JNU Students’ Victory for Workers’ Rights and Against Rustications 

- Vismay Basu  

Following JNUSU’s Agreement of July 12 with the JNU Administration, the Administration constituted a Committee with students’, teachers’ and karamcharis’ representation to ensure workers’ minimum wages and rights. In a major victory for the students’ struggle, the Administration also revoked all the rustications on the students. The JNU students succeeded in their determination not to let students be thrown off campus for speaking out against violation of workers’ rights. 

However, the Administration took advantage of the rift in the student movement caused by the SFI in order to replace the rustications with fines. Ever since the Agreement was signed, the SFI and its office bearers in JNUSU including the President had refused to abide by it. According to the Agreement, all the punished students were to submit letters to the VC appealing for their punishments to be reconsidered – following which the Administration had promised to ensure registration for all the students. The SFI argued that this stipulation applied only to the 8 students who had been rusticated- and not to the JNUSU office bearers who had been fined. They said it was beneath the dignity of JNUSU office bearers (who in any case were charged with “failure to control the mob” rather than leadership of the gherao) to submit letters of appeal. The SFI launched a campaign blaming the ‘ultras’ (AISA and DSU) for the gherao and claiming that SFI had not participated in the gherao, and that the JNUSU President and Joint Secretary from SFI had indeed been ‘unable to control the mob’ (for a sample of this campaign, see ‘A Successful Struggle Led By the JNU Students’ Union’, PD, July 22 2007).

This account of the gherao was an outright lie – an endorsement of the Administration’s differential punishment which victimized “ordinary” students, branding them as a “mob” that the JNUSU leadership was supposed to “control”. The SFI and its JNUSU leaders, immediately after the gherao, had “dissociated” themselves publicly from the movement for workers’ rights (in which they had only a token presence as it was), and had “associated” themselves heart and soul with the Administration’s plank of a Proctorial Enquiry to witch-hunt individual students. Significantly, apart from the token punishments against the JNUSU President and Secretary from SFI, no other SFI activists were suspended or rusticated. SFI also peddled this fact as a ‘certificate’ of good behaviour from the Administration, falsely claiming even then that SFI never participated in the gherao!

When students had demanded a UGBM to decide whether the JNUSU would support the Proctorial Enquiry and give evidence against the very students who had participated in the gherao called by the JNUSU, the SFI’s JNUSU President refused to convene a UGBM. However, AISA’s persistent campaign resulted in a massive UGBM on 8 March, in which some 700 students participated. Overwhelmingly, this UGBM defeated the SFI’s attempts to absolve its JNUSU leaders and indict individual AISA and DSU activists. The UGBM passed a resolution holding the gherao to be “a collective JNUSU-led protest” for which any attempt to selectively penalize individual students through Proctorial Enquiry must be resisted. The UGBM as a whole passed a resolution regretting the gherao of the Registrar –and this was endorsed by the individual students who had been served punishments.

SFI was subdued for a while following this UGBM, and participated in the hunger strike against the rustications in June-July. But following the Agreement, they once again revived their plank of endorsing the Administration propaganda and driving a wedge between JNUSU leaders and rusticated students.   

AISA asserted that the JNUSU’s sanctity and prestige lay in upholding and defending the collective spirit of responsibility for all movements and protests led by them – not in endorsing or demanding differential and favoured treatment for JNUSU leaders. AISA asked: how could JNUSU office bearers find it beneath their dignity to do what they themselves, by signing the July 12 Agreement, asked other common students to do – i.e. submit letters of appeal? The Agreement made no separate or special mention of JNUSU leaders – clearly they too were included in the same category as the rusticated students.

The JNUSU General Secretary from AISA, rejecting the SFI’s argument that JNUSU office bearers must demand favoured treatment, refused to make himself pose radical at the expense of the other students, and signed the same letter of appeal as the other students. Following this fines against him were revoked – but the rustications of the 8 other students were replaced with fines. Fines against JNUSU President and Joint Secretary continued because they had not abided by the Agreement.   

The JNUSU held a successful University Strike on August 9 demanding revocation of all punishments. August 14 is the last date of registrations in JNU, and there was an urgent need to intensify the movement so that the fines would be withdrawn on time for students to register. However, at this stage, the JNUSU President and Joint Secretary did a collective bunk. They refused to speak to the affected students, instead spending their time campaigning for the screening of a film defending the Nandigram massacre! When the JNUSU President called a meeting of all organizations to discuss the next move, SFI and its JNUSU leaders boycotted it completely – and gave no explanation for having done so. They just ignored all attempts to demand a JNUSU plan of action. Had the rest of the students held a protest without the JNUSU President’s blessing, they would of course have been branded yet again as a ‘mob’, disowned by the head of the JNUSU.   

Faced with this refusal of the JNUSU President to provide a roadmap of struggle assuring registration, faced with SFI leaflets boasting that their JNUSU leaders’ registration was not at stake anyway, the 8 students were left with no option but to pay the fines if they wanted to remain students in the University. In a wonderful show of solidarity, every rupee of the fine amount was paid enthusiastically by collection among teachers and students.

Following the last date of registration, after the other students had paid their fines, the JNUSU President broke his silence. He claimed that registration had been denied to him and to the joint secretary since they had defiantly refused to pay fines or submit appeals. He branded the others who paid fines or submitted letters as ‘cowards’ and declared an ‘indefinite hunger strike’ demanding withdrawal of fines, and ‘implementation of the student issues agreed in the July 12 Agreement’.

Within a mere 12 hours however, the Administration promptly withdrew all punishments against them – and the hunger strike was withdrawn! The shortest ‘indefinite fast’ ended because everything about it was scripted, fixed and ‘definite’ right from the start.

The Administration and SFI together collaborated in a last-ditch attempt to give SFI’s image a makeover in the election season, and humiliate SFI’s political opponents, mainly AISA – who are actually the main enemies and the main targets for the Administration also, since it is AISA which had exposed the Administration as a robber of worker’s bare minimum wages. Unfortunately for SFI, the sheer shortness of their ‘indefinite’ fast exposed their agenda all too fully. Students demanded, “If a mere 12-hour hunger strike was enough to get fines revoked and registration assured, then why did the JNUSU President not launch this hunger strike immediately after the University Strike of August 9, thereby achieving this for all the students? Why did he instead refuse to participate in any planning of struggle at that stage? Obviously, because he had his own ‘struggle’ planned out with the Administration – to be launched safely after the others were forced to pay the fines.   

Of course, the Administration is a notoriously unreliable ally for student groups who cut deals with them. The Hindu dated 18/8/07 quoted the JNU Proctor as saying that the JNUSU President did after all submit “a letter to VC on behalf of both … appealing to him to reconsider the punishment handed out to them. On the basis of this letter, the University decided to waive off their penalties. They can now register.”

Did the SFI leaders secretly submit letters and expect the Administration to keep their secret? We may never know. But what JNU students do know is that the workers’ struggle launched by AISA’s office bearers in the JNUSU has won a remarkable victory by forcing the Administration to concede violations of workers’ rights and constitute a committee with students’ representation to monitor wage payment and workers’ rights. And it is no less a remarkable victory that a repressive Administration that had even refused to talk to the JNU Teachers’ Association on the matter of revoking rustications, eventually could not sustain the rustications. The students they sought to throw out are now back on the campus – with renewed determination to continue to the struggle against violations of workers’ rights!