Reflections on the JNU Row in India

Swagata Basu's picture


Today we live in a world where the nation is the dominant way of organizing people. We have to identify ourselves and others as nationals of a country. From childhood one is taught the history and trivia related to his/her country even before children can perceive the geographical spread of a country or for that matter understand what a nation really means. Only a minority of intellectuals and academicians who study the history of nationalism can see that there is nothing natural about what we call our nation, that it is a construct, a product of certain historical circumstances. The formation of each nation comes about for different reasons. The average citizen of any country feels that love for and loyalty towards one’s nation is something obvious and natural. Patriotism and Nationalism are often understood as one and the same thing and both are seen as virtues. In India over the past few weeks these common assumptions have been questioned and debated as a response to a series of events related mainly to students’ political activism and the way the central government handles such activities. This blog post looks at this aspect of the so called “JNU row.”

Background to the JNU Incident

Debate over Nationalism is surging in India after the police arrested a young student political leader named Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNUSU (Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union), by charging him for sedition after an event was organized in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) to discuss how the government of India handles the issues of Kashmir and capital punishment. A detailed report on these events can be read here at The Hindu. It was alleged that the students who organized the event were shouting “anti-India slogans.” The video of these slogans were played by television news channels several times and launched a media trial of the student leaders in question. The Delhi police entered the university campus and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, against the common practice in which a university proctorial board would decide the future course of action. Media played a huge role in the issue by over-simplifying or dumbing down complex ideas and concepts, which led to the formation of public opinion that questioned the patriotism and loyalty of students of JNU to the Indian nation. The term “anti-national” was used again and again to condemn them. Petitions were launched over social media to “Shut down JNU.” One of the student leaders, Umar Khalid, was quickly alleged to have connections with a Pakistani terrorist organization. The Home Minister also commented on the links between these students and Pakistani terrorists based on a twitter account that was later revealed to be fake. Little evidence was available and all this was done based on speculation.

JNU is one of the most prestigious and esteemed universities of India, among the very few which figures in international rankings. It provides a quality education at a highly subsidized rate. Most students pursuing research get some kind of financial assistance. It is characterized by a campus life where student politics play an important role. The walls are filled with posters that display the different political ideologies on campus. Many professors are known to have left leaning political ideologies and defend the values of socialism while criticizing Neoliberalism, Casteism, Brahmanism, and Patriarchy.   

The event that sparked the controversy was to commemorate the execution of Afzal Guru, a man convicted for planning a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, whose hanging was controversial, especially in the region of Kashmir. This discussion frequently leads to claims about the right to self-determination for the Kashmiri people, and this event was attended by Kashmiri youth from outside JNU. Kashmir, the northern most part of India, has been a conflict area since the birth of India and Pakistan as nations after their independence from British rule in 1947. Life in Kashmir is precarious, caused on one side by the militants and on the other side by the Indian army. The militants claim to be fighting for the freedom of Kashmir but, as the press has documented, often act like terrorists. (One could draw parallels to ETA in Spain.) To control the activities of the militants, the Indian government deploys a huge army at all times. Given these circumstances a discussion on the execution may have invoked repressed sentiments in some and they may have raised certain slogans which can be termed anti-India. But using this incident to label the entire university as indulging in “anti-national activities” is an exaggerated reaction. Defenders of JNU and the liberal-left politics are seeing in this a massive attack on freedom of speech and an attempt to crush dissent.

Who is Anti-National?

The JNU incident led to the formation of a discourse on what is anti-national and as a corollary a discourse on nationalism. In our contemporary mediated societies, how these discourses are generated is quite complex, but I can fairly say that television news channels, print media, social media, and remarks made by members of the party in power all converge to create a discourse that seeps into the general public. After the JNU incident got media attention people were outraged at the slogans that allegedly demanded Azadi (Freedom). Some channels projected the matter in such a way that within no time people started to believe that JNU breeds “traitors” or agents of enemy states. It was perceived that they were demanding freedom (of Kashmir) from India. So, we can conclude that JNU students were perceived as anti-national because they were in some way sympathising with Kashmiri separatism.  

A month before the JNU incident the word anti-national was used for a group of Dalit[1] students in the Hyderabad Central University. One of them, Rohit Vemula, committed suicide after facing several days of expulsion from his university hostel due to a minor scuffle with a student political activist of ABVP, the student wing of BJP. The scuffle took place when members of ABVP tried to stop the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, a documentary that throws light upon the role of BJP in communal riots in Muzaffarnagar district in the state of Uttar Pradesh. A BJP Member of Parliament, Bandaru Dattatreya, sent several letters to the HRD minister (Human Resource Development, the ministry that governs higher education), Ms. Smriti Irani, branding Rohit and his friends as “anti-national.” Dattatreya and Irani’s intervention are seen as causes behind the expulsion of Vemula and his consequent death. His suicide note is a beautiful literary piece that shook the collective conscious of India.

