NEW DELHI - Hundreds of college students across India rallied Monday to protest an attack by masked assailants that injured about 30 students and teachers at a premier university in New Delhi.
The violence that wracked Jawaharlal Nehru University Sunday evening has led to accusations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to muzzle dissent on campuses. Tensions have been simmering over a new controversial citizenship law passed by the government.
Men with faces covered and brandishing sticks and rods vandalized hostel rooms, beat students and teachers and smashed windows and cars at the university for nearly two hours. Videos of the armed men roaming the buildings and entering a hostel went viral on social media. Those injured included the president of the university students' union, Aishe Ghosh, who said she was hit with iron rods on her head.
Several students gave accounts about how they locked their rooms, fled and tried to hide. One student who did not want to be named told VOA that he and his friends were asked to chant nationalist slogans.
It is not clear what sparked the attack, but, witnesses say it began in the aftermath of a meeting held by teachers and students over a dispute about a proposed fee increase that has roiled the campus for months.
New Delhi police have described the incident as a clash between rival student groups – a reference to the left-leaning student union at the school and a right-wing student group linked to Modi’s party. Both groups are pointing fingers at each other.
The BJP and opposition parties have condemned the violence on the campus. But while the ruling party blamed it on “forces of anarchy who are determined to use students as cannon fodder,” several opposition leaders called it an “organized” attack carried out by the right-wing student union.
Opposition Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi alleged “active abatement of government in the attack” and said it was a “grim reminder of the extent the government will go to "stifle and subjugate every voice of dissent."
Jawaharlal Nehru University is known as a bastion of left-leaning activism that strongly opposes the ideology of the ruling Hindu nationalists.
Among its alumni are leading politicians, academics and diplomats including Nobel economics prize winner Abhijit Banerjee. Urging the government to establish the truth of what happened, Banerjee Monday said, “I think any Indian who cares about the nation’s image in the world should worry.”
Students gathered in cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Pune and Chandigarh in a show of solidarity on Monday. They held banners to condemn the violence, shouting slogans criticizing the government and demanding arrests of those responsible for the vandalism.
College students have been at the forefront of protests since the government passed the new citizenship law. The measure seeks to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other minorities who fled Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to escape mistreatment based on religion. Muslims are not covered by the law.
Modi has said the law is designed to ease the suffering of many people who have faced unfair treatment in India for years. Critics say the move is another effort by the government to marginalize India's 200 million Muslims.
This is the third time that students have been targeted since those protests erupted -- police action last month injured dozens of students at two universities - Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh.
The rising tensions come as Delhi prepares to hold local polls to elect a new government for the city on February 8. They will be the first elections held since the government passed the new law and will give an indication as to whether the widespread protests have dented the government's popularity.