Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at
ISSN: 1368-8790 (Print) 1466-1888 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cpcs20
Exceptionalising democratic dissent: a study of the
JNU event and its representations
Mohinder Singh & Rajarshi Dasgupta
To cite this article: Mohinder Singh & Rajarshi Dasgupta (2019) Exceptionalising democratic
dissent: a study of the JNU event and its representations, Postcolonial Studies, 22:1, 59-78, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13688790.2019.1568169
Published online: 26 Feb 2019.
Submit your article to this journal
View Crossmark data
Exceptionalising democratic dissent: a study of the JNU event
and its representations
and Rajarshi Dasgupta
Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi, India;
Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
This article analyses the politics around the infamous Jawaharlal
Nehru University (JNU) ‘sedition’case of February 2016, focusing
particularly on its media representations. It shows how the case
was, from its outset, embroiled in the politics of representation,
with questions of truth and lies receding into the background to
give way to clashes of opinion –however unfounded they may
have been in information, fact or truth –broadly reﬂecting the
nature of the public sphere in these ‘post-truth’times. Further, it
analyses how the protests at JNU following the event sought to
project an image of the university countering right-wing
representations, while also enriching debates on nationalism,
democracy, dissent and freedom of speech. It concludes by
showing how the hostile representations of JNU ﬁtted well with
overall politics, combining the hyper-nationalism and
neoliberalism, promoted by the current regime led by the
Bharatiya Janata Party and the right-wing Hindu nationalist and
supremacist paramilitary volunteer organisation, Rashtriya
Jawaharlal Nehru University;
dissent; sedition; nationalism;
freedom of speech
JNU, NDTV, Congress, Left, MSM …Divided by Internet Hindus, united by 2002.
handle ‘Internet Hindu’)
It appeared my image on TV was very diﬀerent from what I was in real life.
Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar)
Why is JNU an issue? They are fu***ing university students, why is that an issue? They say:
‘JNU wale anti-national hain!’[JNU-ites are anti-national]. I am like: They are students. They
say: ‘ye log desh ko giraenge’[They will bring down the nation]. I am like: ‘Unka canteen mein
udhari hai. Isko koi medu vada nahin de raha. Tere paas nuclear weapon hai!’[They are in
debt of the canteen. They are not getting their snacks. You have nuclear weapons].
Kamra, stand-up comedy performance)
There is hope, of course, as things can get unstuck.
(Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of
© 2019 The Institute of Postcolonial Studies
CONTACT Mohinder Singh email@example.com Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, School
of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
2019, VOL. 22, NO. 1, 59–78
Nearly three years have passed since a ‘seditious’event that took place on 9 February 2016
at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). While no charges have been ﬁled,
the name of
JNU has come to represent something sinister in the public mind; something that had,
until recently, been limited to the extremes of right-wing politics. The most recent mani-
festation of this is an incident involving the historian Ramchandra Guha. As reported,
Guha’s appointment to Ahmedabad University was cancelled by the authorities after
pressure from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation
aﬃliated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Signiﬁcantly, ABVP invoked JNU’s name in a letter the organisation sent to Ahmeda-
bad University’s Registrar:
[W]e want intellectuals in our educational institutes and not anti-nationals, who can also be
termed as ‘urban Naxals’. We had quoted anti-national content from his (Guha’s) books to
the Registrar. We told him, the person you are calling is a ‘Communist’. If he is invited to
Gujarat, there would be a JNU-kind anti-national sentiment.
A basic familiarity with Guha’s public statements shows that they are not truthful; Guha
has been openly critical of both Maoists and communists, and has never been an admirer
of JNU either. Nonetheless, it is precisely the rhetorical and aﬀective force of the terms
‘anti-national’,‘urban Naxals’and ‘JNU-kind’used here that right-wing organisations,
sympathetic television channels and social media users are deeply invested in. Through
repetitive use, such associations are kept in public circulation as parliamentary elections
This transformation of ‘JNU’from the proper name of a university in Delhi to a generic
label available for exceptional adjectival usages, such as ‘JNU-kind’and ‘anti-national’,is
fairly recent in India’s public domain. Its origin is linked to an event on 9 February 2016
and its immediate aftermath. As this article shows, this attempt to transform a university’s
proper name to a generic label is the result of it being repeatedly used in a certain way in
the public sphere. This has been accomplished through repetitive usage in large segments
of the print and electronic media as well as by some users of social media platforms and by
government functionaries. A fundamental aspect of this usage, which necessarily de-con-
textualises JNU from its representational function as the proper name of a university, is
the alarming associations it has been subjected to: ‘anti-national’,‘India-breaking’,
‘tukde-tukde-gang’, and more recently, ‘urban-Naxal’.
We argue that the JNU event was deliberately and strategically given a spin that suited
what we call a politics of emotions and served the hyper-nationalistic atmosphere that the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and RSS have tried to create since the 2014 elections. As part
of this project, the de-contextualisation of the name JNU through a series of negative
associations –as well as their repeated usage and circulation in various media –helped
produce an image of JNU as a hub for anti-national activities and as populated with
jihadi terrorists plotting against the state. This article shows how this interpretation of
JNU worked as a multipronged strategy for BJP, RSS and ABVP. Their eﬀorts not only
produced unintended consequences; they were also met with contestations and spirited
defence in the form of a multifaceted protest movement and demonstrations of solidarity,
not only at JNU but across the country and in diﬀerent parts of the world.
60 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
The culture of JNU student politics
While some protest movements have a ‘hidden archaeology of sustained protest’,
tests that erupted after 9 February 2016 at and around JNU marked a signiﬁcant departure
–though not a complete break –from the culture of political protests that ‘normally’pre-
vails at that university. The post-February 2016 protests were clearly marked by a sense of
the ‘abnormality’of the events on 9 February, necessitating a break with routine. The pro-
tests after that date were marked by the need to defend not only the nature of the public–
political space that has existed at the university for the six decades of its existence but,
above all and more urgently, by the need to defend the very name of the institution.
This was obvious from the slogans, hashtags and Facebook pages that appeared as part
of the protest movement, which included ‘we are JNU’,‘stand with JNU’and ‘Fight
The two contrasting images of JNU –as a place for seditious thought versus one that
cherished freedom of speech –soon began to represent two substantive clusters of ideas as
well. Signiﬁcantly, the students of the university, who consider themselves to belong to a
prestigious Indian institution, had to assert their own ordinariness as well as that of JNU as
part of their struggle and strategy. In other words, the protest movement called for eﬀorts
to re-contextualise the institution. This had become urgent and necessary in the immedi-
ate aftermath of the 9 February event, as the new image of JNU exposed the university’s
students and teachers to potential and actual violence.
This explains the signiﬁcance of
comedian Kunal Kamra’s comments as quoted above.
For decades the nature of its public space and political culture has been an essential part
of JNU’s identity, despite the limitations of its politics. As part of its political culture,
certain modes of protest were considered acceptable or normal. These modes have been
marked by their unique aesthetics, conventions and traditions, around which there
seems to be a consensus among most, if not all, major and minor JNU student organis-
ations. One important exception is the RSS-aﬃliated student organisation ABVP,
which, though part of JNU’s student politics since the early 1990s, has always had a
fraught relationship with this consensus.
