Grilles come down on JNU's 'Freedom Square' in an attempt to 'curb dissent'
The JNU administration has barred access to one of the most important student protest sites on campus - two porches outside the administrative block - by putting up grilles.
A rich history
Late 11 December, iron grilles were erected in front of the porches that have provided shelter to protesting students for decades, especially during winters or rains.
The space was used by students to sleep while staging sit-ins and hunger strikes for a host of issues - including the ongoing agitation against the disappearance of student Najeeb Ahmed, who's been missing since 15 October after allegedly being beaten up by RSS-backed ABVP members the night before.
While students called it an attempt to curb dissent by blocking democratic spaces, the administration claimed the area was grilled to be used as "extra office space" due to "space crunch".
The right to protest
These grilles follow a slew of show-cause notices sent to the students for holding public meetings, protests, and even putting up posters in the area around the admin block - which became known as 'Freedom Square' after the 9 February sedition row.
"The V-C has been regularly shooting show-cause notices at us, especially since the last week of October, whenever we hold a meeting or protest or any other programme, or even put up posters and pamphlets. The administration also sent notices declaring that any public activity in front of the admin block was banned, even though the space has been a legitimate protest site since the university was established," said Mohit Pandey, president of JNUSU.
"Does the V-C think we'll stop holding protests and sit-ins in front of the admin block? He can grill the entire admin block if he likes, but we are not going to give up our right to protest. We will submit a memorandum to the V-C tomorrow."
One of the two porches was technically meant to be a parking lot, but students said the space was usually vacant.
"A few days ago, during a sit-in over Najeeb's disappearance, the space was blocked with patrol vehicles so that we could not sleep there. But we still went and occupied the space between the cars. When we lit a small fire to keep ourselves warm during the chilly winter night, we were told to put out the fire," said Pandey.
He said instead of working on Najeeb's case and punishing the accused ABVP students, the "RSS-appointed" V-C Jagadesh Kumar was putting up cages.
The night of
On Sunday night, the students were on a protest march against what they call a "token punishment" of change in hostel meted out to ABVP members who beat up Najeeb and were found guilty in the proctorial report.
Although the route for their march did not include the admin block, they got to know about the grilles being put up and reached the spot.
"After putting up the cage, they have decorated it by placing plants and flowers in front of it, as if it's a garden and was never a protest site," said Tabrez Hasan, JNUSU joint secretary.
Satarupa Chakraborty, general secretary of JNUSU, said, "After the V-C failed to scare student activists with notices, fines, disciplinary actions, he is now trying to snatch away our spaces of protest."
Meanwhile, JNU Rector Chintamani Mahapatra said, "The university stands by all lawful democratic protests. The grilles were put up only to carve out some extra space for official purposes, as there is severe shortage of space. Nobody is stopping students from holding protests on campus."
But a high-ranking official said the protests were noisy and disturbed the administration staff and nearby residents on campus.
"The union holds very noisy protests that disrupt academic and administrative functioning. They shout at the top of their voice, beat drums, use PA systems, etc. Even the residents who live near the admin block are disturbed. Many of them are elderly and their health is affected by all the noise," said the official.
Pandey, however, dismissed the claims that the residents were disturbed. "This space has been used for protests for decades, and these residents have been also been staying here for a long time. Besides, the ABVP itself organises loud and noisy programmes here," he said.
"A few months ago, the ABVP had screened the right-wing film Buddha In A Traffic Jam right here, very loudly on Dolby speakers, with the administration's permission. Were the residents not disturbed then?"
But ABVP's Saurabh Sharma, last year's JNUSU joint secretary, said, "The union just needs a reason to create noise and attract attention. The areas and roads outside the admin block, which is actually where protests are held, is still accessible. The grilles will in no way dilute the spirit of JNU student protests."
Protest on social media
The word regarding the grilles spread after many JNU stduents took to social media to denounce the move.
Student Umar Khalid, who was among the students accused of rasing "anti-national" slogans at the 9 February event, said on Facebook, "A University which doesn't allow dissent becomes a prison, quite literally. The Vice Chancellor has got new gates built around the admin block to prevent students from occupying these spaces during protests. But dear VC, since you consider students as your enemies, rest assured your enemy will always be at the gates. What is your next move? Making ad-block out of bounds for all protests and installing CCTV cameras across the campus?"
Edited by Aleesha Matharu
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