How Fake News Led to the Downfall of Jawaharlal Nehru University

Founded in 1969 under the appellation of India’s inaugural Prime Minister subsequent to independence, Jawaharlal Nehru University erstwhile stood as an exemplary bastion of higher education in the realms of humanities and social sciences in India. Many erudite scholars, who currently impart knowledge in internationally acclaimed institutions, trace their academic lineage back to this venerable institution. However, a fabricated news incident in 2016 dealt a severe blow to the social standing of Jawaharlal Nehru University, precipitating a precipitous decline in the quality of pedagogy and research at the Indian National University.

The incident unfolded as follows: On the 12th of February, 2016, law enforcement agents entered Jawaharlal Nehru University and apprehended the newly elected President of the Student Union, Kanghya Kumar, on charges of “insurrection.” The authorities contended that they possessed ample evidence to substantiate the claim that Kang Haiya had led his fellow students in vociferating “anti-national” slogans on campus. The arrest of the student union president on a felony charge swiftly garnered national attention.

The genesis of the incident lay in a cultural event organized by the student organization “Democratic Student Union” on the 3rd of February. A few days hence, the third anniversary of Afzal Guru’s execution was to be observed. Guru had been the principal perpetrator of the 2001 bombing of the Indian Parliament, yet the legality of his death sentence had been called into question by human rights groups, legal circles, and academic communities. Arundhati Roy, the author of “The God of Small Things,” described it as “a blemish on Indian democracy.”

Consequently, the Student Union for Democracy staged this anti-capital punishment event, which ended up clashing with the right-wing student group ABVP. The subsequent day, Zee TV exclusively aired the “anti-national” activities on Nehru’s campus. The footage depicted Kang Haiya leading the throngs in chanting separatist slogans. Two days after the media trial, the student council president, Kang Haiya, was arrested by the police.

The evidence was supplied by Zee TV, but soon after the broadcast, another media outlet confirmed that it was a fraudulent news report, skillfully manipulated. Kang Haiya had, in fact, been present at “another gathering,” where he fervently recited the slogans of “Liberation of Poverty,” “Liberation of Brahminism,” “Liberation of Capitalism,” and “Liberation of Caste,” devoid of any secessionist intent. The soundtrack of the video had been altered, and those “anti-national” slogans were initially raised by masked and unidentified outsiders. The subsequent developments in this incident of “false news, real arrest” were even more startling.

Following Kang Haiya’s arrest, he appeared in court. Lawyers aligned with the ruling party BJP goaded the crowd to chant “traitors go to Pakistan” and subjected Kang Haiya to a physical assault “within the precincts of the court.” The police present in the courtroom stood idly by as the violence unfolded, targeting not only Kang Haiya but also the educators, students, and media personnel in attendance. The incident of assault once again took center stage in the media, yet the central government refrained from condemning these acts of atrocity and instead reiterated its unwavering determination to suppress “anti-national elements” on campus. The message of penalizing those who undermine the state was disseminated from the bastion of justice, which symbolizes societal order, to the populace. Subsequently, individuals brandishing sticks stormed the lecture halls of Jawaharlal Nehru University, viciously attacking the faculty.

Scholars from across the globe united in their support for Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the international media vehemently criticized what they perceived as the Modi government’s “menace to democracy,” labeling it as the most severe form of “anti-national” conduct. The central government promptly declared that all universities would henceforth hoist national flags on their campuses as an expression of “unity and integration.” However, Prime Minister Modi himself remained impervious to the negative clamor.

During that period, I visited a hospital for medical consultation and mentioned that I was pursuing my studies at the university. The doctor’s initial inquiry was, “Which institution?” Upon hearing the name, he breathed a sigh of relief and replied, “Thank goodness, it is not Neh. Lu University.” Merely a year prior, during a conversation with a visa interviewer, the interviewer proudly disclosed that he was an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Almost overnight, the university transformed into a pariah. Consequently, numerous faculty members resigned and sought alternative careers. Bearing witness to this tumultuous ordeal, I couldn’t help but lament the university’s vulnerability in the face of a ruling party resolute in casting it as an adversary.

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