JNU Irony: Victory of Far-Left and Decline of Left Politics
This piece was originally published in September 2013.
The elections for Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) were held this year on 13 September. Once again, the All India Students Association (AISA) swept the polls. Its presidential candidate-Akbar Chaudhary-secured 1979 votes as against 660 votes to its nearest rival-Ishan Anand- of another left outfit named Democratic Students Union (DSF). AISA is the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML). It is a Naxalite party but which has adopted the parliamentary path. AISA won all the four seats of the central panel plus majority of the seats in the council which comprises of the councilors elected from different schools of JNU. Last year too, AISA secured a handsome victory but unexpectedly lost the presidential seat to DSF. DSF is a breakaway faction of Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of CPI (M). In fact, victory march of AISA has been unstoppable since mid-2000 and from 2005 it has become the dominant political party in JNU. It seems that suddenly JNU students have taken the radical left turn in the era when left is a thoroughly discredited force in India. Is Naxalite agenda and propaganda so effective and powerful? JNU has always been the high citadel of communists in India but is Naxalism so appealing to the JNU students? There is always more to than that meets the eyes.
To understand the present situation, it is necessary to have a brief background of JNU politics. Only then we will be able to discern factors which are propelling AISA to victory after victory. JNU was conceptualized by Jawaharlal Nehru but could be established only after his death. From its inception itself it was a left leaning university because of two reasons. First, the charge of establishing it and recruiting the faculty was given to left- liberal and Marxist scholars. And second, due to the fact that Marxism and Communism was the dominant discourse both in the academia and politics of that era especially in third world countries. Consequently, JNU student politics too acquired a leftist character. Communists won the early elections and wrote the JNUSU constitution, thus, creating the institutional foundations of the student politics of JNU and determining its future trajectory. Even though JNU went on to acquire dubious honor of Kremlin on the banks of Yamuna, courtesy WikiLeaks, its student politics remained relatively free from money and muscle power which came to characterise student politics in other campuses, most notably in West Bengal and Kerala. The mobilisation of students has been mainly on the basis of ideology and national and international issues. JNU anyways is mainly a postgraduate university. This in itself ensured a certain level of maturity in the public discourse. It does not means that regionalism, casteism, religion etc played no role but just that they were secondary factors and were played upon tactfully behind the scene.
Upon entering JNU, the students underwent a process of “Political Socialisation” with parties of various hues and colour from right to left competed with each other to win over the new entrants. They tried their best to put forward their stand on various issues, not only of campus but of the society at large. They took pains to explain and convince students about their ideology and worldview. When criticised for bringing in non- campus issues, someone gave an apt reply-” When we talk about mess bills in hostels, we can’t but talk about gas prices and food prices. None of which is fixed at the level of hostel or university but is determined at the national and international level.” True and it was this internationalist outlook for which JNU student became famous in its time when student politics in other campuses could not rise above base level polarisation. The series of political meetings, post-dinner talks by eminent personalities from diverse fields on contemporary socio- economic, national and international issues, General Body Meetings at school and university levels, mess time pamphlets made sure that even those students, whose world never extended beyond text books, acquired some familiarity and understanding of affairs of the country.
Political and social ambience of the campus inculcated the liberal social values in the students. This point is particularly important. Due to its admission policy, JNU always had large number of students from backward regions of the country. Few will disagree that even in urban centers, our society is steeped deep into backward and ossified views, most notably towards women. Children growing up in this society naturally imbibe such social attitudes like violence in relationship, inflated ego and highly distorted sense of honour. Here liberal ethos of JNU acted as the moderator and slowly moulded the students, even brash and rustic ones, into a more mature personality. The JNU can rightly pride itself as one of the safest campus for women and it’s no less important to note that even in infamous Delhi, JNU is one place were a lone girl can roam around with complete freedom, can move in and out of boys hostel without a second thought, 24*7.
