JNU, NDTV, Congress, Left, MSM … Divided by Internet Hindus, united by 2002.1 (Twitter handle Internet Hindu’)

It appeared my image on TV was very different from what I was in real life.2 (Kanhaiya Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar)

Why is JNU an issue? They are fu***ing university students, why is that an issue? They say: JNU wale anti-national hain![JNU-ites are anti-national]. I am like: They are students. They say: ‘ye log desh ko giraenge[They will bring down the nation]. I am like: ‘Unka canteen mein udhari hai. Isko koi medu vada nahin de raha. Tere paas nuclear weapon hai![They are in debt of the canteen. They are not getting their snacks. You have nuclear weapons].3 (Kunal Kamra, stand-up comedy performance)

There is hope, of course, as things can get unstuck.4 (Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion)


Nearly three years have passed since a ‘seditious’ event that took place on February 9, 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The name of JNU has come to represent something sinister in the public mind; something that had, until recently, been limited to the extremes of right-wing politics. The most recent manifestation of this is an incident involving the historian Ramchandra Guha. As reported, Guha’s appointment to Ahmedabad University was cancelled by the authorities after pressure from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organization affiliated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Significantly, ABVP invoked JNU’s name in a letter the organization sent to Ahmedabad University’s Registrar:

[W]e want intellectuals in our educational institutes and not anti-nationals, who can also be termed as urban Naxals. We had quoted anti-national content from his (Guhas) books to the Registrar. We told him, the person you are calling is a Communist. If he is invited to Gujarat, there would be a JNU-kind anti-national sentiment.6

A basic familiarity with Guha’s public statements shows that they are not truthful; Guha has been openly critical of both Maoists and communists, and has never been an admirer of JNU either. Nonetheless, it is precisely the rhetorical and affective force of the terms ‘anti-national’, ‘urban Naxals’ and ‘JNU-kind’ used here that right-wing organizations, sympathetic television channels and social media users are deeply invested in. Through repetitive use, such associations are kept in public circulation as parliamentary elections draw close.

This transformation of ‘JNU’ from the proper name of a university in Delhi to a generic label available for exceptional adjectival usages, such as ‘JNU-kind’ and ‘anti-national’, is fairly recent in India’s public domain. Its origin is linked to an event on February 9, 2016 and its immediate aftermath. As this article shows, this attempt to transform a university’s proper name to a generic label is the result of it being repeatedly used in a certain way in the public sphere. This has been accomplished through repetitive usage in large segments of the print and electronic media as well as by some users of social media platforms and by government functionaries. A fundamental aspect of this usage, which necessarily de-contextualizes JNU from its representational function as the proper name of a university, is the alarming associations it has been subjected to: ‘anti-national’, ‘India-breaking’, ‘tukde-tukde-gang’, and more recently, ‘urban-Naxal’.

We argue that the JNU event was deliberately and strategically given a spin that suited what we call a politics of emotions and served the hyper-nationalistic atmosphere that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and RSS have tried to create since the 2014 elections. As part of this project, the de-contextualization of the name JNU through a series of negative associations—as well as their repeated usage and circulation in various media—helped produce an image of JNU as a hub for anti-national activities and as populated with jihadi terrorists plotting against the state. This article shows how this interpretation of JNU worked as a multi-pronged strategy for BJP, RSS and ABVP. Their efforts not only produced unintended consequences; they were also met with contestations and spirited defense in the form of a multifaceted protest movement and demonstrations of solidarity, not only at JNU but across the country and in different parts of the world.

While some protest movements have a ‘hidden archaeology of sustained protest’,7 the protests that erupted after February 9, 2016 at and around JNU marked a significant departure—though not a complete break—from the culture of political protests that ‘normally’ prevails at that university. The post-February 2016 protests were clearly marked by a sense of the ‘abnormality’ of the events on February 9, necessitating a break with routine. The protests after that date were marked by the need to defend not only the nature of the public-political space that has existed at the university for the six decades of its existence but, above all and more urgently, by the need to defend the very name of the institution. This was obvious from the slogans, hashtags and Facebook pages that appeared as part of the protest movement, which included ‘we are JNU’, ‘stand with JNU’ and ‘Fight back JNU’.

The two contrasting images of JNU—as a place for seditious thought versus one that cherished freedom of speech—soon began to represent two substantive clusters of ideas as well. Significantly, the students of the university, who consider themselves as belonging to a prestigious Indian institution, had to assert their own ordinariness as well as that of JNU as part of their struggle and strategy. In other words, the protest movement called for efforts to re-contextualize the institution. This had become urgent and necessary in the immediate aftermath of the February 9 event, as the new image of JNU exposed the university’s students and teachers to potential and actual violence.8 This explains the significance of comedian Kunal Kamra’s comments as quoted above.

For decades the nature of its public space and political culture has been an essential part of JNU’s identity, despite the limitations of its politics. As part of its political culture, certain modes of protest were considered acceptable or normal. These modes have been marked by their unique aesthetics, conventions and traditions, around which there seems to be a consensus among most, if not all, major and minor JNU student organizations. One important exception is the RSS-affiliated student organization ABVP, which, though part of JNU’s student politics since the early 1990s, has always had a fraught relationship with this consensus.

Perhaps the most important aspect of JNU students’ political culture is the predominance of speech—in its verbal, written and creative and artistic expressions. These instances of political speech take various forms in different contexts: public meetings, formal and informal discussion forums, casual exchanges, written arguments through pamphlets and poster art, poetry, songs and sloganeering. Political decision-making at various levels of the university takes place through General Body Meetings (GBM) of different organizations, hostels and various centers and schools,9 culminating at the university level, in GBM for all students, as and when they are necessary. The annual student union elections are dominated by extended GBM and public meetings, which culminate in a central panel and presidential debates, often held through the night roughly two days before the polls.

