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Students express solidarity with Indian university

Grinnellians hosted a solidarity rally in support of Indian students at JNU in New Delhi. Photo contributed

Nora Coghlan, News Editor &
Eve Lilienfeld, News Editor &

Grinnell students and staff gathered in solidarity on Monday night to support students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India in the midst of political turmoil. The rally, organized by Vincent Kelley ’16, aimed to show support to JNU students in light of the recent controversy on campus surrounding the arrest of JNU Student Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, suspension of eight JNU students and general violence and police activity on campus. 

On Tuesday, Feb. 9, JNU students organized a protest of capital punishment on the third anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man found guilty of involvement in an attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. The protest ignited controversy on campus between political parties, leading with the culmination of Kumar’s arrest on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. Right-wing students viewed Kumar’s involvement as anti-nationalist, and tensions between parties have forced several left-wing students to flee campus under threat of violence. 

According to Professor Shuchi Kapila, English, the turmoil is a result of long-existing political tensions on campus and reflects the current right-leaning nature of the Indian state. 

“The tension between different student groups has a longer history and it’s hard for me to really parse all the details of that because that is so much a matter of different political groups sharing space in the JNU campus,” she said. “It sounds like a very confused and paranoid response of a state that is influenced often by right-wing groups.” 

Subsequent backlash to Kumar’s arrest has focused on the outdated nature of sedition laws, the dangers of police involvement on college campuses and the maintenance of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

“[The protest] is being constructed as being anti-national, but to say that a state is oppressive is the right of every citizen and the response through police action seems excessive to me,” Kapila said. “It seems to me that one view is that students shouldn’t get involved in politics, especially because the university is funded by the government. That is a very dangerous position to take because a free expression of opinion is really important to democracy. It’s really important to academic freedom, and if there isn’t a connection to violence, I don’t see how you could have gone in with police presence and actually imprisoned the head of the student union.”   

Grinnell has a long history with JNU. Several Grinnell students, including Kelley, have studied abroad on JNU’s campus and the college continues to run a professor exchange program with the university. 

Several current Grinnell professors have taught on their campus, including Kapila. These ties have resulted in a strong response from the Grinnell community in support JNU students and intellectual freedom, evidenced by Kelley’s organization of a solidarity rally in the Spencer Grill on Monday. 

“[The rally] was an opportunity for us to check in with each other and say, ‘Why are you concerned and what’s happened?’ … I went with a couple of other faculty members and all of us have taught at JNU so we have … colleagues and friends there,” Kapila said. “Those students who have studied in Delhi in the last few years have actually taken classes, been on campus. They have relationships with students there, friendships, intellectual friendships, so they are concerned about their friends.”

Kelley especially was concerned about his peers at JNU. 

“Many student organizers have been forced to flee campus for their own safety—some have even deleted their social media profiles,” he wrote in an email to The S&B.   

JNU students currently face ongoing police presence on campus and the threat of violence from their peers. 

“Its outrageous and I don’t think I remember a time when this has ever happened. An educational institution should not have police inside it, armed police,” Kapila said.

Kelley said that it is important to continue to extend support to JNU students though the student president is scheduled to be released in early March. 

Concerned students and professors also worry that state involvement on JNU’s campus has the potential to negatively impact access to information in the United States. 

“The whole idea of South Asian studies here can get affected if academic freedom is not maintained because then people are going to kind of control what you can study about India, what can be said about nationalism and India history,” Kapila said.  “History is very contested in many parts of the world. There is a difference between an academic study and politically motivated study and that needs to be maintained.”

Students have also recognized the parallels in political division and intolerance between the turmoil at JNU and the current political climate in the U.S. 

“Seeing this parallel Islamophobia rising in India and here… [It] is kind of disturbing … and all the more disturbing to see this happening and to wonder what conditions would we need to make something like this happen here,” said Caleigh Ryan ’17, who recently returned from off-campus study in India. “Not to make what’s happening at JNU about us at all, but just in understanding themes of government sanctioned intolerance that allowed these things to happen.” 

JNU has responded positively to Grinnell’s support. One JNU student wrote to Kapila to express her appreciation for Grinnell’s rally and the importance of pushing this issue onto an international stage. 

“We don’t want the government to think that this is just a protest within the ivory tower, [but] that this is worldwide, the sympathy for JNU is worldwide,” Kapila said. 

With the support of the Grinnell community, Kapila stressed the importance of JNU, given its long history of student activism and significant graduates, and the necessity of upholding global academic freedom. 

“It is a premier university in India where I think that we have to take very seriously what happens there,” she said. “Most of us are really concerned about maintaining academic freedom against the in-roads of the state because then, what’s next? They are going to decide what you can teach and what you can say about topics and what you cannot teach. That seems to me like a very steep, dangerous path to complete and total chaos.”

Grinnellians hosted a solidarity rally in support of Indian students at JNU in New Delhi. Photo contributed
Grinnellians hosted a solidarity rally in support of Indian students at JNU in New Delhi. Photo contributed
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