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JNU & ‘Safe Spaces’ Under Attack: Where Will Students Go?


Jan. 08, 2020

Students and faculty members of one of India’s premier institutions, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), witnessed one of its worst mob attack on the night of 5 January. From what it appears, this attack wasn’t simply an ‘act of violence’ or ‘vandalism’, but rather, a coordinated attack directed at a group of students and faculty members who were seen as subscribing to an ‘ideological bias’, and who had been protesting against the university administration and the ruling regime.
The terror unleashed by the right-wing mob upon the students marks one of the most unfortunate incidents in post-Independence India’s modern history. For one, it signals how there are no ‘safe’ spaces left for anyone anywhere, and even universities, which are considered ‘sacred’ — as centers of knowledge, reason and learning — have become slaves to a majoritarian political project.
From a Constitutional Democracy to an Illiberal Democracy
India’s turn from being a constitutional democracy to an illiberal democracy seems almost in its final stages of enactment, when one witnesses the brutalisation of students with police forces standing right outside the attacked university failing to intervene and protect. They could in fact be seen as being complicit with those beating down students with iron rods.
What we are witnessing now is the emergence of a new social contract between the State and its citizens. The contract seems influenced by the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who viewed citizens as ‘subjects’ of the State, and justified actions of the coercive State, at the very cost of individual rights, for a ‘collective good’.
Modi’s ‘New India’, similar to a Hobbes-ean state, has an unwritten charter in force now. It appears, in its messaging, somewhat like this: ‘Become a ‘Statizen’ and align your views and actions with what the State of nature puts forth. If you (any group or an individual) fail to offer unconditional loyalty to the State, the agents of the State shall do everything in its power (through law or force) to coerce you by instilling ‘fear of punishment’ through legitimate or illegitimate means. So, understand, and prioritise your ‘national’ duties over claiming or obsessing with any natural (constitutional) rights, else, we will label you as part of a politics of exclusion, or ask you to leave the country and settle in some other land.’
This charter appears to be the new ‘social contract’ in Modi-Shah’s India, and is currently being witnessed through the recent episodes of targeted attacks against Muslims in UP, and through other forms of state-approved violence against dissenting individuals or groups.
Violation of State-Citizen ‘Contract’?
And for this politicised social contract to continue sustaining itself, dissolving (or eliminating) ‘safe spaces’ is critical. A ‘bleeding’ JNU is a powerful example of how an institution, which allows a select group of aspiring students – based on merit or their socio-economic status – to have access to quality higher education, allowing everyone to co-habit a space promising equal opportunity for all, has now become a political instrument for an ideological war-zone to be created, and for a politics of fear to find its way to the masses.
The State-Citizen contract, in any civilised society is seen to be built on mutual trust, that the State shall ensure the well-being (and safety) of its citizens, where its agencies (police, army etc.), will act to protect from harm – and not become perpetrators of harm.
When such a ‘contract’ is ‘violated’, people, through a right to vote (or through mass movements of protest), possess the collective power to reject the practiced politics of the governed.
A Ray of Hope: Mass Solidarity & Sustained Activism
Despite these dark, troubling times, there is a small glimmer of hope. Over the last few weeks, older women of Shaheen Bagh (peacefully protesting 24/7 for more than 23 days now); students of universities across India, and members of the civil society have exhibited strong acts of solidarity against what is being largely perceived as an authoritarian regime. Their acts reflect a conscious, collective spirit of voice-based activism, where, such ‘voices’ represent a type of activism where people cannot, or do not want to leave because they deeply value the institution (say, a government) that finds itself in a crisis. Instead, they are interested in improving its performance through active participation.
Let’s hope such voice-based activism can help us create new safe spaces over time and resolve the questions that remain unanswered for now.
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