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Living history: student solidarity meetings and peaceful protests in Delhi Reflections on the unfolding crisis in India by Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer

5 June 2020

In December 2019, I was in Delhi for an international workshop and took the opportunity to visit my academic collaborators based at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). JNU is a world-class graduate university that attracts the best and brightest students from all backgrounds and religions, from across the sub-continent. In 2015 I had been a visiting professor at the Centre for Historical Studies. It was an incredible and enriching experience - intellectually stimulating and full of rigorous and respectful debate - in a safe and beautiful campus, adorned with its signature colourful murals.

I was there at a moment of crisis as India’s secularism, one of the founding principles of modern India, is being threatened. The determination by the right wing Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party, led by Prime Minister Narenda Modi, to create a Hindu nationalist state has triggered a major crisis for the world’s largest democracy. The attempts by the BJP to implement a national register of citizens (NRC), along with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), strikes at the very heart of what it means to be an Indian and what it means to be a university.

‘A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason … for the search of the truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives’, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, said this at the convocation of the University of Allahabad on 13 December 1947. He continued that ‘If the universities discharge their duty adequately, then it is well with the nation and the people’. This is the sentiment and values that underpinned the foundation of JNU in 1969.

When I visited the JNU campus on Sunday 15 December 2019 the murals were gone. The students, who has been peacefully protesting for over 50 days against the introduction of excessive fees, told me stories about how they (and their families) had been subjected to intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, and violence. A brave young historian showed me wounds of where she had been slashed with razor blades (‘bladed’). Another played a video clip on his smart phone of uniformed police dragging him along the ground, kicking him repeatedly. I was both shocked and deeply saddened by what I saw and heard.

Two days later equally vicious attacks occurred against students at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, where I had also lectured in 2015. In response to this 1,000s of students from across India took to the streets and, as they rallied in support their Muslim colleagues, they inspired a nation.

On 19 December the citizenry, especially women, showed solidarity and joined them. These mass peaceful protests against the NRC and CAA occurred despite restrictions under colonial-era section 144 (proscribing a gathering of more than four persons) and wifi and telecommunications blackouts. The students chanted ‘Azadi’ (freedom): freedom from injustice, from inequality, from intolerance, from poverty. They carried posters with empowering messages and images of Gandhi. There were public readings from the preamble of the Indian constitution. The protests were very much in the spirit of Nehru and Gandhi: non-violent, secular and inclusive. Where violence did occur, it was state sponsored and, tragically, over 30 people lost their lives, over two-thirds from Uttar Pradesh where significant numbers of Muslims live.

The courage of these students gave me hope for the future and I felt privileged to have witnessed first-hand their solidarity. So it was with horror that I learned on Sunday 5 January 2020 that an armed and politically-motivated mob was allowed to enter the JNU campus and attack students and staff. JNU’s ‘bloody Sunday’ has attracted widespread condemnation in India and around the world and there is an international call for the Vice Chancellor to resign.

The future remains uncertain but the spirit, bravery, and dignity of the JNU staff and students at this moment of global crisis is inspiring. They embody the values of Nehru and are doing all they can to ‘discharge their duty adequately’. If they succeed, all will be ‘well with the nation and the people’. The alternative is unthinkable.

As a gesture of solidarity with our colleagues in India – and with those around the world who face comparable challenges - Nehru’s powerful message was on the main window of the Trinity Long Room Hub (January-August 2020)

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