The functioning of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), including its elections, is governed by a written constitution, laid down in the early 1970s. JNUSU’s GBM are further institutionalized through the practice of the university officially exempting students from classes on the days of school-level and university-level GBM. Public meetings on political, social and cultural issues are usually organized after class hours, either near a campus canteen during the evening or in the hostel mess hall after dinner.

Needless to say, a violence-free culture of debate is considered crucial, particularly for students from marginalized groups who suffer specific exclusions. Such social and cultural exclusions get intensified in campus political cultures, where violence, money and muscle power tend to dominate, which is the norm in many Indian colleges and universities. A recent survey by Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khaliq Parkar, based on extensive empirical research, shows the connection between the political culture, which not only promotes ‘diversity, democracy and dissent’ but is also largely inclusive, and affects substantive outcome.10 Martelli and Parkar also found that JNU’s political culture is conducive to more non-conformist tendencies among students compared to most other Indian campuses, which provides some justification for the university’s anti-establishment image. But the anti-establishment rhetoric of JNU student politics operates well within the Constitution’s framework of rights, actively invoking the values of freedom, equality and social justice enshrined in that document. This was amply borne out by the arrested JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar’s speeches as well as in his book published a few months after the events of February 9.11

It is instructive in this regard to focus on the words of former Delhi Police Commissioner B. S. Bassi, who was in charge during the February 9 event. He clearly voiced the sarkari view in his last interview to the Indian Express before retirement.

“The case is grave,” he said. “No doubt about that. It is not an ordinary case. It would have been an ordinary case if the students had performed an unlawful assembly and broken each other’s head. But in this case certain individuals have indulged in seditious sloganeering and delivered seditious speeches. Society is surviving because we all respect democratic norms, we respect our Constitution. If all of us start disrespecting our Constitution, the country will be destroyed.”12

It is interesting to note that, according to a top-ranking police officer, so-called ‘seditious sloganeering’ and ‘speeches’ are more threatening to society than violent outbreaks and ‘breaking each other’s head’. Such is the case notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court asserted in no uncertain terms while interpreting the Constitution in the Kedar Nath Singh (1962) and other cases, and again recently, that neither sloganeering nor any speech per se constitutes an act of sedition unless the uttered speech is accompanied by an unambiguous incitement to violence.13

The interview also reveals the establishment’s view of student politics as the interplay of privilege, money and violence associated with the dominant parties, and where students “break each other’s heads”. This image makes it easy for the state to frame the entirety of student politics in a certain way and render its demands as issues “law and order” rather than politics in its own right. The “problem” then lies precisely with JNU and similar campuses— such as Hyderabad Central University, Jadavpur University and TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Mumbai—that pose a different kind of challenge to the establishment by not allowing their student politics and protest culture to be reduced to law and order or disciplinary issues.

Their ongoing culture of dissent and production of critiques of the establishment is able to insulate students’ political perspectives from both market pressures and hyper-nationalistic blackmailing. JNU students had been at the forefront of a series of important protest movements in Delhi before the February 9 event. In 2012–2013, for instance, JNU students, along with students from DU, Ambedkar University and Jamia Milia Islamia, led the well-known protest against the December 16, 2012 gang rape of a Delhi girl in a private transport bus that became known as the Nirbhaya rape case. They also organized the Occupy UGC movement in 2015, against the University Grant Commission (UGC)’s decision to scrap some of the fellowships granted to MPhil and PhD students.14 They played a major role in the protest movement that broke out in January 2016 immediately after the suicide of Hyderabad Central University student Rohith Vemula; all JNU student organizations except the ABVP joined the protests on this issue.15

The archaeology of Hindutva discourse on JNU

Although the protests in the wake of February 2016 were animated by the new imperative of defending JNU and the right to free speech, critique and dissent, there was also a ‘hidden archaeology’ whereby a consistently negative image of JNU had been projected in Hindutva discourse well before the event. So much so, that in a public meeting held at JNU in June 2017, the vice chancellor who took charge in January 2016 announced that he wanted to install an army tank on campus, ostensibly to help instill a patriotic spirit among students. The highpoint of this meeting was when two speakers congratulated each other on the ‘capture’ of JNU and how they looked forward to a similar ‘capture’ of Jadavpur University and Hyderabad Central University.16 Leaving aside the bizarreness of the idea of ‘capturing’ universities, what this event made clear was the presence of a definite intention—even design—for Indian universities and educational institutions generally in the current regime.

Political commentators have noted the emergence of a ‘pattern’ in the Hindutva rightwing’s attack on educational institutions (particularly after the JNU event but more generally since the 2014 elections), which is becoming clear in university and college campuses across the country.17 There have been incidents of violence and protests at JNU, Hyderabad Central University, Jadavpur University, Allahabad University, JNV University, Jodhpur, the Central University of Haryana, Mahendragarh, Ahmedabad University, and Delhi University and at various Delhi colleges, including Ramjas, Kirorimal and the Khalsa. Most of these incidents involved the active hand of ABVP instigating violence on campus, as has been widely reported.18 In recent times some of these campuses have become hotbeds of political protest.