Perhaps the most important aspect of JNU students’political culture is the predomi-
nance of speech –in its verbal, written and creative and artistic expressions. These
instances of political speech take various forms in diﬀerent contexts: public meetings,
formal and informal discussion forums, casual exchanges, written arguments through
pamphlets and poster art, poetry, songs and sloganeering. Political decision-making at
various levels of the university takes place through General Body Meetings (GBM) of
diﬀerent organisations, hostels and various centres and schools,
culminating at the uni-
versity level, in GBM for all students, as and when they are necessary. The annual student
union elections are dominated by extended GBM and public meetings, which culminate in
a central panel and presidential debates, often held through the night roughly two days
before the polls.
The functioning of the JNU Students’Union (JNUSU), including its elections, is gov-
erned by a written constitution, laid down in the early 1970s. JNUSU’s GBM are further
institutionalised through the practice of the university oﬃcially exempting students from
classes on the days of school-level and university-level GBM. Public meetings on political,
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 61
social and cultural issues are usually organised after class hours, either near a campus
canteen during the evening or in the hostel mess hall after dinner.
Needless to say, a violence-free culture of debate is considered crucial, particularly for
students from marginalised groups who suﬀer speciﬁc exclusions. Such social and cultural
exclusions get intensiﬁed in campus political cultures, where violence, money and muscle
power tend to dominate, which is the norm in many Indian colleges and universities. A
recent survey by Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khaliq Parkar, based on extensive empirical
research, shows the connection between the political culture, which not only promotes
‘diversity, democracy and dissent’but is also largely inclusive, and aﬀects substantive
Martelli and Parkar also found that JNU’s political culture is conducive to
more non-conformist tendencies among students compared to most other Indian cam-
puses, which provides some justiﬁcation for the university’s anti-establishment image.
But the anti-establishment rhetoric of JNU student politics operates well within the Con-
stitution’s framework of rights, actively invoking the values of freedom, equality and social
justice enshrined in that document. This was amply borne out by the arrested JNUSU Pre-
sident Kanhaiya Kumar’s speeches as well as in his book published a few months after the
events of 9 February.
It is instructive in this regard to focus on the words of former Delhi Police Commis-
sioner B. S. Bassi, who was in charge during the 9 February event. He clearly voiced the
sarkari view in his last interview to the Indian Express before retirement.
‘The case is grave’, he said. ‘No doubt about that. It is not an ordinary case. It would have been
an ordinary case if the students had performed an unlawful assembly and broken each other’s
head. But in this case certain individuals have indulged in seditious sloganeering and delivered
seditious speeches. Society is surviving because we all respect democratic norms, we respect
our Constitution. If all of us start disrespecting our Constitution, the country will be
It is interesting to note that, according to a top-ranking police oﬃcer, so-called ‘sedi-
tious sloganeering’and ‘speeches’are more threatening to society than violent outbreaks
and ‘breaking each other’s head’. Such is the case notwithstanding the fact that the
Supreme Court asserted in no uncertain terms while interpreting the Constitution in
the Kedar Nath Singh (1962) and other cases, and again recently, that neither sloganeering
nor any speech per se constitutes an act of sedition unless the uttered speech is
accompanied by an unambiguous incitement to violence.
The interview also reveals the establishment’s view of student politics as the interplay of
privilege, money and violence associated with the dominant parties, and where students
occasionally ‘break each other’s heads’. This image makes it easy for the state to frame
the entirety of student politics in a certain way and render its demands as issues of ‘law
and order’rather than politics in its own right. The ‘problem’then lies precisely with
JNU and similar campuses –such as Hyderabad Central University, Jadavpur University
and TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Mumbai –that pose a diﬀerent kind of chal-
lenge to the establishment by not allowing their student politics and protest culture to be
reduced to law and order or disciplinary issues.
Their ongoing culture of dissent and production of critiques of the establishment is able
to insulate students’political perspectives from both market pressures and hyper-nationa-
listic blackmailing. JNU students had been at the forefront of a series of important protest
62 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
movements in Delhi before the 9 February event. In 2012–2013, for instance, JNU stu-
dents, along with students from DU, Ambedkar University and Jamia Milia Islamia, led
the well-known protest against the 16 December (2012) gang rape of a Delhi girl in a
private transport bus that became known as the Nirbhaya rape case. They also organised
the Occupy UGC movement in 2015, against the University Grant Commission (UGC)’s
decision to scrap some of the fellowships granted to MPhil and PhD students.
played a major role in the protest movement that broke out in January 2016 immediately
after the suicide of Hyderabad Central University student Rohith Vemula; all JNU student
organisations except the ABVP joined the protests on this issue.
Before the event: the hidden archaeology of Hindutva discourse on JNU
Although the protests in the wake of February 2016 were animated by the new imperative
of defending JNU and the right to free speech, critique and dissent, there was also a
‘hidden archaeology’whereby a consistently negative image of JNU had been projected
in Hindutva discourse well before the event. So much so, that in a public meeting held
at JNU in June 2017, the vice chancellor who took charge in January 2016 announced
that he wanted to install an army tank on campus, ostensibly to help instill a patriotic
spirit among students. The highpoint of this meeting was when two speakers congratu-
lated each other on the ‘capture’of JNU and how they looked forward to a similar
‘capture’of Jadavpur University and Hyderabad Central University.
Leaving aside the
bizarreness of the idea of ‘capturing’universities, what this event made clear was the pres-
ence of a deﬁnite intention –even design –for Indian universities and educational insti-
tutions generally in the current regime.
Political commentators have noted the emergence of a ‘pattern’in the Hindutva right-
wing’s attack on educational institutions (particularly after the JNU event but more gen-
erally since the 2014 elections), which is becoming clear in university and college cam-
puses across the country.
There have been incidents of violence and protests at JNU,
Hyderabad Central University, Jadavpur University, Allahabad University, JNV Univer-
sity, Jodhpur, the Central University of Haryana, Mahendragarh, Ahmedabad University,
and Delhi University and at various Delhi colleges, including Ramjas, Kirorimal and the
Khalsa. Most of these incidents involved the active hand of ABVP instigating violence on
campus, as has been widely reported.
In recent times some of these campuses have
become hotbeds of political protest.
Some of the protests are the direct outcome of the growing assertiveness of historically
oppressed identities challenging established social hierarchies of caste, class and gender.
As scholars have noted, a major reason for the change in the character of politics at
Indian universities is the changing demographic composition of students in the past
There is, for instance, a growing assertiveness in dalit-bahujan politics
in colleges and university campuses that challenges Hindutva politics on cultural and his-
torical grounds. More recently, university campuses, particularly metropolitan ones, have
also seen feminist protest movements and protests against oppressive hostel rules, such as
There has also been a growth of awareness campaigns around issues of
sexual identity and orientation, such as various LGBTI-related campaigns. Many of
these political discourses and campaigns on university campuses cause great anxiety in
right-wing political groups, particularly RSS and ABVP.
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 63
There is ample evidence to suggest that JNU had, for a long time, been a special target
of attack, for a variety of reasons. The key publications of RSS –Panchjanya,Rashtra
Dharma, and Organiser –and the various Hindutva-supporting websites, such as India-
facts.org, have been carrying out a campaign against JNU, creating an image of the uni-
versity as ‘anti-national’and a ‘citadel of divisiveness’.
The Twitter hashtag
#shutdownjnu was operating well before February 2016, for instance, although it
gained wider popularity after the 9 February event.
