Modi’s Student Crackdown

Amid economic failure and a rising student movement, Indian Prime Minister Modi has turned to outright repression.

On February 15, the Hindu, a prominent Indian newspaper, featured two headlines above the fold on the front page: “LeT wing backed JNU protest: Rajnath” and “Blaze mars Make in India event.” The headlines are cryptic and need some decoding, particularly for non-Indian audiences, but they speak volumes about the multifaceted crisis facing India today and the contradictions at the heart of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The latter headline about “Make in India” was in smaller font, and the story it described garnered less attention in the press. But it provides crucial context for understanding the former headline and the current crackdown on Indian college campuses, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru University, by the BJP and its allies.

Tilting Toward Capital

“Make in India” is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to strengthen the manufacturing sector in India. Officially launched in 2014, the campaign (whose brand management is handled by the well-known American advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy) is largely a slick repackaging of the economic liberalization policies that have been pushed in India for decades.

Despite purporting to create jobs, the initiative’s actual mechanisms for doing so have not been explained, except in the vaguest terms.

“Make in India” policies are also tilted strongly in favor of capital, and include steps like deregulating the manufacturing sector, opening up more sectors to foreign direct investment, and reforming the intellectual property regime so that it aligns with global standards (which will likely lead to huge increases in the price of medicines and educational materials).

The anti-labor nature of the initiative is also evident in its prioritization of capital-intensive industries (which rely more on imported technology than local labor) and the simultaneous push by the BJP government to weaken labor laws. In response to these moves, labor unrest has grown, with smaller agitations punctuated by bigger events, including a nationwide strike last September.

On a more general level, the “Make in India” campaign reflects the current government’s neglect of the agricultural sector, even though the sector employs more than 50 percent of India’s workforce. This neglect is, again, a continuance of previous policies and has made agriculture increasingly untenable as a livelihood; the promotion of high-input (and thus high-cost) farming methods has led to deadly agrarian crises and an epidemic of farmers’ suicides, largely attributed to mounting debt.

In a typically callous response, BJP Member of Parliament Gopal Shetty remarked that farmers’ suicides were just a “fashion trend.” Distancing themselves from such statements, top BJP leaders have recently gone into damage control mode, claiming that their government is actually pro-poor and pro-farmer. For instance, the recently announced budget has been touted as a lifeline to farmers. But this has proved to be empty rhetoric.

What’s more, “Make in India” — or Modi’s war on the poor, as one analyst called it — is not working. As scholar Shankar Gopalakrishnan has outlined in convincing detail, Modi’s economic policies not only fail the average Indian — they don’t even live up to the narrow economic benchmarks that the boosters of capital have set for themselves. In fact, by integrating the Indian economy into larger global networks through decades of liberalization, India’s capital class has essentially ceded control of the economy. The stock market in India, for instance, is largely driven by foreign portfolio investors.

The capitalist class initially supported Modi because he seemed the most enthusiastic about their economic agenda, but today big businessmen and their media representatives are getting restless. This anxiety is exacerbated by disasters like the “Make in India” event referenced in the Hindu.

In characteristic Modi fashion, the event was a splashy, media-centered extravaganza meant to hype an initiative that is rapidly losing support, but a massive fire broke out during the event’s cultural program. It was later revealed that the fire department had discovered several safety violations the day before the function, but the organizers of the event did nothing to address them. The blaze was even more embarrassing considering Modi’s “Make in India” slogan “Zero Defect, Zero Effect.”

While the government brushed aside the embarrassment, there are other indications that Modi’s “Make in India” dreams may go up in smoke. A recent Bloomberg report was intensely skeptical about the campaign, and the excitement surrounding a 251 rupee smartphone (about US$4), manufactured by an Indian company called Ringing Bells, was quickly dampened after it was alleged that the government might be subsidizing the phone and the company admitted that the first five million phones would be imported from Taiwan, not made in India.

Such fiascoes, combined with an ongoing agrarian crisis and rising labor unrest, indicate growing, cross-class disillusionment with Modi’s economic performance. After analyzing the Indian economy’s structural faultlines, Gopalakrishnan predicted what would happen when the BJP failed to deliver on its economic promises:

As its unpopularity increases, the obvious way out for this government is to resort to a combination of fearmongering and repression . . . Some trigger event would occur . . . Such triggers might be manufactured, or they might be real, but that distinction will not really matter. Hysteria will be whipped up, along with an intense crackdown on resistance and dissent.”

