NEW DELHI: Dozens were hurt at a prestigious Indian university on Sunday (Jan 5) in what police said were clashes between rival student groups but which an opposition politician blamed on a student organisation linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Unverified videos on social media appeared to show a group of several masked attackers roaming the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi wielding batons as students screamed.
“Today evening, two groups clashed with each other and some students are injured,” a senior Delhi police officer told journalists.
“The university administration has requested the police to enter (the campus),” the officer said, adding, “Things are under control right now.”
Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, called the attack a “collusion” between the JNU administration and “goons” of a student group linked to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“It is a planned attack by those in power, which is afraid of the resistance provided by JNU,” Yechury said.
JNU, one of India’s most prestigious universities, has a history of left-wing activism. Many there have also in recent years protested against Modi and the BJP, accusing them of curbing free speech.
“Horrifying images from JNU – the place I know & remember was one for fierce debates & opinions but never violence. I unequivocally condemn the events of today,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on Twitter.
Protests against a fee hike began in November when hundreds of students marched from the campus seeking its cancellation, saying it would make education unaffordable.
The BJP distanced itself from the incident and Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student organisation blamed for the violence by the opposition, said that 25 of its members were injured during the campus attack.
“This is a desperate attempt by forces of anarchy, who are determined to use students as cannon fodder, (to) create unrest to shore up their shrinking political footprint. Universities should remain places of learning and education,” the BJP said on Twitter.
An official at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi said that most of the injured at the hospital were undergoing treatment for “lacerations, cuts and bruises.”
“The brutal attack on JNU students & teachers by masked thugs, that has left many seriously injured, is shocking,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi, a leading politician of the main opposition Congress party.
The incident is the latest in a series of violent clashes that have killed at least two dozen people amid protests over a controversial new citizenship law Modi’s government passed in December.
The law allows New Delhi to grant expedited citizenship to minorities from three neighbouring Islamic countries who entered India by Dec 31, 2014, but critics say it marginalises Muslims in the country as part of Modi’s larger Hindu nationalist agenda.
JNU student organisations dominated by leftists have since staged demonstrations demanding a rollback of the fee increase while facing accusations of obstructing administration officials.
Many linked the Sunday clash to simmering tensions since the fee hike, while others criticised police and the university administration for failing to protect students from masked attackers on campus.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal called on police to “immediately stop violence and restore peace.”
“How will the country progress if our students will not be safe inside (the university) campus?” he asked in a tweet.
FEARS OF EVICTION
The prestigious university counts top Indian politicians including Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and this year’s Nobel economics prize winner Abhijit Banerjee among its alumni.
Jaishankar took to Twitter to condemn the violence, saying, “This is completely against the tradition and culture of the university.”
The security presence was increased throughout the campus as India’s home minister, Amit Shah, called on Delhi police to investigate.
Elsewhere in the city, simmering tensions peaked outside Jamia Millia Islamia University, where hundreds of mostly young people have been protesting over the last few days against the citizenship law.
Messages circulating on social media and messaging apps called for more protestors to gather at the site overnight, as they feared police could evict them forcefully.