An article published in the Novem-
ber 2015 issue of the leading RSS Hindi-language journal Panchjanya featured this
JNU is the only institution where talking of nationalism is a sin. It is called a bastion of the
leftists. Distorting Indian culture and presenting it in conjunction with wrong facts is fairly
common here. For instance, when the entire country worships Ma Durga, neo-leftist stu-
dents and professors celebrate Mahishasur Day there. They demand that the army
should be withdrawn from the terrorism-infested Kashmir […] Those who celebrate
Mahishasur Day say that they are backward and deprived and representatives of forest
dwellers and claim that Mahishasur was the hero-god of the backwards, the deprived
and the forest-dwellers.
The decades-long dominance of student organisations aﬃliated to left-wing parties and
the large number of students professing aﬃliation to leftist ideas and political positions,
particularly at JNU, has posed a challenge to ABVP. Left-leaning organisations challenge
the narratives of culture, politics and the economy promoted by the Indian social and pol-
itical establishment generally and, more speciﬁcally, by Hindutva politics. Student groups
often organise on-campus programmes related to the human rights record of the Indian
state, discussing issues such as the demand for self-determination by the people of
Kashmir, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA) and the displacement of people
by development projects. In the process, they produce strong counter-narratives, challen-
ging the ideological hegemony of the political establishment.
Such activities on JNU campus have been a recurrent source of annoyance and frustra-
tion for Hindutva political organisations. Unwilling or unable to meet these political chal-
lenges within the discursive possibilities oﬀered by campus political culture at JNU, ABVP
has frequently resorted to disruptions and violence in the recent past. One of the strategies
often used by ABVP for justifying its violence and threats of violence against groups and
activities it does not approve of is calling them ‘anti-national’or ‘anti-Hindu’, often inter-
changeably. Signiﬁcantly, the binary of free speech versus nationalism works well for
ABVP as a strategy because it puts their opponents on the defensive.
Another major cause for concern among Hindutva organisations is the increasing sal-
ience of dalit-bahujan and feminist discourses at JNU, particularly after the signiﬁcant
demographic transformation of the university’s student body’s social composition after
the policy of special reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) students in
admissions were implemented from 2007 onwards. Data analysed by Pramod Ranjan
of Forward Press show that, as of 2015, nearly ‘70 per cent of the students in the univer-
sity are non-Dwij’(non-twice-born).
Pramod Ranjan also argues that increasing ideo-
logical closeness and their common anti-Hindutva rhetoric –despite debates between left
and dalit-bahujan political organisations –have been a serious source of unease for Hin-
dutva organisations, as highlighted by their increased attacks on JNU in recent
64 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
The event, representations, and the politics of emotion
Recounting the events of 9 February 2016 at JNU and the ensuing protests oﬀer important
insights into the contrasting aspects of contemporary political culture. Firstly, it reveals
both hostile media representations of JNU and the nature of student politics and its aes-
thetics in a time of crisis. From its outset, the event was embroiled in the unavoidable poli-
tics of media representation wherein questions of truth and lies, as well as the authenticity
of documentary evidence recedes into the background, giving way to clashes of opinion,
however unfounded they may be in information and facts.
Secondly, the way in which what was an event on the margins of the student political
spectrum –one that could have been handled at the university level as was customary at
JNU –was turned into a mega-event of national importance, highlighting the power that
electronic and social media hold in our times.
For several months sections of media
created such hysteria that many students faced the possibility of public lynching, while
Kanhaiya Kumar was actually thrashed on the court premises.
Thirdly, there seems to be a deﬁnite element of design and pre-planning in the devel-
opments. This is evident from the way things were provoked at the event and then
manipulated through half-truths and, sometimes, with blatant lies. This becomes even
more obvious with the beneﬁt of hindsight, since quite a few of the video recordings
used by sections of the media were found to have been doctored. Consider, above all,
the fact that two years after the event, police have failed to ﬁle a single charge relating
to the case, while the identities of many of the individuals involved in shouting objection-
able slogans are not yet known to the public. It may be that both the government’s law and
order machinery and large sections of the media are less interested in the facts of the case
and more intent on creating a certain kind of narrative about JNU that resonates with a
simplistic and villainous ‘anti-national’image of the university. The ground seemed to
have been meticulously prepared to frame the event and, by extension the university,
with the conspiratorial trope of ‘sedition’.
If we look at some of the reporting in print newspapers, such as Indian Express,Hindu-
stan Times and The Hindu on 10 February 2016 (the day after the event), neither the
slogans nor charges of sedition appeared as signiﬁcant issues. The 10 February reports
do not even mention phrases such as ‘seditious slogans’. The articles in all the newspapers
mentioned above reported that a ‘programme’or ‘event’on the ‘judicial killing’of Afzal
Guru ‘triggered controversy’and had been ‘cancelled’, and that students belonging to
ABVP had protested against the event and demanded the expulsion of its student organ-
isers. The university authorities said they had withdrawn permission for the ‘cultural
program’on ‘A Country without Post Oﬃce’. This permission was withdrawn just a
couple of hours before the programme was to begin on the grounds that the authorities
were misinformed about its content. The reports also mentioned that the authorities with-
drew their permission after ABVP demanded its ban. It was also reported that the vice
chancellor had said in a statement that it was a matter of a lack of discipline and that
the university proctor would hold an inquiry into the matter.
So, at least from the news-
paper reports on the day after the event it appeared that the matter of the ‘controversial
programme’would be handled by the university as it was a matter of student ‘indiscipline’
rather than sedition.
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 65
The programme ‘A Country without Post Oﬃce’had been organised by Umar Khalid,
Anirban Bhattacharya and other students who had been former members of the Maoist
Democratic Students Union (DSU), but had left it some months earlier. The programme
was organised to mark and protest the ‘judicial killing’of Afzal Guru, one of the accused in
the 2001 attack on parliament, who was convicted and hanged on 9 February 2013 in
Delhi’s Tihar Jail and buried on its premises. It is well known that the grounds for
Guru’s conviction and his capital punishment have been questioned by various legal scho-
lars, civil society organisations and activists. Many of the criticisms of the legal handling of
the case were compiled in a book published by Penguin India, which is available to the
A similar programme was organised by the DSU on 9th February in 2014 and
2015. In February 2015, permission for which was also cancelled by the JNU adminis-
tration after protests by ABVP. The organisers went ahead with the meeting on that
occasion and were disrupted by ABVP. The matter was handled by the university,
without it becoming news on electronic and social media.
In 2016, however, the electronic media –particularly news channels Zee TV, Times
Now and NewsX –started playing videos of the event on a loop, repeatedly showing
slogans being chanted by some of the event’s participants. As mentioned above, some
of these videos later turned out to be doctored. The most important among these was
one showing then-JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar shouting objectionable slogans.
Sustained campaigns on electronic and social media were now beginning to demand
direct government or police intervention, or both.
The campaigns seemed to generate hysteria in certain sections of the public. Soon the
hashtag #shutdownjnu picked up momentum.
The university campus was threatened
with physical attack as aggressive crowds started to gather regularly at the main gate,
which had to be closed for some days with restricted entry. On 11 February, the police
registered a ‘case of sedition and criminal conspiracy against “unknown persons”for alleg-
edly raising anti-India slogans at an event organized by some students in Jawaharlal Nehru
University against the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’.
FIR (First Information Report) was ﬁled on the basis of a complaint lodged by Mahesh
Giri, a BJP parliamentarian.
On 12 February, Delhi Police entered the campus and
arrested JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar on the charge of sedition. The police also
asked the university’s vice chancellor to ‘produce’ﬁve more students for questioning.