Some of the protests are the direct outcome of the growing assertiveness of historically oppressed identities challenging established social hierarchies of caste, class and gender. As scholars have noted, a major reason for the change in the character of politics at Indian universities is the changing demographic composition of students in the past two decades.19 There is, for instance, a growing assertiveness in dalit-bahujan politics in colleges and university campuses that challenges Hindutva politics on cultural and historical grounds. More recently, university campuses, particularly metropolitan ones, have also seen feminist protest movements and protests against oppressive hostel rules, such as ‘Pinjra Tod’.20 There has also been a growth of awareness campaigns around issues of sexual identity and orientation, such as various LGBTI-related campaigns. Many of these political discourses and campaigns on university campuses cause great anxiety in right-wing political groups, particularly RSS and ABVP.21

There is ample evidence to suggest that JNU had, for a long time, been a special target of attack, for a variety of reasons. The key publications of RSS—Panchjanya, Rashtra Dharma, and Organizer—and the various Hindutva-supporting websites, such as Indiafacts.org, have been carrying out a campaign against JNU, creating an image of the university as ‘anti-national’ and a ‘citadel of divisiveness’.22 The Twitter hashtag #shutdownjnu was operating well before February 2016, for instance, although it gained wider popularity after the February 9 event.23 An article published in the November 2015 issue of the leading RSS Hindi-language journal Panchjanya featured this paragraph:

JNU is the only institution where talking of nationalism is a sin. It is called a bastion of the leftists. Distorting Indian culture and presenting it in conjunction with wrong facts is fairly common here. For instance, when the entire country worships Ma Durga, neo-leftist students and professors celebrate Mahishasur Day there. They demand that the army should be withdrawn from the terrorism-infested Kashmir […] Those who celebrate Mahishasur Day say that they are backward and deprived and representatives of forest dwellers and claim that Mahishasur was the hero-god of the backwards, the deprived and the forest-dwellers.24

The decades-long dominance of student organizations affiliated to left-wing parties and the large number of students professing affiliation to leftist ideas and political positions, particularly at JNU, has posed a challenge to ABVP. Left-leaning organizations challenge the narratives of culture, politics and the economy promoted by the Indian social and political establishment generally and, more specifically, by Hindutva politics. Student groups often organize on-campus program related to the human rights record of the Indian state, discussing issues such as the demand for self-determination by the people of Kashmir, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA) and the displacement of people by development projects. In the process, they produce strong counter-narratives, challenging the ideological hegemony of the political establishment.

Such activities on JNU campus have been a recurrent source of annoyance and frustration for Hindutva political organizations. Unwilling or unable to meet these political challenges within the discursive possibilities offered by campus political culture at JNU, ABVP has frequently resorted to disruptions and violence in the recent past. One of the strategies often used by ABVP for justifying its violence and threats of violence against groups and activities it does not approve of is calling them ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-Hindu’, often interchangeably. Significantly, the binary of free speech versus nationalism works well for ABVP as a strategy because it puts their opponents on the defensive.

Another major cause for concern among Hindutva organizations is the increasing salience of dalit-bahujan and feminist discourses at JNU, particularly after the significant demographic transformation of the university’s student body’s social composition after the policy of special reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) students in admissions were implemented from 2007 onwards. Data analyzed by Pramod Ranjan of Forward Press show that, as of 2015, nearly ‘70 per cent of the students in the university are non-Dwij’ (non-twice-born).25 Pramod Ranjan also argues that increasing ideological closeness and their common anti-Hindutva rhetoric—despite debates between left and dalit-bahujan political organizations—have been a serious source of unease for Hindutva organizations, as highlighted by their increased attacks on JNU in recent publications.26

The event, representations, and the politics of emotion

Recounting the events of February 9, 2016 at JNU and the ensuing protests offer important insights into the contrasting aspects of contemporary political culture. Firstly, it reveals both hostile media representations of JNU and the nature of student politics and its aesthetics in a time of crisis. From its outset, the event was embroiled in the unavoidable politics of media representation wherein questions of truth and lies, as well as the authenticity of documentary evidence recedes into the background, giving way to clashes of opinion, however unfounded they may be in information and facts.

Secondly, the way in which what was an event on the margins of the student political spectrum—one that could have been handled at the university level as was customary at JNU—was turned into a mega-event of national importance, highlighting the power that electronic and social media hold in our times.27 For several months sections of media created such hysteria that many students faced the possibility of public lynching, while Kanhaiya Kumar was actually thrashed on the court premises.28

Thirdly, there seems to be a definite element of design and pre-planning in the developments. This is evident from the way things were provoked at the event and then manipulated through half-truths and, sometimes, with blatant lies. This becomes even more obvious with the benefit of hindsight, since quite a few of the video recordings used by sections of the media were found to have been doctored. Consider, above all, the fact that two years after the event, police have failed to file a single charge relating to the case, while the identities of many of the individuals involved in shouting objectionable slogans are not yet known to the public. It may be that both the government’s law and order machinery and large sections of the media are less interested in the facts of the case and more intent on creating a certain kind of narrative about JNU that resonates with a simplistic and villainous ‘anti-national’ image of the university. The ground seemed to have been meticulously prepared to frame the event and, by extension the university, with the conspiratorial trope of ‘sedition’.

If we look at some of the reporting in print newspapers, such as Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Hindu on February 10, 2016 (the day after the event), neither the slogans nor charges of sedition appeared as significant issues. The February 10 reports do not even mention phrases such as ‘seditious slogans’. The articles in all the newspapers mentioned above reported that a ‘program’ or ‘event’ on the ‘judicial killing’ of Afzal Guru ‘triggered controversy’ and had been ‘cancelled’, and that students belonging to ABVP had protested against the event and demanded the expulsion of its student organizers.

