They were trying to break our movement, but they could not: JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh

Shahid Tantray For The Caravan
09 January, 2020

On the evening of 5 January, students and teachers of the Jawaharlal Nehru University had gathered to protest a proposed hike in the hostel fees, when they were attacked by a masked mob. According to eyewitnesses, the mob was wielding lathis and iron rods. Members of the mob pelted stones, damaged cars, vandalised hostels and beat up students and faculty. During this time, the students’ calls for help to the police, who were deployed at the university, went unanswered. Over twenty people were injured that night and admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. One of them was Aishe Ghosh, the president of the JNU Students Union. She was severely beaten—a photo that showed blood running down her face was widely circulated on social media.

Several students claimed that the masked men were members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Denying the charge, the ABVP has claimed that “leftist” groups instead attacked its members. On 7 January, Shahid Tantray, an assistant photo editor at The Caravan spoke to Ghosh, a 25-year-old, about what happened on the night of 5 January and the JNUSU’s subsequent demands for an independent inquiry into the mob attack. “Till the VC [vice chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar] is not removed, there will be no free or fair inquiry,” Ghosh said.

Shahid Tantray: Can you describe how you were injured?
Aishe Ghosh:  On 5 January at 6.30 pm, we were part of a peaceful gathering at the Sabarmati Tea Point [in JNU]. Around 4.30 pm, we [had gone] to show solidarity. Then we were drinking tea and chatting with the students. Around three hundred–four hundred students were part of the gathering. Suddenly around 6.30–7 pm, I saw students running. As the president of the JNU student union, I told them not to panic and asked why are they running? I understood what had happened five minutes later.

I saw 50-70 people [approaching]. They had iron rods in their hands, some had hammers and sticks, and their faces were covered with cloth. I started going towards the hostel. My friend was with me too. Thirty–forty people surrounded us and they hit me with an iron rod on my head. They hit my friend too. They hit us continuously for a few minutes. I was already bleeding. They hit my hand. Then we both fell down. As we fell down, they left us and ran towards the residential area. Somehow, JNU students picked us up, called an ambulance and took us to AIIMS trauma centre.

ST: Who were these people who attacked you?
AG: Those who were there were masked, but I do not know who they were.

ST: There have been reports that the ABVP resorted to violence against the students from the Left organisations on campus. Is this accurate as per your understanding?
AG: This is true. What has happened has been done by ABVP people. These people came and particularly targeted us. They targeted our teachers too. All of us, what were we doing? The meeting was happening about the current fee-hike movement, and how to democratically take it forward. This violence that happened, three–four days before this, such scuffles were already happening. From then, we were repeatedly saying to the security that such incidents shouldn’t happen. Again and again, we were saying that whatever was happening on campus, the security has not taken cognisance of it. On 4 [January], ABVP people came and beat up the students and broke their hands and legs. The security did not take any action or stop them. On 5 [January], whatever happened, there is still some connection to it—professors who call themselves JNUTF [Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Federation] are RSS-affiliated [and] had individually threatened the students who were boycotting exams or who were boycotting registrations saying that “You will no longer remain students, we will see what to do with you.” [In December, JNU students boycotted exams in protest over the hostel fee hike. The JNUSU also called for a boycott of the course registration process for the next semester.] Such incidents were continuously happening.

Till now, the VC has not had a single dialogue with us. Even when the courts have said that the VC must have a dialogue with us, then why did it not happen? [In an order dated 23 December, the Delhi high court asked the JNU vice chancellor to “engage with the students” to ‘break the logjam.”] But, on 5 January, people were instigated, there was violence, an organised attack happened. Whoever was involved, there must be an inquiry. The VC must resign, his removal is the immediate demand we are asking. Until the VC isn’t removed, there will be no free and fair inquiry on campus. After this incident, the [JNU administration] filed [a complaint on the basis of which] FIRs [first-information report were registered] against me and some friends from JNUSU and others. So we understand how the VC is functioning on the campus. The MHRD [the ministry of human resource development] should immediately understand this and take immediate steps to remove this VC. I demand a free and fair inquiry on who the culprits are and how they should be punished.

ST: You met Rama Rao, the head of the Cyclops security team, and Ritu Raj, the station house officer of the Vasant Kunj police station. Could you describe your interaction with them?
AG: On 4 [January], the SHO [station house officer] had come to campus. I told him that the atmosphere in the campus is not right, please speak to the administration and ask them to have a dialogue with us as soon as possible. I had even messaged the dean of SSS [the school of social sciences] and the Rector-1. But no one has responded. Nobody from the administration is having a dialogue with us. The problem is that nobody wants a dialogue with us. They want such a situation to happen in the campus. Along with that, it has been above twenty-four hours, nobody from the JNU administration has even called to check on us.  [They have] not even asked what immediate help do we need? I demand that our safety be ensured. The students’ condition is such that they are very scared. But one thing is certain, we will remain united. Even when I went to the press conference yesterday, I only said one thing that the students remain united, our fight is against the administration. The administration is responsible for all the violence that has happened on campus in the last few days. This attack was an organised attack and investigation should happen. But JNUSU’s immediate demand is that the VC be immediately removed and there should be a free and fair inquiry.