Many students went into hiding after Kumar’s arrest, only to reappear on campus on
20 February. Understandably, the atmosphere on campus following this crackdown was
infected with fear and shock.
In his memoir From Bihar to Tihar, Kanhaiya Kumar recounts his astonishment and
shock the day after his arrest when he ﬁrst saw his image on television while in police
The doctor examining me would point me out to his staﬀduring the medical check-ups.
Look, this is Kanhaiya Kumar, he would say. He was surprised to see me docile and quiet
with him …my image on TV was very diﬀerent from what I was in real life.
This was the beginning of the long and sustained process of viliﬁcation of JNU through
hostile electronic and social media representations. The repeated circulation of images
of the slogans calling for the break-up of India ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’and ‘Bharat ki
barbadi tak jang rahegi jang rahegi’gradually led to the production of ‘JNU’as a sign
66 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
that was detached from its function as a proper name of a university to a generic signiﬁer
attached to a series of predicates: anti-national, Jihadi, secessionist, tukde-tukde gang and,
most recently, urban-Naxals. Adjectival use in phrases such as ‘JNU-like’or ‘JNU-kind’
took this process of transformation a step further.
In the process, JNU was made to participate in the aﬀective circulation of images, signs
and those ‘sticky’phrases in the overall politics of emotions through which the Hindutva
politics is seeking to redeﬁne nationalism in India. What happened during this de-contex-
tualisation and resigniﬁcation of ‘JNU’can best be described by drawing on Sara Ahmed’s
formulation about aﬀective economies of circulation. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion,
Ahmed argues against both the subject-centered (the ‘inside-out’theories or psychologi-
cal-states theories of emotions based on the presumption of interiority) and the social-cen-
tered (the theory of emotions as social form) analyses of emotions. She agrees with a host
of other theorists of emotions in favour of a social constructivist understanding. Her own
circulation theory of emotions adds to constructivist and performativist arguments by
showing that emotions and aﬀects don’t reside in either subject or object or sign positively
but accumulate through circulation among certain signs and objects.
In her model of ‘aﬀective economies’of circulation, emotions play the crucial role of
forming and re-forming the ‘surfaces’of the bodies of both collectives and subjects; in
other words, of the ‘we’and ‘I’along with the construction of the ‘they’who don’t
belong or who pose a threat to speciﬁc collectives. In this theory, emotions such as fear,
love, hatred, shame, disgust and hope play a crucial role in performatively connecting
the psychic and the social, and as an eﬀect producing the boundaries and surfaces of
the two. Ahmed also continues Judith Butler’s argument about the importance of perfor-
mativity and repetition in the production and reproduction of social forms and subjective
In hostile representations of JNU in electronic and social media, certain motifs
appeared repeatedly. They also echoed in the metaphors used by the judge of the Delhi
High Court even as she granted Kanhaiya Kumar bail. Students like him were
(suﬀering from) ‘infection’, according to the judge, which required ‘surgical intervention’,
even ‘amputation’before such infections could become an ‘epidemic’. Writing on the spate
of student protests in India in 2016, Rosinka Chaudhuri explains how such motifs and
metaphors work to operationalise what we can theoretically describe as a condition of sta-
telessness, rendering students into minorities and casting them outside the pale of citizen-
ship and nation state.
Not surprisingly, similar motifs are frequently found in the
rhetorical strategy adopted by the various ultra-right discourses against immigrants and
asylum seekers, as analysed by Sara Ahmed.
Two of the motifs used repeatedly on social media were often deployed together: anti-
national students as a threat to the nation, and as parasites feeding on the ‘tax-payers’
money’illegitimately. They served as putative justiﬁcation for the calls to #shutdownjnu.
Initially, hostile media sought to portray the JNU event as part of some international terror
network that had nothing to do with either freedom of speech or dissent or even tra-
ditional Left–Right ideological debates. In a Times Now debate on 10 February featuring
Umar Khalid, the anchor Arnab Goswami was insistent on this point.
This strategy was
echoed in the statements of central government ministers as well as in Home Minister
Rajnath Singh’s infamous and unsubstantiated claim in a tweet linking the JNU event
to the Haﬁz Saeed terror network. Similarly, Arun Jaitley’s initial statement on the
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 67
event tried to present it as the work of ‘fringe’elements in Indian politics, from which, he
advised, ‘mainstream’political parties like Congress should keep their distance.
However, the jihadi or terrorist labels, propagated in hostile television and social media
representations, failed to stick for a variety of reasons. These included the lack of any evi-
dence suggesting such a possibility along with the discrediting of the authenticity of some
of the videos initially in circulation. The tag of ‘anti-national JNU’was kept alive, however,
through repeated rhetorical use in hostile electronic and social media. It was later used
interchangeably and in metonymic associations with phrases like ‘tukde-tukde gang’,
‘breaking-India’,‘anti-India forces’and ‘urban Naxals’. The very lack of precision in
such phrases enhances their rhetorical power in the political space, beyond any form of
The fact that the police have not ﬁled charges in the case even after more than two years
clearly shows that it remains more productive for the authorities to not resolve the matter.
The government is actually interested in keeping the case as well as the name of JNU prac-
tically suspended in an exceptional space –that of the political beyond legality –albeit
informally. Instead of focusing on an investigation of the truth and ﬁnding facts and evi-
dence, and establishing the guilt or innocence of those involved, the government has
allowed the issue to remain suspended in the domain of the political. This is a strategy
for the informal suspension of the law; an informal and undeclared mode of letting the
event take its course in the ﬁeld of informal or vigilante sovereignty, away from the pro-
tection of the law and the possibility of establishing the truth.
It is a brutal and callous
game with no accountability on the part of the powers that puts the lives of students
named in the case in constant danger, as the attack on Umar Khalid in August 2018
The counter-image: JNU protests and their performative aspects
The hostile media representations did not go uncontested. After the arrest of Kanhaiya
Kumar, events started to move with much greater speed and the JNU ‘sedition case’
grabbed headlines in national newspapers, in television news and social media. It
became an international news and remained so for about a month. With their backs to
the wall –facing an aggressive university administration; a largely hostile electronic
media apart from a couple of television channels and newspapers
; a more or less antag-
onistic social media; and hysteria among the public –a resistance movement started from
within the campus, with both students and teachers playing prominent roles.
The story of this movement is one of immense courage and conviction on the part of
not only those named in the case but also those not directly involved in the 9 February
event who participated in the protest movement. It must be said that most opposition pol-
itical parties were not convinced by the government rhetoric and came down heavily on
the ruling party, particularly after the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, for suppressing dissent in
universities. Soon, the JNU resistance movement and its campaign took multiple forms
and developed its own rhetoric and protest aesthetics.
Protest marches and human chains were organised, both on campus and in the streets
of the capital. There were solidarity protest marches in other Indian cities as well as on
some other university campuses, both in India and abroad.
The day after Kumar’s
arrest, on 13 February, a protest meeting was organised by JNUSU in which prominent
68 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
leaders of opposition parties participated, expressed solidarity, and criticised the govern-
ment for muzzling dissent. From then on it became, as one newspaper headline records,
the ‘Government versus Opposition on JNU’.