This prediction was prescient, and it helps explain the other headline on the Hindu’s front page.

Nationalism and Repression

Like many right-wing political parties (the Republican Party in the US and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party come to mind), the BJP relies on an odd coalition of big capital (the main funders) and religious conservatives (the mass base). As the BJP has flailed economically, with the national economy increasingly overwhelmed by international forces, it has put more and more weight on its agenda of cultural, religious nationalism.

Admittedly, BJP leaders like Modi do not see the party’s economic and the religious agendas as distinct. At the “Make in India” event where the fire broke out, the stage was littered with images from “ancient” (read: pre-Muslim) India, which Modi and his party never tire of glorifying.

But there is no doubt that the BJP’s cultural agenda has taken on a decidedly repressive, violent tone in recent days, completely overshadowing its economic troubles. The “JNU protest” mentioned in the Hindu headline refers to a poetry reading and performance art session organized by students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a public institution in Delhi known equally for its rigorous academic standards and its history of left-wing activism. What started as a minor scuffle between two student groups on the JNU campus has spiraled into a witch hunt against left-wing students and a violent crackdown on free speech.

The circumstances surrounding the initial scuffle are still disputed, but some facts are clear. The poetry reading at JNU was organized to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri whom the Supreme Court sentenced to death in 2013 for his alleged role in a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. The JNU students are hardly the first to raise questions about Afzal Guru and capital punishment, or the first to organize protests on the issue. But Kashmir is politically explosive, as it stands in for India’s existential rivalry with Pakistan.

The Kashmir region has been in dispute ever since the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947. India’s claim to Kashmir rests on military force, a forged accession letter, and a refusal to honor its promise of a plebiscite to allow Kashmiris to decide their own fate.

The Indian military has overseen a brutal occupation of Kashmir, fighting a Pakistan-backed insurgency while also suppressing local protests, killing countless civilians, and torturing suspected militants under the cover of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Despite (or perhaps because of) this contested history, it has long been a badge of nationalism and patriotism to maintain that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

This has certainly been the case with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyrathi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is the largest Hindu nationalist organization in India, and it provides the mass base for the BJP, with which it is closely aligned. (Modi, for instance, entered politics through the RSS.) The ABVP, like other Hindu nationalist organizations, has been emboldened by the BJP’s 2014 election victory and by Modi’s approval (sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit) of its muscular pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim activities.

A group of ABVP activists in JNU took umbrage at the Afzal Guru event and surrounded the participants, shouting slogans that included, allegedly, “Mother India is calling you; be ready with bullets and with blood on your forehead.” In response, other students yelled back increasingly provocative slogans of their own, including, allegedly, “Break India!” At this point, the president of JNU’s student union, Kanhaiya Kumar, arrived and tried to calm both sides down. The ABVP had also called the Delhi Police to the scene.

The BJP quickly used the “anti-national” slogans as an excuse to pounce on left-wing activists at JNU — an institution resented by Hindu nationalists, who view it as a debased bastion of communism. The JNU Student Union, for instance, has long been dominated by the student wings of India’s many Communist parties. The Delhi Police (whose top officers are known for their collusion with the BJP) quickly drew up a list of students to target that seemed based not on who may have been at the Afzal Guru event, but rather on who is most active in student politics.

Kanhaiya Kumar was the first to be arrested. He was charged with sedition under a colonial-era law that had been used by the British to target, among others, Mohandas Gandhi. It soon became obvious that Kumar had been detained based on doctored evidence, namely a video clip run by a rabidly patriotic news channel that had been edited to include the slogan — which, according to reports, was not actually heard at the Afzal Guru event — “Long Live Pakistan.”

In their persecution of JNU students, the BJP has had the support of a wildly irresponsible media, who have whipped up a jingoistic frenzy against the students, playing the doctored videos over and over. Things turned particularly ugly when the media began to target Umar Khalid, an atheist and communist widely known on campus for his rousing speeches. Solely on the basis of his name, with absolutely no evidence, Khalid was suddenly presented in the media as a jihadist, with fabricated ties to terrorist organizations in Pakistan.

