New Delhi: The administration of Jawaharlal Nehru University recently installed a prison-like iron-grill outside the two porches of the varsity’s administration building and placed rows of potted plants on the building’s stairs. The barricaded porches and stairs is popularly known as ‘Freedom Square’ among JNU students. It was, after all, the epicentre of student protests against the administration and arrest of JNU students in February.
According to a statement release by the JNU administration, the space can be put to the use of officials and staff who are facing “space crunch” in the administrative building. However, students view the move as “part of the administration’s onslaught on dissent” expressed by students. Ex-students say the decision is aimed at “eroding” JNU’s “critical culture of debate and dissent.”
“Throughout the history of JNU, the space has been used by teachers, students and non-teaching staff to raise voice for their rights and against oppression and injustice. The administration wants no dissent at all,” Kusum Lata, a former JNU student from Delhi told ScoopWhoop News. “It’s clear that the administration is following RSS’s agenda.”
Minutes before a scheduled protest meeting of JNU Students’ Union on Monday, the administration, in order to prevent students from converging outside the building, placed dozens of potted plants to cover the stairs ascending to the building. Despite that, the students went ahead with the protests and also gave speeches. Some of them also arranged the pots to spell out ‘Najeeb’ – the missing JNU student who has been missing since October 15 after a scuffle with students affiliated with ABVP.
According to JNU administration, the students body has been repeatedly informed to hold protests at certain designated places like JNUSU office on the campus. But each time, it has been denied.
“There’s no logic in protesting outside the students’ union office. The students are protesting against the administration’s decision and anti-student attitude. It then becomes natural to protest outside the administration building,” added Lata, a member of Leftist group Students For Resistance.
Former JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar also echoes similar views.
“Whenever there is an issue regarding a particular school, the students protest outside that school because the purpose of the protest is to get heard. So when a VC or Rector takes an anti-student decision, we will protest outside his office,” Kumar told ScoopWhoop News.
It is the same square where Kumar gave a rousing speech that affected millions of Indians in March this year after his release from the jail following sedition charges on several JNU students for participating in a university event where allegedly anti-national slogans were raised.
During the popular students movement triggered after his arrest, the students had held scores of demonstrations and lectures on nationalism at the square. A number of prominent activists, academics and politicians gave speeches from the same stair case. Beside pasting the walls of the administration building with posters, the students also held musical protests and plays at the spot.
“After the February 9 incident the space achieved a symbolic significance. Outsiders and students from other parts of country still come to visit the academic block. They feel something when they stand there,” Kumar, a PhD student told ScoopWhoop News.
In Kumar’s view, the administration’s decision will only “provoke” students.
“If the VC thinks that JNU students will stop protesting, he’s clearly mistaken. The administration thinks protests and Dharnas disturb academic environment but they don’t know protests and speeches are also part of academics,” he said.
Lata, who finished her PhD in 2013, said she often visited the ‘Freedom Square’ and participated in “almost every protest during the February 9 incident.”
A long-term JNU student Atif Rabbani told ScoopWhoop News the administration’s decision has also curtailed spaces of dissent for non-teaching staff and teachers.
“It’s a democratic space and students from every political outfit be – from Left or Right or Centre – have used the space for raising their voice,” he said.
For Rabbani, the square symbolizes a part of JNU’s critical culture. It’s a point where ideas have exchanged, shaped and merged in the fight for oppressed and marginalized.
“Not only in India, whenever anything happens in the world, this spot has been used to raise the voice and dissent. Barricades and pots won’t erase that history,” Rabbani said.