On 18 February a large march from Mandi
House to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi saw students and teachers from other universities as
well as ordinary citizens of Delhi participate in their thousands. The JNU ‘sedition case’,
along with the suicide of Rohith Vemula, was even raised in sessions of both houses of
Within days various social media campaigns were started as part of the resistance
movement. The #Standwithjnu Twitter handle and hashtag, a Facebook page and a
website emerged as the main platforms for coordinating the resistance and creating the
Other Twitter hashtags such as #wearejnu and #ﬁghtbackjnu were
also deployed but they were short-lived. Solidarity messages started to ﬂow in from
diﬀerent parts of the world, including from other universities and their student unions
and associations. Many prominent intellectuals across the globe, including Noam
Chomsky, wrote letters to JNU vice chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar criticising his decision
to allow the police to enter campus and arrest the student union president.
On 17 February the JNU Teachers Association (JNUTA) inaugurated a unique and his-
toric two-month-long lecture series on the themes of nationalism and freedom (the many
meanings of azaadi), under the rubric of ‘What the Nation Really Needs to Know’. These
lectures took place at a site right next to the administrative building, which houses the
oﬃces of the vice chancellor and the registrar. This space was renamed ‘Freedom
Square’,orazaadi chowk, and became the central location for the JNU resistance move-
ment. The lectures were delivered daily by JNU faculty members as well as those from
other institutions in Delhi, other parts of India and abroad. The lectures attracted large
audiences from within the campus and without. They were live-streamed on YouTube
and soon began to be followed in diﬀerent parts of the world. The ﬁrst series, on the
theme of nationalism, was later published as a book with the title What the Nation
Really Needs to Know.
Signiﬁcantly, the many meanings of azaadi found expression in not one but many
modes of protest, with a rich variation of forms, techniques, sources and elements used
in the process. While some of these are familiar to the cultural vocabulary of left, Gandhian
and liberal politics, there were a number of new elements, not only in terms of ideology –
speakers of all shades spoke, including against the protest –but also in political language.
As such, the language included a range of imaginative forms of communication, including
cartoons, photographs and montages, teach-ins, poetry, songs, music and street plays, art
installations, social media campaigns, wall posters, protest marches, human chains, public
meetings, public hearings of the Inquiry Committee report, strikes and class boycotts,
sleep-ins, and the occupation of spaces in the administrative block, especially Freedom
Square. There was an intense and extensive production of discourses on nationalism
and on the necessity of freedom, including on what freedom means for a university in a
Interestingly, as the intellectual space for freedom of speech came under threat,
freedom and space took on physical dimensions in the modes of protest, allowing for a
new range of activities in the particular location of Freedom Square. This is how the move-
ment took on the nature of an event that spilled beyond the usual political discourse nego-
tiated by speech on campus. The speeches addressed an exceptional condition, tempered
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 69
with a heightened sense of urgency and responsibility. Quite a few speakers diﬀused
moments of tension and crisis with humour, deft arguments and new slogans of azaadi,
such as those popularised by Kanhaiya Kumar.
After his release on bail on 3 March 2016, Kanhaiya gave a rousing speech at Freedom
Square that segued into a new slogan for azaadi, multiplying and elaborating on the word’s
many meanings for the students. From a slogan and an outstanding piece of protest
poetry, it practically became a song, as Rosinka Chaudhuri has contended.
new slogan went viral, inspiring dub-smash remixes online, a diﬀerent language of politics
could be seen to be coming into play. As one of the authors of this article has noted, it
welded multiple political agendas, fusing together patriarchy, feudalism, caste and capit-
alism as the common enemies of freedom, and mapped a passage from gender rights to
social justice and socialism as necessary conditions for a meaningful democracy.
Speeches were, however, only one of the many elements and circulating forms of com-
munication. The physical experience of occupation created the possibility of recognising
new connections between material space and bodies, and the use of these relations to
shape a diﬀerent language of protest. For instance, Freedom Square retained, for much
of the two months, the look of a festival of sorts; protests sprang up like an ongoing cel-
ebration, with poetry, music, slogans and dancing, creating a steadily growing sense of a
collective. This is where the modes of protest unmistakably took on a performative dimen-
sion; it involved a deliberate manner of conducting one’s body in that particular location,
as an explicit or implicit message to the authorities, which became an important feature of
the manner of the protesters.
If the immediate installation of closed-circuit cameras by the university administration
intensiﬁed this process, the awareness of social and other media strategically added to the
desire of the assembly to produce spectacles that were newsworthy. The visibility of the
protest became such that it was diﬃcult to control or localise. This bothered not only
the authorities but the protestors as well. However, the performative dimension went
much deeper than that. There are subtle but signiﬁcant ways in which, for example,
Ambedkarite and feminist activists would comport their bodies diﬀerently from students
or activists on the Right or the Left. The spirit of celebration, along with drumming and
dancing to political slogans, is perhaps what created a festive mood, part of a more general
feeling than covered by the media. It showed that the resolve of the struggle went beyond
the mood of war; it was a manner of deﬁance that made tactical use of pleasure and a gath-
ering of people. In other words, there was a political eﬀort in the performative dimension
to concretely demonstrate the value of freedom, expressed in a way of living and collec-
tively sharing activities.
In that sense, the performative dimension can be seen as enacting a community that the
protestors belonged to, and in which they debated, often bitterly, at the same time. Their
diﬀerences nevertheless brought them together against their shared opposition to powers
opposed to the life of such communities. It was thus important for the community to be
made visible, in a concentrated manner. This task was, in a nutshell, what the assembly of
bodies performed. There were, of course, more speciﬁc artistic and theatrical perform-
ances, carried out both collectively and individually, which for example, satirised authority
ﬁgures and totalitarian fantasies.
The performances or pieces of performance art sometimes tended to dispense with
verbal communication and speeches altogether. Instead of verbal discourse, they either
70 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
fell back on strategic silence, or more interestingly, the use of speech to create an atmos-
phere of sounds that drew attention to a single physical activity. This activity consisted of
particular gestures, used like quotations to refer and recall, for example, moral policing by
the state and the reality of patriarchy and caste, where they can be recognised as creating
bodily codes of behaviour. Since these codes were worked out in certain rituals, they often
came to provide the conceptual ground critiqued in such performances.
In exceptional cases, the performance used political appropriation of a critiqued ritual,
posing an artistic counter-ritual of exercising freedom, in a manner that was symbolic and
modest but striking. As is ﬁtting for political communication, the most powerful articula-
tion of this politics of performance came from the artist Maya Rao, who expressed solidar-
ity through a ‘walk’she performed on the stairs of Freedom Square. Her walk expressed
what was new about this movement more powerfully than anything else
simple reason that she demonstrated how a simple and everyday activity can be a philo-
sophical metaphor for political practice, in a way that makes the desire for freedom poss-
ible to translate into practical struggle.
From a more theoretical perspective, the performative is linked to a ﬁguration of
people, especially those excluded from exercising their freedom by the state. That is
what the community tried to represent, although, as mentioned before, their activities
exceeded simple representation. The heterogeneity of the discourse and aesthetic strategies
also tried to ﬁgure a possible political utopia –the people reconciled with the excluded. In
doing so, the protestors were not only asking if it is possible to live with diﬀerence in a
democracy but also answering the question with an immediate concrete illustration.
Such assemblies of people can be seen then as exercising, from a theoretical perspective,
a form of popular sovereignty, albeit in somewhat limited and provisional manner. This
creates, however, an interregnum for multiple forces, including that of law and the con-
stitution, to intervene in the process. Several theorists mulling over the global signiﬁcance
of new modes of activism, ranging from the occupation of spaces to performative assem-
blies of bodies, see this claim to sovereignty as critical despite its provisional nature.