But it’s not just the media. Defamation is being spread by the highest rung of government officials. This explains the first Hindu headline: Rajnath Singh is India’s home minister and one of Modi’s closest confidantes. Well known for his allegiance to the RSS and his extreme views, Singh has spearheaded the JNU crackdown, saying, “If anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise question on the nation’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared.”

Singh also claimed that the JNU Afzal Guru event was supported by Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistani religious leader with ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the militant organization behind several attacks in India. His corroboration for this assertion was a tweet that, it later emerged, was from a parody Twitter account. Following the characteristic BJP posture of sheer brazenness, Singh has refused to back down from this claim, even though it has been thoroughly debunked.

The travesties of justice keep piling up. When Kumar was brought to a Delhi High Court for his bail hearing, he was beaten up outside the courtroom by a group of right-wing lawyers, while the Delhi Police stood by. The lawyers also targeted journalists who had come to cover the event. The attorneys were joined by a BJP Member of Legislative Assembly named O. P. Sharma, who was caught on camera assaulting a protester.

Several days later, Kumar was beaten up again, this time inside the courtroom, as the police casually let a menacing man wearing dark sunglasses enter the room where Kumar was being kept. Kumar’s bail hearing was repeatedly postponed, and finally, after two weeks he was granted interim bail on the condition he not engage in “anti-national activities.”

The bail order itself was a strange mix of overwrought metaphors and hyper-nationalism; it started by quoting from a patriotic Bollywood song, and then noted that JNU students were suffering from “a kind of infection” that needed to be “cured before it becomes an epidemic.” Two other JNU students are still in jail. Meanwhile, the lawyers and politicians behind the mob violence have openly boasted about their antics and continue to walk the streets of Delhi. After intense public pressure, a few were arrested, but they were quickly given bail.

The Context of the Crackdown

Much media attention, both national and international, has focused on the minutiae of the JNU events (Who really shouted what slogan? When will the bail hearing finally take place?), but the details of the case matter less than the larger context of the crackdown. Economic instability is part of this context, but perhaps even more important is a string of student movements that have, in different ways, pushed back against the BJP agenda.

Two events in particular set the stage for the JNU repression. The first was a student movement called “Occupy UGC,” which received particularly strong support from groups at JNU. UGC is the University Grants Commission, which (among other things) administers a fellowship to graduate students at public universities.

On October 20, 2015, the UGC announced its decision to discontinue the fellowship, with little justification given. Many theorized that the move was linked to the upcoming World Trade Organization meetings in Nairobi.

India has been moving toward opening up higher education to the international market by placing it under the WTO General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS). This means the government would have to treat national and international educational institutions on par.

By cutting funding for graduate students at national universities, the government preempted the need to fund such students at international universities after the GATS deal was finalized. This was one more move by a supposedly nationalist government to cede control of key sectors to the international market.

Students responded to the cuts with a range of protests, the most dramatic of which was an occupation of the grounds of the UCG office. Although much of the movement’s leadership came from JNU students affiliated with mainstream Left parties, the movement was notable for its ability to bring together students from many universities, in Delhi and beyond. It also drew in students who were wary of mainstream student politics.

The more horizontalist approach of the movement was captured in its name, which took clear inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Delhi Police responded predictably, with water cannons and lathi (baton) charges, but the movement successfully weathered several of these attacks. The outcome remains unknown, though, as the WTO negotiations at Nairobi, which concluded in December, have been cloaked in secrecy.

The other event leading up to the JNU crackdown was more tragic: on January 17, Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar active in Dalit politics, killed himself after he and his organization were hounded by right-wing groups, university administrators, and politicians for several months.

The term “Dalit” (“downtrodden”) was popularized by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the revered anti-caste activist and author of the Indian Constitution, to refer to the formerly “Untouchable” castes. Vemula had been part of a Communist student organization, but was disappointed with their lack of engagement with caste issues. He then joined the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) at Hyderabad Central University (HCU).

ASA ran afoul of the ABVP when it organized a memorial on the day that Yakub Memon was executed by the Indian government for his alleged role in the 1993 Bombay bombings. Like Afzal Guru’s case, Memon’s trial and sentencing was the subject of great controversy, with even Indian intelligence officials questioning the fairness of the decision.

