The recently conducted students’ union election at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi saw a left coalition win amid unprecedented violence during the polling process. Going against the grain in India’s national capital, the coalition Left Unity defeated the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept student elections in neighboring Delhi University.

The student elections and the violence reflect how fractious politics has become ahead of India’s 2019 general elections. Every platform is keenly contested to ensure the BJP’s dominance remains among students, who are a key part of the voting public.

In the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) election held on Saturday, the Left Unity won all four main seats in what the students dub a landslide victory. Ahead of next year’s national elections, the students see this as a blow against the present right-wing government’s ideological strain of Hindu nationalism.

These JNU students have continuously been at loggerheads with the Narendra Modi-led government and there have even been sedition cases slapped on leftist students.

Since coming to power, the BJP-led coalition government has repeatedly faced pushbacks from students in state-run, liberal educational institutes, such as the Film and Television Institute of India or JNU, against appointments of administrative heads or introduction of new policies.

This time, the different leftist student organizations in JNU joined forces as Left Unity. They aimed to resist at their university level the saffron wave that brought the BJP to power in 2014. The All India Students’ Association, Students’ Federation of India, All India Students’ Federation, and Democratic Students’ Federation had to set aside their differences to come together and hold fort in an institution that was once considered a “left bastion.”

Resisting ‘Hindutva nationalism’

The huge margins of victory for the four Left Unity candidates and a record voter turnout of around 68%, students say, still give hope to JNU against an onslaught of Hindu nationalism. In the Delhi University election a few days ago, the BJP’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) won three of the four main posts in the students’ union.

The “We are JNU” group on Facebook said: “Let it be known: At the height of its power the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh]/BJP could not win a single seat in JNU! Now you know why they hate it and there’s constant hate-mongering propaganda against us!”

Left Unity candidates won all four central posts in the student union along with 15 councilor posts. N Sai Balaji was elected president of the union with 2,151 votes in total, defeating ABVP candidate Lalit Pandey by 1,179 votes. Vice-president-elect Sarika Chaudhary won by 1,579 votes; general secretary candidate Aijaz Ahmed Rather won by 1,193 votes; and joint secretary candidate Amutha Jayadeep won by 757 votes.

However, during the counting of votes and after the results, there were many reports from JNU students about unprecedented violent incidents they claimed had been unleashed by the ABVP. Several people were injured and hospitalized, including presidential candidate Balaji.

Victory against ‘violence’

JNU student Diya Davis said: “The victory of progressive left student organizations in Panjab University and then JNU is significant in the run-up to 2019, especially amidst scripted booth-capturing and brazen hooliganism of the ABVP. This victory was indeed a rejection of political Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] from university spaces, a defeat of the politics of fear and repression.”

This mandate, the JNU left community say, is against the culture of violence unleashed by the BJP and their student party ABVP within and beyond educational institutes. Nonetheless, this election itself was marred by violence.

There were reported clashes between left- and right-wing students on election day and counting day, and a dozen students were injured. There was an attack on the election committee as well during vote counting.

“The counting process, which began at 10pm on September 14, has been suspended due to forced entry into the counting venue, and attempts to snatch sealed ballot boxes and papers,” the JNU Election Committee said in a statement. But it didn’t say who the attackers were.

The leftist bloc accused the ABVP of carrying out the attacks, which the latter in turn denied.

Apeksha Priyadarshini, a member of JNU’s left-leaning Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organization, said: “The attack by ABVP on the JNUSU election process was a well-thought-out, pre-planned attack, as the ABVP had already given bites in certain sections of the media before the attack took place.

“To all this violence and their game plans, the student community has given a resounding answer – that on this campus, an attack on democracy will not be tolerated quietly,” she said. “Ahead of 2019, this is a warning from us to them, of how we are going to take their hate politics down without having to resort to [exercising] the money and muscle power that they resort to.”

The ABVP has denied all allegations of violence. Vijay Yadav, president of JNU’s ABVP wing, told Asia Times, “In the Science School, which has a strong ABVP hold, the EC [Election Committee] didn’t include ABVP during counting, so we protested. When we were still not allowed, we barged in and in that scuffle, a window pane got broken. Then counting got halted for many hours and negotiations happened.” He even accused the EC of being biased toward the Left Unity.

Accusing the Left Unity of lying about the violence, Yadav alleged that the leftist students had attacked some ABVP students in hostels. “Ask them to get proof that we attacked. We have proof. They attacked our people who got severely injured and are now hospitalized,” he said.

Saffron roots in ‘red’ JNU

“They had to form a coalition to defeat us. This is our win actually. These left people have only abused each other always. ABVP is getting stronger in coming times,” Yadav said.

His hopes are also a concern for some students in JNU.

“ABVP, with its Islamophobic and casteist rhetoric, has been gaining a strong position in the university,” said JNU student Sabah Maharaj. “However, the student community has unanimously rejected its politics as seen in the election results. The left has been in power for quite a while, and it’s interesting to note that despite their power here, the ABVP has become the single largest party in the university.”

Student Diya Davis wants this victory of the left to translate into a sustained fight against recent “anti-student” reforms in the university. Students claim that the democratic and inclusive culture of JNU has been replaced by privatization, exclusion, anti-student policies of the administration, and communal polarization, under the new vice-chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar, who is allegedly close to the BJP.