The university authorities said they had withdrawn permission for the ‘cultural program’ on ‘A Country without Post Office’. This permission was withdrawn just a couple of hours before the program was to begin on the grounds that the authorities were misinformed about its content. The reports also mentioned that the authorities withdrew their permission after ABVP demanded its ban. It was also reported that the vice chancellor had said in a statement that it was a matter of a lack of discipline and that the university proctor would hold an inquiry into the matter.29 So, at least from the newspaper reports on the day after the event it appeared that the matter of the ‘controversial program’ would be handled by the university as it was a matter of student ‘indiscipline’ rather than sedition.

The program ‘A Country without Post Office’ had been organized by Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and other students who had been former members of the Maoist Democratic Students Union (DSU), but had left it some months earlier. The program was organized to mark and protest the ‘judicial killing’ of Afzal Guru, one of the accused in the 2001 attack on parliament, who was convicted and hanged on February 9, 2013 in Delhi’s Tihar Jail and buried on its premises. It is well known that the grounds for Guru’s conviction and his capital punishment have been questioned by various legal scholars, civil society organizations and activists. Many of the criticisms of the legal handling of the case were compiled in a book published by Penguin India, which is available to the public.30 A similar program was organized by the DSU on 9th February in 2014 and 2015. In February 2015, permission for which was also cancelled by the JNU administration after protests by ABVP. The organizers went ahead with the meeting on that occasion and were disrupted by ABVP. The matter was handled by the university, without it becoming news on electronic and social media.31

In 2016, however, the electronic media—particularly news channels Zee TV, Times Now and NewsX—started playing videos of the event on a loop, repeatedly showing slogans being chanted by some of the event’s participants. As mentioned above, some of these videos later turned out to be doctored. The most important among these was one showing then JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar shouting objectionable slogans.32 Sustained campaigns on electronic and social media were now beginning to demand direct government or police intervention, or both.

The campaigns seemed to generate hysteria in certain sections of the public. Soon the hashtag #shutdownjnu picked up momentum.33 The university campus was threatened with physical attack as aggressive crowds started to gather regularly at the main gate, which had to be closed for some days with restricted entry. On February 11, the police registered a ‘case of sedition and criminal conspiracy against “unknown persons” for allegedly raising anti-India slogans at an event organized by some students in Jawaharlal Nehru University against the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’.34 The police FIR (First Information Report) was filed on the basis of a complaint lodged by Mahesh Giri, a BJP parliamentarian.35 On February 12, Delhi Police entered the campus and arrested JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar on the charge of sedition. The police also asked the university’s vice chancellor to ‘produce’ five more students for questioning.36 Many students went into hiding after Kumar’s arrest, only to reappear on campus on February 20. Understandably, the atmosphere on campus following this crackdown was infected with fear and shock.

In his memoir From Bihar to Tihar, Kanhaiya Kumar recounts his astonishment and shock the day after his arrest when he first saw his image on television while in police custody: “The doctor examining me would point me out to his staff during the medical check-ups. Look, this is Kanhaiya Kumar, he would say. He was surprised to see me docile and quiet with him … my image on TV was very different from what I was in real life.”37

This was the beginning of the long and sustained process of vilification of JNU through hostile electronic and social media representations. The repeated circulation of images of the slogans calling for the break-up of India ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ and ‘Bharat ki barbadi tak jang rahegi jang rahegi’ gradually led to the production of ‘JNU’ as a sign that was detached from its function as a proper name of a university to a generic signifier attached to a series of predicates: anti-national, Jihadi, secessionist, tukde-tukde gang and, most recently, urban-Naxals. Adjectival use in phrases such as ‘JNU-like’ or ‘JNU-kind’ took this process of transformation a step further.

In hostile representations of JNU in electronic and social media, certain motifs appeared repeatedly. They also echoed in the metaphors used by the judge of the Delhi High Court even as she granted Kanhaiya Kumar bail. Students like him were (suffering from) ‘infection’, according to the judge, which required ‘surgical intervention’, even ‘amputation’ before such infections could become an ‘epidemic’. Writing on the spate of student protests in India in 2016, Rosinka Chaudhuri explains how such motifs and metaphors work to operationalize what we can theoretically describe as a condition of statelessness, rendering students into minorities and casting them outside the pale of citizenship and nation state.40 Not surprisingly, similar motifs are frequently found in the rhetorical strategy adopted by the various ultra-right discourses against immigrants and asylum seekers, as analyzed by Sara Ahmed.41

Two of the motifs used repeatedly on social media were often deployed together: antinational students as a threat to the nation, and as parasites feeding on the ‘tax-payers’ money’ illegitimately. They served as putative justification for the calls to #shutdownjnu. Initially, hostile media sought to portray the JNU event as part of some international terror network that had nothing to do with either freedom of speech or dissent or even traditional Left–Right ideological debates. In a Times Now debate on February 10 featuring Umar Khalid, the anchor Arnab Goswami was insistent on this point.42 This strategy was echoed in the statements of central government ministers as well as in Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s infamous and unsubstantiated claim in a tweet linking the JNU event to the Hafiz Saeed terror network. Similarly, Arun Jaitley’s initial statement on the event tried to present it as the work of ‘fringe’ elements in Indian politics, from which, he advised, ‘mainstream’ political parties like Congress should keep their distance.43

However, the jihadi or terrorist labels, propagated in hostile television and social media representations, failed to stick for a variety of reasons. These included the lack of any evidence suggesting such a possibility along with the discrediting of the authenticity of some of the videos initially in circulation. The tag of ‘anti-national JNU’ was kept alive, however, through repeated rhetorical use in hostile electronic and social media. It was later used interchangeably and in metonymic associations with phrases like ‘tukde-tukde gang’, ‘breaking-India’, ‘anti-India forces’ and ‘urban Naxals’. The very lack of precision in such phrases enhances their rhetorical power in the political space, beyond any form of accountability.