The JNU protest movement was characterised by both consensus and dissension. The
ﬁgure of the student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, for instance, symbolically rep-
resented the entire body of JNU students. His arrest immediately created a strong bond
of unity among most of his fellow students. It also brought all campus student organis-
ations, with the exception of ABVP, to a common platform for struggle and a shared pro-
gramme while maintaining their internal diﬀerences. The emerging political consensus
among these organisations, however, sidelined the original issue of Kashmir and Afzal
Guru’s trial. It was replaced by the more formal question of the rights to freedom of
speech and dissent.
The sedition charges slapped on the students by the state brought into relief the issue of
political dissent as a constitutional right of all citizens. The movement also included a
widespread demand among student protesters for the scrapping of the law of sedition
altogether. This was also the condition for the emergence of the consensus among
various student organisations, given their conﬂicting positions on the substantial issue
of Kashmir and its people’s right to self-determination. The consensus that emerged
was also compatible with the wider concern among the protestors about the protection
of JNU’s public sphere as a space for political contestation, and about the need to
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 71
defend that space in the wake of February 2016 and the hostile media representations that
Serious ﬁssures also appeared in the movement. Political diﬀerences were animated by
rich ideological and political debates, one of the most signiﬁcant of which was between
left-wing and the dalit-bahujan organisations, particularly Birsa Ambedkar Phule Stu-
dents’Association (BAPSA). For some years, left organisations have been calling for
unity between left and Ambedkarite forces to challenge the right-wing onslaught. Such
calls for Left–Ambedkarite unity were intensiﬁed during this time around the slogan
Jai-Bheem-Lal Salaam.Jai-bheem is a recent addition to the ever-present lal-salaam
slogan on JNU’s campus. BAPSA and many other Ambedkarite forums refused to be
led by the Left, and persistently sought to assert an independent ideological-political iden-
tity, promising to provide a new direction to student politics. The BAPSA and other
Ambedakarite forums characterised the left and right formations on the Indian political
spectrum as just two faces of the hegemonic Brahmanical social and political order.
Leftist organisations’calls for Left–Ambedkarite unity were interpreted as nothing but a
ploy for once more sidelining the Dalit-Bahujan agenda in the name of ﬁghting commun-
alism and fascism.
It was argued that instead of constantly reacting to the terms and
agendas of the political discourse set by left and right Brahmanic forces, the most impor-
tant counter-hegemonic task before Ambedkarite groups was to reclaim agency and
autonomy over their politics, along with the right to deﬁne the terms of political discourse
and set the agenda.
The debate between the Left and the Ambedkarite political positions
was and continues to be rich and multi-layered, the analysis of which is outside the scope
of this article. However, what is important for the analysis here is that the disagreements
and debates within the movement did not seriously rupture the broadly uniﬁed resistance
at least for some months following the 9 February incident.
In terms of the rhetoric and language of the JNU movement, its internal diversity
allowed it to draw on a variety of rich intellectual-historical legacies. The JNUTA’s
series of lectures on nationalism and freedom introduced a variety of perspectives for
both these central themes of the debate. Against the right-wing’s rhetorical use of nation-
alism for limiting the scope of freedom of speech, most of these perspectives emphasised
the compatibility of nationalism, democracy and dissent, some of them digging into the
rich intellectual-historical archives of the Indian anti-colonial struggle.
sought to reclaim the idea of nationalism and ‘Idea of India’from a variety of perspectives.
Some commentators writing in solidarity also sought to reclaim the rich legacies of inter-
nationalism and cosmopolitanism against narrow nationalism. Along with other ﬂags, the
Indian tri-colour had a prominent presence at the protest marches and performance
Apart from the contests over rhetoric, language and symbolism, one of the most inter-
esting parts of the resistance was its assertion of the ordinariness of JNU and its students.
This tendency was not part of an explicitly articulated discourse but can be characterised
as an accompanying anxiety that deeply informed various representations and self-pres-
entation on the part of JNU students, particularly the central protagonists. Needless to
say, this anxiety was caused by the repetition of the negative image of JNU propagated
in hostile media representations for months that sought to create, in Sara Ahmed’s
between JNU and phrases such as ‘anti-national’,‘breaking-
India’,‘tukde-tukde gang’and so on.
72 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
The movement attempted to make these associations ‘unstick’by repeatedly asserting
counter-images. Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech after his release on bail, which was extremely
courageous and skilful, even extraordinary given the context, nevertheless managed to
present him as being like most Indian students from a humble background. The repeated
broadcast of the speech on various television channels for some days and on social media
platforms, managed to accomplish some of the unsticking.
Some of the stand-up come-
dians’take on JNU, particularly Kunal Kamra’s famous comment cited at the beginning of
this article, further helped to unstick its negative image by representing JNU like any other
university where students deal with ordinary everyday problems.
The events at JNU in February 2016 and their aftermath ﬁtted well with the current BJP
government’s overall political strategy. Firstly, the JNU event was used in the way the
current regime has sought to redeﬁne Indian nationalism in decisively illiberal and author-
itarian ways, in accordance with the RSS Hindutva philosophy of nationalism. Secondly,
discrediting a public university like JNU in the public mind was useful for gaining legiti-
macy for the overall neo-liberal project of gradually privatising universities. Thirdly, the
pattern of attacks and interventions by RSS and ABVP were also part of the larger logic
of intervention in educational and cultural spaces –the current institutional autonomy
of schools and universities is anathema to the RSS project of ‘Indianising education’.
As discussed in this article, JNU has long been a target as a particularly dangerous
place that has been responsible for creating an ‘uneasy relationship’between the Indian
state and students.
But more generally, hostile media representations of JNU and the series of metonymic
associations beginning with ‘anti-national’that permeated the public sphere long after
the event have also become part of the general pattern of a BJP–RSS cultural politics of
emotions whereby hysteria around a threat to the nation is continuously kept alive, as
was visible in the recent rhetoric around Bheema Koregaon and ‘urban-Naxal’. Such rep-
resentations lead the nation to appear to be constantly under threat by forces within and
are usually accompanied by exhortations for more muscular policies to deal with such
‘threats’. This strategy also works to keep public attention away from the possibility of
the emergence of critical political judgement on the actual performance of the government.
In many cases new modes of activism have emerged and found support from students
across universities and other institutions of higher education. They have been largely trig-
gered by a new policy thrust of reordering university research, curriculum and adminis-
tration along the lines of corporate management that cares little for the values of
equality and social justice. We are witnessing the political impact of a new economic
and administrative adjustment of the function of higher education and of university cam-
puses. If the state is to subordinate their autonomy to business interests and privatise
higher education, then critical thinking and political speech must ﬁrst be neutralised, if
necessary, with brutal violence. Opposed to such violence, and to a culture of violence
and aggression dominating wider political discourse, the assembly of bodies at Freedom
Square could be seen as those actors living their life as sovereign subjects, deliberating,
diﬀering, taking stands, as well as dancing, singing, celebrating and hoping together,
like one should in a democracy.