Throughout its history till 2005, JNU student politics was dominated by SFI with various radical left parties and small but articulate center and center-right outfits posing effective challenge from time to time. AISA contested its first election in 1994 and occasionally managed to win seats in the central panel. ABVP was non-existent till 1996 but grew as a powerful challenger to the left politics as a whole and effectively become the real opposition in the campus. It managed to win post of President in 2000. It became powerful enough in early 2000s for left parties to start forming coalitions to prevent it from winning seats. NSUI had a noticeable presence but was largely ineffective both electorally and ideologically.
Thus the balance of power till 2005 was roughly as follows: SFI was dominant party with near total control over School of Social Sciences- the most impregnable left bastion in JNU. AISF (All India Student Federation), student body of CPI, was the junior partner of SFI. AISA had emerged as the challenger to SFI in the left wing camp. ABVP was the non-left alternative with a large cadre base and significant numbers of seat in the council. NSUI and various other parties were minor presence.
Rise of AISA:
The disruption of the equilibrium came from the exogenous factors- OBC reservations in educational institutions, 2006 and Nandigram massacre, 2007. The SFI’s dominance rested on two pillars- Bengali preponderance in the campus and Muslim votes. Beneath the facade of high sounding ideals, the base politics of region, religion and caste was always present. The Bengalis formed the single largest group in JNU till mid 2000s and it was almost exclusively Bengali ‘Bahdralok’. Bengali Bhadralok is highly conservative, hierarchical and ethnocentric in its practice even though it incessantly speaks revolutionary language. West Bengal’s socio-economic indicators stand testimony to this. Bhadralok is mainly upper caste and it too was disgruntled with the OBC reservations. SFI was caught in an unenviable position. It had to support reservations due to its own stated policy and dictate of its parent party but it meant antagonising its main constituency in the campus. The newly formed Youth for Equality (Y4E) was already leading huge anti-reservation protests in Delhi. JNU chapter was started in 2006 and it soon emerged as a major player. It succeeded in attracting large number of general category students especially from SFI and ABVP.
Then there were Muslims who were nurtured by SFI as vote bank in the best traditions of secular politics of India. From mid 1990s, it was doing this mainly by showing the fear of “Hindu-Fascist” ABVP. But the massacre committed by police and CPI (M) cadres at Nandigram meant that there was more than just murmurs of dissatisfaction among Muslims as it was a Muslim majority village. The matter was not helped by SFI being compelled to justify the action of CPM government of West Bengal. It is as much a comment on ‘secular’ politics of SFI as it is on educated Muslims of a left- liberal secular institution that Muslims broke away from SFI over a single incidence not because forcible acquisition is wrong or because farmers were illegally killed or because development model was flawed but because ‘many’ Muslims were killed.
The fact that both OBC reservation and Nandigram took place almost simultaneously meant that SFI literally imploded. In 2006, its presidential candidate was reportedly reduced to asking votes by showing sacred thread in room to room campaigning. Y4E weaned away its general category students. While AISA, patiently waiting on the wings, saw its chance and began to lure Muslims by aggressively posing itself as the only true pro- Muslim party. It completely transformed itself into a Sharia- Bolshevik outfit.
Then there were OBC students who constituted a significant portion of JNU even before reservations were implemented. It was due to the deprivation point system in admission process which provided weightage to applicants on the basis of an elaborate scale of gender, caste, district, and income etc. They perceived threat to newly passed reservations bill from aggressive and powerful agitations of Y4E in and out of campus. Up till now, they were more or less evenly distributed across the parties with significant presence in ABVP. But now they started searching for a party which can champion cause of OBC reservations and prevent Y4E from winning election. AISA took another leap of faith and emerged as the most radical pro-OBC reservation force in the campus. The only party to actively and whole heartedly fight Y4E. With Muslims already in its docks, it took little time for OBC students to shift en mass to AISA, the potential party to win elections in face of Y4E. It was able to galvanize SCs votes as well in the name of protecting principle of reservations. And the fact that, even though Y4E ran on anti-OBC reservation platform but it were mainly SCs who were the target in slogans and symbolism (as they always are in any anti-reservations protest) didn’t helped the matter for Y4E.