The counter-image

The hostile media representations did not go uncontested. After the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, events started to move with much greater speed and the JNU ‘sedition case’ grabbed headlines in national newspapers, in television news and social media. It became an international news and remained so for about a month. With their backs to the wall—facing an aggressive university administration; a largely hostile electronic media apart from a couple of television channels and newspapers46 ; a more or less antagonistic social media; and hysteria among the public—a resistance movement started from within the campus, with both students and teachers playing prominent roles.

The story of this movement is one of immense courage and conviction on the part of not only those named in the case but also those not directly involved in the February 9 event who participated in the protest movement. It must be said that most opposition political parties were not convinced by the government rhetoric and came down heavily on the ruling party, particularly after the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, for suppressing dissent in universities. Soon, the JNU resistance movement and its campaign took multiple forms and developed its own rhetoric and protest aesthetics.

Protest marches and human chains were organized, both on campus and in the streets of the capital. There were solidarity protest marches in other Indian cities as well as on some other university campuses, both in India and abroad.47 The day after Kumar’s arrest, on February 13, a protest meeting was organized by JNUSU in which prominent leaders of opposition parties participated, expressed solidarity, and criticized the government for muzzling dissent. From then on it became, as one newspaper headline records, the ‘Government versus Opposition on JNU’.48 On February 18 a large march from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi saw students and teachers from other universities as well as ordinary citizens of Delhi participate in their thousands. The JNU ‘sedition case’, along with the suicide of Rohith Vemula, was even raised in sessions of both houses of Parliament.

Within days various social media campaigns were started as part of the resistance movement. The #Standwithjnu Twitter handle and hashtag, a Facebook page and a website emerged as the main platforms for coordinating the resistance and creating the protest archive.49 Other Twitter hashtags such as #wearejnu and #fightbackjnu were also deployed but they were short-lived. Solidarity messages started to flow in from different parts of the world, including from other universities and their student unions and associations. Many prominent intellectuals across the globe, including Noam Chomsky, wrote letters to JNU vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar criticizing his decision to allow the police to enter campus and arrest the student union president.

On February 17 the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) inaugurated a unique and historic two-month-long lecture series on the themes of nationalism and freedom (the many meanings of azaadi), under the rubric of ‘What the Nation Really Needs to Know’. These lectures took place at a site right next to the administrative building, which houses the offices of the vice chancellor and the registrar. This space was renamed ‘Freedom Square’, or azaadi chowk, and became the central location for the JNU resistance movement. The lectures were delivered daily by JNU faculty members as well as those from other institutions in Delhi, other parts of India and abroad. The lectures attracted large audiences from within the campus and without. They were live-streamed on YouTube and soon began to be followed in different parts of the world. The first series, on the theme of nationalism, was later published as a book with the title What the Nation Really Needs to Know.50

Significantly, the many meanings of azaadi found expression in not one but many modes of protest, with a rich variation of forms, techniques, sources and elements used in the process. While some of these are familiar to the cultural vocabulary of left, Gandhian and liberal politics, there were a number of new elements, not only in terms of ideology speakers of all shades spoke, including against the protest—but also in political language. As such, the language included a range of imaginative forms of communication, including cartoons, photographs and montages, teach-ins, poetry, songs, music and street plays, art installations, social media campaigns, wall posters, protest marches, human chains, public meetings, public hearings of the Inquiry Committee report, strikes and class boycotts, sleep-ins, and the occupation of spaces in the administrative block, especially Freedom Square. There was an intense and extensive production of discourses on nationalism and on the necessity of freedom, including on what freedom means for a university in a democracy.

Interestingly, as the intellectual space for freedom of speech came under threat, freedom and space took on physical dimensions in the modes of protest, allowing for a new range of activities in the particular location of Freedom Square. This is how the movement took on the nature of an event that spilled beyond the usual political discourse negotiated by speech on campus. The speeches addressed an exceptional condition, tempered with a heightened sense of urgency and responsibility. Quite a few speakers diffused moments of tension and crisis with humor, deft arguments and new slogans of azaadi, such as those popularized by Kanhaiya Kumar.

After his release on bail on March 3, 2016, Kanhaiya gave a rousing speech at Freedom Square that segued into a new slogan for azaadi, multiplying and elaborating on the word’s many meanings for the students. From a slogan and an outstanding piece of protest poetry, it practically became a song, as Rosinka Chaudhuri has contended.51 As the new slogan went viral, inspiring dub-smash remixes online, a different language of politics could be seen to be coming into play. As one of the authors of this article has noted, it welded multiple political agendas, fusing together patriarchy, feudalism, caste and capitalism as the common enemies of freedom, and mapped a passage from gender rights to social justice and socialism as necessary conditions for a meaningful democracy.52

Speeches were, however, only one of the many elements and circulating forms of communication. The physical experience of occupation created the possibility of recognizing new connections between material space and bodies, and the use of these relations to shape a different language of protest. For instance, Freedom Square retained, for much of the two months, the look of a festival of sorts; protests sprang up like an ongoing celebration, with poetry, music, slogans and dancing, creating a steadily growing sense of a collective. This is where the modes of protest unmistakably took on a performative dimension; it involved a deliberate manner of conducting one’s body in that particular location, as an explicit or implicit message to the authorities, which became an important feature of the manner of the protesters.

