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In the hotbed of politics till 1.45 am

The JNUSU presidential debate is where the Left can be accused of being ‘capitalist’ and the Vice-Chancellor of being a puppet in the hands of the government — all to the accompaniment of loud cheers and fervent sloganeering

The general consensus is that Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), apart from being a premier academic institution, is a hotbed of student politics. It has been so for the last 50 years, ever since its inception in 1969. Whenever an issue agitates the country, be it abolishing Article 370 or the murder of Gauri Lankesh, students on the sprawling campus voice their opinion loudly, so much so that it becomes prime time news on TV channels.

However, since the 2016 incident involving Kanhaiya Kumar and Omar Khalid, the ‘hotbed’ label has become more prominent than the ‘premier’ one.

This week it’s even higher on the hotness quotient due to the students union (JNUSU) elections to be held on September 6. So how, how are the parties preparing for this much anticipated student elections? And what the atmosphere like during this time? Patriot visited the campus to attend the presidential debate to find out the issues of the campaign and the mood on campus.

The atmosphere

Once you enter the campus, you are not greeted with huge hoardings and banners , as witnessed in Delhi University. In fact the use of posters is a bare minimum, which gives the deceptive impression that  there is no buzz about the election at all.

However, excitement runs high among students about the upcoming elections. Large groups of students are gathered at various hostel grounds, showing solidarity to the party they support.

The crowd thickens as classes get over and the evening progresses. More and more students begin to gather at the lawns and either cheer the leaders of the parties they support or shout slogans.

Almost every student has a strong political inclination, and supporters from the parties – be it the Left alliance, the ABVP or BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association) – chant slogans, sing poems about their candidates and the ideology they believe in. This process has gathered momentum as the day of the election draws near, and reaches its peak during the final two days – the General Body Meeting and the presidential debate.

A huge bamboo structure was constructed on Jhelum lawns right opposite the iconic Ganga Dhaba, to house students professing different ideologies. Each party has its own section, where supporters gather and sloganeer for their party and candidates. Amidst all the ‘Azadi’ chants of the left, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chants of the ABVP, and ‘Jai Bhim’ chants of BAPSA, what’s fascinating is that these students never engage in any physical animosity, even though they are seated a few metres from each other. Yes, there are slogans and counter slogans but never does the campaigning stoop to a low level.

The debate

To put matters in context, the presidential debate is a session styled after the American presidential debate wherein each candidate gets a specified time of 12 minutes to deliver his/her final speech before the students in a public forum.

The debate was scheduled to begin at 9 pm on September 4, and started after around an hour’s delay. Scores of students gathered in the seating area and the sloganeering reached a high pitch.

The crowd burst into song accompanied with dhol and dafli with their respective party symbols painted on the instruments. Students gathered in flocks at the nearby hostel balconies to catch a glimpse of what was going on. Several students who could not be seated  were sandwiched along the barricades, shouting slogans to support their party.

Students even climbed nearby trees, and on the roofs of cars. This was not just any normal debate. This was a frenzy, what a post-graduate student of the Chinese language describes as the “biggest festival on campus”

The first student to come on stage was Manish Jangid, the candidate for ABVP. As he began his speech with the slogans of Bharat Mata ki Jay and Vande Mataram, the section of the crowd with ABVP supporters erupted in loud cheers, and also loud boos from the other sections.

In his speech, he claimed that ABVP is a party that focusses on making the politics inside the university more “student centric.” He promised that if they come to power, they would ensure free wi-fi and e-rickshaw services to all students.

His speech was however filled with jibes at the opposition especially the Left, terming them ‘urban Naxals’ and ‘tukde tukde gang’. He urged students to ‘kick them out of the union’, since they have done absolutely nothing in the past year – and bring a ‘nationalist’ student union to the forefront.

“Will you vote for these murderers, who have the blood of people of Singur, Nandigram and Marichjhapi on their hands?” he said provocatively, amidst cheers from his supporters, and a loud chorus of jeers from the left section.

Next, it was time for NSUI candidate Prashant Kumar, who began his speech on the fact that like the whole of India, JNU too was now a seat of intolerance thanks to the Vice Chancellor, “a puppet in the hands of the government”, and the aggressive ABVP.

“We all know that these ABVP goons were responsible for the disappearance of our friend Najeeb Ahmed, and now those students enjoy the backing of the state and the administration”, he said, adding that the ABVP was responsible for atrocities on Dalit and minority candidates on campus.

Though both were from different ideologies, Kumar and Jangid raised the issue of lack of hostel facilities, saying that this was the biggest problem currently. Kumar’s fiery speech however, received very little reaction from the ground, indicating there were not many NSUI supporters in the crowd.

Independent candidate Ragahvendra Mishra, who calls himself the ‘Yogiji of JNU’, came on stage dressed in a traditional Hindu saffron attire, his head shaved bald, instantly reminding you of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister.

