Brown/RISD Teach-In | University and Dissent: Universities Under Siege

February 25, 2016

On February 9, 2016, the Delhi Police entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India's most prestigious universities, on the pretext of “anti-national” slogans being raised by students during a Kashmir-related event on campus. The elected president of the student union, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested on charges of sedition, and others were similarly charged. Following the incident, a trial by media unfolded false stories about alleged links between the students and terrorist groups and doctored video footage; swinging public sentiment against the students.

State violence against students engaged in critical debates and activism did not end with the arrests. Kanhaiya, students and faculty from JNU present at his bail hearing as well as reporters covering the proceedings were beaten by lawyers inside the premises of the district court. At the same time, students and their families continue to be at the risk of both mob and state violence. Posters have emerged in parts of the city calling for public lynching of the students. Their families have been the victim of incessant hate mail and death threats.

The last time the police entered the JNU campus was in 1975 during the 21-month period of national emergency. These events, unfortunately, are part of a growing assault on the autonomy of universities and freedom to speech over the last year. The political party at power is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization that promotes Hindu majoritarianism and has sought to weaken liberal, secular sections of the civil society, which includes university campuses. Their attempts have sparked one of the most polarizing and explosive debates in recent times on dissent and the university, nationalism, democracy, and state violence in India.  

To express solidarity with the progressive ethos of JNU and other campuses which have faced similar attacks and show concern with growing intolerance towards healthy debate in India, scholars and academics around the world have participated in online petitions, discussions, and protest marches. Many renowned intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Homi Bhabha, and Herbert Mead have written to the JNU Vice Chancellor, urging him to intervene and protect the students of the university from police action.

Scholars at Brown and other universities in America and the United Kingdom have contributed. An online petition has been issued. A Brown/RISD teach-in took place on Thursday, February 25th where scholars and students at Brown were joined by former and current students of JNU through Skype who shared their experiences and discussed how these struggles resonate with struggles in South Africa, Turkey, Chile and right here in the United States, particularly with Black Lives Matter.

By Kaustav Chakrabarti, a first year Brown graduate student. Prior to joining Brown, he worked at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi based think-tank. He has published in Foreign Policy, Economic and Political Weekly, and The Hindu.