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 73
As we have shown in this article, in the case of the JNU event, negative represen-
tations were not allowed to go uncontested. Indeed, the JNU protests were part of a
wider chain of student unrest across the country, preceding as well as following February
2016. There are good reasons to think –backed by the results of student union elections
across a number of states in the north –that a minimal consensus has started to emerge
on most campuses against the use of violence and corruption to support authoritarian
rule. Despite small numbers, it shows growing political belief in a more substantive
and deliberative democracy that is not exhausted by elections and ruled by the dominant
There is a gradual unfolding of what some may see as counter-publics, resisted by tra-
ditional authority and threatening plans for a culturally homogenous society. Movements
like that at JNU try to make possible a vision of a diﬀerent country, where the diﬀerence is
a condition for the unity of its people and there can be functioning government based on
this recognition. It is not a coincidence that students have often taken the political lead in
regime changes, especially in the context of authoritarian regimes. The experience of the
Emergency during1975–1977 is evidence of this. What is, however, exceptional in this
context is the absence of the declaration of an emergency, and social conditions that
are arguably worse and easily muddied with games of perception. We can only hope
that this minimal consensus spreads.
1. Twitter handle ‘Internet Hindus’:‘easiest way to get ad hominem responses from Internet
Hindus, even highly educated ones, is to claim aﬃliation with JNU. never fails’, Internet
Hindus, 23 July 2012. Available at: https://twitter.com/search?q=Internet%20Hindu%
20JNU&src=typd&lang=en (accessed 18 August 2017).
2. Kanhaiya Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar, Delhi: Juggernaut, 2016, p 213.
3. Kunal Kamra stand-up comedy performance. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
4. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004,
5. Charge sheet in this case had not been ﬁled in the court till the ﬁnal submission of this paper
i.e. till Decembet, 2018. The charge sheet was ﬁnally ﬁled in the JNU case on 14 January, at
the ﬁnal proof reading stage of this paper. However, that doesn’taﬀect any of the arguments
of this paper.
6. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/after-abvp-calls-him-anti-national-and-
recently even Arvind Kejriwal has been called an ‘urban Naxal’, see https://indianexpress.
7. Martin Webb, ‘Short Circuits: The Aesthetics of Protest, Media and Martyrdom in Indian
Anti-corruption Activism’, in Pnina Werbner, Martin Webb and Kathryn Spellman-Poots
(eds), The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest: The Arab Spring and Beyond, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press (in association with The Agha Khan University in the UK),
2014, p 193.
8. Some of the reports of such incidents include: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/
74 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
9. JNU is academically divided into schools: the School of Social Sciences, the School of Inter-
national Studies, the School of Language, Literature, and Culture, the School of Life Sciences,
the School of Physical Sciences, the School of Arts and Aesthetics, and so on. Most Schools
are further divided into discipline-speciﬁc centres, which are equivalent to departments in
most other Indian universities.
10. Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khaliq Parkar, ‘Diversity, Democracy, and Dissent: A Study on
Student Politics in JNU’,Economic and Political Weekly 53(11), 17 March 2018; Cf. Sumi
Sukanya Datta ‘Why JNU is a Left Bastion’,The New Indian Express, 30 September 2018.
Available at: http://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/2018/sep/30/why-jnu-
11. Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar.
12. Indian Express, 28 February 2016, emphasis added.
13. Reiterated again in its order of September 2017. See ‘Supreme Court Warns Police that Criti-
cism of Government Is Not Sedition’,The Wire, 5 September 2017. Available at: https://
court/. The details of the Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar (1962) can be found at
https://indiankanoon.org/doc/111867/; see also Lawrence Liang, ‘The Gadﬂy Jurisprudence
of Dissent’, in Rohit Azad, Janaki Nair, Mohinder Singh and Mallarika Sinha Roy (on
behalf of JNUTA) (eds), What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lec-
tures, Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2016, pp 107–119.
14. Available at: http://www.dailyo.in/politics/occupy-ugc-non-net-fellowship-jnu-du-student-
protests-human-rights-gats-wto/story/1/7065.html; also Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar,pp
15. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/rohith-vemula-
16. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/jnu-campus-army-tank-
vice-chancellor-4765657/ (accessed 18 June 2017).
17. The latest in this pattern is the Ahmedabad University incident involving Ramachandra
Guha discussed at the beginning of this article. See Mukul Kesavan, ‘A Private University
Can Be Defenceless against a Bullying State’,The Telegraph, 4 November 2018; also ‘Spot
the Pattern: Ramachandra Guha Stays Out of Ahmedabad Varsity, Three Nehru Memorial
Museum Members Removed’,The Telegraph, 4 November 2018.
18. Available at: https://thewire.in/120400/ramjas-college-cancels-four-plays-nationalism/;
19. Satish Deshpande, ‘Vishwadrishti, Vishwavidyalaya aur Rashtra’(in Hindi), in Azad, Nair,
Singh and Roy (eds), What the Nation Really Needs to Know, p 275.
20. Pinjra Tod literally means ‘break the cage’. It refers to both a collective and a movement born
in 2015 against gender-discriminatory, regressive, and restrictive rules in women students’
hostels in Delhi universities and colleges. As the movement evolved the Pinjra Tod move-
ment not only spread its wings in cities and campuses across India, it also widened its critical
scope by developing a broader critique of patriarchy in South Asia that included caste and
class dimensions as well. See Priyanka Borpujari, ‘How “Pinjra Tod”Spread its Wings’. Avail-
able at: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/z6E69WRoNJAyUuGU5yYwXO/How-Pinjra-
21. Mohinder Singh, ‘Hindutva Nationalism and the Fear of University Speech’. Available at:
22. Kavita Krishnan, ‘JNU Is No “Citadel of Divisiveness”: That Label Suits the RSS Better’,ina
pdf of a collection of articles –‘jnuspeaks’. Available at: http://www.aisa.in/publication/jnu-
speaks-2/ (accessed 1 August 2017); see also Saumya Dey, ‘The Uneasy Relationship of JNU
and the Indian Nation-State’, 13 March 2018. Available at: http://indiafacts.org/uneasy-
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 75
23. The earliest date the #shutdown page shows is April 2015. See https://twitter.com/hashtag/
24. Cited in Pramod Ranjan, ‘Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU in the Crosshairs’. Available at:
25. Ranjan, ‘Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU in the Crosshairs’.
26. Ranjan, ‘Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU in the Crosshairs’.
27. For an analysis of TV channels’reporting of the JNU 9 February event, see Nissim Man-
nathukkaren, ‘Tele-Jingoism and the Tyranny of Hashtags’, 7 March 2016. Available at:
28. Kanhaiya Kumar was thrashed in the Patiala House Court premises in the presence of police
while he was being led to court for his bail plea hearing on 15 February 2016 allegedly by men
‘dressed in [the] black robes of lawyers’, according to The Hindu reports. Later on the same
day, some lawyers also attacked JNU students and faculty members and some journalists on
court premises. See, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/JNU-student-leader-
Kanhaiya-thrashed-in-court/article14086066.ece (accessed 28 December 2017); see also
patiala-house-court-india-news/ (accessed 28 December 2017).
29. See the reporting on JNU in Indian Express,Hindustan Times and The Hindu of 10 February
30. See 13 December: A Reader, The Strange Case of Attack on Indian Parliament, Delhi: Penguin
Books India, 2006.
