of the leading organizers – Sarita (who was debarred from appearing in her MA Hindi entrance), Shikha (debarred from giving the entrance to a Journalism course) and Lakshman (a student of Journalism whose 1st year result has been withheld). Further, the scholarship that Sarita received from the UP Government as a student from the Backward classes was also withheld.

JNU Students Punished for Protesting Against Violation of Minimum Wage Laws

In JNU in November it came to light that some 15 construction labourers on the campus were laid off work because they had demanded Rs. 70 as opposed to the Rs. 65 per day that they had been getting. Shocked by the fact that this wage was far less than the minimum wage (then Rs. 127.40 in Delhi), the Students’ Union and several other students had taken up a campaign to ensure minimum wages. Despite the fact that JNU’s own rules and regulations state that JNU authorities are responsible for ensuring payment of minimum wage to workers – including workers employed on construction sites – as well as for ensuring maintenance of muster rolls, display of wage rates on display boards at work sites, JNU authorities consistently shrugged off their responsibility as principal employers. In November and December, students took the initiative of running a community kitchen for laid off workers on campus – an initiative in which the teaching community too took a lot of interest.

Subsequently, several times, students themselves had to ensure payment of minimum wages through their physical presence and intervention. For months, students kept up the sustained and systematic campaign – unearthing documents that showed that not only construction labourers sub-contracted by CPWD, but even mess workers employed directly by JNU were being employed on contracts that stated far less than minimum wages.

On February 19, when students’ posters on the subject of minimum wages were torn off from the Administrative building at the direction of the Registrar, students’ protests turned into a gherao of the Registrar that lasted a few hours, before being withdrawn by the students in favour of a hunger strike.

Allegedly for their involvement in this gherao, 9 students including JNUSU office bearers, as well as all Karamchari Association Office Bearers, were suspended. Following a long agitation, suspensions were eventually withdrawn, with each of the suspended students submitting letters endorsing the JNUSU’s resolution of regret (a resolution that was also upheld by the University General Body Meeting (UGBM) of the students).

Subsequently, in the middle of the summer vacations, 7 students were rusticated for periods varying from one to two years and also declared out-of-bounds of the campus; one who is a terminal student has been debarred from JNU for life, and three JNUSU office bearers have been fined Rs. 2000 each.

The JNU Teachers’ Association staunchly opposed the punishments; and beyond the campus, academics, civil liberties activists, writers and concerned citizens from all over the country spoke out against the violations of minimum wages of workers and the punishments meted out to students. These included historians Sumit Sarkar and Uma Chakravarty, Poet Viren Dangwal, senior lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Colin Gonsalves, writer Arundhati Roy, filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan and Sanjay Kak, social activists like Medha Patkar, and ex-VC of NEHU B D Sharma, human rights groups like PUDR and EPW consultant editor Gautam Navlakha, Sumit Chakravarty, editor of Mainstream, journalists like Amit Sengupta, former JNUSU office bearers, various central Trade Union bodies and Left leaders of the country, and academics of various campuses in the capital like Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia, and various JNU alumni, to name just a few.      

It took a long campaign, several weeks of relay hunger strike by hundreds of students, and finally a 13-day long hunger strike to force the JNU Administration to agree to ‘reconsider’ the punishments by August 14. Another landmark achievement was the agreement to set up a Committee with representatives from all sections of JNU (including students) to ensure minimum wage payments and workers’ rights on the campus.

For Governments and their representatives on University campuses bent on commercializing education and inculcating ‘corporatized’ values in youth, the spirit of social commitment in student movements becomes a very real danger. This is why they view movements like those at JNU and Vidyapeeth as being subversive and threatening.