New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has found itself at the centre of many a political controversy over the years — be it regarding the 2016 protests by Left-leaning students against the hanging of Kashmiri separatist Afzal Guru three years before, or the latest tensions following Sunday’s violence, allegedly over non-vegetarian food being served in a hostel mess on Ram Navami.
However, present and former students ThePrint spoke to said there had never been any clashes over religious rituals or celebrations on campus — making Sunday’s violence a first.
Several noted alumni of the institution said pujas and religious celebrations have always been a rich part of student culture at JNU. It’s not just Hindu festivals — those of all religions have been celebrated on campus, they added.
Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) student wing, as well as the All India Students Association (AISA), affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (CPIML), claimed that JNU has been a “secular campus”.
Yet, ABVP and Left-leaning students clashed at the university’s Kaveri hostel on the day of Ram Navami Sunday evening. While Left organisations claimed that a group of about 30-40 students and workers affiliated with the ABVP created a ruckus and physically assaulted students over the preparation of chicken, the ABVP alleged that its members had organised a puja on campus, which was disrupted by Left-wing students.
ABVP national media convenor Siddharth Yadav has claimed that the Left organisations “could not tolerate the fact that so many students had come to attend a puja in JNU”. Meanwhile, the AISA and other Left groups alleged that the issue was about food choices. The Delhi Police have since registered cross-FIRs based on complaints from the two groups.
Members of the JNU administration said that while permission from the dean of student affairs and the hostel warden are enough for a puja or a religious gathering, students have to get special permission from the registrar if their plans include a havan (a ritual that requires the lighting of a fire), as this poses a fire hazard.
Contacted by ThePrint, Gopal Ram, warden of Kaveri hostel, where the violence took place Sunday, said, “There is a designated area on campus for puja. Since such events include a naked fire, they can pose a fire hazard for the hostel. The puja that happened Sunday was conducted without my formal permission.”
‘Cultural confrontations tend to play out on campus’
Journalist and author Vikas Pathak, who did his PhD in modern history at JNU and was affiliated with the ABVP during his time at the university, told ThePrint that 20 years ago, he and his team started the trend of organising Durga Puja on campus.
“Though it led to some tensions, it was resolved amicably and Durga Puja celebrations are now held on campus every year,” said Pathak.
“Celebrations of all religions have always been a part of JNU. I remember the Holi celebrations of JNU would be well-organised and quite sought after. We would also celebrate Diwali and attend the Saraswati Puja organised by Bengali and Odiya students respectively. Iftaar parties have also continued,” he added.
Asked about Sunday’s incident, he said, “The thing with JNU is that all the cultural confrontations that are happening nationally tend to play out on campus as well.”
Seconding his opinion, Kavita Krishnan, a CPIML leader and former Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union (JNUSU) joint secretary, told ThePrint, “As in any other part of India, campus residents including students celebrate festivals of their religion, and all share in the celebrations. Hindus go to Iftaar, Eid and Christmas gatherings, everyone plays Holi, and Muslims also eat sweets at Saraswati and Durga Puja pandals. But what we are seeing now — using festivals as a pretext to propagate violence — is something that has never happened before.”
Rohit Azad, professor of economics at JNU and a two-time president of the JNUSU, said that sarva dharma sama bhava (all religions lead to the same goal) is the driving motto for celebration of festivals on campus. He added, “Every regional festival has always been celebrated collectively with enthusiasm, even during the most politically contested student union elections. Celebration goes beyond politics.”
Current students ThePrint spoke to also said that a lot of students attend these events. “We have been conducting puja during Hindu festivals on campus for about five years now. Right from Mahashivratri to Ram Navami, we always get permission, and a lot of students attend these events,” Ravi Raj, a student member of the ABVP, said.
Another student, affiliated with AISA, who did not wish to be named, said, “We never had a problem with the puja in the first place. They organised their puja and finished it with no interference from our side. As students we always look forward to celebrating festivals together.”
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)