After the JNU incident anybody showing any form of support to JNU students was also branded anti-national and attacked, including much respected journalists and authors. The word anti-national became so trivial that perhaps Umar Khalid is right when he says in India all you need to do to be branded as anti-national is to think.[2]

Two visions of the nation and what it means to be patriotic seem to have acquired the foreground in India. The idea of nationalism among those who are against the JNU students are arguably much closer to right wing ideologies such as ultra-nationalism and fascism. Theirs is a breed of nationalism that mostly thrives on hatred. The discourse on nationalism generated by them glorifies the idea of going on war and destroying the enemy, real or imagined. Some army veterans suggested that tanks be installed in the university premise to instil nationalism in students. For such nationalists, the soldiers who die at the frontier or in conflict zones are the greatest patriots and heroes. This is why a totally unrelated incident in which a soldier died after an avalanche in Kashmir was used to contrast the sacrifice of such men against the students of JNU. (One such view can be read here.) They, however, do not question why peace is not established through debates, discussions, and negotiations in the first place. They are constantly in a defensive mode and are suspicious towards westernisation, liberalism, communism, secularism, etc. They carry the Indian flag and chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai, [Victory Be to the Mother Goddess India], and they threaten to use violence against desh-drohis (traitors). There seems to have been a growth in these aggressive stances since the present Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, and BJP government came to power after the elections in 2014. Writers have been attacked, NGOs held back, unrest awakened over food habits of the minority communities, and there have been attacks on inter-faith marriages and relationships. Many of these ideas are one way or the other related to what has been termed Hindu Nationalism or Hindutva. A fair idea about it and how it originated could be made from this article. When Smriti Irani spoke on the JNU incident in the parliament, she provided several examples to prove the point that JNU really does harbour some anti-national activities. She even quoted Cicero to warn against the dangers posed by traitors to a nation.[3] One of her examples was a pamphlet that denounces a major Hindu religious festival. She was shocked to see the pamphlet’s reversed narrative of the festival provided by students of JNU and called the pamphlet a “depravity.” The Goddess here had become the villain and then the villain a victim.

There is another group with their own notion of nationalism. They are the ones who try to examine the problems of the nation and try to solve them through research and analysis. In this process they may criticize the government and its policies. Most of the teachers and students in JNU are perhaps part of this group. Their criticism of the nation is a reflection of their concern for the nation. It is not anti-national but against all that is problematic about the nation. One can find out what these thinkers have to say through a unique response that emerged in the form of a series of Teach Ins on the theme “What the Nation really needs to know.” These are open lectures given in an open space on the campus of JNU, instead of a classroom. They can be attended by anyone from anywhere without any enrollment or fee. Some of the brightest minds in India are sharing with the general public their views and knowledge pertaining to Nation and Nationalism. To further expand the reach of these talks, they are being uploaded on Youtube (available here). Many of these speakers are from the Centre of Historical Studies of JNU and offer a nuanced version of India’s history. Some of these talks remind people that the highly revered poet, philosopher, and artist of India, Rabindranath Tagore (India’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature) was against an aggressive nationalism that puts the nation above the human or the right cause. Discussion has also taken place on Gandhi’s view of nationalism and how it rejected exclusionist and aggressive attitudes. These debates on Nationalism are necessary to open up the minds of people who have a narrow definition of nationalism and who in some cases know very little about India’s complex history. The language of these lectures is English, and academic English at that, which restricts their potential audience. Nevertheless, this is the first attempt of its kind to break the academic bubble and let one and all participate in a debate and form their own positions after hearing scholarly talks. Only someone from this school of thought would be able to highlight the fact that there really does exist a tribe of a few thousand who believe in the reversed narrative of the religious festival mentioned by Smriti Irani. By speaking in support of this minority tribe’s belief, students in JNU are attacking the Hindu caste system, which still prevails in India, and not the religion per se nor the integrity of the democratic nation. But by relating the two, those who oppose these voices are ending up portraying nationalism as the defence of the ethos of only the dominant groups. 

