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Youth should not remain neutral: Aishe Ghosh, JNUSU President

The 25-year-old Ghosh, president of the JNU Students' Union (JNUSU), is arguably the most recognised student leader in the country at present.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 18, 2020, 11.31 AM IST
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Aishe Ghosh (File Pic)
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She is arguably the most recognised student leader in the country now. She is the battered, bruised face of a movement in JNU for affordable education. She sloganeers. She paints. She is researching on the effects of climate change. Who is Aishe Ghosh?

There is a bandage on her forehead. Of the 15 stitches that were sewn on her head on January 5, many are still to be removed as the wound is deep. Her left hand is in a sling. She is wearing a pair of black pants and a maroon sweater over a yellow top. A brown shawl is thrown around her hand in cast. The injuries don’t seem to hold her back, though.

With an easy smile and her hair in a careless ponytail, she enters the hostel room of a friend at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. On the brown door is a sticker: it has pictures of Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and Ashfaqullah Khan. It says, “Shared Martyrdom – Shared Heritage.” Below the images is a question: “Can this be divided in the name of religion?” That small sticker is also a staggering reminder of revolutionaries who gave up their lives in their 20s – the age group of many students on campus -- for azadi. She and I make space for ourselves on a mattress on the floor. She doesn’t quite sit down. She kneels and then sits back on her heels as though there is no time to relax, as though she might have to get up at a moment’s notice. “The youth should not remain neutral. I have heard people say, ‘I don’t care.’ You should care,” she says, her free right hand flitting in the air, emphasising her point.

She is Aishe Ghosh. She is the bruised, battered face of a movement for affordable education in JNU – that has been going on for over 75 days. Her face, streaming with blood, jolted a nation on the evening of January 5 after a violent mob rampaged across the campus as the police and the security allegedly watched. It sparked protests across the country – from St Stephen’s in Delhi to the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bengaluru to IIT-Bombay. It brought people out on the road – from Kochi to Cuttack, from Tiruppur to Jadavpur, from Bilaspur to Ranchi, from Jorhat to Jaipur. It brought Bollywood – Zoya Akhtar, Swara Bhaskar, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anubhav Sinha, Dia Mirza – to sing and sloganeer on the streets of Mumbai, and Deepika Padukone to the JNU campus where she told Ghosh, “Proud of you.”

The 25-year-old Ghosh, president of the JNU Students' Union (JNUSU), is arguably the most recognised student leader in the country at present. The 5 ft 3 inch tall young woman, weighing 43 kilos, has taken on Vice-Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar to roll back a fee hike and has led her fellow students in a larger fight against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. She signals a convergence of concerns and an open-armed, raised-fist solidarity as she comes to Jamia Milia Islamia, whose students were lathi-charged, tear-gassed and shot at, and says, “If the government tries to subvert the Constitution, we citizens will fight for our freedoms…”; when she turns up at Shaheen Bagh, where hundreds of mostly Muslim women have been protesting against CAA, and sloganeers, “Shaheen Bagh, tum sangharsh karo….”

It is a journey that began modestly in Durgapur, West Bengal. Aishe’s parents Sharmistha and Debashish left their hometown Dhanbad for Bardhaman and then Durgapur where the latter works at the Damodar Valley Corporation. “We always used to talk politics at home,” recalls Aishe. Her first political lesson came from her parents: Have an informed opinion; speak out. “My parents used to say, ‘Being neutral does not help.’”

The first SFI president of the JNUSU in 13 years, Ghosh got her first lessons from Left politics also from home where her father, a member of the CPM’s trade union wing CITU, discussed issues with his comrades.

“I am very close to my mother. My father disagrees with a lot of things I say. We even shout at each other. But then there were times when my father stood by me,” she recalls. “I wanted to go to Delhi University for my graduation and I had got through to Daulat Ram College. It was 2013, a year after the Nirbhaya rape. My mom would not let me go. She did not even talk to me, so I went with my dad. I was crying on the way. He said, ‘She will understand. You take your admission.’”

Her mother is, again, torn as her own daughter is brutally attacked on campus. She spoke to ET over the phone from Durgapur, just as she was going out to get medicines for her husband who has had a cataract surgery. “I know Aishe is fighting for a noble cause, but I am worried about her condition and the way the administration is treating her,” says Sharmistha.

Aishe Ghosh is not the girl who left Durgapur six years ago. “What I am today is because of JNU,” she says. “It has made me independent, have strong opinions and given me an identity of my own. The professors have nurtured us. The knowledge we gain is not confined to these four walls. Even from protests, we learn about our society.”