The ABVP, supported by the BJP, began a sustained harassment campaign against the ASA that culminated in a top BJP official, Bandaru Dattatreya, accusing the Education Ministry of being “casteist” and “anti-national.” The ministry then applied pressure to HCU administrators, who kicked the students out of their dormitories and forbade them from participating in student politics.

For a group of activists committed to challenging social exclusion, both historic and contemporary, this act of institutional boycotting was a sad irony. Vemula committed suicide soon after, leaving behind a deeply poignant suicide note, that read, in part, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”

Solidarity Against Nationalism

It is significant that, in both the HCU and JNU cases, the trouble began with events that sought to question the way the death penalty had been used to mobilize popular sentiment and foment Islamophobia. Such a line of questioning was anathema to the ABVP, which was able to use its political connections — in both cases — to attack the “offending” students.

The HCU case is especially noteworthy because the ABVP’s attack on Dalit students lays bare the false promises of Hindu nationalism. Right-wing Hindu groups have long tried to court Dalits and to pit Dalits against Muslims in their bid to create a single Hindu majoritarian identity. However, due to their deeply entrenched casteism, Hindu nationalists will only let Dalits rise so far in their organizations, and they will never question the caste system as a whole.

As many scholars and activists have noted, then, Hindu nationalism’s most dangerous enemy is the radical Dalit movement, which calls for the annihilation of caste and continues to produce devastating critiques of Hinduism.

The relationship between Dalit movements and left groups has historically been an uneasy one. Dalit activists, including Vemula himself, have rightly criticized the Left’s long tradition of dismissing caste in favor of class analysis, as well as the domination of the mainstream left parties by the upper castes. However, many on the Left, especially outside of the mainstream, have taken this critique to heart.

One hopeful sign in recent days has been the way HCU and JNU students have banded together. One of the suspended HCU students recently attended a rally at JNU and underlined the similarities between the two cases of right-wing repression.

On February 23 in Delhi, many JNU students marched alongside HCU students and Dalit activists to protest against the injustices faced by Vemula and to demand the introduction of a law that would end caste discrimination in educational institutions. In a speech on the JNU campus, Umar Khalid quoted Vemula’s suicide note, saying that he had never considered himself a Muslim until the media reduced him to this identity, and that students would fight together to ensure the tragedy of Vemula’s death would not be repeated.

These are not the only solidarities being forged at the moment. As the JNU saga unfolded, workers at a Honda factory just south of Delhi went on strike, the latest instance of labor militancy in this restive industrial belt. Several of the striking workers came to the JNU campus and spoke of their movement, their support of the JNU students, and the need to build stronger connections between workers and students.

The process of building broad-based solidarity is just beginning, and there are many signs that it will be a challenging process. Within the Left, some at JNU feel that the more mainstream parties have focused too much on the student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, and have adopted a nationalist discourse in response to right-wing attacks instead of formulating a more full-throated defense of all those involved, especially Umar Khalid. Meanwhile, some Dalit activists feel the spotlight is wrongly on JNU, and that the history of the Left appropriating anti-caste struggles may be repeated.

And on the streets, the repression continues. On February 24, the Delhi Police detained over one hundred people who were conducting a quiet candlelight vigil to honor Rohith Vemula. Among the people the police picked up was Vermula’s mother. In recent days, in yet another attempt to crack down on dissent, the police have also been questioning journalists who have taken a critical stance on the JNU issue.

The situation in India has gotten so bad that even the New York Times editorial board has taken notice. In a February 23 editorial, the board worried that the “confrontation . . . may further stall any progress in Parliament on economic reforms.” By “economic reforms,” the board means more of the neoliberal shock therapy that faces widespread resistance in India. But the Times puts the cart before the horse. It is precisely because Modi’s economic platform has failed that dangerous “confrontations” have found such purchase in India.

One can only hope that such “reforms” do not “progress” any further. But the real hope is that progressive networks of solidarity can grow and can contest not just Modi’s economic agenda, but his reactionary religious nationalism.

These are frightening times in India, yet they also contain glimmers of hope. Students, socialists, workers, Muslims, and Dalits are all under attack. But they are recognizing their commonalities and forging resistance movements together. India’s fate may hinge on the strength of these movements.