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05.04.2018

Early on the morning of March 15, bleary-eyed students wiped the sleep from their eyes and locked the building at the School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA) at Jawaharlal Nehru University. We were responding to a circular that JNU administration had circulated in the middle of the night, which deposed the Deans of seven centres, all of which had been resisting the arbitrary assertion of compulsory attendance.

While the move was sparked by the crack-down notice, discontent was already bursting at the seams. As locks and chains tightened around the metal doors, a different kind of energy began to flourish in the space outside the enclosed classroom. Our professor, Dr. Soumyabrata Choudhury stated in a talk here that the students hadn’t locked a building, but unlocked a potential.

The lockdown had slowly spread across the campus, redefining the platforms and patios outside the institutional buildings. At the SAA, large pots of plants were rearranged around the space in a satirical imitation of how the administration building replaced protesting students with potted plants. Within this lush oasis, chataiis and carpets were spread, for students did not abandon the site even at night. A few days later, a small red choolha was lit between a few rocks and glasses of chai and Tang were passed between the huddled protestors.

With consistent and strategic slandering in many media outlets, students needed to create alternative avenues for conversation, and within these crouching groups, creative ideas began to flourish. An IT cell erupted to foster a counter-narrative; SAA Talks Back was born. On a Facebook page, an Instagram handle and a Twitter account, we began to report, inform and update on an hourly basis. To be heard amidst the din of news channels, students began their own ‘Video Parcha’ series, on which students and faculty discuss everything from hostel raids and fee hikes to reservation policies and sexual harassment on campus. A flash mob was organised; rows of students lay across the roads and flashed mobile lights, which moved and flashed briefly to blasting music.

Outside the university, #JNURightToBunk began to trend. The general consensus appears to be that we’re vicious, callous and eager to waste time. Students like to break barricades and beat up cops because they’re fed by super-food in their now-expensive mess (funded, of course, by tax-payer money). These same students resist water-cannons and police lathis; they walk kilometres on end and sleep at the lockdown in sweltering heat - just to miss class? Why is it so difficult for people to understand that students might want to attend class of their own volition, or that they are treated as independent adults that can make decisions for themselves? More importantly, what if the students feel that the classroom is a discriminatory space in itself?

The rule had been announced without due consultation in academic bodies, but the point of the protest is much larger. Amidst a slew of circulars and notices and guards skulking between the trees, we are involved in difficult, stimulating conversations. The official dissolution of JNU’s sexual harassment complaints committee, the GSCASH; horrific night-time hostel raids by wardens have gone hand-in-hand with a number of accused being protected by the university in sexual harassment cases. To address this, women students independently organized a march through the hostels on the 27th of March.
Simultaneously, a philosophy reading group at the lockdown addressed sexual difference and micro-aggressions in our daily interactions.

A reading group investigated the relevance of B.R Ambedkar’s writing on caste to student politics. The absolute slashing of reservations and massive seat-cuts - issues which should have raised much more of a furor prior to this moment - are a crucial demand for protestors. In an institution where the authorities get away with a failed investigation of a missing student, exclusion and discrimination are clearly rabid. Uncomfortable divides over caste and social injustice, often swept away in a classroom or in student interactions, have been raised as points to think about deeply.

Over the last few weeks, students at the lockdown have shared utensils and mattresses, and cooked and shared food generously. Protest poster “parties” have gone late into the night, chai brewing in the corner, music wafting between buildings, paint staining fingers and clothes as people try out new slogans for size. A kind of bubbling community emerged around the locks and chains, even though there has been an increasing realization of the impenetrable forces that are weighing down on the resistance. It does not mean that we despair. By exchanging books, ideas, by arguing and disagreeing, by listening carefully, the attempt has been to redefine what it means to forge a “heterogenous unity”, or to use Ambedkar’s term – an “association.”

Samira is a Master’s student at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Photo credit: Saa Talks Back

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