31. Indian Express, 12 February 2015.
32. Indian Express, 2 March 2016. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-
33. Available at: https://twitter.com/hashtag/ShutdownJNU?src=hash&lang=en.
34. Hindustan Times, 12 February 2016 Available at: https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P3-
35. Indian Express, 12 February 2016.
36. Indian Express, 13 February 2016.
37. Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar, pp 212–213; Umar Khalid’s tweet, on 31 August 2018, intro-
ducing his youtube video where he presents himself to the public, echoes similar concern:
‘If you have formed your opinion about me through media, then you have formed the
wrong opinion. In this episode of Decoding India, I speak about my childhood, learning &
unlearning, ideas of nationalism and patriotism, freedom, current political scenario …’.
Available at: https://twitter.com/UmarKhalidJNU.
38. Sara Ahmed doesn’t agree with the rigid conceptual distinction between aﬀects and emotions,
as proposed by some of the leading aﬀect theorists such as Brian Massumi, Patricia Clough,
Lauren Berlant and others. See Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion; also Sara Ahmed,
‘Aﬀective Economies’,Social Text 22(2 (79)), Summer 2004, pp 117–139.
39. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion.
40. Rosinka Chaudhuri, ‘Questions of Minority, Agency and Voice: Student Protests in India in
2016’,Postcolonial Studies 21(3), 2018, pp 338–349.
41. Ahmed, ‘Aﬀective Economies’.
42. Available on YouTube, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGN2KOJMaeM.
43. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/jnu-row-behind-govt-
44. On informal and vigilante sovereignty, see Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat, ‘Sover-
eignty Revisited’,Annual Review of Anthropology, 31 May 2006; also Cf. the following
comment by Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the nature of violence by cow-vigilantes under the
current regime: ‘These lynchings are ﬁendishly redeﬁning citizenship. The signiﬁcance of
this violence is not just the number: Whether it is 15 incidents or 50. It is to spread the
fear that it can happen at any moment, anywhere. This violence establishes a new political
76 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA
dispensation, where a group of people claim direct sovereignty: They act above formal law and
order institutions, they feel entitled to enforce the morality, and their impunity comes from the
fact that they can now stand in for the “authentic people”’, emphasis added, in Pratap Bhanu
Mehta, ‘May the Silent be Damned’,Indian Express, 27 June 2017.
45. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/umar-khalid-attack-two-men-
46. It should be recorded here that some of the leading newspapers, such as Indian Express,The
Hindu and The Telegraph, from the very beginning –that is, from the day Kanhaiya Kumar
was arrested –took a critical stand against the arrest and sedition charges laid against the
student, and against the general crackdown at JNU, and consistently took a stand in
favour of the right to free speech and expression and of dissent in their editorials and in
opinion pieces by prominent intellectuals and lawyers. Some of the electronic media and a
couple of television news channels were a little late in coming to this position. On 18 Febru-
ary NDTV India ran a programme explicitly focused on the media representation of the JNU
event: ‘Kya media ne JNU ko badnam kiya?’(Did the media gave JNU bad name?), see https://
47. Available at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/jnu-students-protests-get-support-
48. See Indian Express, 14 February 2016.
49. Available at: http://www.standwithjnu.org.
50. Azad, Nair, Singh and Roy, What the Nation Really Needs to Know.
51. Chaudhuri, ‘Questions of Minority, Agency and Voice’.
52. Rajarshi Dasgupta, ‘On Student Politics, State and Violence’,Seminar 691, pp 45–50.
53. For the JNU 2016 protests archives, see http://www.standwithjnu.org.
54. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0SmWyeyiaw.
55. Judith Butler, Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly, Harvard: Harvard Univer-
sity Press, 2015.
56. See the YouTube speech of Rahul Sonpimple, an activist of BAPSA, JNU, https://www.
57. See Ambedkar Study Group, ‘Ambedkarite vs Left Debate: A Bahujan Perspective’, Delhi
University, 2 June 2016. Available at: http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_
58. Azad, Nair, Singh and Roy, What the Nation Really Needs to Know.
59. See http://www.standwithjnu.org.
60. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion.
61. Cf. also Umar Khalid’s self-presentations in his various YouTube videos available on his
Twitter account and a short ﬁlm on him by the Quint https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
tW0wf4ILFH4; various newspaper articles on Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, par-
ticularly by their research supervisors, are also informed by the anxiety to present a counter-
image of these students as being ‘like any other students’.
62. Kunal Kamra stand-up comedy performance, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
63. See Walter Anderson and Shridhar Damle, The RSS: A View to the Inside, Delhi: Penguin
India, 2018, pp 63–76.
64. See Dey, ‘The Uneasy Relationship of JNU and the Indian Nation-State’.
POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES 77
We wish to thank the two anonymous Postcolonial Studies readers of the previous draft of this
paper for their detailed and extremely helpful comments and suggestions. We would also like to
thank our colleagues and friends Janaki Nair, Nandini Sundar, Pradip K. Datta, Tobias Toll,
Priya Ranjan and Dhivya Janarthanan for their feedback on the earlier draft of this paper. The
authors would also like to warmly acknowledge information and insight oﬀered by Shreyasi
Biswas in her unpublished M. Phil. Dissertation, ‘Contemporary Student Movements in India:
Trends and Future, Three Case Studies’, submitted to Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Mohinder Singh teaches political thought at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political
Theory, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. His
main ﬁeld of research is history of political thought in modern India. For the last few years his
research has been on the study of Hindi as the language of political discourse in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth-century North India, with the main focus being on social and political concepts.
His recent publications include ‘A Question of Life and Death’: Conversion, Self and Identity in
Swami Shraddhanand’s Autobiography’in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 41(2)
(April), 2018; ‘Tagore on Modernity, Nationalism, and the ”Surplus in Man”’ in Economic and Pol-
itical Weekly, May 2017; Civilizing Emotions: Concepts in 19th Century Asia and Europe (co-
authored with Margrit Pernau, Helge Jordhem, (OUP, Oxford)); ’Crisis and Critique: Diagnosis
of “the present”in the Nationalist Discourse in Hindi (1870–1908)’in Critical Studies in Politics,
Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam, and Sanjay Palshikar (eds) (Orient Blackswan, New Delhi,
2013); ’Cosmopolitianism in Indian Political Thought’in Indian Political Thought, Pradip K.
Dutta and Sanjay Palshikar (eds) (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013).
Rajarshi Dasgupta teaches at the Centre for Political Studies in JNU. He is currently Associate
Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta. His research and publications
mainly address the history of Marxism and the relations of culture and politics in India. He also
works on the political economy of urbanisation and refugee histories in the subcontinent. Some
of his recent research focuses on student politics and political discourse on social media. Some
of his publications include ‘Ethics and Politics’in Pradip Kumar Datta and Sanjay Palshikar
(eds), Indian Political Thought, Political Science Volume 3 in ICSSR Research Surveys and Explora-
tions, Oxford University Press, 2013; ‘The Ascetic Modality: A Critique of Communist Self-fashion-
ing’in Nivedita Menon, Aditya Nigam and Sanjay Palshikar (eds), Critical Studies in Politics:
Exploring Sites, Selves, Power, IIAS and Orient Blackswan, 2014 and ‘The People in People’s Art
and People’sWar’in Gargi Chakrabarty (ed), P. C. Joshi, The People’s Warrior, Tulika, March
2014. Two of his recent publications are ‘On Student Politics, State and Violence’in Seminar,
Issue #691, ‘Containing Violence’, March 2017, and ‘Frontier Urbanism: Urbanisation Beyond
Cities in South Asia’, co-authored with Shubhra Gururani in Economic & Political Weekly,
March 24, vol. LIII N0 12, 2018.
78 M. SINGH AND R. DASGUPTA