What will it take for this protest to end? “The basic demand is rollback of fee hike. Students won’t be able to stay in this university if they increase fees.”

While the administration has said that it will not, for now, ask students to pay utility (for water and electricity) and service (for mess workers, sanitation workers and supporting staff) charges, which some have calculated could come to Rs, 1,700-2,000 per month, students want an assurance that this will not be slapped on them in the next semester or the next.

I approach a group of five-six students sitting on the steps leading to the School of Languages, Literature and Cultural Studies. “Will your studies be affected if the fee is hiked?” I ask. Two raise their hands. One of them is Saurabh Kain from Deoretha, Agra. He is a first-year BA student. His parents are dead. His elder brother, who has just opened a tailoring shop and makes about Rs 12,000 a month, is the only earning member in the family -- which includes Sourabh’s two sisters, sister-in-law and her two kids. “Even without the hike, I pay a mess bill of Rs 2,800 a month. I get a merit-cum-means scholarship of Rs 2,000 a month. I make ends meet with Rs 1,200-1,800 I get from my brother. He won’t be able to spare more money.”

JNU is supposed to be a new beginning for Kain. After Class XII, he couldn’t study further and worked for two years -- as a tailor in a bridal boutique. “But I didn’t want to waste my life. Then I searched online for affordable, quality education – and found JNU. If they bring back the utility and service charges next semester, my studies will be stopped again. Why can’t they scrap it permanently?” he asks. “Aishe is fighting for all of us. When she was attacked, every one of us was attacked.”

Himani Kaushik, a PhD student, says, “I don’t know how well-versed Aishe is in Marxian theory but she is a good orator and she is part of a long line of leaders who are torchbearers of JNU’s ethos.” Ghosh, who talks eloquently but without pausing or striving for gravitas, admits, “I haven’t read a lot of texts. A lot of my politics has come from my experiences, frankly.”

Sucheta De, a former president of JNUSU, says, “Aishe represents the courage and legacy of JNU – of speaking truth to power, of a fight for an inclusive, democratic campus.”

It is a fight as old as JNU itself.

The JNU campus, which some now look at as prized real estate that should be divested of pesky students, was a craggy, barren expanse of the Aravalli when the first vice-chancellor, G Parthasarathi, began to handpick teachers in 1969: Romila Thapar, S Gopal, Satish Chandra and Bipan Chandra in history; Sipra Guha-Mukherjee and Sudhir Sopory in life sciences; Krishna Bharadwaj and Amit Bhaduri in economics, among many others.

The first batch of students joined the School of International Studies (SIS) in 1970. Among them was Prakash Karat. He had come to Delhi to assist AK Gopalan and had applied to JNU to placate his mother. The CPM leader recalls the beginning of JNU students’ union. “SIS had a students’ association and I was the secretary of first-year PhD students. As students joined other schools, we decided that we should initiate the formation of a students’ union for the entire university.”

JNU being JNU, there were endless debates on whether there should be a single university union or a separate union for each school. “Then a committee of students wrote the constitution, which was discussed threadbare in the schools. The democratic way in which it was done, involving all the students, created the strong foundation for this union,” says Karat.

It was the students’ union that also gave a framework for an alternative admission policy – that would keep JNU’s gates open for all. Says Karat: “When we looked at the 1971-72 admissions, we found that it was skewed in favour of a few Delhi colleges. The first major struggle of the union was to get the new admission policy accepted – it led to the first gherao of the VC. But soon after, there were discussions – and the policy was accepted. We gave weightages to students on the basis of geography (those who came from the most backward districts), caste and income. This was introduced in the 1973 admissions.” Karat became the third JNUSU president in 1973.

The deprivation points, as the weightages came to be called, were scrapped for MPhil and PhD admissions in 2017. This resulted in a steep fall in the number of students from poor households – from 24.1% students from households with a monthly income of Rs 6,000 in 2014-15 to 7.6% in 2017-18

“The administration is bent on changing the character of the university,” says Ghosh. “The VC’s is a privileged world. He can pay for his children’s education. But not every parent can,” she says, shaking her head at the stubbornness of a VC who hasn’t bothered to meet the injured students in his university. “It is as if talking to students is beneath him. But in JNU we have never had that kind of hierarchy. Here professors sit on a broken bench and speak to us.”