If the immediate installation of closed-circuit cameras by the university administration intensified this process, the awareness of social and other media strategically added to the desire of the assembly to produce spectacles that were newsworthy. The visibility of the protest became such that it was difficult to control or localize. This bothered not only the authorities but the protestors as well. However, the performative dimension went much deeper than that. There are subtle but significant ways in which, for example, Ambedkarite and feminist activists would comport their bodies differently from students or activists on the Right or the Left. The spirit of celebration, along with drumming and dancing to political slogans, is perhaps what created a festive mood, part of a more general feeling than covered by the media. It showed that the resolve of the struggle went beyond the mood of war; it was a manner of defiance that made tactical use of pleasure and a gathering of people. In other words, there was a political effort in the performative dimension to concretely demonstrate the value of freedom, expressed in a way of living and collectively sharing activities.

The JNU protest movement was characterized by both consensus and dissension. The figure of the student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, for instance, symbolically represented the entire body of JNU students. His arrest immediately created a strong bond of unity among most of his fellow students. It also brought all campus student organizations, with the exception of ABVP, to a common platform for struggle and a shared program while maintaining their internal differences. The emerging political consensus among these organizations, however, sidelined the original issue of Kashmir and Afzal Guru’s trial. It was replaced by the more formal question of the rights to freedom of speech and dissent.

The sedition charges slapped on the students by the state brought into relief the issue of political dissent as a constitutional right of all citizens. The movement also included a widespread demand among student protesters for the scrapping of the law of sedition altogether. This was also the condition for the emergence of the consensus among various student organizations, given their conflicting positions on the substantial issue of Kashmir and its people’s right to self-determination. The consensus that emerged was also compatible with the wider concern among the protestors about the protection of JNU’s public sphere as a space for political contestation, and about the need to defend that space in the wake of February 2016 and the hostile media representations that followed.

Serious fissures also appeared in the movement. Political differences were animated by rich ideological and political debates, one of the most significant of which was between left-wing and the dalit-bahujan organizations, particularly Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA). For some years, left organizations have been calling for unity between left and Ambedkarite forces to challenge the right-wing onslaught. Such calls for Left–Ambedkarite unity were intensified during this time around the slogan Jai-Bheem-Lal Salaam. Jai-bheem is a recent addition to the ever-present lal-salaam slogan on JNU’s campus. BAPSA and many other Ambedkarite forums refused to be led by the Left, and persistently sought to assert an independent ideological-political identity, promising to provide a new direction to student politics. The BAPSA and other Ambedakarite forums characterized the left and right formations on the Indian political spectrum as just two faces of the hegemonic Brahmanical social and political order.

Leftist organizations’ calls for Left–Ambedkarite unity were interpreted as nothing but a ploy for once more sidelining the Dalit-Bahujan agenda in the name of fighting communalism and fascism.56 It was argued that instead of constantly reacting to the terms and agendas of the political discourse set by left and right Brahmanic forces, the most important counter-hegemonic task before Ambedkarite groups was to reclaim agency and autonomy over their politics, along with the right to define the terms of political discourse and set the agenda.57 The debate between the Left and the Ambedkarite political positions was and continues to be rich and multi-layered, the analysis of which is outside the scope of this article. However, what is important for the analysis here is that the disagreements and debates within the movement did not seriously rupture the broadly unified resistance at least for some months following the February 9 incident.

In terms of the rhetoric and language of the JNU movement, its internal diversity allowed it to draw on a variety of rich intellectual-historical legacies. The JNUTA’s series of lectures on nationalism and freedom introduced a variety of perspectives for both these central themes of the debate. Against the right-wing’s rhetorical use of nationalism for limiting the scope of freedom of speech, most of these perspectives emphasized the compatibility of nationalism, democracy and dissent, some of them digging into the rich intellectual-historical archives of the Indian anti-colonial struggle.58 These debates sought to reclaim the idea of nationalism and ‘Idea of India’ from a variety of perspectives. Some commentators writing in solidarity also sought to reclaim the rich legacies of internationalism and cosmopolitanism against narrow nationalism. Along with other flags, the Indian tricolor had a prominent presence at the protest marches and performance sites.59

This article has been excerpted from the authors’ original research. Read the complete research paper here.