The JNU situation has shown the cracks in India’s society at many levels. It was no doubt an attack on the autonomy of a university; an attack on the idea of a university being a free space, a hotbed of debates, a place where the youth can exchange ideas and form their own opinion and take political positions. It doesn’t matter if sympathy for a convicted terrorist is right or wrong. A university has to be a place where one can express views that may be totally against the official position of the State. Secondly it is an attack on free speech. It should not be a crime to support the aspirations of self-rule of any community in a democracy. The freedom of Kashmir is a concept supported by many in and outside Kashmir and India, and a mature democracy should not be so sensitive that any discussion on that front be seen as an attack on the integrity of the nation. Thirdly, it has highlighted the power of the media. It has shown how easily the media can form opinions and vilify someone or a group. The incident has polarized the society into two sections: on one hand we have those who are defenders of liberal values and the right to dissent in a democracy and on the other hand there are those who look at the nation as a holy entity, a Hindu Goddess-Mother, the Bharat Mata,[4] that needs to be worshipped, not questioned. India has enjoyed a stable democracy since its independence, perhaps because the majority were neither radical left or right but moderates. But the present government seems to fan the flames of radicalization on both sides. Deep polarization of the society has taken place and that is very harmful for a country like India that is known for its rich diversity in every sphere.


From the second week of February till a few days ago, I, (Swagata Basu, an alumnus of JNU and an assistant professor at a university which aspires to be like JNU) was extremely anxious. I was feeling like the world, my country as I knew it, was coming to an end. It was the first time that I could truly relate to the trauma people face under repressive authoritarian regimes, civil wars, revolutions; things that I teach to my student as part of my courses on Spanish and Latin American History and Culture. I was reminded of the Falangist ideology defended and promoted by General Francisco Franco during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). What a tragic, fratricidal war it was. A war that killed millions, including a brilliant young poet like Federico Garcia Lorca. I could for the first time understand what it’s like to fight for a cause; how one can give up their comfortable life and plunge into a fight, to defend an idea that you want to see survive. I was also afraid all the time, waiting to hear the latest update on the JNU students’ condition. Some of them were jailed and others were questioned and still many more were protesting on the streets of Delhi. I was away in a different city and I suddenly felt my surrounding to be meaningless. My heart was with them, the ‘anti-nationals’ of JNU. I really felt threatened. I read about a Lucknow University professor being attacked for sharing an article in support of the JNU students and I felt that it could be me. I wondered what if they are being beaten and tortured in jail. What if they get killed? I wondered what will happen to all my professors if they closed the university.

On March 3rd, Kanhaiya Kumar was released on interim bail and the speech he gave upon his arrival on JNU has put my faith back in the constitution and given me some hope. Yet the future doesn’t look very bright. Fresh issues are coming up in Allahabad University, where the first female President of the student union is allegedly facing harassment for her activism. The PM has still not spoken on these issues. Ms. Smriti Irani has still not apologized for the death of Rohith Vemula and continues to campaign against anti-nationals. Perhaps Kanhaiya Kumar will be able to lead the youth to a culture of open and free academic discussion. Upon release he chanted his slogan for Azadi once again. He clarified this time that he is talking about freedom in India not from India. “Freedom from Hunger, from Sanghwad[5], from Feudalism, from Capitalism, from Brahminism, from Casteism.” And I do not see anything anti-national about that.


Links to Some Related Videos:

  1. Umar Khalid’s Speech at Admin Block, JNU on 22 Feb., 2016
  2. Kanhaiya Kumar’s Speech after returning to JNU  on bail
  3. Kanhaiya Kumar’s slogan’s sample used to create a catchy track by Dub Sharma:
  4. One of the teach-in, the fourth lecture on the series: What the nation really needs to know by Prof. Ayesha Kidwai, President of JNU Teachers Association
  5. Smriti Irani’s speech in the parliament on the JNU incident where she talks about the dangers posed by a traitor to a nation among other things




[1] A term used in India to talk about people who come from oppressed background as members of a lower caste in the caste system, which is no longer legal but survives in practice.

[2] Umar Khalid, also a JNU student booked under Sedition charges, disappeared for a few days and resurfaced in JNU and gave a speech which became very popular on Youtube. He later surrendered to the Delhi police and is still in police custody. 

[3]A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within…” Link to the speech given at the end of this essay.

[4] There are actually a few temples in India dedicated to the worship of this Goddess, known as Bharat Mata Mandir.

[5] Sanghwad in Hindi means Federalism, but in this context it is more likely to mean the ideology of RSS, also known as Sangh Parivar

I would like to thank Swagata Basu for this excellent discussion of the JNU Row in India.  As with all of H-Nationalism's original content, it is open to comment by our subscribers.

For me, Swagata Basu's contribution is particularly important not only because she is an alumna and a member of another university's faculty, hence arguably has a great deal invested in the events, but also because she has presented the emotional, affective dimension of her response - which are powerful motivators for action - instead of confining herself to the usual political/ideological arguments. These arguments are no less valuable: her analysis of what the events mean for India is penetrating and thought-provoking.