Ghosh, who is doing her MPhil at the Centre for Inner Asian Studies in SIS, has submitted her synopsis for a dissertation on the effects of climate change in the region. On the walls of SIS is a poster of Ghosh, her head in a bandage. “This is how much Aishe and many others sacrificed for us,” it says.

“How do you look at Aishe Ghosh as a student leader?” I ask AK Mohapatra, professor at SIS and member of the newly formed teachers’ federation, JNUTF, which supports the VC. “I got to know of her only recently. I maintain a distance from student politicians because of the tag that I support the ruling establishment.” Is that true? “Yes, I have always been with the Sangh,” says Mohapatra, adding that he was part of the group that started the ABVP unit in JNU in 1983. He sees what happened on January 5 as an “intergroup fight” and the student protests as “as good as over as more and more students are registering”. “This is the culmination of the fight between the Left hegemony on campus and a rising cultural nationalism, which people call the right wing,” says Mohapatra, who calls himself a “cultural nationalist”.

(In over 40 years, ABVP has had only one president, while SFI has had 23 and AISA 12.)

January 5 haunts the campus; students have wept at counselling sessions in hostels. In Sabarmati hostel, Radhika Jagtap, a PhD student, says, “An attack on Aishe is an attempt to delegitimise our democratically elected representatives, to muffle students’ voices.”

Shriya, a postgraduate student, says, “I cried for hours when I heard Aishe was bleeding. She is the one who comes to me when I am unwell and says, ‘Di, I am just a call away.’”

In her room, Ghosh recalls the evening: “The administration is trying to portray it as a clash of two groups, but it was a one-sided attack. I had gone to the peace meeting called by the JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA). I reiterated that the atmosphere of fear on campus was not healthy. Around 6.30 pm, I was having tea with my sister and friends when I saw students running. I shouted, ‘Don’t panic. Why do you have to panic?’ Before I could finish that sentence, I saw an armed mob wearing black masks. They singled me out and started hitting. They pushed me behind a car and continued to hit me. I wondered if they were here to kill me. There were 20-odd people. I was bleeding and even then they didn’t stop. There was no help from anywhere. I thought I wouldn’t live. After they left, some students saw me bleeding and came to help. Even when I was taken to the hospital, the ambulance was stopped at the main gate by the police and we had to took a longer route through the east gate.”

Her younger sister Ishika is still rattled, “When the goons circled us, Aishe asked me to run and hide. But I could see her getting beaten. I am okay now only because she is okay, because she is still fearless.”

The day after she was attacked, Ghosh attended a public meeting. “It was hurting. But students have been leading the movement for the past 75 days. And they obviously look up to their elected representatives. Giving up at that moment would have meant taking away the hopes of the students.”

HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal has said that the agitation “is no longer justified” as the key demand on hostel fee hike has been dealt with. “The minister also said the VC is doing a good job. It was the VC who allowed the goons to attack students. Is the VC doing a good job by getting students and teachers almost killed in the university?” asks Ghosh.

She says that differential fee structure for BPL and non-BPL students is problematic. “You cannot make some students feel privileged and others less privileged. There can be no concept of BPL on campus.” Even if the BPL is pegged, as the government does, at Rs 27,000 per annum, it will still exclude hundreds of poor students like Kain and throw them out of JNU.

The solidarity from students in other campuses has been tremendous, says Ghosh. “I see more JNUs coming up in other universities. And that is the success of this movement for affordable public education. Our fight is not only for us but for all.” As the chants of azadi, which were once used to vilify JNU as a hub of tukde-tukde gang, ricochet across the country, Ghosh asks “How many campuses can the government call anti-national now?”

Adarsh Kumar, a councillor, warns against making one person the face of the JNU struggle. “One person can’t decide on their own. These decisions are taken at different levels – and there is a collective responsibility.”

Aishe Ghosh’s generation is born in liberalised India. They haven’t lived through the demolition of Babri Masjid or the livid resistance to Mandal reservation to be viscerally scarred by it, but they are keenly aware of it. That quiet understanding — of the grave dangers of communalism, of the realities of social inequalities and the need for affirmative action — guides their politics.

While young students like Ashutosh Kumar fear that protests against CAA could distract JNUSU from its fight for fee rollback, Ghosh says, “JNU at the end of the day is fighting for the democratic rights of all citizens. CAA is a very important issue and JNU should not lose sight of that.”

Ghosh loves to draw and paint – there are many sheets of wide-eyed anime girls -- although she hasn’t had the time to pick up a brush recently. But Comrade Aishe Ghosh is marching on, in spite of the bandage, in spite of the sling – for the right of every student to study.

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