Freedom to Dissent from Delhi to Ferguson

Meghna Chandra I Education I Commentary I February 16th, 2016

On February 12th, 2016, the Delhi police arrested the Jawaharlal Nehru Student Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, and eight other students on sedition charges. The students gathered on the hanging of a Kashmiri dissident, Afzal Guru, who was charged on bogus terrorism charges. During the event, a few unknown students chanted anti-India slogans. In fact, the same student leaders that were arrested intervened against those slogans. The government used this disruption as an excuse to enter the campus and arrest Kumar.

Just a few weeks earlier, students fiercely protested the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, an Ambedkarite activist who committed suicide after persecution by the University of Hyderabad administration in cahoots with the ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

On, Monday, February 15th, students, journalists, and teachers who were protesting at the courts were brutally attacked by Hindu nationalist goons . The police repression continues even as the protests swell, and my friends in India tell me they are gearing up for a long fight.

India and the United States: Twin Empires

I studied at JNU from 2013-2015, where I got a marvelous education in Indian history and student activism. The unofficial motto of JNU, "study and struggle", inspired me to use my education to draw connections between what was happening in the United States and India, which respectively consider themselves the "greatest" and "largest" democracies on Earth.

As a student, my comrades and I realized that both countries have embraced neoliberalism and "trickle down" economics. From Afghanistan to Kashmir, they violently occupy territories in the name of bringing them "secular governments". They brutalize their indigenous, religious, and racial minorities to make way for corporate loot. They both persecute Muslims-in 2002, the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, oversaw pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat in which 2000 Muslims were killed. They both have racial caste systems. While the Black Lives Matter movement has spoken out against the epidemic of police violence in the United States, Dalit Women Fight activists have pointed out the continuing regime of caste apartheid in India, which is the worst for the so called "untouchables" at the bottom of the system. Every week, 13 Dalits are murdered, 5 Dalit homes are burnt, and 21 Dalit women are raped.

As in the United States where blacks and Latinos disproportionately make up prison population, In India, Muslims, Dalits, and indigenous peoples make up 39% of the population and 53% of all prisoners in the country.

People's Movements and Fascist Backlash

When Michael Brown was murdered and the United States erupted in protests in 2015, we as American citizens abroad organized a protest in solidarity with the people of Ferguson. JNU students came out in full force in solidarity with the movement for Black Lives. Students chanted "Malcolm, Martin, Bhagat Singh, we shall fight, we shall win!" and "Ferguson se aaye pukaar, nasalvaad pe patthar mar!" ("A cry is heard from Ferguson, it strikes a blow at racism"). Dalit, Communist, and anti-racist groups spoke at our rallies us and showed us what international solidarity of the oppressed against neoliberal capitalism looks like. Because of student militancy and unwillingness to compromise our right to protest, we successfully reached the American embassy, despite every attempt of the Delhi police to stop us and reroute us to a more innocuous spot.

Now, I watch with horror as the same students who fearlessly came out with us are under attack. My friends have deleted their Facebook accounts in fear of reprisal. Student activists whom I marched with are being threatened with lynch mob justice.

We have our own fascist tendencies in the United States. In the election year of 2016, Donald Trump's election campaign has stoked bigoted hate speech against blacks, Muslims, and immigrants. Donald Trump has galvanized a section of Americans with his calls for Muslims to wear ID cards, smearing of Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, and denouncement of the Black Lives Matter movement. The beating of students, teachers, and even journalists who were standing in solidarity with Kanhaiya Kumar outside the courts of Patiala House is in the same spirit of the beating of a Black Lives Matter protestor at a Trump Rally. Left unchecked, these forces have the potential to destroy the fabric of American and Indian democracy that people's movements have fought so hard to build up and protect.

Towards a Global People's Movement

We stand with the students of India against the fascist crackdown on freedom of speech, the same way they stood against us in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. With them, we ask fundamental questions of the countries we call home. When we call out our countries for occupying territories against their will, persecuting Muslims and other religious minorities as part of a global "war on terror", and perpetuating racial caste systems, we are not "anti-national", but "pro-people", especially people's movements.

Suddubratha Sengupta writes for Kafila, "I could not help thinking as I passed the hostels with their beautiful riverine names - Ganga, Sutlej, Kaveri, Mahi-Mandavi, Lohit and Chandrabhaga - that we, all of us assembled were like a tidal bore, surging upstream from the ocean to deep inland territories, irrigating wastelands, laying the foundations of a new civilization, a new civility that the RSS-ABVP hordes will never be able to come to terms with. The ebb and flow of this mighty river carried the evening."

While I am not in JNU to participate in the protests, my comrades and I in Philadelphia send our love to the student movements in India. We stand with the students on the forefront of a global process of social evolution, one that will pave the way for a world free from oppression, exploitation, and empire.

Meghna Chandra is a teacher and organizer in Philadelphia. She is a proud Jawaharlal Nehru alumna, member of the Philadelphia South Asian Collective, a group that organizes in solidarity with people's movements in South Asia, and the Black Radical Organizing Committee.