Caste based polarisation was complete and in hotly contested elections of 2006 and 2007, AISA comprehensively defeated Y4E. And with OBC reservations finally implemented after green signal from Supreme Court, Y4E lost raison d’etre of its existence and withered away as rapidly as it grew. But by then AISA had consolidated its gains. It was thus, AISA emerged as the major party in JNU with largest vote share and consigned SFI to the dustbin of electoral politics.
AISA had learned its lessons well. It didn’t escaped the prying eyes of comrades that it is far more easy to mobilise votes by targeting caste and religion while paying lip service to social justice, secularism and socialism. With OBC reservations in place, the number of OBC students began to increase who were now almost exclusively being appropriated by AISA. Further for the first time, JNU gave substantive recognition to respective Madrassas certificates on par with school and college degrees. It was one of the long standing demand of left parties in JNU and AISA had led the student pressure groups on this issue. Both the factors meant that social constituency of AISA grew and with its ceaseless activism and total re-orientation of its agenda and propaganda towards OBC reservation and Islamist cause, its success rate of converting its constituency into cadre and votes has been remarkably high.
Then came the third and the final gamble- The Grand Deception. In 2006, Supreme Court accepted the recommendations of Lyngdoh Commission which was constituted to look into ways to regulate and cleanse student politics after severe violence by left-wing student parties in Kerala. The JNU elections, as they were conducted, were in total contradiction of Lyngdoh- no age limit, unlimited attempts, elections were conducted by a student election Commission and not administration, it was conducted according to JNU constitution which had no legal status etc. The JNU students are zealously protective of their political model and suffer from an arrogant and obsessive belief in the ‘uniqueness’ and superiority of JNU system. Here, it must be pointed out that this a common trait in societies ruled by communists be it Kerala, Bengal etc. Perhaps creating a sense of superiority and siege mentality is a necessary condition to make populace amenable to communism/ socialism and explain away miseries and failures.
Notice was issued to JNU several months before 2008 elections to bring its norms in accordance to Supreme Court guidelines. But neither JNU administration took it seriously nor AISA ruled JNUSU informed the student community of any such notice. Consequently, elections were stayed by Supreme Court just days before the election date. Elections could be conducted once norms were harmonised with Lyngdoh recommendations. But AISA projected it as a ‘ban’ on JNU election and an assault on campus democracy by the forces of capitalism, imperialism and it’s lackey, the Indian state, to crush any meaningful student politics. Laughable as these allegations are but the public nurtured in anti- establishment mentality for decades found some truth in this ‘unexpected’ assault on JNU. All left parties joined the crusade against Lyngdoh due to their shared antipathy towards anything coming from Indian state and also to protect the institutional setup which had ensured the left dominance in the campus. They all saw it as an intrusion by Indian state in the liberated zone where JNU constitution held sway and not the Indian law. It was converted into the fight for democratic rights and self- determination of students against the authoritarianism of state which is supposed to be in clutches of capitalist, Brahminical and imperialist forces. High sounding arguments were built that how Lyngdoh recommendations are anti-SC/ST/OBC, minority, women and toiling masses (it’s said in one breath, really!). That it seeks to implant pliant students as the elected representatives etc.
So well played was this strategy and so strong the propaganda that even non- left parties like NSUI and ABVP immediately pledged support in a scene straight out of C grade Soviet propaganda movie “Alexander Nevsky”. Grand deception had succeeded. How easily even the most educated electorate in the country can be taken for a ride! All the voice of reason that there was in fact “no Ban “ drowned in the clamor of comrades. In reality, it was a voluntary moratorium by JNU students until the legal appeal in Supreme Court for exemptions from Lyngdoh guidelines reached any conclusion. But this game benefited AISA in two ways. Firstly, according to JNU constitution, it ensured that the incumbent JNUSU, ie. AISA ruled JNUSU will be in power till next elections are conducted. Secondly, it caused de-politicisation of the campus as in absence of elections, political mobilisation and campaigning suffered a decline. As we have seen that all parties but AISA were already greatly weakened after mid-2000 so they suffered a greater erosion of their cadre and support base. AISA too suffered a regression in its ideological appeal but it’s already seen that it had anyways shifted to open caste and communal politics. It had maintained its mobilisation drive throughout this period while other parties struggled to make sense of the situation. Further, it remained in power for three years and became the only known ‘active’ party for the vast majority of new students. Elections were resumed in 2012 (it had two elections-one interim election in March and the other one on September) after a single concession on age limit of two years for JNU being a post graduate institute. Also, the voices of discontent against ‘permanent JNUSU’ were becoming stronger. In the election, AISA steamrolled all others which surprised many. And since then its winning streak by brute majority seems unstoppable.
