After Delhi University’s (DU) elections, all eyes have been on Jawharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) student body elections, with tense competition between the right wing Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and a coalition of other left leaning parties. Students on JNU’s campus have been on edge for several days now, first during polling and then for the counting of the votes, which has been marred by violence by ABVP members.
How it all started
The ABVP traditionally has held a stronghold in three schools – the School of Physical Sciences, the School of Life Sciences and the School of Computer and Systems Sciences. However, having lost the posts for councillors in this year’s JNU students’ union (JNUSU) elections, the ABVP resorted to their old ways: chalo bhai vidyarthi peetein (let’s go beat up students). Only this time, security guards and members of the election commission were added to the list.
Unlike DU, where the ABVP systematically indulges in goondagardi (hooliganism) prior to elections – in Zakir Hussian college this time for instance – the ABVP in JNU is relatively more civilised.
Having spent seven years in institutions of higher education – three years at Calcutta University and four in Delhi University – this was the first time I could vote peacefully. That voting peacefully in a student election is an exception and not the rule, tells us a lot about the state of democracy in educational institutions.
Why counting was disrupted
As the counting of votes began, the results for councillors’ posts got announced. The councillor seats are important because they help predict the trends for JNU’s central panel – the posts for president, vice president, secretary and joint secretary. At the School of Physical Sciences, the sole councillor seat was won by Pradipta Debnath. The result came out around midnight on 15 September. At around 1 am, the three councillor posts in the School of Life Sciences were won by Akhilesh Pratap Singh, Kailash Prasad Prajapati and Surbhi Rawat. The ABVP had lost its stronghold. One of the possible reasons could be because the ABVP had voiced support for Atul Johri, a professor in the college who was accused of sexual harassment and subsequently removed as the women’s hostel warden by a Delhi high court order. Johri was also removed from a pollution panel by the environment ministry following his arrest.
How counting happens
Before a round of counting, the election commission announces which ‘counting agents’ will be present for the process. ‘Counting agents’ are select representatives of the election’s candidates who ensure no foul play goes down while votes are counted. (During voting, candidates have ‘polling agents’ in the various booths, apart from members of the election commission.)
At JNU, the election commission calls for ‘counting agents’ to come to the vote counting venue thrice through a loudspeaker. If they don’t turn up on time, the gates are closed and the sealed boxes are opened without them. Once the counting begins, no one else is allowed inside. ABVP members failed to turn up in time so the counting started without them. However, an EC member and other eyewitnesses say that about seven ABVP members, including two candidates – Lalit Pandey (for the post of president) and Venkat Choubey (joint secretary) – broke the glass doors of the School of International Studies, injured JNU’s security guards and then threatened the EC members last night.
In the wee hours of September 15, the counting stopped. The EC demanded an apology before it would continue counting. This resulted in a stalemate.The Grievance Redressal Cell (GRC), which comprises members of the university administration, and the faculty observer, Professor Y. Chinna Rao met with the EC, which comprises only students.
Himanshu Kulshestra, chairperson of the EC, dismissed claims of partiality from the ABVP and said, “As per the established norms, no new counting agents can enter the counting venue, once the seal of the boxes is opened. Election Committee had to reject the request of allowing new counting agents inside that respective counting venue.”
Meanwhile, representatives of all student organisations apart from ABVP, including those which haven’t contested elections, like Youth Forum for Discussion and Welfare Activities (YFDA), Muslim Student Federation (MSF), Collective and Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organisation (BASO), released a statement, “condemning ABVP’s hooliganism during JNUSU election counting process” and gave a joint call to “Unite against every attempt by ABVP to disrupt the conducting of the counting.”
Counting finally resumed against after almost 15 hours, but with only a cautious celebration by the students present at the SIS lawns.
In the evening, several students started reporting that they’d been manhandled by ABVP members. Satarupa Chakraborty, former JNUSU General Secretary, wrote about her ordeal on Facebook.
JNU is more ideologically vibrant than the media usually portrays it: it is a battleground between the Left and the Right. An Ambedkarite organisation – the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association – found representation in the union for the first time this year. Sanjay Kumar, a PhD student won the post of councillor of the School of Arts and Aesthetics. Several independent candidates too have stood for elections, as has Chatra RJD. The united Left – a coalition of four parties, namely Student Federation of India (SFI), All India Students’ Association (AISA), All India Students’ Federation (AISF), to which Kanhaiya Kumar belonged and the Democratic Students’ Forum (DSF) – were leading in the four seats for the post of president, vice president, secretary and joint secretary. Meanwhile, the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organisation (BASO) – to which Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya belong – and the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) have not participated in this year’s elections.
JNU is a battleground for ideas, and as some wise man has said, ideas are bullet proof. No amount of goondagardi will destroy the ethos of the university. One of the WhatsApp messages doing the rounds in students’ groups says, “Even as the attacks of ABVP and those in the state power increase, we must not let this become the norm, the way violence has become normalised in society today. Silence and fear is only going to embolden them further tomorrow. It is time to raise our voices against this politics of intimidation both within and outside our university.” Meanwhile, in an announcement made an hour ago, Aishe Ghosh, Karabee Kakati, Srijani Bhaswa Mahant, and Syamkumar of the United Left have been elected the united Left panel has won four of the five councillor seats in the School of International Studies. Vishnu Prasad K of NSUI has one seat.
JNU has been holding out the fort well, but in the face of muscle power and goondagardi, the question is, for how long.
Souradeep Roy is a research scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Featured image credit: Madhurima, JNU