Attack on New Delhi university campus triggers outrage

Masked men entered hostels on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus armed with sticks and rods

Students and supporters shout slogans outside to protest following alleged clashes between student groups at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi on January 5, 2020. At least 23 people were hurt at a prestigious Indian university on January 5 in what police said were clashes between rival student groups. The incident at JNU is the latest in a series of violent clashes and protests at different Indian universities in the last few weeks, with many student activists and opposition demonstrating against Modi government's controversial new citizenship law. / AFP / STR
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Tensions were running high at a prestigious university in the Indian capital after an attack on Sunday night by masked assailants who opposition politicians claimed were linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

At least 35 people were injured, the All India Institute Of Medical Science confirmed in the assault that lasted several hours.

Video footage broadcast on local television stations showed scores of men wearing hoods and masks and armed with sticks and steel rods going from building to building on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi and attacking students and teachers. The attackers barged into women's hostel and canteen as many sent online pleas for help.

Students at the university, a bastion of left-wing politics, have been agitating over a steep hike in fees that triggered clashes between police and agitators at in November. More than 8,000 students are enrolled at the university.

Students and teachers said the attack took place as they were leaving a canteen after discussing scuffles between rival student groups over the fee hike earlier in the day.

The 400-hectare campus has witnessed several clashes in the past month with agitators stopping the administration from holding academic work, registering new students and conducting lectures.

Many students blamed the attack on a right-wing student union, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, that is linked to the BJP.

Mr Modi's party and the ABVP denied the allegations and accused left-leaning student groups of fomenting violence on the campus.

The university administration and police were criticised for failing to stop the attack that played out on live television past midnight, with a separate crowd of men assaulting journalists and left-leaning politicians, who had come to campus after messages for help went viral on social media.

Hindu nationalist politicians claim the university has become a centre for "anti-national" activities, including support for insurgent movements such as the Maoist rebels known as Naxals.

Witnesses said the mob shouted insults at the students, calling them “Naxals” and “terrorists” and chasing them to the hostels as the police and private security guards on the campus stood by.

"It was terrifying, I thought they would kill me," Yeishi Khampa, 24, a former student who was on campus at the time of the attack, told The National.

“They had stones and iron rods in their hands. I was on a scooter when I saw them coming and I informed the other students. Police was there but they did not do anything. They knew what was going on,” he said.

“They were ABVP,” he said of the attackers.

Nithin Krishna, a student of Spanish and Latin American studies, said he was chased by the attackers.

“They broke the gates of the boys’ hostel and damaged property. I was scared and I took refuge in one room. There were five of us, most of the other students were Muslims," said Mr Krishna, 22.

“The mob was knocking almost all the doors like but I felt like a group came straight to our room first even though it was the second or third. I was really scared for the guys with me,” Nithin said.

Delhi police later staged a flag march – a show of force meant to calm volatile situations such as riots. No arrests have been made.

Students groups across the country condemned the attacks and organised rallies in protest.

In Mumbai, students held an all-night vigil at the city’s Gateway of India. Similar protests were being held across campuses in Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Kolkata, Aligarh and Delhi.

Ayesha Ghosh, president of the Left-wing Students Union, who received head injuries during the attack, accused the Modi government and the university vice chancellor, Jagadesh Kumar, of facilitating the attack.

"Yesterday's attack was an organised attack by goons of RSS and ABVP," Ms Ghosh told reporters after being discharged from hospital.

"We want the immediate removal of the Vice Chancellor," she said.

Mr Kumar has accused the agitating students of disrupting the academics in the university.

The campus attack coincided with nationwide protests against a new citizenship law that has seen thousands of young protesters take to the streets across the country.

Many left-leaning student groups such as the Students Federation of India and the Democratic Youth Federation of India have been at forefront of the protests against the law, which grants citizenship to only non-Muslim nationals from three neighbouring Islamic countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Critics say the legislation goes against the country's secular constitution, a claim Mr Modi has rejected, saying the law is meant to save "persecuted" minorities.

"The right-wing regime is facing resistance from young people, particularly students and universities and JNU is at the forefront of citizenship law protests," Dinesh Abrol, a professor of sustainability studies at JNU, told The National.

The main opposition Congress and other parties accused the BJP of being complicit in the attacks.

"The fascists in control of our nation are afraid of the voices of our brave students. Today's violence in JNU is a reflection of that fear," Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted.

Delhi chief minister, founder of the Aam Admi Party, Arvind Kejriwal tweeted: "I am so shocked to know about the violence at JNU.

"Students attacked brutally. Police should immediately stop violence and restore peace. How will the country progress if our students will not be safe inside univ campus?”