Early in the evening on 5 January, more than 70 masked hoodlums armed with iron rods, stones, and sticks entered the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). They set upon teachers and students who were holding a peaceful political gathering, and marched into student hostels, terrorizing and injuring dozens. Panicked students posted videos on social media and called the police for help, which didn’t arrive.
The attack on one of India’s most prestigious universities sent shock waves around the country and is the latest sign that the political forces tearing apart Indian society are also affecting the country’s academic community. Students at JNU, a liberal bastion, had been on strike for months against both a major hike in student fees and the government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), widely decried as discriminatory against Muslims. The attackers appeared to be Hindu nationalists. From the inaction of both campus security and the police, many concluded that the attackers acted with the consent of India’s Hindu nationalist government.
For many academics, the rampage—which came on the heels of a brutal police response to several other university protests last month—felt like an attack on freedom of speech and democracy itself. “It looks like we are living in an era [of] textbook fascist methodology,” says Dinesh Abrol, a former chief scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and a spokesperson for the Delhi Science Forum, a nonprofit organization that promotes science. “The space for dissent, free thinking, and contrarian views has already shrunk,” says geographer Sucharita Sen, a professor of regional development at JNU who was hit on the head with a brick during the attack.