Being a candidate from the physically disabled category, Mishra in his speech highlighted hardships he had to go through because of his condition. Incidentally, he was barred by the JNUSU election committee from contesting the elections because of allegations that he was involved in a physical altercation with another student on campus premises. However, Mishra in his speech claimed  that he faced this because he was physically disabled.

“Even when I organised some meetings to cater the needs of people like us, none of these parties showed up”, he accused, further claiming that if he comes to power, he will make sure that physically disabled receive equal opportunities on campus.

Calling himself, a true “right wing God” who wants to unite the country, he ended his speech by saying that the souls of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley will be looking down upon him and would be proud that he, unlike the ABVP in JNU, is a true Hindu.

Of all the candidates, Mishra, due to his unique dressing style and way of delivering speeches, addressing students as “mitron” (friends) like PM Modi, entertained the audience the most, raising laughs when he spoke his lines.

The one who drew the loudest cheers of the night was BAPSA candidate Jitendra Suna, with his fiery speeches on uniting all the oppressed sections of society. “I will narrate my story as my speech for the presidential election, so that people like me identify with me”, said Suna, son of a labourer from a remote village in the interiors of Odhisha.

Attacking the right-wing ideology of the ABVP, he accused them of being followers of an ideology that is currently “making the people of Kashmir and Assam suffer. I salute the people of Kashmir and Assam who are fighting for their rights and their citizenship”, he said, amidst huge cheers of “Jitendra jitega”, echoing after every sentence, surpassing all other noise.

He also spoke of the unity of the minorities, the OBC and the LGBT community in the BAPSA movement. If selected, he vowed to look after the well-being of all the minority communities — thus keeping the dream of Ambedkar, Birsa Munda and Jyotiba Phule alive. He also attacking the ‘capitalist’ Left, claiming that they had done absolutely nothing for student welfare in the past year.

The first woman candidate of the night, CRJD’s Priyanka Bharti spoke about how the Left, which claims to be feminist, did absolutely nothing for women’s safety on campus. She also attacked the ABVP and the right wing, saying that while the country was burning and GDP is at all-time low, “these saffron goons talk only about nationalism”.

Ye log Kashmir nahi chahte, sirf Kashmiri ladki aur zameen chahte hai” (These people don’t want Kashmir, they only demand Kashmiri women and land) – she said drawing cheers from even opposition parties like the Left and BAPSA.

The final speaker on the dais was United Left candidate Aishe Ghosh, who began her speech by invoking the ‘fighting spirit’ of people like Gauri Lankesh and Kalburgi. Her speech mainly consisted of jibes at the ABVP, and the right-wing ‘capitalist’ ideology who were destroying government institutions and handing them over to private companies. “That day isn’t far when India will be called Reliance Jio India”, she said, as she drew a string of jeers from the ABVP faithful. She faced constant chants from the ABVP  labelling her as “murderer” and “Naxal”.

The speeches went on in this vein till almost 1.45 am, but the crowd did not disperse, such was the enthusiasm. In an age where a career in politics is not considered ‘mainstream’ among today’s youth, the gathering at JNU, and the euphoria around the presidential debate and the JNUSU elections is nothing short of a spectacle to behold.

The results are expected to be declared on September 8.

The candidates

Aishe Ghosh

Party: United Left Front (AISA-DSF-SFI-AISF alliance)

Ghosh is a student hailing fromDhanbad, and is currently pursuing her PhD in inner Asian studies at the School of International studies. She was previously a convenor in the last JNUSU, and is running for the president’s post for the first time

Manish Jangid

Party: ABVP

Hailing from Jaipur, Jangid currently is pursuing his doctoral studies in Atmospheric Sciences from the School of Environmental Sciences. He is the secretary of the JNU wing of the ABVP

Jitendra Suna

Party: BAPSA

Hailing from Kalahandi, Odisha, Suna belongs to lower caste called Ganda, who have been deemed untouchables by their society. Currently a  Research Scholar at Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion , he also runs a local Dalit newspaper back in his hometown

Priyanka Bharti

Party: CRJD

Bharti who comes from Patna, Bihar is currently a PhD student of German in the university. She is the president of the Godavari Hostel and the secretary of the JNU section of the CRJD.

Prashant Kumar

Party: NSUI

Hailing from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Kumar is currently a Research Scholar in philosophy in JNU and a guest editor for All India Forum for Right to Education.

Raghavendra Mishra

Independent

A former ABVP member, Mishra quit the party citing ideological differences. Nicknamed JNU’s Yogi due to his physical resemblance with the UP CM, this physically disabled candidate is currently a PhD student of Sanskrit. His candidature was cancelled owing to allegations of physical altercation, but the high court granted him permission at the last moment on September 4