New Delhi: Several student activists at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are facing disciplinary action for pasting posters on the campus walls in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these students are pursuing PhD and are being denied admission for the ongoing semester until they pay a fine for their “serious misconduct”.
However, pasting posters on JNU campus walls wasn’t against the varsity rules until 2019 when then vice-chancellor (VC) and current University Grants Commission (UGC) chairman, Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar adopted the Delhi Prevention of Defacement of Property (DPDP) Act. Since then, several student activists have been served show-cause notices, fined and have faced inquiries for pasting any kind of posters on the campus walls.
The wall posters in JNU have had a rich legacy since the university’s inception. When architect C.P. Kukreja rushed inside the office of JNU’s first VC, G. Parthasarathi, complaining about students sticking posters during the varsity’s first student union elections in 1971, Parthasarathi mildly replied, “This is a campus in a democracy. Let the buildings speak to the students. Let it become their canvas.” Since then, these walls have become intrinsic to the idea of JNU and have widely been covered in both international and domestic media as the canvas of students’ thought.
N.S. Balaji, former president of JNU Student Union (JNUSU), told The Wire that he has been fined and is currently denied admission during his fourth year of PhD for pasting posters in 2019.
“The JNU administration took down all the big posters after the enforcement of this new rule in 2019. In protest, the JNUSU organised a protest march and pasted posters, for which I have been fined by the old VC and now denied admission by the new VC. JNU has a long legacy of walls speaking to students. Now it is a crime to continue that legacy,” he said.
The poster for which Balaji has been punished quoted the famous line from Voltaire, “I might disagree with your opinion, but I will defend your right to express it till my death.” While highlighting the diversity of these posters, Balaji emphasised that he would not pay the fine since he had not committed any crime.
“Pasting posters on any university campus cannot be a defacement. What are these posters? These posters are not calling for genocide or attacking anyone; rather, they speak of what we, as a society, should stand for. These posters were diverse and included quotes from Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, Bhagat Singh, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and so on. They [the government and the administration] cannot answer such ideas, so they invoke the Defacement Act,” he said.
Huge fines, ‘rigged inquiries’
Simone Zoya Khan, former vice-president of JNUSU, who has also been fined, highlighted how student activists since 2016, after Kumar became the VC, have been particularly targeted and financially harassed by the administration every six months in the form of huge fines and “rigged inquiries” for raising their voices and questions.
“In most cases, these fines are arbitrarily imposed since we are student activists who come from economically weaker backgrounds. We are not even surprised by this move by the administration. There was a time when we paid Rs 70,000-80,000 through the help of the union and crowdfunding. The inquiries are pre-decided and are mere formalities. All this is done to deter students from protesting and gathering within the university.”
Khan told The Wire that the JNU administration “cherry-picks protests and witch-hunts student activists” while being biased towards the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), forcing ordinary students to approach the Delhi high court for protection from such exorbitant fines and irrational penalties.
“No one from the ABVP has ever been fined. Once, they broke windows and flowerpots in the administration block, for which only an inquiry was held. One such fellow, Saurav Sharma, who was caught in a crystal clear video, is now an assistant professor at JNU. The same happened in the case of Najeeb as well, who was brutally assaulted by the ABVP before he went missing. Unfortunately, only the rooms of Najeeb’s assaulters were changed in the hostel,” she said.
Shubhanshu Singh, former joint secretary of JNUSU, who has also been fined, while highlighting how such tactics are planned by the administration, told The Wire that the JNU administration employs security guards for surveillance, who catch students on camera, sometimes even holding banners or placards, and wrongly punish them under the new defacement rule.
“The administration strategically plans such punitive actions against the student activists. Whenever an issue gets dormant, and they know it won’t be possible for us to mobilise, they act against us,” he said.
Another student requesting anonymity told The Wire that the Delhi Police, in a similar development, have recently opened FIR cases against at least 30 students from 2018, which were kept in cold storage as of now, pertaining to protests and gheraos near the administration block regarding the issue of fee hike and compulsory attendance. The concerned students were not even aware of such FIRs and are now being summoned by the authorities.
This article was first published on The Wire.
Featured image: Photo evidence given by proctor office for issuing a show-cause notice to students under the new defacement rule. Credit: author provided