Decline of Serious Left Politics:
It has been already seen that AISA has risen to dominance by changing the political discourse of the campus. The traditional left politics has been rendered ineffective in garnering votes. It’s true that even old left politics cynically played upon social and regional fault lines but it at least maintained a facade of superior ideals and practices. Caste and communal factors were undertones in the general scheme of the things. Left activists took pains of teaching new entrants the ABC of left politics and Marxist theory, it at least argued for a liberal social outlook and pretended to rise above social and religious divide. It was rooted in serious academic discourse and argumentation which gave an intellectual edge to JNU politics. But AISA has blown away that cover. While it pays lip service to these things, it has realised the futility of Marxism and Naxalism as the basis of political mobilisation of the children of economic reforms. Why to put so much hard work in explaining a discredited ideology when votes can be ensured through other easier means? The politics of Naxalite AISA is not of radicalism and communism, that it claims to profess, but is the standard “Samajwadi” politics of U.P and Bihar. Think Lalu and Mulayam! Its power rests on electoral alliance of Muslims and OBCs under the veil of social justice and secularism and peppered with intense anti-Hindu and pro- Islamic rhetoric. The core like in case of Lalu and Mulayam is the MY factor-Muslims and Yadavas. And around it other constituencies are weaved to deliver the victory punch.
The caste and regional identity of the new entrants is culled out and comrades are assigned to approach them after carefully accounting for the educational, income, rural/ urban background. The experience comes handy in deciding what appeals to students of different background. Their concerns and anxieties are exploited. The rural students are told that their interests are safe with AISA in this elitist, urban environment which had nothing but contempt for rural people. OBC students are mobilised against ‘castist’ SFI, NSUI and ABVP in defense of reservations. It portrays itself as the champion of social justice and assertion of subalterns against the oppression of sons of the soil. Students are told to take pride in ‘what they are’ rather trying to imitate the rotten artificial ethics and aesthetics of bourgeois, Hindu urban elite. Over time, it has the effect of freezing the new students in the cultural and social mooring of their home districts which, needless to say, is highly patriarchal, rustic and semi-feudal. All refinement in speech and behaviour, academic excellence are denounced as either Brahminical or Bourgeois hierarchal trait something which sons of soil can neither afford nor aspire to. The old process of evolution of students from rusticity, aggressive and narrow mind-set to a more mature and measured personality has suffered a major blow. And it is visible in the increasing political and gender violence in recent years. Political violence has now become a norm in the campus with Naxalites leading the way. AISA has already acquired the image of a rustic, bucolic, arrogant and violent outfit which not only breaks the heads of its political opponents but also routinely intimidates common students at will.
Recently, the kind of violence campus saw when a girl was brutally assaulted by her classmate because she refused his advances is something which was unthinkable in JNU. When people are taught to take pride in rustic and violent social traits which they acquire while growing up and university exposure does little to moderate it but instead reinforces it then what else can be expected? The use of aggressive language against caste and class enemies also aggravates the situation. Violence in thoughts and speech leads to violence in action and recent political discourse of JNU is full of intense hatred and violent language against ‘perceived enemies’ of the people. The academic excellence is derided and world view and understanding of the issues is derived from mess-time pamphlets and propaganda posters of the Real Red Party. Even the simple things like taking proper bath, dressing up properly is derided as fake aesthetics and given a castist angle! It is condemned as superficiality of elites who don’t have to soil their hands and live in deprivation like, we the ‘real’ people of India. Pronouncing Comrade as Comrade is scoffed upon, it should be Kaamrade as in Hindi! Whether one agrees or disagrees with the old left politics it’s clear that JNU is going down the path of total degeneration.