  1. Twitter handle ‘Internet Hindus’: ‘easiest way to get ad hominem responses from Internet Hindus, even highly educated ones, is to claim affiliation with JNU. never fails’, Internet Hindus, 23 July 2012. Available at: https://twitter.com/search?q=Internet%20Hindu% 20JNU&src=typd&lang=en (accessed 18 August 2017).
  1. Kanhaiya Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar, Delhi: Juggernaut, 2016, p 213.
  1. Kunal Kamra stand-up comedy performance. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBbpFGGAkmo.
  1. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004, p 16.
  1. Charge sheet in this case had not been filed in the court till the final submission of this paper i.e. till Decembet, 2018. The charge sheet was finally filed in the JNU case on 14 January, at the final proof reading stage of this paper. However, that doesn’t affect any of the arguments of this paper.
  1. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/after-abvp-calls-him-anti-national-andwants-him-out-historian-ramachandra-guha-wont-teach-in-gujarat-5430266/; more recently even Arvind Kejriwal has been called an ‘urban Naxal’, see https://indianexpress. com/article/india/aap-arvind-kejriwal-urban-naxal-bjp-manoj-tiwari-5450619/
  1. Martin Webb, ‘Short Circuits: The Aesthetics of Protest, Media and Martyrdom in Indian Anti-corruption Activism’, in Pnina Werbner, Martin Webb and Kathryn Spellman-Poots (eds), The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest: The Arab Spring and Beyond, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (in association with The Agha Khan University in the UK), 2014, p 193.
  1. Some of the reports of such incidents include: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/ uLX8WqkugNolvzV1D0tjiK/Kanhaiya-Kumar-sedition-case-SC-restricts-entry-to-Patiala. html; https://www.ndtv.com/cheat-sheet/at-jnu-court-hearing-media-students-beatenwhile-cops-just-watched-1277696; https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi-news/jnuprotests-a-year-on-how-the-feb-9-anti-national-event-changed-five-lives/story4jbNO1ByQtC9B8XbOMFFUK.html.
  1. JNU is academically divided into schools: the School of Social Sciences, the School of International Studies, the School of Language, Literature, and Culture, the School of Life Sciences, the School of Physical Sciences, the School of Arts and Aesthetics, and so on. Most Schools are further divided into discipline-specific centres, which are equivalent to departments in most other Indian universities.
  1. Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khaliq Parkar, ‘Diversity, Democracy, and Dissent: A Study on Student Politics in JNU’, Economic and Political Weekly 53(11), 17 March 2018; Cf. Sumi Sukanya Datta ‘Why JNU is a Left Bastion’, The New Indian Express, 30 September 2018. Available at: http://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/2018/sep/30/why-jnuis-a-left-bastion-1878882.html.
  1. Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar.
  1. Indian Express, 28 February 2016, emphasis added.
  1. Reiterated again in its order of September 2017. See ‘Supreme Court Warns Police that Criticism of Government Is Not Sedition’, The Wire, 5 September 2017. Available at: https:// thewire.in/64281/criticism-of-government-does-not-constitute-sedition-says-supremecourt/. The details of the Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar (1962) can be found at https://indiankanoon.org/doc/111867/; see also Lawrence Liang, ‘The Gadfly Jurisprudence of Dissent’, in Rohit Azad, Janaki Nair, Mohinder Singh and Mallarika Sinha Roy (on behalf of JNUTA) (eds), What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures, Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2016, pp 107–119.
  1. Available at: http://www.dailyo.in/politics/occupy-ugc-non-net-fellowship-jnu-du-studentprotests-human-rights-gats-wto/story/1/7065.html; also Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar, pp 164–178.
  1. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/rohith-vemulasuicide-jnu-students-begin-indefinite-hunger-strike/.
  1. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/jnu-campus-army-tankvice-chancellor-4765657/ (accessed 18 June 2017).
  1. The latest in this pattern is the Ahmedabad University incident involving Ramachandra Guha discussed at the beginning of this article. See Mukul Kesavan, ‘A Private University Can Be Defenceless against a Bullying State’, The Telegraph, 4 November 2018; also ‘Spot the Pattern: Ramachandra Guha Stays Out of Ahmedabad Varsity, Three Nehru Memorial Museum Members Removed’, The Telegraph, 4 November 2018.
  1. Available at: https://thewire.in/120400/ramjas-college-cancels-four-plays-nationalism/; https://thewire.in/114552/rajasthan-high-court-rajshree-ranawat-abvp-nivedita-menonjodhpur-university/; https://thewire.in/112713/protest-abvp-delhi-university/.
  1. Satish Deshpande, ‘Vishwadrishti, Vishwavidyalaya aur Rashtra’ (in Hindi), in Azad, Nair, Singh and Roy (eds), What the Nation Really Needs to Know, p 275.
  1. Pinjra Tod literally means ‘break the cage’. It refers to both a collective and a movement born in 2015 against gender-discriminatory, regressive, and restrictive rules in women students’ hostels in Delhi universities and colleges. As the movement evolved the Pinjra Tod movement not only spread its wings in cities and campuses across India, it also widened its critical scope by developing a broader critique of patriarchy in South Asia that included caste and class dimensions as well. See Priyanka Borpujari, ‘How “Pinjra Tod” Spread its Wings’. Available at: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/z6E69WRoNJAyUuGU5yYwXO/How-PinjraTod-spread-its-wings.html.
  1. Mohinder Singh, ‘Hindutva Nationalism and the Fear of University Speech’. Available at: http://www.wionews.com/south-asia/hindutva-nationalism-democracy-and-fear-ofuniversity-speech-12857
  1. Kavita Krishnan, ‘JNU Is No “Citadel of Divisiveness”: That Label Suits the RSS Better’, in a pdf of a collection of articles – ‘jnuspeaks’. Available at: http://www.aisa.in/publication/jnuspeaks-2/ (accessed 1 August 2017); see also Saumya Dey, ‘The Uneasy Relationship of JNU and the Indian Nation-State’, 13 March 2018. Available at: http://indiafacts.org/uneasyrelationship-jnu-indian-nation-state/.
  1. The earliest date the #shutdown page shows is April 2015. See https://twitter.com/hashtag/ ShutDownJNU?src=hash.
  1. Cited in Pramod Ranjan, ‘Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU in the Crosshairs’. Available at: https://www.forwardpress.in/2016/02/bahujan-discourse-puts-jnu-in-the-crosshairs/.
  1. Ranjan, ‘Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU in the Crosshairs’.
