Behind Campus Attack in India, Some See a Far-Right Agenda
Hindu nationalists view Jawaharlal Nehru University, where a mob rampaged last weekend, as “a symbol of everything that is bad in this country,” one analyst said.
For decades, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party and its affiliates have struggled to control one of India’s most fertile ideological recruiting grounds: university campuses.
That project erupted in violence last weekend, as masked men and women stormed the New Delhi campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India’s premier liberal institutions.
Witnesses said police officers stood by as students were attacked with rods and bricks. Some assailants shouted slogans associated with Mr. Modi’s governing party and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., which for decades has aspired to turn India into a Hindu nation.
“They pelted stones at us, stones half the size of bricks,” said Sucharita Sen, a geography professor, who was struck in the head and needed stitches. She was bleeding profusely, she said, adding: “I saw the face of terror.”
Mr. Modi’s government initially condemned the violence. But some ministers, along with others in the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, tried to justify it. “For too long, Leftists have been treated with kid gloves,” the party’s branch in the state of Karnataka said on Twitter. “No wonder this ‘good for nothing breed’ has grown like a Weed.”
As protests continue across India against Mr. Modi’s contentious citizenship law, universities have become targets, with far-right groups accused of attacking places seen as hot spots for “antinational” activism. Some analysts saw the well-orchestrated attack on Sunday as something more: a watershed in the ascendant Hindu nationalist movement’s fight for control over the influential university, and over Indian higher education more broadly.
“For the Modi government, J.N.U. has been a symbol of the territory they haven’t been able to capture,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an author who has studied the R.S.S. for years. “They are projecting it as a symbol of everything that is bad in this country, and that is why they need to destroy it.”
Mr. Mukhopadhyay said the attack was a precursor to shutting down the university and “trying to reshape it.”
The university is named for Jawaharlal Nehru, one of India’s founding fathers, who resisted the idea of establishing a religious state. Over the years, the campus cultivated a reputation for supporting resistance movements led by minorities and questioning revisionist histories of India pushed by far-right Hindus.
Since Mr. Modi became prime minister in 2014, the Hindu right’s battle for influence over young minds has intensified. Observers say that by 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University had become a much more frequent topic of debate among high-ranking officials in the governing party, who questioned the morality of the students and their education.
Students and faculty at the university said freedoms there had eroded since the election of Mr. Modi, whose government has appointed R.S.S.-affiliated administrators to the university. In the hours after Sunday’s attack, staunch supporters of Mr. Modi’s party called for the university to be closed.
While leftist ideas have long prevailed at the university and many of India’s other leading campuses, the R.S.S. has worked to inculcate its far-right ideology at a much younger age. It runs its own network of schools, and encourages children to join programs for physical training interspersed with Hindu religious rituals.
At the university level, the R.S.S. oversees the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, one of India’s oldest and largest student unions. That group at first denied involvement in the Sunday attack, blaming it on “commie goons.”
But Anima Sonkar, a secretary for the group, said in a television interview on Monday that two armed men seen in a video of the assault were members of the organization. She said they had carried weapons for “self-defense,” traveling in groups and carrying rods, and in one case, acid.
Since protests began in India last month over the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by Parliament — which many see as blatantly discriminatory toward Muslims and a threat to the nation’s secular foundation — most eruptions of violence have been blamed on the police, who have been accused of torturing teenage demonstrators, lobbing tear gas canisters into a college library and killing protesters.
But the attack at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where a number of rallies against the law have been held, suggested that extremist outfits had started mobilizing against protesters, with the complicity of the authorities.
Students interviewed on campus immediately after the attack said the police did nothing as the mob assaulted people and chanted politically charged slogans, including “Hail Lord Ram,” a reference to a Hindu deity. That phrase has become a battle cry for Hindu nationalists.
No arrests have been made in the mob attack, though a criminal complaint has been filed against “unknown persons.” In an interview, Shalini Singh, a police official leading a fact-finding team, said, “What the students have told me is confidential,” declining to comment further. The police have said that they quickly stopped the attack, though students said it went on for well over an hour.
At a rally last month, Pinky Chaudhary, president of the Hindu Raksha Dal, another far-right group, incited members to target students at the university. “The grave of J.N.U. will be dug on the soil of Hindustan,” members of his group shouted, using a Hindu nationalist name for India.
In an interview, Mr. Chaudhary claimed responsibility for some of the violence on Sunday. He said his organization had sent around 250 activists to the campus — as reinforcements, he said — after the attack began, and that they threw bricks at students who they believed opposed the citizenship law.
“The students of J.N.U. are communists and they had to be taught a lesson,” he said. The police said the group was being investigated.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a prominent public intellectual, said the Modi government was legitimizing force against people seen as disruptive to its nationalist project, including minorities, secularists and protesters.
“There is no getting away from the fact that hunting down your own citizens as antinational is now part of the ideological construct of this government,” he wrote in a column for The Indian Express. “The state will, directly or through proxies, encourage violence against anyone who is not in tune with it.”
The violence on Sunday was related, at least in part, to monthslong protests among student groups at the university over fee increases.
Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the R.S.S., opposed those protests. Leftist campus groups pushed back, some say forcefully, by cutting off computer servers and blocking class registration.
By last weekend, students said, the dispute had evolved beyond the fee issue. Fights broke out, buildings were vandalized, and people on both sides reported injuries. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad promised to retaliate on Sunday evening, according to students. Indian news outlets traced WhatsApp exchanges to the group, with one message calling on members to “thrash the antinationals.”
On Sunday, a couple of hundred people assembled outside a dormitory for what they called a peace march and a discussion of the recent violence. Anoushka Barua, a graduate student, said dozens of people with their faces covered rushed out of a nearby hostel chanting “Hail Lord Ram.” Four other students said they heard the same slogan.
Witnesses said the mob threw rocks, hitting Professor Sen and others. Ms. Barua said students and faculty were “running for their lives” as the attackers chased people into dormitories. In one hostel, they shattered windows and sprayed a cough-inducing irritant as a security guard watched, according to students who were there and a video of the attack.
Bharat Sharma, a student studying German, said he was hanging out with friends at a hostel when he heard people shouting, “You communists, come out!” For 15 minutes, he said, the attackers tried to break down his door; he speculated that it was because he had hung a poster of Bob Marley outside. They broke a window, he said, allowing them to peer into the room.
“We said, ‘We are common students, neither leftists nor rightists,’ ” Mr. Sharma recalled telling them. He said the attackers left after one of them recognized his friend and said, “They are not commies. They are not it. Leave them.”
After an hour or so, the mob dispersed, witnesses said. Injured students were rushed to a trauma center. Hundreds of far-right activists stayed near the campus, threatening journalists, vandalizing an ambulance and yelling, “The traitors of the country, shoot the rascals!”
Surya Prakash, a blind student who was among those beaten in their dormitory rooms, said the experience had shaken him to the core.
“I feel a phobia now, of people coming to kill me when I hear the door bang,” he said. “We were simply studying.”