On the evening of 5 January 2020, news broke of a rampage within the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Masked men and women assaulted students with impunity, aided by wooden sticks, rods and sledgehammers, and undeterred by the presence of the Delhi Police. The Caravan spoke to over half-a-dozen students via phone interviews conducted within hours of the attack. All of them were present on the campus as the violence unfolded. All but one of the seven students used the phrase “atmosphere of terror” to describe the environment in the campus over the weekend. Most of them said that they recognised members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, among the attackers, and that the police and the security apparatus within JNU did little to halt the violence. During a news telecast on 7 January, Anima Sonkar, the ABVP’s national secretary, admitted that two men who were seen holding lathis in a video shot in JNU, were members of the ABVP. On 6 January, the far-Right Hindu outfit Hindu Raksha Dal claimed responsibility for the attack. One of its leaders described JNU as being “a hub of communists” and anti-national.
The student’s testimonies revealed that their attempts to seek help from within the security set-up in the university and the Delhi Police outside were met with complete apathy. Several students also observed that the mob that conducted the attack on the evening of 5 January was more organised, more brutal and larger in scale than any such formation they had ever witnessed on campus. They also said that the mob included men and women who were not from the university.
On 4 January, in the backdrop of the ongoing protests against the fee hike at JNU, members of student organisations—including those affiliated to the Left and the JNU Students Union—had collected in front of the Computer Integrated Servers near the School of Biotechnology, in an effort to block registration. According to Preeti Umarao, the security convener of the JNUSU, violence broke out in an area known as the SBT lawns when “members from the ABVP beat up people who were gathered there.” Umarao is a member of the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Shambhavi Sharma, an alumnus who graduated in 2017 and was present on the campus on both days, said she recognised the people, who physically attacked the protesting students that time, as ABVP members. “By attack, I mean that they were assaulting people with rods and sticks and all that,” she said. “There were about ten–fifteen students, believed to be from the ABVP, who came to the area where students were sitting in lock-down and where there were other common students, and they beat them,” a second-year MPhil student from JNU, who asked not to be named, said. “People were quite angry.”
Umarao alleged that faculty members from the university also took part in the violence. “There were teachers who were included in this as well, who raised their hand against women students at the SIS,” she said, referring to the School of International Studies at JNU. “Aswini Mohapatra, the dean of SIS, himself had raised his hand against a woman student,” Umarao said. She added that Tapan Kumar Bihari, an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, “was also involved and he also hit a student.” When contacted by The Caravan, Mohapatra denied that he had hit a student. Over a text exchange, he said that “it’s the usual & convenient tactic on part of the left wing students to pin down those not with them. I have seen & suffered several such harassment in past 25 yrs.” Bihari did not respond to text and email queries regarding the allegation. His phone was switched off when The Caravan attempted to call him.
On 4 January, Umarao said, the JNUSU led a march from Ganga dhaba, a popular spot in campus, to condemn the violence. It was in view of these developments, she said, that the JNU Teachers Association announced a protest gathering on the evening of 5 January near the university’s Sabarmati hostel. The JNUTA had called for peace and harmony during the demonstrations opposing the fee hikes.
According to the students The Caravan spoke to, the situation escalated in the early afternoon of 5 January, when members of the ABVP began hitting students near the School of Social Sciences, or SSS. Videos of this attack have since circulated on social media—the fact-checking news website AltNews identified one attacker as a member of the ABVP.
Umarao said, “In the afternoon, there were people who went to the SSS area and to the students who were sitting in lock-down there, and attacked those who were there per-force…there was some attempt made to talk to them and to ask them why there could not be a conversation instead of the physical violence, but they were not ready to listen to anyone.” She alleged that a student of the SSS, who is also an ABVP activist, was present during the altercation. The second-year MPhil student said that the attackers overlapped with the group of people that had beaten up students the previous day. “Those students who were beaten up, they were quite agitated and there might have been a scuffle of sorts that broke out,” he said.
Umarao said that as a security convenor of the students’ union, she tried to take precautions to keep the campus safe, but her efforts were thwarted by the authorities’ indifference. Security at JNU is managed partly by the private firm Cyclops Security. “It seemed as if Cyclops security was helping ABVP only,” Umarao said. According to her, between 3 pm and 3.30 pm on 5 January, she and the JNUSU president, Aishe Ghosh, visited the security office to meet Rama Rao—the head of the Cyclops security team in JNU. Umarao said that she and Aishe intended to request that he increase security within the campus. According to Umarao, Aishe went inside to speak to Rao. Their efforts were in vain. Rao appeared unconcerned about the threat to the students’ safety. According to Umarao, Rao’s response was effectively, “Aap log yahi karte ho, aapke ke saath aise hi hona chahiye”—This is what you people do, this is what should happen to you. Later that evening, Aishe was attacked by members of the masked mob. In a video that circulated on social media, she was seen bleeding profusely from the head.