ST: The Delhi Police has registered an FIR against you for vandalising the university server room. How would you respond?
AG: The FIR is baseless, on a vandalism charge. Nothing of that sort ever happened that I have gone and broken some server or something. The FIR complaint [was made] on the afternoon of 4 January. What happened [that day]? ABVP activists came and did some breakage. ABVP activists broke the hands and legs of students. Who should the administration have filed the FIR against? They have videos as well. We had also shared videos on Facebook of who had really come and done the violence. If the administration had really taken cognisance of this, whose name should have really gone on the FIR, even the administration knows. We do not understand why the administration filed a case and put JNUSU [students’] names. The administration should take responsibility for this, the VC should resign.

ST: Do you think the administration and ABVP are working together?
AG: The professors here, some are RSS affiliated. The Delhi Police and [university’s] internal security have formed a nexus to defame JNU. But again, we are reiterating the same thing that people from outside entered. How did they get an entry? Today, our professors were reporting, I read on Twitter, that tokens [needed to enter campus] were finished in the evening. Who requires a token? JNU students and teachers do not. Tokens are used by outsiders. So, how did our tokens get over? People from outside were heavily ingressed into campus. Why were they not stopped? The administration should immediately take cognisance of it. The Delhi Police were already inside the campus from 1.30 pm. Not in their uniforms, but in civil clothes, a lot of policemen were already inside the campus. Why did they not take any measures? All these FIRs they are filing now are baseless, they have no evidence.

ST: When the mob attacked you on 5 January, did you call the police for help?
AG: I was not in a state to call the PCR [police control room]. My friend who was with me, both of us fell down. I was bleeding very heavily. A student managed to take a video of me when I was bleeding and saying I do not know who hit me but I can identify them, I can identify sweatshirts, I said that much and I fell down and somehow I was taken to AIIMS trauma centre. But the point is, why did this even happen that people got inside the campus and beat up students and vandalised the hostels? Photographs are coming out on everything [that happened] at the Sabarmati hostel. The point which needs to be reiterated is that people should speak to the residents of Sabarmati hostel. Sabarmati hostel residents have identified who all were there in the van that entered Sabarmati and did the breakage. They are ready to give the names to the police and are identifying who are involved.

ST: The police and administration are investigating the incident. Do you think there will be a free and fair inquiry?
AG: Till the VC is not removed, there will be no free or fair inquiry. The removal of the VC is the immediate demand. The MHRD must keep this in mind for a free and fair inquiry to happen here. We are sure of this because the VC is intent on maligning the students and to create a different story of what’s happening here. The violence that happened on 4 [January], there is not a single FIR. But for no reason, they filed FIRs against us and we have been blamed. How [can] we expect a free and fair inquiry? .

Why are we specifically asking for a free and fair inquiry? The incident that happened [on 5 January], it really caused panic in the students. The ABVP people are saying themselves that they took lathis and [rods] and went [out]. The [ABVP’s Delhi joint secretary Anima Sonkar] said it on a TV debate. Nowhere are they disowning the violence, [but] are saying people [were] roaming [with] lathis in self-defense.

ST: You have been protesting against the fee hike for the past 65 days. Do you think this attack was an attempt to break down the movement?
AG: Absolutely. We, the JNUSU, have been conveying this to the students for the past three–four days that such situations have been occurring on campus to break our movement. But even after doing this [attack], they couldn’t break the movement. Even when I got injured and admitted in the hospital, the other office-bearers immediately ensured a peace march happens till the gate and we raise a voice against the nexus of the Delhi police, professors and administration. You don’t have to do this to JNU. The JNU student’s union knows how we are taking ahead this fight democratically and we will take it ahead. Right from day one, from 28 October, when we started the movement, we went for a march, we were beaten up, we came back, then we went back to the march. We have never taken any steps due to which any violence happened nor will we ever be violent. As representatives of JNUSU, we have always said this. I have given statements before this appealing to our students that we will maintain peace and peacefully manage the protest. For the past 65 days, the way we have been running the movement democratically, we will take it ahead the same way.

The administration was in desperation because their plan failed. Their exam plan failed, the WhatsApp exam plan failed, the forceful registration failed. [After students boycotted examinations, the JNU administration proposed that questions be sent to the registered students, who can submit their answer scripts to teachers in person, through email, or by taking photographs of handwritten answers and submitting them through WhatsApp.]

When all their plans failed, they thought they would use violence and handle the situation. They knew we had a meeting with MHRD the next day [on 6 January] for our negotiation. Suddenly, why the desperation? Why did not the VC wait for us to have a dialogue through MHRD and solve the issue? JNUSU was preparing for our meeting with MHRD. We were going to try to solve this situation as soon as possible. We were getting our documents ready and deciding how to speak to the new secretary and how we can resolve this issue immediately. But, because this violence on campus happened, we could not go. I was discharged in the morning; we could not go in this state. So, it’s clear here that the JNU administration, out of desperation, was taking steps to delegitimise the movement and to malign the image of JNU.

ST: ABVP members are alleging that students associated with Left parties assaulted ABVP activists. How do you respond to this allegation?
AG: The JNUSU was clear in its position right from day one that we do not endorse violence of any sort. We will not entertain violence and we condemn it to the fullest. But the photos and videos of the violence that have gone through, why has no FIR been filed against any of them?

This interview has been edited and condensed.