  1. Ranjan, ‘Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU in the Crosshairs’.
  1. For an analysis of TV channels’ reporting of the JNU 9 February event, see Nissim Mannathukkaren, ‘Tele-Jingoism and the Tyranny of Hashtags’, 7 March 2016. Available at: https://thewire.in/24076/tele-jingoism-and-the-tyranny-of-hashtags/.
  1. Kanhaiya Kumar was thrashed in the Patiala House Court premises in the presence of police while he was being led to court for his bail plea hearing on 15 February 2016 allegedly by men ‘dressed in [the] black robes of lawyers’, according to The Hindu reports. Later on the same day, some lawyers also attacked JNU students and faculty members and some journalists on court premises. See, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/JNU-student-leaderKanhaiya-thrashed-in-court/article14086066.ece (accessed 28 December 2017); see also https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/jnu-delhi-police-kanhaiya-kumarpatiala-house-court-india-news/ (accessed 28 December 2017).
  1. See the reporting on JNU in Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Hindu of 10 February 2016.
  1. See 13 December: A Reader, The Strange Case of Attack on Indian Parliament, Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2006.
  1. Indian Express, 12 February 2015.
  1. Indian Express, 2 March 2016. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/indianews-india/three-out-of-seven-jnu-clips-doctored/.
  1. Available at: https://twitter.com/hashtag/ShutdownJNU?src=hash&lang=en.
  1. Hindustan Times, 12 February 2016 Available at: https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P33949719761.html.
  1. Indian Express, 12 February 2016.
  1. Indian Express, 13 February 2016.
  1. Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar, pp 212–213; Umar Khalid’s tweet, on 31 August 2018, introducing his youtube video where he presents himself to the public, echoes similar concern: ‘If you have formed your opinion about me through media, then you have formed the wrong opinion. In this episode of Decoding India, I speak about my childhood, learning & unlearning, ideas of nationalism and patriotism, freedom, current political scenario … ’. Available at: https://twitter.com/UmarKhalidJNU.
  1. Sara Ahmed doesn’t agree with the rigid conceptual distinction between affects and emotions, as proposed by some of the leading affect theorists such as Brian Massumi, Patricia Clough, Lauren Berlant and others. See Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion; also Sara Ahmed, ‘Affective Economies’, Social Text 22(2 (79)), Summer 2004, pp 117–139.
  1. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion.
  1. Rosinka Chaudhuri, ‘Questions of Minority, Agency and Voice: Student Protests in India in 2016’, Postcolonial Studies 21(3), 2018, pp 338–349.
  1. Ahmed, ‘Affective Economies’.
  1. Available on YouTube, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGN2KOJMaeM.
  1. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/jnu-row-behind-govtclaim-a-fake-hafiz-saeed-tweet/; https://indianexpress.com/article/business/budget/arunjaitleys-full-speech-in-rajya-sabha-on-situation-arising-in-central-institutions-of-higereducation-with-specific-reference-to-jnu-and-university-od-hyderabad/.
  1. On informal and vigilante sovereignty, see Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, ‘Sovereignty Revisited’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 31 May 2006; also Cf. the following comment by Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the nature of violence by cow-vigilantes under the current regime: ‘These lynchings are fiendishly redefining citizenship. The significance of this violence is not just the number: Whether it is 15 incidents or 50. It is to spread the fear that it can happen at any moment, anywhere. This violence establishes a new political dispensation, where a group of people claim direct sovereignty: They act above formal law and order institutions, they feel entitled to enforce the morality, and their impunity comes from the fact that they can now stand in for the “authentic people”’, emphasis added, in Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘May the Silent be Damned’, Indian Express, 27 June 2017.
  1. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/umar-khalid-attack-two-menclaim-responsibility-say-wanted-give-gift-on-independence-day-5309488/.
  1. It should be recorded here that some of the leading newspapers, such as Indian Express, The Hindu and The Telegraph, from the very beginning – that is, from the day Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested – took a critical stand against the arrest and sedition charges laid against the student, and against the general crackdown at JNU, and consistently took a stand in favour of the right to free speech and expression and of dissent in their editorials and in opinion pieces by prominent intellectuals and lawyers. Some of the electronic media and a couple of television news channels were a little late in coming to this position. On 18 February NDTV India ran a program explicitly focused on the media representation of the JNU event: ‘Kya media ne JNU ko badnam kiya?’ (Did the media gave JNU bad name?), see https:// khabar.ndtv.com/video/show/prime-time/prime-time-jnu-disgraced-by-media-404311#t=171.
  1. Available at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/jnu-students-protests-get-supportfrom-universities-across-india/story-ZyAPUXcr3H7wzgMmhyxWsK.html; https://thewire. in/22413/standing-with-jnu-from-around-the-world-statements-of-solidarity/ https://kafila. online/2016/02/15/solidarity-statement-by-jnu-alumni-and-international-academiccommunity/.
  1. See Indian Express, 14 February 2016.
  1. Available at: http://www.standwithjnu.org.
  1. Azad, Nair, Singh and Roy, What the Nation Really Needs to Know.
  1. Chaudhuri, ‘Questions of Minority, Agency and Voice’.
  1. Rajarshi Dasgupta, ‘On Student Politics, State and Violence’, Seminar 691, pp 45–50.
  1. For the JNU 2016 protests archives, see http://www.standwithjnu.org.
  1. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0SmWyeyiaw.
  1. Judith Butler, Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  1. See the YouTube speech of Rahul Sonpimple, an activist of BAPSA, JNU, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NR2zs6I_j7A.
  1. See Ambedkar Study Group, ‘Ambedkarite vs Left Debate: A Bahujan Perspective’, Delhi University, 2 June 2016. Available at: http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_ content&view=article&id=8627:ambedkarite-vs-left-debate-a-bahujan-perspective&catid= 119:feature&Itemid=132.
  1. Azad, Nair, Singh and Roy, What the Nation Really Needs to Know.
  1. See http://www.standwithjnu.org.