The violence at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Sunday night reflects poorly on the state of political affairs in India. More than 50 masked men reportedly entered the campus armed with rods, sticks and sledgehammers. They ran amok, attacking students and teachers, and destroying property. More than 30 students were injured, including the chief of the varsity’s students union. Some members of the faculty suffered injuries, too. The union, which is dominated by the youth wings of leftist parties, has highlighted the political affiliations of some victims and accused the right-aligned Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) of orchestrating the attacks. The ABVP, however, has pointed the finger right back, charging leftist groups with the same. A police probe has been ordered to identify the culprits. How the goon squad managed to sneak into JNU, with its outer ring of security, is another matter that needs to be investigated. Also, since the impartiality of the men in uniform has been under question, lately, especially after the recent police action at Jamia Millia Islamia, it would help if the investigation is overseen by a judicial body. There should be no space left for doubt over the facts of the episode. In the interim, bigger questions of how to safeguard our educational campuses need to be addressed as well.
Sunday’s events at JNU have stirred a vigorous debate over law enforcement at our universities and other institutes of higher learning. Under the current arrangement, police forces cannot enter the premises of a university without the express permission of its vice-chancellor or functional head. Many an opinion has been voiced against this “restriction", given the delays it could cause in violence being quelled. Yet, while strict enforcement of law and order under the watchful eye of cops may seem like a solution, it would be unwise to have police personnel posted on campuses. Varsities, by definition, are intellectual enclaves, given to free speech and open debates on any and every issue that thinkers can wrap their minds around. If security fortifications give them a regimental air, it could make students uneasy. For these young men and women, these are spaces that let them think and speak without worrying about adverse consequences; and for earnest discussions to take place and ideas to emerge, it is important that everyone feels at ease.
The quality of a democracy can be judged by the vibrancy of its academic culture—the more argumentative, the better. On this parameter, JNU can be said to be among the country’s top performers. But if the university is to preserve what it seems most proud of, the opportunity it affords young Indians to engage one another across diverse perspectives, its students must take the lead in upholding its values. Their views do not need to converge, but they would do themselves a favour if they joined hands across ideological and other divisions in a display of solidarity against all forms of violence. Perhaps leftist and rightist groups should stage a joint march in condemnation of Sunday’s brutality, and issue avowals of rubbing along just fine despite their differences. This would send a clear signal to any would-be intruder that they will not have the campus fall victim to external designs. It would also reassure a country shocked by what happened there. The most ardently opposed of interlocutors often agree to disagree. So can JNU’s.