The scenes of student protests unfolding at JNU since last year are a reminder of the university’s feisty pedigree. Over the years, the university has continued to figure in the media and public discourse for the controversies that break out regularly. According to some, the tough approach of JNU authorities and police towards the protesters at present stands out in contrast to an incident that took place around 15 years ago.
It was 2005 when Dr. Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister leading the UPA government--those were delicate days for Indian diplomacy that was walking the tightrope between the US and Iran at the IAEA. India went on to support the US in a vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a move that did not go down well with the Leftist allies of the Congress-led UPA government.
In that November, Dr. Singh went to the JNU to unveil a statue of Jawahalal Nehru. The demonstration by some pro-Left student protesters turned out to be the newspoint of the day as they raised slogans against the Prime Minister. Although he finished his speech and left the campus, tensions continued to flare up with clashes between AISA and NSUI members. The police intervened and four students were taken into custody. The university administration also moved against the protestors. But subsequently, the students were let off after the Prime Minister reportedly intervened and asked that they not be harshly dealt with.
Mr. Shakil Khan, a Congress leader from Bihar and former JNUSU president (1992-93), said; 'Until now, the JNU has been an institute which speaks up for democratic rights. However, the previous governments and university administrations always saw these protests as the right to expression. But this government considers protesters and the JNU as its enemy.'
He added: “They believe in ‘kill the enemy’ strategy. That’s why the instances in 2005 and earlier were dealt peacefully, but this time it has burgeoned.” The 2005 episode in JNU’s past was raked up recently by Umar Khalid, who along with Kanhaiya Kumar was at the centre of the JNU controversy in 2016. On January 9, Khalid tweeted: “In 2005, Manmohan Singh faced black flags in JNU as a protest against his economic policies. It became big news. The administration immediately sent notices to students. The very next day, the PMO intervened and asked the admininstration not to take any action as protests were students’ democratic right.”
“PM Manmohan Singh facing sloganeering and black flags from student protesters began his speech by quoting Voltaire: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it’,” Khalid added. The other side of the coin is spelt out by those who point out that the magnitude and intensity of the conflict in the two cases are very different. In January 2020, the campus saw student activists, on opposite sides of the political divide, brutally assault each other.
A JNU professor, on condition of anonymity, said: “Protests in 2005 and before were all peaceful and limited to peaceful, verbal spats. But this time around, students have been running around campus like goons and hitting anyone and everyone in sight. The situation cannot be compared to 2005.”