It’s becoming clear to other left parties that ideology is Lilliput in front of juggernaut of MY factor and their frustration is evident. Despite all the hard work put into presenting a detailed and refined stand on issues in front of students, they are being steamrolled by a party which only puts up shrill rhetoric and intellectually bankrupt agendas typical of far-left and Sharia-Bolsheviks.
This has led to a slow shift of other left parties towards the strategy of creating their own social constituencies and raking up extremist issues and taking completely biased positions like in recent Muzzaffarnagar riots. Maoist front-Democratic Student Union (DSU) is totally on its knees for Kashmiri Muslim Separatist votes and has openly aligned itself with Islamofascist elements of the worst kind. SFI has been reduced to its Kerala cadre led South-Indian votes who are mobilised more on the basis of local state politics and shared apathy of North-India arising from the Dravidian construct. DSF was carved out of the SFI after old SFI hands were expelled for questioning the CPM politburo over its support for Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential elections. Well that was the official reason but when the split occurred, it was on the lines of Bengal faction and Kerala faction. DSF as a result constitutes of Bengali comrades and some old SFI cadre from Bihar etc. AISF has remodeled itself as the non-AISA left alternative for the Hindi heartland constituency and has reaped reach reward in this election, even winning a council post. Among non- left parties, NSUI has re-energised itself by concentrating on students from Rajasthan and other western states and surprised JNU by coming up second in several seats including General Secretary in the central panel. ABVP, still reeling under factionalism and sycophancy, has little clue of the changes occurring in JNU. Its standard response to anything it can’t comprehend is Vande Matram. But it too has been reduced to a Savarna party of Hindi belt.
As parties continue to abandon the old approach and rely more and more on social and regional solidarity, the political model of JNU is unravelling. The level of public discourse and once brilliant election time speeches and presidential debate has deteriorated to the street level brawl which can give tough competition to like of Owaisi.
It’s clear that left politics in JNU is in self- destruct mode. It is intellectually dead and has the same standard response to anything and everything. The institutions which were created by left and supported leftist pre-dominance in campus are bring pulverised by the brazen caste and communal politics of far-left. This year even the elections were rigged. During counting, three ballot boxes of central panel from School of Social Sciences (SSS) were found without the seal of Election Commission. Flimsy reason was given that commission ran out of wax in SSS. Even the counting for central panel was started very late in a significant departure from previous norms. This led to huge ruckus which halted the counting for one whole night. But AISA went out of its way to convince and coerce others that nothing is amiss and prolonging the issue or any complain will only compromise the ‘independence’ of JNU politics by bring upon it the full force of Lyngdoh Commission guidelines. At present JNU elections are conducted in brazen violation of Supreme Court. Election is conducted by democratically elected student election commission comprising of ‘neutral’ students. Needless to say that it’s full of active sympathisers of one or the other parties. Election campaigning and presidential debate violate all norms of late night use of speakers and borders around and even cross into hate speech. Campus is flooded with outsiders during elections especially old comrades which is clearly prohibited etc. After the long deliberation behind closed doors, other parties fell to Lyngdoh Vodoo once more and either reluctantly or willingly buried the matter then and there (boxes were included in counting). Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
With even elections compromised, how much time will take for campus politics to descend into total chaos? What message has been taken away by those who rigged the polls? And by other parties? The damage is incalculable. JNU is moving towards Lalu-Mulayam brand of ‘Secular-Samajwadi’ politics and day is not far when full scale election violence will erupt in the campus bringing in the full state control over JNU politics. Something which left has tried so desperately to prevent will become a reality as the culmination of its own sins. That will be the final blow to the free run and lack of accountability left has enjoyed in JNU.