Ground Report: ABVP resorts to violence during the JNU Students’ Union elections; continues after loss

A Left Unity victory march after the alliance won the JNUSU polls. Facing a loss, members of the ABVP disrupted the counting of the votes for nearly 14 hours. Courtesy Samim Asgor Ali
17 September, 2018

The 2018 election of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union witnessed a massive turnout of 67.8 percent, nine percentage points higher than the previous year and the highest since 2012. The candidates of the Left Unity alliance—made up of the All India Students Association, Students Federation of India, Democratic Students Federation and All India Students’ Federation—won all four posts in the central panel and a majority of posts in the student council. The RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad lost all the polls for the top posts. In an unprecedented sequence of events for a university that has rarely seen violence in its student elections, the counting of votes was halted for close to 14 hours, after members of the ABVP disrupted proceedings.

Even after the result was announced, the ABVP-led violence continued. According to the newly elected president of the students’ union, N Sai Balaji, a few hours after the result was announced, a group of over 25 ABVP members attacked two students at JNU’s Sutlej hostel and Jhelum lawns respectively. Balaji said that when he and former president of the union, Geeta Kumari, reached the Jhelum lawns, the student was unconscious and a PCR van was already present. “I was threatened by the mob,” said Balaji. “I was shocked and fearing my safety.” He says they have filed a police complaint regarding the attack but that it hasn’t been reported as a FIR yet.

The first sign of trouble appeared during the presidential debate on 12 September 2018, when scuffles broke out between supporters of the ABVP and the Left alliance. Polling, however, proceeded smoothly on 14 September. Counting began in Building 1 of the School of International Studies around 10 pm that same night.

By 2.30 am, ballots had been counted for the council posts in the smaller schools—including the science schools, the School of Arts and Aesthetics and the School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies—and counting began for the central panel votes from these schools. Each candidate is allowed to nominate representatives to witness the counting of ballot papers. Himanshu Kulshreshta, the chairperson of the Election Committee, said in a press statement that as per procedure, three announcements were made on a loudspeaker asking for the representatives to assemble at the counting venue. “Fourteen counting agents for ten different candidates had reported at the counting venue, after which counting process had started and sealed boxes were opened in the presence of the counting agents.”

The early returns from the smaller schools, which—barring the SAA—have long been the bastion of ABVP support in the university, were not encouraging for the saffron outfit. The Left Unity candidates were leading for all four posts. According to six people present outside the venue, counting agents from the ABVP arrived an hour late and demanded to be allowed inside. “As per the established norms, no new counting agents can enter the counting venue, once the seal of the boxes is opened,” Kulshreshta said in his statement. “Election Committee had to reject the request of new counting agents being allowed inside that respective counting venue. ] intimidation and violence on our EC, including on our female members led by a Presidential and a Joint Secretary candidate”

Preeti Umarao, an activist from the SFI, the student body of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was also a counting agent for the smaller schools. “The ABVP members entered the building and broke the glasses with chairs,” she told me. “They misbehaved with all the EC members and we locked ourselves inside the room until 6.30 in the morning.” According to a joint statement by 12 student organisations, the ABVP members “barged into the rooms where counting was taking place. After this, they laid siege to the rooms and prevented anybody from entering or leaving the rooms. They even tried to capture the ballots, which the EC managed to prevent.” A security guard was hospitalised for injuries suffered during the ruckus.

Venkat Choubey, the ABVP candidate for joint secretary, told me their poll agents had been unfairly prevented from entering the counting venue. “We were waiting outside the building for the second call and I can assure you we didn’t hear the third.” During the 2015 election, he added, when agents from the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association were late, a special announcement was made asking them to gather at the counting venue. “Why was the same not done for us, even if we missed the call? The EC is biased towards AISA and has been taking all decisions after consulting them.” The joint statement noted, however, that agents from the Left alliance had also been prevented from participating in the counting of councillor ballots in the School of Languages for being late.

The Election Committee held several meetings over the following hours, seeking to defuse the situation and allow counting to resume. The ABVP cadre refused to leave the building. Around 2.30 pm, students began gathering outside the SIS building in large numbers. Members of the Grievance Redressal Cell, an administration-nominated body that oversees the electoral process, intervened at this stage, and convinced the ABVP members to allow counting to resume.

Umarao, who had stayed near the venue all day, was standing on a table in the Left Unity tent, chanting slogans. “The ABVP members who were inside the building came to our booth,” she said. “They asked me to stop sloganeering and toppled the table on which I was standing. An already injured knee of mine is injured again and I have a head injury too. I had a concussion and was taken to a hospital.” More scuffles broke out, and several students from both sides were injured.

Satarupa Chakrabarty, a former general secretary of the JNUSU, told me: “We needed evidence and hence some of us started making videos of this incident. But this is not the first time that the ABVP had snatched away people’s phones.” Chakrabarty said that members of the ABVP had snatched her phone during the presidential debate as well. “I have already registered a police complaint,” she said, before adding, “But the most important part is that when a few bodies have the responsibility to take actions, they are being totally complicit.”

The JNU administration has been at loggerheads with the JNUSU and the JNU Teachers’ Association over the past two years. Last year, the administration imposed heavy fines on JNUSU office-bearers for blocking the installation of CCTV cameras and for protesting outside the administration building. There was no statement from the administration condemning the violence or assuring the smooth functioning of the counting process. Students criticised the GRC for its delay in responding to the disruption, which lasted close to 14 hours.

Students who claim to have been attacked by the ABVP members on campus lodged an FIR at the Vasant Kunj Police station. The ABVP members too lodged an FIR on the same grounds, accusing students from other parties of attacking them.

On 15 September 2018, four students who had filed a police complaint against the ABVP were returning to campus around 10.30 pm, when their auto was cornered by two white cars outside the west gate. “We initially thought it was probably a case of road rage,” Sumitran Basu, one of the students, told me, “but three people came out of the car their faces were covered with handkerchiefs. They tried to drag me from the auto but I somehow managed to keep myself down. They had belts wrapped around their hands and one of us recognised one of them from the physique and the clothes that he was wearing. That guy was present at the police station with the other ABVP members.” The other three students also accused the men of punching them and hitting them with belts. “This went on for three minutes and then they left suddenly because it was probably already planned,” Basu said. “They could have done more. But now the situation is so grim on campus that we are scared to move out of campus all alone.”

Around the same time, students spotted a car entering the university with people who do not study in the campus. Pictures of a white car with hockey sticks and canes began circulating among students. The car was later found abandoned by the chief security officers, who claimed it was empty, but that there were some canes underneath it. Chakrabarty said, “If the main gate security guards are not allowing others to enter the campus, how is ABVP continuously bringing outsiders in? Is the administration not shielding them?” There has been no official update regarding the matter.

Hrishita Rajbangshi writes and edits stories for Spotlight Northeast, an independent website producing digital news in Assamese and English. She has previously been an intern at The Caravan and The Citizen. She received the Zubaan Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grant in 2018.