For some years now, a narrative has been consciously and maliciously built up by the establishment, its pliant plants in the mainstream media and its shock troops on social media and WhatsApp. This narrative claims that "Urban Naxals" pose an existential threat to India - intellectuals, students and religious minorities who seek to "break up" India into pieces, the so-called "tukde-tukde gang". These Urban Naxals lurk in all sorts of dens of iniquity, such as liberal arts universities and other places where people receive an education, and there carry out nefarious activities that threaten India, activities such as reading and having dissenting opinions.
The logical end-point of this narrative is for such people to be shown their place - beaten, expelled, and their homes and universities ransacked and ideally shut down. Their attendance in those places should be rendered financially impossible, and their own university administration should be turned against them. This is what the establishment has sought to do to Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU - first covertly, then openly, and now violently.
India's only effective and profitable online start-up, the BJP IT Cell, has decided that the only possible response to the violence in JNU is to spread disinformation that blames it on "the Left". I grew up in Kolkata, and I have no illusions about Left campus politics - at best, violence lurks under its surface and at worst, takes it over. I have no doubt that last week they physically prevented other students from registering as part of their protests against fee hikes at JNU. But on this occasion, few believe what the IT Cell is selling, regardless of how many "analysed" and re-edited videos and screenshots it may release. This is not Balakot. There are too many eyewitness accounts from the road in front of JNU's main gate, too many journalists who have reported on the presence of the ABVP, and too many videos for the IT Cell's counter-narrative to take hold. This kind of thing might work when it wishes to spread disinformation about rural UP or Bengal, but not about India's most famous university in the middle of the national capital. And even those who might have had doubts will have noticed that, after all, the Delhi Police stood around and did nothing. They know what it means when the police do that - they are protecting politically-connected thugs. And, today, only one side has political connections. The Delhi Police answers to the union government, and therefore absolutely anyone with a brain can deduce which side the thugs were on.
The only unanswered question, really, is who bears ultimate responsibility. Were these people - clearly outsiders, some of them perhaps political operatives from Uttar Pradesh - directly ordered into JNU by someone? If so, who? Perhaps I still have too optimistic a view of the world, but I do not think it is certain that this was intended and planned by the highest levels of the ruling party. It could be local-level ABVP leaders seeking to take advantage of a compliant state or it could be someone else in the BJP hierarchy seeking to outflank the leadership by mainstreaming the violent assault of "anti-nationals". But there is no doubt that it is more than simple student politics, and that it occurred with the connivance of someone in the overall establishment hierarchy. Unfortunately, given the obvious complicity of the Delhi police and the political leanings of the university administration, we may never have satisfactory answers to these questions.
That said, the ultimate responsibility for this violence - and for what will no doubt be more violence, on campuses and out across the country in the weeks to come - must be borne by those who created, nurtured and sustained the "Urban Naxals" lie. Naxalism was and is a real thing: Mao-inspired left-wing extremists who, through peasant insurgencies and targeted assassinations, wish to change the nature of the Indian state. To imagine that leftist, liberal or centrist students, actors, writers and so on are the same thing is historically illiterate, deliberately malicious, and an insult to the multitude who have been killed in the decades-long fight against Left-wing extremism. Those who disagree with the government's policies or its ideologies are neither Naxals, nor traitors, nor separatists. They are simply Indians who disagree with their current government. Till 2014, the current establishment was among their number.
We have over the past few weeks seen the police in Delhi enter the Jamia campus and ransack it, detaining and assaulting students. We have seen them descend upon Muslim-dominated areas of the city and behave similarly. We have seen them detain anyone who passes UP Bhavan, even those who are not there to protest or who have been cautious to avoid violating Section 144. We have seen them, in places like Defence Colony, film - presumably for a national-security facial recognition database - the local residents who simply gathered in the colony's Durga Puja park to discuss recent government policies. And now we have seen them stand aside as masked men unleashed terror on India's most prominent liberal arts university, and stand aside as those men walked out - an act eased by the mysterious descent of darkness on the road outside JNU, apparently thanks to the electricity on that stretch being cut off for the crucial period of time. It is amply clear that their reaction depends solely on who is protesting and where, that they seek to fulfil a political agenda, rather than serving as simple custodians of law and order. If India wishes to continue to call itself anything other than a banana republic, someone must be held accountable in the police, in the Delhi administration, or in the union government.
Finally, we must all take a stand against disinformation, false equivalence, and lies. Disinformation that seeks to absolve right-wing goons of violence should not be ignored, it should be actively mocked. Those who claim that all parties or student groups indulge in violence should be called out for false equivalence: the group that is on video calling for people to be shot, that is protected by the police, is not the same as the group shouting "Jai Ambedkar", singing the national anthem, and waving the national flag. And finally, the notion that that latter group are traitors, anti-nationals, "tukde-tukde" Urban Naxals should be attacked for the vile, violence-inspiring lie that it is. Only one group is being disloyal to India's constitutional principles and its foundational ideology. And that is not the one singing the national anthem and holding aloft pictures of the drafter of our constitution.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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